Friday, December 1, 2023

Christmas Tree Meditation

I put up my Christmas tree the other day, just in time for Advent. I remember when it used to be a real chore. When our children were growing up we used to go to a friend’s tree farm as a family, hunt for exactly the right tree, saw it down, load it on top of our station wagon, and haul it to our house. Then the real challenge began: getting the tree securely mounted on a stand and erected in our living room. Then the decorating would begin. It was an all-day undertaking.

Nowadays I need travel no further than the shed in our backyard, where my miniature artificial tree has been waiting patiently since last Christmas. It used to be the topmost part of a full-size artificial tree. Now this small portion is all I use. It stands about two and a half feet high. The job involves nothing more than making sure it is securely in its base, putting on one string of lights, and placing it on the shelf in our bay window. Voila! A beautiful – and more importantly, an easy – Christmas tree.

I like my tiny tree. Especially as night falls. As I write this, it is dusk. The tree lights are just beginning to shine against the dark background of green boughs. It prompts me to remember the symbolism of Christmas tree lights. They are said to represent the stars that shone in the sky on the night that Jesus was born. The words of the apostle John’s Christmas poem come to mind, “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

That is the type of reassurance I need these days. These are dark days. Authoritarianism is growing in our country in the guise of Christian Nationalism. A Christianized form of Sharia law is being promoted by the far right. The history of our country is being rewritten to marginalize democracy and deny the equality of all people. Science is being undermined. Intellectual inquiry is discouraged in favor of indoctrination.

It is a dark time in our nation. It feels like we might be approaching an American “Dark Ages.” A year from now we will know better just how dark, after we learn the results of the 2024 election, and whether they are accepted by the states, the courts, and the people. Right now it is dusk in our land. By next Christmas it may be night. In any case the darkness now feels deep to me. For that reason I look for light in the darkness.

Eighteenth century poet William Cowper wrote a number of well-known hymns. One is entitled “Light Shining out of Darkness.” The opening stanzas say: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.  / Deep in unfathomable mines, Of never-failing skill, He treasures up his bright designs, And works his sov'reign will. / Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread, Are big with mercy, and shall break, In blessings on your head.”

There is a storm coming. I suspect the upcoming presidential election will be the leading edge of the storm, not the end of it. As it approaches I will be looking for God riding upon the storm and working his sovereign will in the midst of it. I look forward to seeing the mercy breaking forth from that storm in divine blessings. I have faith that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

No, Virginia, These Are Not the End Times

Dear Editor, I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say that we are living in the End Times because of what is happening in Gaza and Israel. The preacher says that if I hear it from the pulpit, it’s so. I’m scared. Please tell me the truth. Is it the End Times?

No, Virginia, your little friends are wrong. So is the preacher. They have been affected by the religious fanaticism of a fanatical age. It pains me to say so, but many Christians today are more influenced by fads, politics and religious tradition than they are by God or Christ.

Preachers say it is “the Last Days” in order to scare you and your friends. They know that if they scare your mommy and daddy, then your family will come to church more and put more money in the offering plate. That way they can make a name for themselves, hoping to one day buy mansions and private jets and be on the president’s Evangelical Advisory Board.

Over a hundred years ago another little girl, also named Virginia, wrote to a newspaper asking if there really was a Santa Claus. The editor wrote back to her and talked about people like your pastor. He wrote: “They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible to their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.”

No, Virginia, these are not the End Times. Do not let anyone scare you or your little friends or your mommy and daddy. Use your own mind and think for yourself. Trust your own reasoning. The fact that you are asking questions is a very good sign. You are a very brave young lady. There are a lot of adults who are not brave enough to question what they are being taught. Never stop asking questions.

Explore what others think about this topic. Read for yourself what the Bible really says. Ask your parents to read it with you. You will find that there is no mention of Gaza or Russia or a “pre-tribulation rapture.” That is a big, scary idea that a group of people made up a couple of hundred years ago, and a lot of Christians believed them. There is no reason to think it is true.

Trust Jesus more than preachers, Virginia. Trust what he says. When Jesus spoke of the “end of the age” he was talking about his day, not ours. Jesus said that he would be with us always, so you need not be afraid. He taught us that the Kingdom of Heaven does not come with visible signs but is within us.

He told us to love our neighbors, including people who look different from us and who have a religion different from ours. He instructed us to welcome strangers, which was his name for immigrants. Jesus told us to love God and all people.

If you love and not hate, then you will see clearly. Hate and fear confuse the mind. No, Virginia, these are not the end times. There is no need to be afraid. As that editor said long ago, “Thank God! A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, God will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

(If you would like to read the original letter to Virginia, published in the New York newspaper The Sun on September 21, 1897, you can access the clipping here.)

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Canceling Christmas

Christmas is being canceled in the Holy land. It is the latest casualty of the Gaza War – in addition to the thousands of human victims. Leaders of major Christian denominations in Jerusalem have called on churches to tone down Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. Instead of joyous public celebrations, they are calling for quiet prayerful observances.

Bethlehem, Nazareth, Haifa, and Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter usually celebrate Christmas with parades, bazaars, street concerts and light decorations. But the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem recently issued a statement asking these Christian communities to cancel the large public celebrations. They said that this is a time of “sadness and pain,” and they are calling on Christians to pray for and aid the victims of war. 

I doubt that this is going to put a damper on American celebrations of Christmas. American Christians seem to have forgotten our Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land. They do not stand in solidarity with them. Tens of thousands of people came to the March for Israel rally in Washington recently, but you will not see anything like that in support of Christians in the Holy Land. American Christians try to outdo each other in defense of Israel, but they never think of their fellow Christians in harm’s way. They have effectively been canceled.

Christianity in Gaza dates to the fourth century, and Gaza is home to some of the oldest churches in the world. There are one thousand Christian believers living in Gaza today, a tiny fraction of the two million population. On October 19 the third oldest church in the world, Saint Porphyrios Church in Gaza, was damaged by Israeli missiles, killing 18 and injuring 30 Christians. They had taken refuge in the church, thinking it would be safe from attack. There was hardly a peep heard from Christians in America in response.

If the third oldest Jewish synagogue in the world had been bombed with Jews seeking protection inside, there would have been outrage from Jews and Christians. If this had been the third oldest mosque in the world (the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem), there would have been an uproar from the Muslim community. But the third oldest church? Ho, hum, who cares! Such is the fate of Christians in the Holy Land. They are the forgotten victims of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Christians in the Holy Land have been living between a rock and a hard place (the rock of Israelis and the hard place of Muslims) ever since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Bethlehem and Nazareth used to be majority Christian towns. Christians were the majority when we were there. No longer. Due to systematic prejudice and discrimination, Christians have been forced to emigrate. Now Palestinian Christians are a tiny minority of 180,000 in the land of Jesus’ birth.

I remember fondly my time getting to know the Christian community in the Holy Land while studying for a semester at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, located on a hill overlooking Bethlehem. My whole family came with me, and we occupied a flat with a balcony overlooking Bethlehem. One of my instructors was a Palestinian pastor named Naim Ateek, who traces his ancestry to the first century followers of Jesus. My daughter’s best friend was a little girl named Maria, who was descended from a Crusader.

We met Christians of Arabic, Jewish, and European heritage. We worshipped at Narkis Street Congregation (at that time it was called Narkis Street Baptist Church) in Jerusalem, a Messianic congregation, where we sang praise to Christ in Hebrew. We worshipped at the Jerusalem Baptist Church where we sang hymns in Arabic. We worshipped at Christ Church in Jerusalem, an Anglican congregation with a menorah on the altar and the Jewish context of the gospel is celebrated. Our daughter took her first communion there, the Sunday after she was baptized in the Jordan River.

Every year we decorate our tree with ornaments from our time in Bethlehem. We erect a crèche purchased at an olive wood workshop on Milk Grotto Street in Bethlehem. Before Israel built the wall around Bethlehem, my family used to regularly walk unhindered from our flat into Bethlehem. There was not even a military checkpoint at that time over thirty years ago. (I have hosted tours of Israel for shorter periods of time since then.) I can still picture the little market near the border where we bought vegetables and bread.

Every Christmas I can smell the scent of incense from within the Church of the Nativity, which we visited often. I remember drinking tea outside the basilica in Manger square. I remember worshipping in Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem and visiting the Bethlehem Bible College. We shopped for Christmas gifts at a Christian women’s craft show in Bethlehem. We still use those gifts.

This Christmas I will remember the Christians of the Holy Land, including the Christians in Gaza. While American Christians give each other unneeded gifts, I will donate to relieve the suffering of innocent civilians – Christians, Jews and Muslims – in the Holy Land. I will remember those who observe the holiday “in sadness and pain” in the Holy Land this year. I will speak and pray for peace.

While calloused politicians justify the killing of thousands of civilians as necessary collateral damage in a war against terrorism, I will remember innocent Christians huddling in a church in Gaza, wondering if anybody cares. I will not cancel Christmas, but neither will I forget my brothers and sisters of all faiths in the land where the Prince of Peace was born. As Jesus said, “As you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”

(If you are moved to donate, I consider the most trustworthy organization to be the Red Cross, which is doing heroic work in the war zone of Gaza.)

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Arc of the Universe

In a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” given at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King used this quote many times in his ministry, including during the march from Selma in 1965. Barak Obama liked it so much that he had part of the quote woven into the carpet in the Oval Office.

King was paraphrasing an earlier abolitionist preacher. The original words were spoken by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister from Lexington, Massachusetts. Parker was an influential transcendentalist who studied at Harvard Divinity School. In an 1853 sermon Parker said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

I prefer Parker’s words over King’s and Obama’s abbreviated versions. It is more nuanced. Like Parker I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. My eyes see even less than Parker’s. These days it is difficult to see justice advancing on earth. The arc of American history seems to be bending in the opposite direction. Democracy is waning. Justice is threatened. Truth is discarded for worldly power. American Christianity is devolving into power politics.

For those reasons I do not see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice in our time. If it is, the curvature of the arc is far longer than I can see. Sometimes I wonder if the universe has a moral bent at all. Perhaps the Yin-Yang symbol of Chinese culture is a better metaphor than the arc. Good and evil, moral and immoral, justice and injustice, fighting with each other - or perhaps dancing with each other - in never-ending cosmic balance.

Yet my Christian tradition teaches that the One who created and guides the universe is just. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed it fiercely: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Jesus proclaimed it. Yet Hebrew and Christian peoples have not often lived justice. The same with our Abrahamic cousins, the Muslims. Modern prophets who live and proclaim it - like Martin Luther King – are voices crying in the wilderness.

Still I have hope, even though “seeing through a glass darkly,” as the apostle put it. As Parker said, “I can divine it by conscience,” not by sight. Though God’s people are unjust, God will remain just. Though they be unfaithful, God remains faithful. Though religious people “kill the prophets and stone those sent to them,” as Jesus observed, God still longs to “gather them together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

Perhaps the Yin-Yang symbol is best interpreted as God and humans fighting with each other for as long as time will last. Yet all religious traditions say that time will not last forever. There is an end to time. For those with eyes to see, that time is now. 

Time is an illusion when seen from Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is here now according to Jesus.  If there is no time, there is no arc of time to bend one way or the other. Eternity is now, and Eternity is Love. God is Love. True Love is true justice.  May the arc of God’s people bend toward divine justice.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Gazing at Gaza

Several times in the last two weeks I have tried to write a response to the attack by Hamas upon Israel and the
subsequent attacks by Israel upon Gaza. Every time I have deleted what I wrote and started over. Words fail me. Whenever I see photos of Gaza today, I think back to my visit to Gaza thirty years ago. Much has changed since then, but much has remained the same.

I entered Gaza in a United Nations van with other clergy who were studying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute outside Bethlehem. It felt like entering a prison camp. Inside the gate was squalor like I had never seen. Open sewers and despair on faces. I visited the same hospital that has recently been in the news because of the controversial bombing. It was founded as a Baptist mission hospital and still had Baptist missionaries working there. We visited a children’s ward. We shopped at a small Christian bookstore.  

These people and places are what come to mind when I read the news today. Gaza is not a news story to me. It is a memory. I wish I knew the solution to this never-ending war in the Holy Land between Palestinians and Israelis. All I know for sure is that present actions are sowing seeds for future wars.  

When I gaze at what is happening in Gaza, I see the epitome of the “us versus them” mentality that is present in so many countries these days, including my country. An antagonistic view of the world is destroying the United States from within and threatens to undo our democracy. Our brothers and sisters are seen as enemies. Our common humanity is lost among religious, moral, and political differences. 

I don’t know what the people in the Middle East must do to end the cycle of war, but I know what I must do. I will follow Jesus. When so many people are angry and vengeful, I will turn from anger. When so many people – including Christians – are lusting for political power and influence, I will follow the Way of Christ. Jesus sought neither power nor influence. When put on trial for treason and blasphemy, he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight…. But my kingdom is not of the world.” 

Yet Christians – both conservative and liberal, evangelical and progressive – talk and act as if Jesus’ kingdom is of this world and can only be achieved by fighting politically or militarily. One of the worst things that has happened in my lifetime is the Church’s abandonment of deep spirituality and choosing worldly strategies instead. Spiritual matters have been forgotten in favor of attempts to legislate morality. That is not the way of Jesus. 

What is the Way of Jesus? Read the Sermon on the Mount and you will find it. Read his parables and you will hear it. It is the way of the cross. It is turning the other cheek and not returning evil for evil. It is about taking the role of the servant, washing one another’s feet, and taking the lowest place. It is about unconditional love, including love of enemies.  

There will always be people – including Christians – who will employ worldly strategies to temporarily solve worldly problems. There will always be rulers and warriors, statesmen and politicians. They may keep evil temporarily at bay, but they never address the root problem. Jesus had another plan for his church.  


The apostle Paul said that our fight is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces. Jesus’ brother James wrote that the cause of wars is the war in the human heart. While most of the world thinks that one more war will solve the problem, let us address the root of all war. The problem is not “them,” whoever “they” may be. The problem is us. For that reason, the solution must begin with us.


Jesus is our commanding officer, and he has given us orders. He has commanded us to love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. Instead of hating and killing our enemies, he commands us, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  

That is countercultural. It is a radical approach. It is the way of the cross. To the world the way of the cross is foolishness. It is labeled impractical, naïve, and idealistic. It is ridiculed by the world as a recipe for disaster. It is seen as surrender to evil. That is why Jesus’ disciples abandoned him. They wanted to fight to prevent him from being arrested, but he told them to lay down their weapons.  

The way of Jesus conquered evil then, and it conquers evil now. There will always be those who choose the sword – or in our case the gun. But there is a need for some who will try a different approach, the way less traveled. There is a need for a company of spiritual warriors willing to take Jesus at his word and try the Way of God rather than the way of Caesar. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”   

Friday, September 29, 2023

The Middle of Nowhere

Last Sunday a friend of mine quoted me in his sermon to his church in North Carolina. He introduced the quote by saying that I lived in the middle of nowhere. I kidded him about it later, but then I pondered the phrase and decided I liked it. I like living in the middle of nowhere. More people should try it. Just not in our stretch of nowhere. Then it might become somewhere.

I dwell in a very small town as far as human population is concerned. One hundred square miles of forest, lakes, mountains, ponds and rivers. One blinking light. No gas station. No grocery store. Not even a convenience store. Our house is within sight of the blinking light in the center of the village, so we are literally in the center of nowhere. Yet our town is not entirely off the beaten path. Every four years at least one presidential candidate finds his/her way to our corner of the first primary state. This year it was Robert Kennedy.

The other day my wife and I decided to get out of nowhere. It was getting busy. Usually our busyness has to do with our grandchildren, which is a wonderful type of busyness. We love seeing them. I love that they will have memories of walking to their grandparents’ house after school. We are blessed. But sometimes it is nice to get off to a quiet spot by ourselves for a while. So we went to a state park in a neighboring town to sit by a quiet lake ringed by mountains.

It was a calm, sunny, warm autumn day. Not a ripple on the lake. The mountains were in a haze. For over an hour we watched a pair of loons diving for fish, occasionally flapping their wings. Exciting stuff. Exactly what we needed. There were other people at the lake, including some kids, but it was not noisy. I commented to my wife that the quiet was so deep that it absorbed sounds like a sponge.

The silence was so powerful that I could feel it sinking into me. City folk think that quiet is the absence of noise. It is not. Silence is a tangible presence. Noises may be present, but the silence beneath the noises is stronger. Noises do not stand a chance in the presence of silence. Silence pervades all.

That is the way it is with the Presence of God. God’s presence pervades everything. God is palpably present inside and outside me, like space inside and outside a jar. The apostle Paul calls us earthen vessels. He calls us temples of the Holy Spirit. These are accurate analogies. We are Spirit-filled and Spirit-immersed.

The Bible likens the Spirit of God to the breath that we breathe. The biblical words for spirit are the same words translated breath or wind. God is the air we breathe, as the song says. God is breathing us. We are the lungs of God. Without God there is no life in these bodies. The divine name YHWH has its origin in the sound of breathing. In and out. God is as close as our breath.

I hear fellow Christians talk about coming into the presence of God. That language is popular in worship settings. People think that by coming into a church building, or into a worship service, or entering into an attitude of prayer that they are coming into the presence of God. Yet how can we not always be in the presence of God? If God is omnipresent, where else could we possibly be but in the presence of God?

The churchly way of talking about the presence of God is really about feelings. People need to feel the presence of God. I understand that. Feelings are nice. Spiritual experiences are edifying. But they have nothing to do with the presence of God. God is present whether we feel God’s presence or not. If we ever feel like God is not present, we do not need to perform religious rituals to recapture the feeling. All we have to do is pause to notice what is always present, and God is instantly here.  God is never not here.

God is not a thing and therefore not in some special place. God is nothing (no-thing) and nowhere, which is another way of saying everything and everywhere. Language collapses into paradox when speaking of the Divine. Sometimes we may feel like God is absent, like we are in the middle of nowhere. At such times we are exactly where we ought to be. God is in the middle of nowhere. So are you. Welcome to nowhere.

Monday, September 18, 2023

If the Church Dies

There has been a flurry of books and articles recently that try to explain why churches are losing people at an alarming rate. A recent example is a book entitled The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis and Michael Graham. The authors begin the book with these dire words: “In the United States, we are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshippers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all.”

They have subtitled their book: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? The authors assume that this precipitous decline in church involvement is a problem to be fixed. But I wonder: What if the Great Dechurching is not a bad thing?  What if it is a good thing? What if it is a God thing? What if God is pruning the church back to the root? What if God is behind this exodus? Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What if the church needs to die?

Near the end of his ministry Jesus explained to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and die. The apostle Peter’s response was “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me. You are not on the side of God but of men.” Maybe the dying of the church is not a problem, any more than Jesus' death was a problem. Maybe the Great Dechurching is God’s solution to a more serious problem.

A few years ago my younger son bought an 18th century house on sixteen acres of land in our small town in New Hampshire. At first he planned to renovate the house. On closer examination, he discovered that the house was in such bad condition that it could not be salvaged. The mold and rot were too extensive. It had to be razed to the ground to make way for a new structure. Now he lives in a beautiful timber frame home that he built with his own hands, made from lumber harvested from his land.

Perhaps the church today is in the same condition as that old house. Perhaps it is in such bad shape that it cannot be saved. It needs to be razed so that a new church can be built in its place. God is pressing the reset button, just as God did with humankind in the Flood, just as God threatened to do with Israel after the Exodus, if Moses had not talked God out of it.

God has worked this way in the past, according to the Bible. The eighth century (BC) prophets proclaimed that God was fighting against Israel and was going to destroy it if it did not repent. Israel did not listen, and God destroyed the northern kingdom; ten tribes of Israel disappeared from history. In the sixth century Jeremiah fearlessly preached the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as the will of God. The leaders of Judah put Jeremiah in prison for prophesying this. Jesus likewise prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The political and religious leaders killed him for it.

I do not know for sure, but I think God may be doing the same sort of thing in our time. The Great Dechurching reports that religious abuse and general moral corruption in churches have driven people away. For decades young parents told me they were bringing their children to church and Sunday School in order to inculcate moral values. Now parents do not see the church as moral. Many see the church’s message and conduct as immoral! Parents used to bring their children to church to learn about God. Now they are pretty sure the church does not know God.

The church is so corrupt and diseased that God cannot allow it to continue. So God is surgically removing the church from the world in order to save the world from the church. This is not the rapture of the church that evangelicals are expecting; this is the judgement of the church that they don’t see coming.

The church does not have a problem; the church is the problem. The church thinks the problem is in the culture outside the church, but the real problem is in the church culture. The church does not see that, and therefore it has no motivation to change. Instead it doubles down on the culture wars. Because of the church’s spiritual blindness, the only solution left to God is so drastic that no one wants to think about it.

The church needs to die, so it can be resurrected as an entirely new creation. For that reason I am not dismayed when I read ever-worsening statistics about the decline of the church. I see God’s hand in it. Like a gardener or farmer, God is turning over the soil, in order to prepare for a new season. Perhaps if the church repents, it can avoid the looming catastrophe, like Nineveh temporarily escaped destruction under the preaching of Jonah. But I see no sign of such a contrite spirit in the church.

The good news is that if the Old Testament pattern is repeated, it means that a faithful remnant will survive the Great Dechurching, like Noah and his family survived the Flood, like a remnant of Judah survived the Babylonian exile. From the stump of Jesse a shoot will sprout. From the ruins of the dying church, a living church will grow. From the microchurches that survive the coming exile, a new Body of Christ will arise. 

Accepting the Great Dechurching as the will of God does not mean I am giving up on the church. I love the church. I especially love the church I attend, and I love the Church as a worldwide body. I am not going to stop worshiping with a local body of believers. Instead I trust that “in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose.”

Not all churches are rotten, but the great number of corrupt churches and leaders give the good ones a bad name. Not all Christians act and speak in an unchristian manner, but all Christians are tainted by the public words and actions of high profile Christians who cause harm to the cause of Christ.

The Church is the Body of Christ, and ungodly Christians are growing in the body like cancer. The situation seems to be getting worse with each passing year. That is the cause of the Great Dechurching. Soon the number of saintly believers will not be enough to save the church, any more than they were enough to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

We are witnessing a great work of God in our time. It is a work of biblical proportions. It is greater than we can imagine with our sociological models and predictions. It is greater than religious revival. This is resurrection. Therefore I do not lament the Great Dechurching. I do not fear for the future of the church. For I know that if the church dies, it will bear much fruit.

Monday, September 11, 2023

More Than Fiction

I just finished reading a humorous and insightful novel, the first in a fantasy series entitled “Lost on a Page” by David Sharp. It is told from the perspective of fictional characters within novels of various genres (mystery, science fiction, romance, fantasy) who discover that they are not real. They find out they are just imaginary figures in books being written by human authors.

In discovering they are not real, something changes. It says, “Discovering they are fictional characters somehow gave them wills of their own.” They begin to make decisions for themselves apart from the book plots. Characters from various books band together to find “The World Where the Books Are Written.”

This is not an entirely new concept, even though this book takes the idea in new directions. There was a book a few years ago by John Scalzi entitled “Red Shirts,” about ensigns on a starship in a science fiction television show. One day they realize that while on “away missions” it is always those with the red shirts who die. Never those in the leading roles. This was modeled after the real TV series Star Trek. The audiobook is appropriately narrated by Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

The 2006 movie “Stranger than Fiction” has a similar premise. Will Ferrell plays an IRS auditor named Harold Crick, whose life is narrated by a voice that only he can hear. He discovers that he is the protagonist in an author's (Emma Thompson) latest work. With the help of a professor (Dustin Hoffman) they set out to find the author and get her to change her/his story.  

These works of fiction are not as fictional as they seem. Spiritual inquiry reveals we are not who we think we are. We are not the characters we play. If someone asks, “Who are you?” we tend to respond with answers from our script:  name, age, gender, family relationships, occupation, nationality, religion, political affiliation, and a host of other labels that we have adopted other the years.

Spiritual self-enquiry reveals that we are none of these things. We could change any or all of these, and we would still be us. These are simply roles we play in the drama of life. Shakespeare famously penned, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts….” We mistake ourselves for the masks we wear. We get so “into character” that we forget what we really are.

When we wake up from our fictional lives, we get a glimpse of True Life, the Nonfictional Self behind the dramatis personae, who breathes life into us and sets the parameters of our temporary existence.  The true reality is the Realm of the Author. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.

When we wake up, the illusion of our former selves dissipates, and we see what we always were. As the apostle Paul exclaimed, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me!” These bodies are simply costumes for the Spirit. The apostle speaks of the Spirit indwelling the tabernacles of human bodies. “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

Our lives are open books, written by the Author of life, the One who speaks this cosmic drama into existence. When we take off the masks we wear, we are free. We discover who and what we really are. Under the masks we see our real face, and we recognize it as the face of God. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. As the apostle wrote: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Banned from Communion

Last month I was not able to take communion during the Sunday worship service. It was not the church or pastor’s fault. In fact they could not have been more inclusive. They intentionally serve only gluten free vegan bread and non-alcoholic grape juice so that everyone can partake of the same elements. It is also “open communion.” Everyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table, no questions asked. The problem was me.

The following morning I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. We all know how pleasant the prep for that is! The instructions made it clear that I was to eat no food and drink nothing red or purple on the day before the medical procedure. Strangely enough I did not consider how that was going to affect my participation in the Lord’s Supper until I was in the worship service. I had to bypass the elements on that particular Sunday.

Even though no one was excluding me, I felt alone as I sat empty-handed while everyone else was partaking of the communal meal. It caused me to remember our stay in the Holy Land decades ago. I was taking a semester sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the autumn of 1991. My wife and three children went with me.

Even though the institute is called ecumenical, it is owned and run by the Roman Catholic Church. The rector was then – and is now - a Jesuit. My family was told that we could not partake of the daily Eucharist with the other families because we were Baptists. Other Protestants – Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians were invited to the table – but my family, another Baptist family from Japan, and a Mennonite family from Canada were not welcome.

I know they had their centuries-old, ecclesial and theological reasons for excluding fellow Christians from the Eucharist. Furthermore it would have been personally costly for these leaders to disobey church tradition and authority. I get that. As Free Church Protestants we had no right to insist that another tradition change their practice of the Eucharist for us. Therefore we “never said a mumblin word,” to quote the African American spiritual. Yet that did not diminish my feeling of being excluded because of my faith.

Ever since that time, I have been sensitive to Christians excluding people. In the last thirty years there has been a lot of exclusion going on. More and more people have been identified for exclusion. I am thinking primarily about my own Baptist tradition and similar evangelical denominations. Many Christians are becoming more exclusivistic in their thinking.

My experience of exclusion was minimal compared to the discrimination and persecution suffered by others, but my minor experience expanded my empathy for outsiders and my vision of the need for a spirituality that excludes no one. It seems to me that if a church and theology justifies the systematic exclusion of certain categories of people - from communion, membership, heaven or anything else - it is time to get a new church and a new theology.

These thoughts came to mind last Sunday while I was sitting in the same outdoor worship service at the same church and offered the same Lord’s Supper. This time I had no medical procedure scheduled, and so I joyfully partook of the bread and the cup. I felt communion. During the ritual I thought about those who have been barred from communion in some churches because of their sincerely held beliefs, including the President of the United States and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. God bless them for not being bitter. Their attitude is a testimony to their faith.

As I ate the sacred elements last Sunday, I prayed for all those who are excluded from fellowship and society for a host of reasons: religious beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, immigration status, political views, moral standards, and many other reasons. I prayed for insight to see how I exclude people without even noticing. I meditated on Jesus, who fellowshipped with outsiders and sinners. Jesus taught and modeled God’s intentional unconditional love. Even Judas Iscariot was welcome at the Last Supper. He is welcome today. After all, it the Lord’s Supper, not ours. And it is the Lord’s Church – the Body of Christ – not ours. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Losing My Library

When I was nine years old I fractured three vertebrae in a fall, and I had to take it easy to allow them to heal properly. So that summer I read books. Lots of books. I remember reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on the lawn outside my house. I think that gave me respect for Twain’s unconventional views on religion later in life.

In seventh grade I struggled in Ancient History class. To keep from failing the class, the teacher said I could read books for extra credit. Each book earned me one extra point added to my grade average. I recall sitting for hours in our finished basement reading about the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East. That paved the way for my later interest in history. While in high school I worked in the school bookstore.

Books have always had an important place in my life. In college and seminary I surrounded myself with academic volumes. My dorm rooms and apartments were lined with bookshelves. Theological books played a major role during my spiritual search in college and while training to be pastor in seminary. I accumulated books - and bookshelves - while in ministry. In Pennsylvania our finished basement had wall-to-wall books.

My church office always held lots of books: biblical commentaries, theological tomes, and practical books on pastoral ministry. I was proud of my personal library. Books meant education, knowledge, expertise and wisdom to me. As a theologian I believed truth could be found in books, especially the “book of books,” the Bible (a word which simply means “book.”) I assumed truth was found in ideas, which were contained in books. My library felt like an extension of my brain. They were my memory.

When I moved back to New Hampshire in 2011 I left almost all my books in Pennsylvania. There was no room for them in our new home. My daughter and her family moved into our previous house, on the condition that I could store my extensive collection downstairs. I figured I could always have access to the books if I really needed them. Then one year water got into the basement. The moisture became mold. My prized theological library turned into mounds of mold. Thousands of dollars of books ended up in a dumpster.

Strangely I didn’t mind too much. By that time my attitude toward books had changed. I no longer depended on them. I still read books. These days I finish about two books a week, which means a hundred a year. I have been here in New Hampshire for twelve years. You can do the math. That doesn’t count all the books I purchased but never read. These books are not stored in bookshelves, but on my Kindle, where I can access them and search within them easily.

I learned something in the process of losing my library. I realized that truth is beyond books. At least spiritual truth is beyond books. Books contain knowledge, and knowledge is good. The trend in our nation to ban and censor books in school libraries is one of the surest signs that our culture is in decay. Without free access to uncensored books, facts are lost, ideologues win, and our culture will descend into a new Dark Ages.

As important as books are to a society, they do not contain the deepest spiritual truth. That type of truth can only we found by direct experience. At best spiritual truth can be pointed to by those who have found it. Books can only point obliquely to this Reality that is beyond words. 

Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. He pointed to it using parables, which are stories, metaphors and similes. Spiritual truth is not something you possess. It possesses you. It is not something you understand; you understand all things by it. It is like light, which was one of Jesus’ metaphors. You do not see light, but see things by light. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

Spiritual wisdom is alive and active. It is not passive, waiting for someone to take it off the shelf. For me the best books point beyond ideas to the Source of all ideas. These books point beyond books. I find such books to be timeless. They direct us to truths beyond religious traditions and norms. Usually these spiritual books are old books. I find that the best of these are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

Sometimes they are written more recently. For example I am presently reading a book that was written in 1939. That is ancient history to those generations who are identified by letters of the alphabet.  Yet these books feel timelier than books written this year. I am discovering – and rediscovering - ancient religious texts of East and West. These old books point to timeless truth that are as valuable today as they were centuries ago. These are the books I value most.

I still read new books for fun.  A lot of fiction: historical novels, adventure, sci-fi, thrillers and mysteries. Every day I read a portion of a spiritual book. Unlike fiction I go through these books slowly to savor them. I no longer feel the need to accumulate facts. I read to learn how to articulate truth that cannot be found in books, expressing old truths in new words. Knowledge changes daily in our fast-paced culture. Truth abides forever. Books grow moldy. Truth is as imperishable as gold. This spiritual gold is what I value most.