Friday, December 28, 2018

Prayers R Us

Looking for something special to give to your special someone for New Year’s? How about buying a prayer? Not any old prayer, but a Holy Land prayer. I am referring to the burgeoning market of buying prayers in Jerusalem. Maybe it is more accurately called Rent-a-Prayer. For as little as the price of a meal at the local diner you can get a bona fide holy person of your choice to pray for you or your loved one at one of the holy sites in the Holy City.

A business known as “Holy Land Prayer” offers packages ranging from $15 to $40. For that you get a priest to read a prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the spot where tradition says Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. For more particular customers the company “Salvation Garden” allows you to choose from a Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox clergyman to read your prayer.

If kosher is more to your taste, a “Western Wall Prayer Delivery Service” will have a rabbi or Torah scholar offer a prayer at the holiest site of Judaism. Prices range from the $29 economy package to the $3,600 deluxe package that provide 10 people praying daily for 40 days, as well as reading the entire Book of Psalms.

I am trying to wrap my mind around this phenomenon. To be honest it smells much like selling indulgences, a practice which prompted the spiritual Resistance known as the Protestant Reformation. I guess I am too much of a protestant to believe that money buys any spiritual commodity, or that any person or place is any holier than any other.

I understand the lure of sacred sites, but I am not sure what to make of proxy prayers. I have had spiritual experiences at religious sites in the Holy Land, but I can’t see how they are transferable to other people for a price.

Do people believe that prayers are more likely to be answered if prayed from a certain geographical location? Are those spots closer to heaven? Is there less atmospheric interference? Do people believe that the veil between heaven and earth is thinner at certain spots?

As a student of the world’s religions, I know that holy places are a widespread phenomenon. On our trips to the Holy Land, you could not walk more than a few steps in Jerusalem without tripping over a holy site. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam fight over the sacred real estate of that city.

Christians go on pilgrimages to other holy sites as well, such as Lourdes. Muslims have a religious obligation to take a pilgrimage to Mecca once during their lifetimes. Every Muslim is supposed to pray toward Mecca five times a day. New Agers believe that certain spots on earth – called spiritual vortexes - have greater spiritual power. Places like Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Sedona, Arizona.

I love the holy places of the Holy Land. I have led several tours of the Holy Land during my ministry, and I have seen the emotional effect that places can have upon people. I honor these pilgrims’ experience. But for me holiness is not in the place but the people. The holy sites are just geographical locations of historical significance. God is not more present there than anywhere else.

In my experience, God is present everywhere. Wherever I am, God is. The apostle Paul says our bodies are temples of God, and the Holy Spirit dwells within us. We are walking holy sites. Wherever we walk is holy ground. We are our own priests; no paid clergy necessary. I experience God present here and now; I have no need to go elsewhere to be closer to God. Or to pay for anyone to pray in such places for me.

As Jacob said of the isolated spot in the wilderness where he camped for the night, “God is in this place and I did not realize it. This is none other than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” God is wherever we are. God is here now. All we have to do is be here now to know God’s presence. We are living prayers. You are a holy place. Credit cards not accepted.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Slavery’s Roots

On December 12 my alma mater, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, released a report entitled “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” It follows up on a 1995 resolution passed by the Southern Baptist Convention, which admitted the sins of Southern Baptists in their support of slavery and racism in the United States.

I am not going to criticize the report. Personally I am impressed that it happened at all. It is a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. I hope that steps will be taken by the seminary to follow up on the report.

I am thinking specifically of renaming buildings, which presently bear the names of the seminary’s founding faculty, whom seminary president Albert Mohler says “were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery.” At a time when Confederate memorials are coming down, it seems only right that names of slaveholders should come down from buildings at an institution that trains Southern Baptist leaders.

My main concern about the SBTS report is what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It doesn’t ask the question “Why?” Why did these devout Southern Baptists support and defend slavery? And why has it taken until 2018 to clarify Southern Seminary’s position on this issue.

The answer is the Bible.  Southerners’ support for slavery was rooted in the Bible as much as in Southern economy and culture. Southern Baptist support for slavery was not an aberrant 19th century interpretation of the Bible, but an accurate understanding of the stance of the Scriptures on the subject. The founders of the seminary were biblically literate Christians who correctly assessed the Bible’s support for slavery.

The harsh truth is that the Bible condones and supports slavery from beginning to end. One can’t deny that reality without being dishonest with the biblical text and one’s own conscience.  No amount of prooftexting and creative eisegesis can ever turn the Bible into an abolitionist manifesto.

Abraham – the father of faith – was a slaveholder. His decision to have children with his Egyptian slave girl Hagar was nothing less than sex slavery. There was no way for Hagar to say “No” to Abe’s advances. There was no #MeToo movement for Hagar to appeal to.

When we move on to Moses we find slavery institutionalized and regulated in God’s Law given at Sinai. Slavery is accepted even in the Ten Commandments, which many Christians insist on erecting on public property. In the tenth commandment not to covet anything that is our neighbor’s, slaves are included in the list of covetable property… along with wives, donkeys and oxen.

I could give many other examples from the Old Testament, but let’s move on to the New Testament. The apostles Paul and Peter command slaves to be obedient to their masters as to the Lord, even if they mistreat them. When addressing slaveholders, Paul does not tell then to release their slaves; he tells them to treat their slaves well. True, Paul tells Christian slaves that if they have a chance to be free, they should take it, but he never condemns slavery as wrong or unchristian.

In fact Paul returns the runaway slave Onesimus to his Christian master Philemon! It is true he recommends that the slaveholder receive him as a Christian brother rather than a slave. But he adds that the decision is entirely up to Philemon, and he should not feel under compulsion to do so.

Paul goes so far as to use the term “slave” as a positive metaphor of a Christian’s relationship to Christ. Paul often begins his letters describing himself as a slave of Christ, which would make Christ into a slaveholder. Is it any wonder that Southern Christians would imitate their Lord in this matter?

How about Jesus? What was his word on slavery? Jesus often uses slaves as characters in his parables, but he never advocates freeing slaves. In fact he heals a centurion’s slave so that he could return to a life of servitude. In the process he has a conversation with the centurion about slavery, but never suggests that it might be the right thing to do to free his slave.

The fact is that slavery was part of the worldview of the Bible, just as it was part of the Christian worldview in the antebellum South. It was assumed to be a social institution acceptable to God. That is what the founding fathers of Southern Seminary believed, and that is what everyone in the Bible believed. To suggest that any of the saints in the Bible were actually secret abolitionists is historical revisionism.

The roots of slavery in Western civilization can be traced to the Bible. Slavery was practiced by the Hebrew patriarchs, regulated by the Mosiac Law, and condoned by Jesus and the apostles. Yes, there are deeper principles in the Bible that eventually led Christian abolitionists to support the elimination of slavery. Paul’s statement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” comes to mind.

But the development of such verses into principles of universal human equality, human dignity and inalienable human rights took millennia to work out and apply to society.  Southern Baptists are still struggling with how to apply the “male and female” part of that verse to their denomination today, much less the controversial issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Slavery and racism are problems, not just for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention. They are problems for all Christians who consider the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God and their infallible guide for Christian faith and practice.

It is time that we admit that we have a problem. We have a Bible problem. More specifically it is a problem with our understanding of the authority and inspiration of the Bible. This is a problem that Southern Baptists are nowhere near to admitting. In fact it was the denial of that problem – and a retreat into a pre-critical view of the inerrancy of scripture – which gave birth to the “conservative resurgence” which now controls the SBC.

It is not just that the Bible contains characters who were sinners – a fact which Dr. Mohler admits in his introductory letter to the report - but the Bible condones behaviors that are sins. Slavery is just one of them. If Southern Baptists could admit that perhaps – just maybe – the biblical writers got this one issue wrong, then it might open up a different way of understanding the inspiration and authority of scripture.

That could lead to Baptists and other evangelicals to view other social issues of our day from a new perspective. Then the Church might regain a respected place at the table of public opinion. But that is probably hoping for too much. Only when we admit that we have a scripture problem, can we begin to solve the sin problem in the Southern Baptist denomination and evangelical Christianity.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Earthrise

Something special happened on Christmas Day long ago. Something that forever changed the human understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. On that day three men traveled a long distance and beheld a wondrous sight, which inspired the recitation of scripture. Actually two events fit that description. The more famous one you know about – the birth of Jesus. But I am also thinking about the Apollo 8 moon flight.

Exactly fifty years ago on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1968, three NASA astronauts "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and orbited the moon. They became the first humans to leave this rock we call home, and they forever changed the way we see our planet. On the fourth orbit of the moon, William Anders thought to put color film in the camera, which they were using to photograph possible future landing sites on the moon’s surface, and he turned the lens toward home.

From 240,000 miles away he snapped the famous photo called “Earthrise.” It shows our vibrant, little blue and white planet, rising beyond the lifeless gray foreground of the moon’s surface. On Christmas morning the three astronauts (which means “star sailors”) read the opening lines of Genesis to earthlings celebrating the holiday. 

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night….”

They ended the reading with these words: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.” For kids used to the special effects of Star Wars and Star Trek, a still photo taken from the moon may not seem like much. But it still gives me chills to look at it.

I get the same feeling when I see the photograph of earth taken on Valentine’s Day, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe. In this shot, taken from 4 billion miles away, earth is barely visible as a “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan described it.

Seeing the earth from a distance puts everything in perspective. It wakes me up. The same is true for the more ancient event that occurred on Christmas Day. The birth of Christ puts everything in perspective for me. A new way of seeing the world and humankind happened two thousand years ago.

Humans disagree about the significance of the man Jesus, whom his followers called the Christ. Indeed, Christians disagree about Christ! Within Christianity competing Christologies continue to argue over the nature of the man and his birth. Nonreligious people dismiss the whole story as nothing more than a myth.

But for me the birth of Jesus changes everything. I do not pretend to understand what happened on the first Christmas. But I know that it changes the way I see the world. As a follower of the one born that day, I see the world from a heavenly perspective.

The closing words of McGee’s famous poem “High Flight” (which I quoted above) speaks to me of spiritual truth, as well as air flight and space travel. Jesus has made it possible for me to “put out my hand, and touch the face of God.” Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mending Wall Redux

by Marshall Davis (with apologies to Robert Frost)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends a groundswell of opposition against it,
And banners glistening in the sun;
And inspires protesters to stand abreast.
The work of coyotes is another thing:
I have come after them and seen
Where they have breached the border
Bringing through their dusty cargo
To please farmers looking for workers.
No one has seen them come or heard them pass.
But the border patrol finds them later.

I let my neighbor know across the way;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And inspect once again the wall between us.
We keep the wall between us as we talk,
Razor wire recently laid by the National Guard,
Concertina wire, they call it, named after the instrument.
But the song it plays is one of sorrow and suffering.
If only a spell would make it disappear:
“Fall to the ground when our backs are turned!”

We wear our soles thin walking the rocky ground.
Oh, it’s just another kind of political game,
One nation on a side. It comes to little more:
Here where it is we do not need a wall;
The only ones to cross are migrants
Who travel across and back at harvest time.
Americans will not do the work, so they are needed.
But the Big Guy says, “We’re going to build a wall,
And Mexico is going to pay for it.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do you need to build a wall? Isn’t it
Where there is danger to one side or the other?
But here there is no danger.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What we are walling in and walling out.
And whom the wall would hurt the most.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Democrats” to him,
But it is not Democrats exactly, and I’d rather
He figure it out for himself. I see him there
Wearing a red hat saying “America First”
Like a stone-age savage armed with fear.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of the wall only or passing clouds.
He will not go behind his leader’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “We’re going to build a wall,
And we are going to pay for it.”  

Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas in Bethlehem

Renovations are underway at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. In 2012 UNESCO declared the church a world heritage site, and the following year the renovation began. It is expected to cost about $17 million and be completed by the end of 2019. Those who have seen the ongoing work say that the old mosaics are shining with a brilliance they have not had in 600 years.

Reading about the renovations brought back memories for me. For four months in 1991 my whole family resided not far from this historic church, while I did a semester of study at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research. On a regular basis we used to walk out the back gate of the grounds, past a little Palestinian grocery, past Rachel’s Tomb and on to Manger Square.

There was no wall between Israel and the West Bank back then. No military checkpoint. No armed soldiers restricting our travel. It was just a pleasant two-mile walk into Bethlehem, the city of David, the town of the Savior’s birth. More times than I can remember I knelt in the cave under the church at the spot which marks where Jesus was born. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can smell the incense of that place.

I can still hear the bells of the church from our flat at Tantur on a hill overlooking Bethlehem. It reminded me then and now of the Christmas carol written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “I heard the bells on Christmas Day / Their old, familiar carols play, / and wild and sweet / The words repeat / Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

We bought an olive wood nativity set on Milk Grotto Street, which we still use every year. We hang olive wood ornaments from Bethlehem on our tree, some with the names of Palestinian friends on the back. My wife still uses a beautifully embroidered eyeglass case that she bought at a Palestinian women’s church fair in Bethlehem. Every year our Christmas is filled with memories of Bethlehem.

We worshiped at the Church of Saint Catherine, adjoining the basilica. The daughter of some Palestinian friends was in a children’s Christmas program there. It was good to get to know some of the “living stones” of the Holy Land. Too many Christians visit the Holy Land only to view rocks and ruins. There are Christians living in Bethlehem and surrounding towns. These are Christians descended from the original Christians.

I wish I could see the Church of the Nativity again, with the mosaics restored to their former glory. They were beautiful even when obscured by centuries of soot and grime. I can only imagine what they look like now. But I am not planning to go. I think it would break my heart to see Bethlehem today. From friends I have heard about the Wall, which now separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem and runs as an ugly scar across the landscape where the shepherds heard the angels sing.

It pains me to read about the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, which we also visited. The violence has only gotten worse since I last visited Israel in 2000. Even our small town in New Hampshire has been effected by the violence.

A friend from our New Hampshire town moved to Israel, and we visited her and her husband in Jerusalem while we were there. This young Jewish woman, who used to babysit our children as a teenager, lost her own son to a terrorist attack in Jerusalem several years ago. The conflict in that faraway land hit home for us. The suffering endured by so many in the Holy Land again brings to mind Longfellow’s words of the Christmas carol, written during our nation’s Civil War:

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

I pray that peace may prevail in in the Holy Land and our land this Christmas and the coming year. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Unto Us a Child is Born

Joseph with Infant Jesus, Guido Reni, 1635
Recently my wife and I attended a Christmas party for ministers in our Baptist Association. As a way of introducing ourselves we were asked to share our name and our favorite Christmas symbol. People gave answers ranging from Christmas stockings to the Grinch! I said that mine was the star of Bethlehem. I was thinking of the blog that I wrote recently about Star Stuff.

But I kept thinking about my choice after the clergy games had moved on to the Yankee Swap and Guess That Christmas Movie. (Which I won for our team, by the way. I guessed Home Alone 2 on the first clue in the tie-breaking round. Not that I am bragging.… Well, maybe I am.)

Anyway, now I think that I would chose a different symbol of Christmas: a child. Not only does a child point to the infant Christ and thereby capture the religious meaning of the holiday, it also speaks to those who do not necessarily identify as Christians. The holidays are all about children. The smaller the child, the more magical Christmas can be for them.

I enjoy holiday events the most through my grandchildren. I would not have enjoyed a recent visit to Santa very much if it wasn’t for the way my kids looked at him. Without them I would see an old pretender; through their eyes I see a magical elf. One of the highlights of my Christmas is going to Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord and watching my nine year-old grandson participate in the Christmas Eve pageant.

I remember fondly the Christmas children’s programs that every one of my churches held at Christmas time. I love the unexpected, spontaneous things that small children do and say during the program. I love seeing the glow in the faces of the parents in the congregation as they watch their children act out the ancient story.

Christmas is all about children. Their innocent faith as they sit on Santa’s lap and share their wishes. Their anticipation of the big day and their joy on Christmas morning. Opening the stockings. There is something about children that captures the spirit of Christmas.

This is particularly true of the youngest of children.  Those too young to know what is happening symbolize the holiday for me. Especially the infant chosen to play the role of the Christ child in Christmas pageants and Live Nativities. For a few minutes they become the Christ.

Every infant is the Promised One to their parents. I remember reading that in first century Palestine the expectation of a coming Messiah was so high that every Jewish parent truly thought that their baby might be the one to redeem Israel. “Could this be the Messiah,” visitors to every newborn’s bedside would wonder.

Every child represents the Christ child in a deep archetypal way. An infant is a new beginning for our families and the human race, full of possibilities. She is a potential messiah, who might save the world from its many problems. He might be the one to discover the cure for cancer. She might be the leader to bring lasting peace to the earth.

Children evoke the child in me. They are mediators of the divine, sacraments in human form. I think Jesus felt the same way. He said, “Let the little children come to me and forbid them not, of such are the kingdom of God.” He insisted that we have to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God.

That is why the prophet said that the child was to be named Immanuel, which means “God with us.” For this reason I amend my vote. My choice for the symbol of Christmas is a child. “For unto us a child is born, and his name shall be called Wonderful….”

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Tortoise named God

Back in 2005 I spent a month as a visiting scholar at Oxford University in England. It was made possible through an arrangement between Oxford’s Regent’s Park College and Georgetown College in Kentucky. I was made aware of this opportunity through a seminary friend of mine, Dwight Moody, who was Dean of the Chapel at the time. They made a flat available at Regent’s Park to Baptist pastors for one month at a time. It was a wonderful experience, which my wife and I still talk about.

At Regent’s Park lived Oxford’s oldest resident, a tortoise – now 115 years old - who resided in the quadrangle of the college. I wondered what it signified about a Baptist institution to have an ancient tortoise as a mascot. I decided that it was a tacit admission that Christians – and Baptists in particular – are notoriously slow to change.

The name of the tortoise was Emanuel. Not any longer. A few years ago it was discovered that he was actually a she, and was renamed Emmanuelle. Well, at least English Baptists are sensitive to issues of gender identity.

I often thought how wonderful it is that a Christian college, which prepares scholars for ministry, had a mascot whose name means “God with Us,” even if it was a tortoise. The constant presence of Emanuel/Emmanuelle in the courtyard is a reminder of the omnipresence of God.

The name Emanuel (also spelled Emmanuel and Immanuel) is from one of the most famous prophecies concerning Jesus in the Christmas story. Matthew’s gospel says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ which means ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:22-23)

This is one of the most meaningful titles for Christ in the Bible. God is with us. This name, which prophesied the birth of Christ, echoes the final words spoken by Christ, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:28) That is what Christ and Christmas are about – the presence of God with us today.

Yes, Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, but if that is all it is, it is confined to the ancient past. Christmas is also about God with us here and now.  Not tucked away in some distant heaven. Not confined to the distant past. God is here now. The only way we become aware of God is if we are also here now. Not pining for a golden age when Mary’s son walked the earth or yearning for a future coming of the Messiah. God here now. 

There is one more thing I have to say about the tortoise. While we were in Oxford, Emanuel disappeared. One day he was lollygagging around the quad, and the next he was nowhere to be seen. I missed him, and asked where he went. I was told that he was hibernating.

There was no place for a large reptile to ride out the winter in the courtyard, so they put him in a box to sleep away the cold months. Hmmm. There must be some spiritual significance to this. God in a box? The hidden God?  Oh, well, Emanuel is still with us, even if we cannot see her.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

All I Want For Christmas

All I want for Christmas is a new laptop. I spend hours writing every day. I use my laptop so much that many letters have been worn off the keys. Some letters have disappeared altogether: E,A,S and D. The letter C is just a hint of its former self. There is half an O, which could easily be mistaken for a U. Lastly there is only the base of the L, which looks more a hyphen.  I need these letters. I use them quite a lot (which is why they are missing!)

It is a good thing I learned to type in Junior High without looking at the keys. I still remember the practice sentence: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” I am not sure what party the typing teacher was talking about. If it is a political party, then I have no interest in coming to the aid of it. If it is a Christmas party, then count me in. I will help with the eating.

Plus the battery on this laptop is shot. I replaced it a few years ago, but it still gives me only an hour of unplugged time. So, if you are reading this, Santa, you know what I want. I know you are in the area because I saw you at the UUA Church in Tamworth last Saturday, when I took my grandkids to see you. Nice entrance, by the way, arriving in the police cruiser with the lights flashing and siren wailing.

(Speaking of Santa, he looked quite comfortable in that church. I suspect that Santa is colluding with the Unitarians. He certainly is a liberal. You can tell by the way he dresses. And he gives away all those gifts without asking anything in return. Not even a receipt for tax purposes! Who is paying for all those freebies? Taxpayers!  Furthermore I am pretty sure he has entered the country illegally.)

Let’s get back to the laptop. Santa, I really need it. I can’t spell my name without those letters! Marshall Davis will henceforth be known as Mrh vi. What kind of name is that? So, Mr. Claus (or should I say Mrs. Claus), if you are reading my blog, now you know what I hope to find under the tree.



Monday, December 10, 2018

The Fear of Giving

On November 30 a couple in their fifties was returning home after celebrating their daughter’s 28th birthday at a restaurant. As they drove through East Baltimore they saw a panhandler standing in the rain. It appeared to be a mother holding an infant asking for money to feed her child. What does any person with a heart do? They stopped to give her some money.

In return they found themselves the victims of robbery. A male accomplice suddenly appeared and stabbed 52 year-old Jacquelyn Smith with a knife through the rolled down car window and stole her purse and necklace. She died a few hours later in a hospital. Good Samaritans beware.

My wife and I often give money to panhandlers when we see them. Although admittedly we don’t see too many in rural New Hampshire. But whenever we leave our country cocoon to visit Boston, Pittsburgh or Daytona we give cash through open car windows. We don’t know how they will use the money, but we give anyway.

I also pick up hitchhikers, despite warnings from everyone I know. I often give them money as well. I have learned more about homelessness and poverty in New Hampshire from talking to hitchhikers than any news source. My wife and I gave a ride to a pregnant hitchhiker in the rain one evening, while returning from North Conway. I guess we could have been robbed and murdered, but we weren’t.

I give money because I remember times when I had no money. I remember when I dropped out of school and shoplifted food from a grocery store to eat. I remember hitchhiking across the country and being picked up by truckers. Often they handed me cash upon parting. Now I pay it forward. 

I know the world has changed from the halcyon years of my youth. The world is a dangerous place, or so the newscasters tell me. So I have made allowances. I now only pick up hitchhikers when I am driving alone. No need to risk my wife’s safety. Except for one couple who hitchhikes to the grocery store regularly. We have gotten to know them, and we both pick them up when together or alone.

When I read beyond the headlines, I learn that the world is actually much safer than it used to be. Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard has a book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which traces the history of violence. He makes a strong case that violence has been decreasing, and we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.

You wouldn’t know it by watching the evening news. We are warned of danger everywhere. A terrorist or child kidnapper lurking around every corner! If they don’t get you, then an earthquake, wildfire, or hurricane will. Rogue cops will kill you in your home or an illegal immigrant will get you.

It is a good thing that ABC News wasn’t around when the Good Samaritan stopped to aid the man on the road to Jericho. He might have kept walking. Jesus would have had to look elsewhere for an inspirational sermon illustration. It’s a good thing Jesus did not listen to Fox News. He would have been too afraid to do or say anything, lest he be crucified.

Yes, the world is a dangerous place, but it is no more dangerous than any other time in human history, and probably safer. Sure, we have to be sensible and discerning in how we help people. But it is still important to help, even when it involves some risk to ourselves. If we let fear keep us from aiding people in need, then the fearmongers have won.

On the other hand, if you read in the paper someday that a certain retired pastor in central New Hampshire was murdered by a panhandler or a hitchhiker, then I will be proven wrong. Until then I will live dangerously. I will think twice before aiding a homeless woman standing in the rain holding an infant. Then I will help her anyway. It is worth the risk. I would rather die expressing a little love than live in fear.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

When is Christmas?

No, I am not getting forgetful. Well, actually I am getting forgetful, but I haven’t forgotten when Christmas is. Even though Christians will celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Day, Jesus was not really born on December 25. That date was chosen three hundred years later by Emperor Constantine and confirmed a few years after that by Pope Julius the First.

Why was December 25 chosen? Did they track down Jesus’ birth certificate at the Bethlehem town hall to refute a birther conspiracy? No, it was chosen because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar in use at the time. These days the solstice falls a few days before Christmas on December 21 (most years). The solstice is the original reason for the season.

We don’t know when Jesus was really born. We don’t even know the year he was born. The only reference to his age in the New Testament is Luke 3:23, which says that Jesus was “about thirty years old” when he began his ministry. Jesus’ birth date is normally thought to be sometime before 4 BC, but the truth is we don’t have a clue what year Jesus was born. Neither do we know the month or the day.

If the Lukan Christmas account is accurate, then the only thing we can say for sure is that it wasn’t anytime near December 25. If there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, then it wasn’t “in the bleak midwinter.” Shepherds did that only in the warm months. It gets cold (Brrr!) in Bethlehem in December. Believe me. I have been there in December in a cold apartment. Jesus was more likely born in the summer. Think Christmas in July.

Christmas is celebrated on December 25 because it was the winter solstice, which was already celebrated as a holiday by pre-Christian religions throughout the Roman Empire. In order to establish Christianity as his new state religion, it was easier for the newly converted emperor to refurbish an old holiday than create a new one. So the solstice was given a Christian name.

Some Christians don’t like the fact that Christmas is an adaptation of pagan solstice celebrations. For that reason some fringe Christian groups will not celebrate Christmas. Personally I like the linking of the winter solstice and the birth of Christ. It reinforces the cosmic significance of the religious holiday.

The winter solstice is the turning point of the year. During the dark days of Advent, the daylight hours grow shorter and shorter until the solstice. From that moment on, the days grow longer. The winter solstice is the victory of light over darkness. Although it doesn’t feel that way, it is a sign that spring is coming. Winter does not officially begin until the solstice, but the first day of winter already contains the promise of spring.

I think that is why the winter solstice was originally chosen for Christmas. When the world was darkest, light came into the darkness. As the apostle John’s Christmas account puts it, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) In the deepest darkness of our lives, there is hope. The name that Christians give to this hope is Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


Stars are ubiquitous this time of year. Even nonreligious people embrace the star as symbolic of the holiday season. People who would never display a crèche or a wear a cross will acknowledge the star as a meaningful symbol.

We place stars atop “holiday trees” in Rockefeller Center and our nation’s capital, and no one calls the ACLU to complain of crossing the line between church and state. The star is a universal symbol for something that transcends religions and cultures. We all agree on stars.

In the Christian story, the Star of Bethlehem accompanies Jesus’ birth. The nativity story of Matthew’s Gospel tells of Magi from the East following a star. Despite two thousand years of trying, no one has satisfactorily identified the astronomical phenomenon known as the star of Bethlehem. But that is alright. It is the story that counts. Stories tell truths even when the details cannot be corroborated by science or history.

In this story the star guides the stargazers to Truth in the form of a child. They bow before the Starchild and lay precious gifts at his feet. The story reminds us that there is something older and greater than ourselves. Even science confirms this. 

An interesting scientific fact is that the human body is made of material originally formed within stars. Carl Sagan famously said in the original television series Cosmos, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” 

Every element in the universe (except for hydrogen, helium and lithium, which were formed by the Big Bang) was formed in the nuclear furnaces called stars. Most of the elements in our bodies have been recycled for billions of years through several stars before they became part of our earthly bodies.

We are ancient. The hydrogen in our bodies dates from the moment of creation 14 billion years ago. All other elements in the universe are the byproduct of stars that died in explosions called supernovae. We are stardust, as Joni Mitchell sang in Woodstock … or nuclear waste, depending on your point of view. I prefer stardust.

The Magi were led to a child who later proclaimed himself as eternal. “Before Abraham was, I am,” he said. They see in this child the Ancient One. In worship they return their gold to its source. In so doing they return to their own source. The journey to Bethlehem is a spiritual pilgrimage.

Stars are our mothers. They are the matrices of our physical existence. They also represent our spiritual source. We are children of the heavens. We are born of the universe, and one day our bodies will return to the universe to be recycled. Likewise the Life within us, which we call our soul, returns to the Life that gave us birth.

Somehow we intuitively recognize the stars as our home. As Sagan said, “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

In this season of worship and awe, we bow before this Reality. Anyone who has lain on their back in the summer and gazed into the vastness of the Milky Way on clear night knows the depth of this reality. It takes our breath away. The only proper response is awe. This is the heart of Christmas. This is the Birth we celebrate.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Advent Introspection

Most people look forward to Christmas. I look forward to Advent. Advent is the season of spiritual preparation that precedes Christmas. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (this year it is December 2) and goes until Christmas Eve.

The First Sunday of Advent is actually the first day of the Christian calendar, not January first. So, let me be the first to wish you a Happy New Year! Coincidentally both Hanukkah and Advent begin on the same day this year. So Happy Hanukkah, too!

I like Advent because I have it to myself. For the most part it is ignored by American society. Many churches slip right into the Christmas spirit after Thanksgiving Day and miss Advent altogether. In our commercial and secular culture Advent is completely overshadowed by the “holiday season” as Americans prepare for the “Day Which Must Not Be Named,” formerly known as Christmas.  

That is just fine with me. I prefer my Advent forgotten by the wider culture. Advent is a time for me to do some introspection. I need it. I am a sinner, and I need time to properly confess and repent. Because I am a writer, my sins tend to be on public display. 

Furthermore I am retired and do not lead a congregation. Therefore I do not have congregational feedback to keep my public words in check. These days my prophetic streak is given full rein. I say what I think, and I often overstep my self-imposed boundaries of restraint. Therefore I need Advent more than ever.

Advent – like Lent – is intended to be a time of repentance. That is why the liturgical color for both seasons is purple, the color that represents confession and repentance. At least it used to be purple until some denominations got the bright idea to change the color of Advent to blue, thereby unlinking the connection.

I use Advent to take a good long look at the state of my soul. I always find a generous supply of shortcomings that I need to address before the next year arrives. I gingerly examine them like fragile gifts. Unlike my Christmas presents, I open these with trepidation. This year the biggest box is labeled “Judgmental.”

I cringe, but I need to be honest. I am one of the most judgmental people I know. It makes me wince to remind myself of some of the things I have written and said over the past year. 

In my religious, ethical, and political convictions I presumptuously consider myself as wiser than those who disagree with me. Anyone who holds a contrary view is blind for not seeing how right I am. Whew! What a sanctimonious thing to think and to say!

This election year I have often viewed those on “the other side” of the issues as morally bankrupt, politically naïve, if not downright deceitful and dangerous to the future of our country.  See how arrogant and self-righteous that is? What makes me any better than any other American citizen?

When it comes to religious and theological matters my smugness is even more deep-seated, because I am more educated and experienced in this field than most people. But that is no guarantee against self-deception. The truth is that I am just as likely to be the one who is morally depraved and spiritually blind.

Forgive me, Lord, for my arrogance. The ancient “Jesus Prayer” is my daily companion this December: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I say it every morning and fall to sleep with it on my lips. It is the only thing that keeps me from falling headlong into a self-imposed hell of self-righteousness.

Being overly judgmental is just the first item on my Advent list of things that need to be confessed. I have 23 more days to go. It is going to be a long Advent. Fortunately for my readers I will keep the rest of my sins private between my Lord and me. I can’t wait for Christmas and the celebration of divine grace and salvation. 

I invite you to take this Advent journey with me. We all could use some introspection. A couple of days at the end of the year formulating New Year’s resolutions is not sufficient for the seriousness of this spiritual task. I invite you to let this month be about more than holiday decorations, gatherings, food, music, programs, greeting cards and gift exchanges. Make it about a deeper and more self-aware spiritual life.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Smelly Business

I went to church last Sunday. Actually, my wife and I attended two churches last Sunday but exited before either service was over. We were visiting our daughter and her family in western Pennsylvania for the Thanksgiving holiday. We wanted to attend worship while we were there. We rarely miss a Sunday, even when traveling.

Our daughter was not feeling well, so we were on our own. I wanted to visit the church that I pastored for eleven years in a nearby town. Then I remembered that they just put in a new carpet, and I am allergic to VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) released from new carpeting. So we looked elsewhere for spiritual refreshment.

We walked down the street to the nearest church, a nice little Presbyterian (PCUSA) congregation. I had seen online that the pastor had graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which I knew to be a good school.  I had taken continuing education courses there.

The people at the church were friendly, and the pastor was welcoming. We were even given a church mug as a welcoming gift for being first time visitors. But I did not last fifteen minutes. We liked the style of the service, and I would have loved to stay. But the perfume! It stank to high heaven! I bet even God could smell it.

I am very sensitive to chemicals of all sorts, ever since I developed respiratory problems in the early 1990’s caused by Sick Building Syndrome. So we inconspicuously slipped out of the sanctuary while people’s heads were bowed in prayer.

We had just enough time to rush to a nearby megachurch that started in fifteen minutes. I prayed that the women in that congregation were not likewise scented. My prayer went unanswered. We arrived at the “campus” and entered the building, walking past the coffee bar (as well as multiple monitors on the walls) to get to the sanctuary.

My wife glanced at me with concern on her face, smelling more than dark roast. But I persisted. I reasoned that the perfume wasn’t that strong, and I really wanted to worship. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and I wanted to thank God! We walked into the dimly lit sanctuary and found a seat in the back row that would allow a quick exit if necessary.

The music began. I am sorry to say it, but the music stank more than the perfume at the other church. There was no melody that I could discern. Just a lot of yelling accompanied by music. Every song sounded alike. It was monotonous. The “inspirational” patter between the songs was painful.

As the room filled with hundreds of worshippers, I began to feel the effects of the increasing cloud of fragrance on my head and lungs. Simultaneously my wife was feeling the effects of bad Christian music. We endured nearly a half hour of odiferous Christianity before we left. It was too late to try a third church, so our forty-five-minute worship experience in two different churches had to suffice.

Although I never heard a sermon that Sunday, I learned a couple of things. I learned that western Pennsylvanian women love their scents. I suspect that the men love their cologne and aftershave as well. I wish churches would introduce a chemical-free service for those of us who can’t tolerate artificial scents, but that will never happen.

I also was reminded how much I dislike most contemporary Christian music. For the 30 minutes we attended the megachurch service, all we did was sing. We sang three songs. In each song we sang the same ten words over and over and over and over. The theology of the lyrics was worse than the music. On the positive side, the music did inspire me to pray. I prayed, “Lord, help me!”

I was reminded that bigger is not better. If megachurch style Christianity is what is drawing people into churches these days, then I will pray another prayer: “Heaven help us!” I am glad to be back at our scent-free, theology-rich, little country church in rural New Hampshire. Our state might be the second most unchurched state in the union (barely beating out Vermont), but at least we know how to worship without causing migraines in the worshipers.