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.  

Friday, November 16, 2018

I Can’t Stop Writing!

Hi, my name is Marshall, and I’m an addict. No I am not a drug addict or an alcoholic. I am a writing addict. I realized it this week when I was getting ready to promote my newest book on this blog, on Facebook, and on the Sandwich Board (a Yahoo group for residents of our town). It felt like I had just done this recently. So I looked up the publication dates of my last four books and saw that I have published four books in the last six months.

That’s a lot of books in a short time! In my defense, one of them was written back in 1979, and I just updated and published it. There I go making excuses! Rationalizing my behavior. That is what addicts do. Even three books written in six months is a lot of books. I published four more in 2017. Apparently I have been busy since I retired in 2016. And there were more books before that - 17 in all. Whew!

That doesn’t count my blog, newsletters, and newspaper articles. I even tried writing poetry for a year in 2012. (Fortunately for the world all my poems were lost when my laptop crashed.) I can’t stop writing. The good part is that I am never bored. Researching and writing takes a lot of time. I wake up early and start writing before my wife is out of bed. I wake up during the night and scribble ideas on a pad of paper that I keep on the bedside table.

I can’t stop writing. The truth is I don’t want to stop writing. I love it. I can communicate to a larger and more diverse audience than I did when I was preaching. These days I normally sell between 300 and 400 books a month. That won’t put my titles on any bestseller lists, but it is a larger audience than I had when I was preaching.

For forty years I preached every Sunday. I loved preaching, and still do it on occasion. But writing for the public is very different than preaching to the faithful. I voice all those unspoken, controversial and half-crazy ideas which weren’t appropriate for a Sunday homily.

Most of my life I have teetered on the edge of controversy. Several times I fell over the edge and got myself into trouble in my churches, my denomination and the community for my ethical and theological stances. I won’t go into details. (You will have to read my books for those!)

My ministry has always been an uncomfortable fit with Christians who measure faithfulness by the well-worn ruts of orthodoxy. I have always seen spirituality more of an adventure than an apologetic for traditional Christian religion.

Anyway, now I write. I write a lot. More than I realized.  I get caught up in the frenzy of clicking a keyboard and lose track of time. Then I wake up six months later and discover I have finished four books. My most recent book is entitled “Christianity Without Beliefs.” The preface to the book starts off with these words:

Once upon a time there was a gospel without doctrines. There was time when Christianity did not have beliefs. It did not require its adherents to accept a set of dogmas or Scriptures. There were no creeds, confessions of faith or doctrinal statements. There were no clergy, priests, or pastors. No vestments or sacraments.…
In the beginning Christianity did not even have a name. It was not a religion distinguished from all other religions. It was just a way of life. The early followers of Jesus simply called it “the Way.”  The early church was not an institution or an organization. It was a community of pilgrims traveling a spiritual path. That is the way it used to be. It can be that way again….

As you can see, I am not going to receive any accolades from traditionalists for this book. If you are interested in reading something nontraditional, you can find this book on Amazon. Here is the link:

Monday, November 12, 2018

No More Prayers

Susan Orfanos’ 27 year-old son, Telemachus, survived the Las Vegas mass shooting last year. He did not survive the shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 7. His mother’s emotional words, spoken before a television camera the next day, were powerful. She said she does not want people praying for her. Here are her exact words:

“My son was in Las Vegas with a lot of his friends, and he came home. He didn’t come home last night, and I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts. I want gun control, and I hope to God nobody sends me any more prayers. I want gun control. No more guns!”

I agree with her. I am sick of people sending “thoughts and prayers” as their sole response to mass shootings. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not against prayer … or thinking. I pray. But I am tired of people using prayer as a substitute for action. Prayers are nice, but they are only genuine when they are backed up by an intention to change the situation. 

Actions speak louder than words, even words spoken in prayer. To paraphrase the apostle James, prayer without works is dead. If praying people really care about dying people, they would do something to stop people killing people. As Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.”

Also I am REALLY sick of slogans. They are too often used as an excuse to do nothing. Especially the slogan “Guns don’t kill people ― people kill people!” Everyone knows that is not true. Guns do kill people! Guns do not kill people by themselves, of course, except in those tragic cases of accidental discharge. But people with guns kill people. Take away the guns and you eliminate most of the killing.

Sure, people without guns will still kill people, but far fewer will die. There are other ways to murder, but they are much less efficient. What if that ex-Marine had come into the bar with a knife instead of a .45 caliber Glock with a high-capacity magazine? Sure, he might have killed people, but not many people. He probably would not have gotten past the armed security guard.

So let’s stop the hypocritical prayers and the senseless slogans and work to find a viable solution. I wish I knew what the solution is. I don’t. But doing nothing is not a solution. It is surrender. It seems to me that any solution to the mass shooting epidemic must be multi-faceted. It must include campaign finance reform, gun control legislation, better security in public places, education of the public, and mental healthcare. 

I live in New Hampshire, which has the state motto “Live Free or Die” - with an emphasis on the latter option. Our state legislature routinely rejects any gun control legislation but proposes no alternative solutions. Unfortunately the state motto is becoming a fulfilled prophecy on the national level. Innocent people are dying on the altar of the Second Amendment in order to protect the right of mentally ill and morally depraved people to purchase firearms.

Something more must be done than maintain the status quo and pray. So – paradoxically - I offer this prayer. I pray I will do more than write a blog post. I pray I will act. I pray you will act. I pray that legislatures will act. I pray that people will balance their right to bear arms with the right of others to live free without fear. That is my prayer. Do I hear an “Amen”?

Thursday, November 8, 2018

I Did Not Speak Out

Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Nazis during the Second World War. His famous untitled poem, which begins, “First They Came for the Socialists…”, is engraved in granite at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, as well as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

His poem immediately came to my mind after the recent shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. I lived and ministered near Pittsburgh for thirteen years, until we moved back to New Hampshire in 2011. This is my interpretation of his poem.  I have updated the words to apply to our present time and our country.

First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they shot young black men, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not African American.
Then they demonized the Muslims, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for the illegal immigrants, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not Hispanic.
Then they denied rights to LGBT people, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not gay.
Then they ignored women’s accounts of sexual assault, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not female.
Then they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a journalist.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.