Monday, February 21, 2022

On Being Quaint

I have been called a lot of things during my career as an ordained clergyman, but until this week I have never been called quaint. I feel like I have been labeled a hobbit. A new book published last week by Glenn Packiam uses the word “quaint” to describe clergy.

In his book entitled The Resilient Pastor, the Barna senior fellow examines the newest surveys and confirms what pastors already know — that ministers are not as respected and influential in American society as we used to be. In summarizing his findings Packiam writes: “Pastors, for the most part, are peripheral and ornamental. Quaint, but not entirely necessary. Kind, but not wholly credible.”

Ouch! That hurts! Especially that “ornamental” part. It sounds like irrelevancy. Clergy do not want to be thought of as irrelevant. But, alas, I think he is speaking the truth, which is why it hurts. Most people in today’s society view clergy as anachronisms. They are “quaint,” like a country cottage or a New England white clapboard church. It doesn’t help that I live in in the country and served such a church!

One interesting aspect of the research is that clergy concur with the study’s findings. We are aware of the trend, and we are part of it. Pastors do not find their fellow clergy as trustworthy as they used to be. I find clergy increasingly unreliable in many areas: science, history, politics, sexuality, ethics, and even spirituality. Many seem vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

Part of the problem is the lack of education. Many pastors these days lack a basic undergraduate liberal arts education, much less a graduate theological education. Consequently many pastors are unknowledgeable of science and history, as well as biblical and theological scholarship. Not trained to think critically, these pastors follow the trends of popular evangelical culture and its celebrity pastors.

Even seminary-trained clergy have seen the writing on the church wall. They know that to be “successful” they need to play the game. They have to give the people in the pews what they want. Increasingly church folk want what they hear on Christian radio, television, and online. I find such clergy “not wholly credible,” to use Packiam’s phrase.

Now about the “quaint” label. As I think about it, perhaps I am quaint. If so, I am okay with that. Quaint is defined as “unusual or different in character or appearance.” Synonyms are “unusual, bizarre, eccentric, curious, peculiar, queer, odd, whimsical, strange, and outlandish.” I am okay with all those designations. I will wear the slur of quaint as a badge of honor.

Even “peripheral” is not such a bad term. Jesus was on the periphery of the religion of this day. He hung out with the people on the margins of society, yet his influence was not marginal. Seeking to follow my Lord, I am definitely on the periphery of today’s Christianity. Does that make me “peripheral?” If so, I am glad. I would not have it any other way.

I am connecting with a wider range of people now than I ever did when I was in mainstream ministry as a fulltime pastor. I reach more people with my books, podcasts and videos than I did with my weekly in-person sermons and Bible Studies. So call me quaint. Call me peripheral. Call me “unusual, bizarre, eccentric, curious, peculiar, queer, odd, whimsical, strange, and outlandish.” But please don’t call me ornamental.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

A Christian Reads the Gita

Recently my daily devotions have included reading a chapter from the Indian spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. Each morning I read a chapter from the Hebrew prophets (I am presently reading Isaiah), a section from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ, and then a chapter from the Gita.

The Bhagavad Gita is probably the most famous Hindu scripture, written about the same time as the Hebrew Torah was being finalized.  I first came in contact with it while in college. I was offered a copy of The Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is by a shaved head, chanting, dancing devotee of the Hare Krishna movement who was visiting campus. I read it and kept it for years.

I studied the Gita again in seminary while studying the world’s religions, but I have not read it since. I thought it was about time to buy a new translation and explore it again. This time I purchased Stephen Mitchell’s new translation. His edition of the Tao Te Ching is my favorite, so I was eager to see how he approached this beloved Indian scripture.

I have been surprised at how this reading of the Bhagavad Gita has affected me. Although I do not resonate with it as much as the Upanishads, which have been very influential in my spiritual life, I find it is helping me work through a moral dilemma that I am struggling with at this time.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita, it is a conversation between the Indian warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, who is actually Krishna, an incarnation of God. Arjuna is about to go into battle against some of his kinsmen when he has crisis of conscience. He cannot bring himself to fight and kill people that he knows. He decides to lay down his bow and become the ancient equivalent of a conscientious objector.

At that point Krishna starts up a dialogue with Arjuna, attempting to persuade him to fulfill his duty as a member of the warrior caste and fight. This conversation is the substance of the Gita, which itself is part of the larger epic the Mahabharata. During the conversation Krishna explains various ways that one comes to know God. He speaks about the true nature of Reality, God and human beings.

These topics are interesting, but it was the subject of war that got me thinking the most. This has been a struggle in my life ever since the Vietnam War. Over the years my approach has fluctuated between an ethic of nonviolence and just war theory. I consider the major American wars during my lifetime – Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – to have been unnecessary and costly in human lives and suffering. I opposed them all. But I cannot rule out the possible need for military action when the situation requires it.

I consider the United States to be at a crossroads at the present time. For the first time in my lifetime American democracy is being threatened by a domestic enemy. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol building was just the opening salvo. Christian nationalism and the right-wing anti-democracy movement are gaining strength. It is working at the local, state and national levels to rig elections, censor books and roll back basic rights.

There is a large portion of lawmakers and the American population who are willing to dismantle our two-century-long experiment in democracy in order to advance their political, religious, and social agenda. So far it has not resulted in widespread violence, but I can see where it could end in armed conflict if this trend is not reversed.

I have been contemplating how far mainstream Christians should go in defending our democracy against these anti-democracy forces. I have not come to a decision. Part of me wants to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Another part of me wants to exercise my second amendment right. Do I practice nonviolent resistance or do I use force to stop fascism before it gets too powerful?

Last year I penned several blog posts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian who was faced with a similar dilemma in Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s. He ended up working as a double agent in German intelligence and becoming part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. He was executed by the Third Reich for his choice. I admire his Christian faith and his courage.

In a recent radio/podcast interview on The Meetinghouse, my friend Dwight Moody and I talked about the threat of Christian Nationalism and how it is affecting churches and pastors. We both agreed that this was not the time for clergy to keep silent about these threats to American freedoms. But what more can we do than just talk? I think we can learn from the example of the 20th century Civil Rights and Anti-War movements.

At the end of the Gita Arjuna is persuaded by Krishna to fight in the upcoming battle. In chapter after chapter of the Book of Isaiah, God declares war for his divine purpose. Yet Isaiah also has the most beautiful images of the peaceable kingdom in the Bible. For a Christian the ethic of Christ supersedes the Old Testament ethic. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said of old, but I say unto you…..” In the same spirit Gandhi concluded, “The Gita does not decide for us.”

Reading the Bhagavad Gita has been a way for me to have an internal debate about how far a follower of Jesus can engage in earthly battles. For now my pacifist roots are prevailing. Nonviolence seems like the only long-term solution. Violence sows the seeds of future violence. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only makes the whole world blind and toothless.  And my dentist says I have no teeth to spare. Yet if the redcaps try to do to my house what they did to the People’s House, I am not making any promises. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022


According to Jesus there is a sin that can never be forgiven. As a child my wife thought the unforgivable sin was calling someone a fool. Her childhood fear was based on the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” That is a pretty heavy load for a child to carry!

An unforgivable sin is mentioned in Mark’s gospel where Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Matthew’s version expands upon it a bit. “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

It is interesting that the “unforgivable sin” is not some blatantly immoral act like genocide, torture, child abuse or voting for Donald Trump. It is not something one does; it is something one says. Yet it is not thoughtlessly saying “You fool!” in the heat of the moment. It is speaking against the Spirit because one’s heart is set against the Spirit. Words are a window into the heart.  As Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”

The context of Jesus’ pronouncement of an “unforgivable sin” is important. The statement is given during an altercation between Jesus and some Pharisees. These devout, religious believers were telling people that Jesus’ ministry was not inspired by the Spirit of God but by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. In other words they were saying that Jesus was Satanic.

These Pharisees were so indoctrinated that they were unable to recognize the Spirit of God in someone who was not part of their religious group. Not only that, but they believed that anyone of a contrary religious persuasion was evil. They labeled the work of the Spirit as demonic.

They could no longer tell the difference between good and evil. As the prophet Isaiah warned, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil!” The Christian version of the unforgivable sin is not recognizing the Spirit of God in other faith traditions. Some Christians go so far as to repeat the sin of the Pharisees, labelling other religions demonic.

If we cannot recognize the Holy Spirit in the Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh, then we do not know the Spirit who was in Christ. If we do not see the Holy Spirit in the Hindus like Ramana Maharshi, we do not know the Spirit of Jesus. If we do not hear the Holy Spirit in the words of the Muslims like Rumi, we cannot hear God’s Word anywhere.

That does not mean that all religions and religious leaders are equal. Some faiths and faith leaders are more transparent to the Spirit than others. Some are clean windows through which the Spirit shines. Others are windows obfuscated by dogma, tradition, and legalism.  But wash away the grime and you can glimpse the omnipresent Spirit behind all windows.

To be unable to recognize Jesus when he walks the Emmaus Road with us in the form of a person of another faith is spiritual blindness. But is this unforgivable? That assessment sounds like a “spiritually correct” form of exclusivism and intolerance, until we see it is not a matter of whether God forgives; it is a matter of whether we are open to forgiveness. If we are blind to our own blindness, then we see no need for forgiveness. That is the definition of unforgivable.

For some Christians, acknowledging that God is present in other faiths is considered the unforgivable sin. It is thought to be a betrayal of the Christian gospel. It feels to them like a denial of Jesus. It feels like apostasy or heresy. It feels like unbelief, which some consider to be the unforgivable sin. With their eyes and ears firmly clenched, they cannot discern the presence of God.

But is this unforgivable? The God I know is Unconditional Love. Nothing is unforgivable for Love except unforgiveness, as Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus prayed, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He went on to explain, “If you do not forgive people their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We receive forgiveness to the extent that we forgive. Unable to forgive, we are unable to accept forgiveness.

Are we willing to forgive those who will not accept our religion? Are we willing to forgive those who do not understand God the way we do? Are we willing to accept them as spiritual sisters and brothers? Are we willing to forgive ourselves for our religious arrogance? Are we willing to forgive God for transcending our religion and welcoming people of all faiths? If so, nothing is unforgivable.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

The Closing of the American Heart

The worst part of the present political discord in the United States is what it is doing to Americans’ hearts. There is no longer room in our hearts for others, whether those “others” are members of the opposing political party, persons of other races, other religions, or other sexual orientation. To modify the title of Allan Bloom’s bestseller (The Closing of the American Mind) slightly, this is the closing of the American heart. Doctor Seuss said of the Grinch:

Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

I do not rule out the head or shoe theories when it comes to what is happening to Americans, but it seems to me that our hearts are shrinking. To use a biblical metaphor, our hearts are becoming hardened. According to Christ this is a dangerous spiritual condition. Hardheartedness is more contagious than any coronavirus. No mask or vaccine can prevent it.

We contract it from our adversaries. (It is no coincidence that the word “contract” also means to shrink.) When we hear disinformation and propaganda, lies and hate, it conjures anger within us. Our hearts contract. We tend to meet anger with anger. This is the emotional equivalent of “an eye for an eye.” As Gandhi said, this only makes the whole world blind. Jesus called this reciprocity the spiritual equivalent of murder.

Christ’s assessment should give us pause to think about how serious our current situation is. Yet we usually don’t stop to think. We are too busy reacting. We are too busy fighting to notice what the fight is doing to us. The excuses we make for ourselves are the most dangerous aspect of the problem. We have shrouded the struggle in the clothing of self-righteousness and patriotism. We believe our own rhetoric.

What can we do about this spiritual plague that is sweeping through our land? The biblical book of Proverbs says: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways.”

This sounds to me like the spiritual practice of mindfulness! The root problem of today is mindlessness. We are not mindful of what we are feeling or thinking or saying. We are unaware of how we come across, how we are heard. Most of all, we are unaware of what the toxic political environment is doing to our hearts, how we are being changed inwardly. 

There is spiritual climate change happening in our country. There is wholesale devastation of our spiritual environment, and people are unaware of it. People are concerned about environmental pollution but not spiritual pollution. We are so intent on saving America that we may be losing our souls in the process. As Jesus said, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

What good is a soulless America? Yet we are headed in that direction. The churches are not helping. Some churches are part of the problem rather than the solution. Some preachers are the worst offenders. Others are just watching it happen, conducting business as usual.  This will be the death of us as a nation, and it will be the death of American Christianity.

The fact that this spiritual hardening is happening at the same time as a precipitous decline in church attendance is not accidental. Many Christians believe that the decline in church attendance is the result of our society’s rejection of Christianity. We blame a godless and secular society for church decline. But the problem may be closer to home. We Christians might be the problem.

The churches may be contributing to the spiritual and moral decline. The abandonment of genuine spirituality by the churches may be causing people to abandon Christianity. When churches forsake God for politics, then people forsake the churches. When religion becomes toxic, then people look for healthier alternatives.

Whatever the cause of church decline, there is a serious spiritual problem in America today. I believe the solution begins with our hearts. We must become mindful of what is going on in our hearts. Notice what today’s poisonous polemics are doing to your soul. Being aware of the problem is half the battle.

When we are aware, then we can put a little space between others’ actions and our reactions, between others’ emotions and our emotions. Put a little space between your thoughts and your words. In that space between thoughts and words is peace. God dwells in this spacious peace. Abiding in this peace is true spirituality.

Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” What do your words and thoughts say about your heart?  Notice what is happening in your heart. Is it contracting or expanding? Are you opening to others or closing to them? Are you including others or excluding them, welcoming others or rejecting them? Protecting yourself or protecting others?

To the degree that we close our hearts to our neighbors – and our enemies - is the degree that we close our hearts to God. That is what Jesus taught. “As you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, so you have done to me.” Take a moment to be mindful of your heart. It may save your soul … and our nation.