Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Work of Christmas: Revival2011!

If you’ve listened to sermons or paid attention to some of the cards and posters I’ve noticed over the years, you may be familiar with Howard Thurman’s marvelous words that help us imagine a Christmas that does not end, but begins:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

On my street we see who is the fastest to get their Christmas tree undecorated and out to the curb. This year, one appeared, felled, on Christmas morning! The dumpsters and recycling bins are overflowing, the round of visits conclude and we are back to work, back to school – we’re back to normal.

And yet the normalcy of the time when the song of the angels is stilled is peculiar. We wear a new sweater. We are sporting a few new pounds – so we redouble our resolve to exercise and eat oatmeal instead of Moravian sugarcake. Maybe we make New Year’s resolutions, although I suspect this custom is going out of style – as we are a cynical people, or at least we recall previous years’ resolutions and how they never came to fruition.

And yet maybe, just maybe, the turn in the calendar feels like a new chapter, a new beginning, getting out of bed onto what just might be a new day, that 2011 might be the year we get there, somewhere over some rainbow, and things calm down, we calm down, we find new love, we become fit or finally find work or eventually discover why we exist. Methodists for decades got people to come to worship on New Year’s Eve, and make pretty courageous commitments to become prayerful, holy, to find the lost, feed the hungry, bring peace and make music in the heart.

I believe God told me, when I was in Utah back in August, to make 2011 a year that won’t be just another year, but the year you and I and others get serious about God and the life of faith, when we stop poking around the edges, or play-acting, or dabbling in spirituality, and become joyful, dogged, happy, committed followers of Christ. Revival2011 is this simple thing, and you can think of it as the Work of Christmas: give me 15 days, and I deeply believe that nothing will ever be the same. It’s hard in our skeptical culture to say such a thing – but I really believe this.

On January 9, at 7 pm, we are having a revival, not old-timey in its form (we’ll have cool music, video, dance…), but hopefully compelling in its invitation to make a big decision. But all big decisions live or die by a whole series of little decisions – and over the following 2 weeks I’ll walk us through those little decisions that are big! By January 23, if you’ve given us 15 days, I believe you’ll be glad you invested the energy, to give Jesus and a serious, joyful faith a chance.

It's not about becoming perfect: forget that! It's not about knowing everything; you may well harbor nagging questions - intellectual questions, or profoundly emotional, personal questions - that keep you at some distance from God. I will offer myself entirely to you in person or online to try to wrestle with you on these - and to help us see we don't have to have every answer before we can follow. Every relationship has its questions and uncertanties - but we still love.

And Why Jesus? Spirituality takes countless forms, so why bother with a guy who lived 2000 years ago, and is much derided in bestselling books and movies these days? I will try to share primarily my own personal story of why I care about Jesus, why my whole life is about at least trying to follow Jesus - why I love Jesus. I'm just asking you to hang with me, be open, grow, grapple, dig, reflect, take the time to do Revival2011 with me.

It’s the Work of Christmas, and now it begins. It will be some work, for you to come, or catch our online versions! – and the result will be that music in the heart you might have been missing all these Christmases and New Years.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Train

Somehow, through the seemingly prehistoric technology of "slides" (later scanned into digital), I have a photo of me, five years old, on Christmas morning 1960, with my prized Lionel train. Like many children, I loved that train, added a few cars and signal crossings for a few years, then forgot about it. But that train made a stunning reappearance, one that brought a healing Santa never had in mind when it was first delivered.

Eleven years ago I was pecking at my computer keyboard, in the throes of trying to devise a sermon for the Sunday prior to Christmas. My week was slipping by, nothing was happening amid the sprawl of books and much grimacing. My five-year old son, Noah, kept playing in the room, showing me toys, grabbing at my arm, making bizarre noises.

Finally (and it is embarrassing to tell you what happened next) in exasperation I said, “Son, you just have to get out of here; dad has so much work to do.” Noah responded very calmly, but with words that worked some violence in my soul: “Okay, daddy, I’ll leave. I don’t mean to annoy you.” As I turned to see him walking out, I saw myself walking away from that same spot, but 39 years earlier.

I shut off the computer and my foolish busy-ness, went into the attic, and pulled out two grey “Red Ball” moving boxes. Inside were wads of newspaper – the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated October 14, 1964. A huge photo of Nikita Kruschev, a box score with Johnny Unitas’s stats, an ad for a Rambler. Nestled in the crumbling paper were chunks of metal track, then a caboose, an engine, a cattlecar – the Lionel train set that had rested untouched in various storage rooms and attics for some sad number of years.

Midway through connecting some of the track, Noah ambled into the room. His eyes flew wide open: “Daddy, what is this?” “This was my train, when I was a little boy, like you – and now it’s our train, together.” He was duly impressed, and after a few minutes, he exclaimed, “This is the coolest toy ever. I bet this train cost a hundred dollars!” I was tempted for 1.3 seconds to calculate the value of those Lionel cars at auction – but instead I told the truth: “Oh no, son. It didn’t cost a hundred dollars. It was free.”

Like my son walking away, we “mourn in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” Thank God that God is never busy, never annoyed. And what he gives us costs light years more than a hundred dollars. What he gives us costs so much that it really is free. God gives us no “thing.” God gives himself, on the floor with children of all ages, those who are nice and those who are naughty and those who are a messy but beautiful mix of both. God pokes us with a little finger, with a cry. And the wonder of it was described once by Barbara Brown Taylor:

“His name is Emmanuel – the God who is with us – who is made out of the same stuff we are and who is made out of the same stuff God is and who will not let either of us go.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Closeness. We crave closeness, emotionally and spiritually – but not always. Somebody I don’t know that well gets in my personal space, and I edge back. But the one I love? the one I want to be loved by? I want to get as close as possible.

I think Christmas is nothing more or less than God’s desire to be close to me, to you, to us. We can fairly easily conceive of God as some kind of distant power that made the universe happen. Or – sadly – we harbor a Santa Claus view of God, a jolly guy far far away who does show up once in a great while to give us things we’ve wanted (or need), but then he doesn’t stay, he zooms back to the North Pole. In fact, Christmas (ironically!) may be to blame for our bland, convenient, un-close view of God.

This must grieve God’s heart: we believe in God, but we’ve never let God get close. Somehow I have this funny photo of my mother taking me to Santa when I’m one year old – and I’m terrified; the Santa in question does seem a bit grim... I like this, though, because we should be quite terrified at the prospect of God-as-Santa, that we’re on our own until we think up a request, and then we pray (letter to Santa…) and hope God delivers.

If God merely delivered – even if God always delivered everything on our list! – how tragic would it be? You might be satisfied with a big pile of things, and making your life happen on your own – but I find a hollow place in me nothing in this world can fill. I find my mind stretching beyond the visible. I find my heart yearning for more love than all those who love me can muster. I know I must be part of something larger than me or even the best life I can arrange. I know that whenever I die it won’t have been long enough. God has planted in me a tangle of confused feelings that all add up to a need to be close to God – even if I forget that and get tricked into thinking one more gadget, one more achievement, one more relationship will be enough.

We’re planning this modern day Revival2011 – and what it’s really about is getting close to God, asking God to stay, to stick close, to love, and be loved. Skeptics get puzzled by Christianity, but I would think we might quite naturally gravitate to the love we desperately want. God wanted to get close.

How close? God stepped down, and became quite small, and vulnerable – and stepped down into a young mother’s arms. What is more beautiful, or tender, than a mother cradling her newborn? She hold him strongly but gently; she sings audibly but not loud enough to awaken him; time stands still, and all the wonder of the universe is concentrated in that very small spherical space of her arms around the small boy. All is calm, all is bright.

That is how close God wants to be to you. Can you take a big step toward God in Christ? Can you become small, humble, and let yourself be held, in the quiet calm? Don’t you cherish the possibility of such love from a God you really hope will stay?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Not Embarrassed to Talk about God

A while back I posted a blog about Dorothy Day - but didn't mention one of her most intriguing thoughts: "If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."

Christians talk about lots of things, and even express their admiration for their church or a mission activity (or occasionally even the preacher!) quite readily. But do we say much about God?

In yet another blog a while back, I shared my jittery concern with the state and future of faith, echoing the sentiments of Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian) who says we aren't against God at all, but our faith is not very robust - and God rarely is thought of or mentioned. She says that for the life of faith to be vital, we need to talk, and listen, and listen and talk, about God with others.

Can we begin a few conversations about God? The fear, I know, is we will embarrass ourselves, or somebody else; I don't have a scintillating story, or Frankly I'm confused about God, or I know a little about the Bible but not much - or conversely we might turn the volume up too high, with I had a vision of heaven, or Jesus spoke to me just a few minutes ago, or I've learned to pray constantly even during tedious business meetings.

Maybe our God talk is like children's coloring: there may be lines but they don't really matter, and all drawings are lovely. We say something about our sense of God, our wonderments, the shadows and the light - and it gives someone else permission to share, and we hear ourselves and others saying something about God. Say you're confused; I'll guarantee you your listener is too. Say something positive you've felt or known; your listener probably needs a glimmer of hope. Probably, what God wants most is quite simply to be spoken of, to be noticed, to be a topic of some importance.

At our Church we're planning a modern day Revival early in January (watch for details): one goal will be to free us up to say something about God, and to listen to others, to grow together.

Maybe we practice over dinner, or on the phone, or in an email... Dorothy Day, after all, achieved a fair amount simply because she was never embarrassed to speak of God.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I’m already tired, and December doesn’t really begin until tomorrow. In Sunday’s sermon, I tried to talk about time – and how it’s like some rambling freight train picking up too much speed… and it’s full of just everydayness, which winds up not feeling very… full. Groceries to be bought, stuck in traffic, folding laundry, picking up a prescription, a dull meeting, scurrying off to a party you feel like you need to go to, vaccuming – and you look up and 5 days, or 5 weeks, or 5 years have just whooshed by.

We need more, we want something richer, more profound, some real love, a purpose – and we think that until we get out of that everydayness, that dull routine, we’ll never find what we’re looking for. Maybe we go online, check Facebook, listen for the ding of a text message, and we look, maybe out of habit, maybe hoping that what we really are needing but haven’t gotten just yet might just be in there somewhere.

The presents are coming! as are the guests, the parties, even the sweet Church activities. But will it be enough? Empty nesters miss their children, and the grieving miss their spouses, as do heartbroken, ditched lovers – and what we miss really isn’t something so profound or fantastic, but the everydayness, just sitting on the couch, washing the dishes, that kiss goodnight, hollering “Can you roll the recycling out?” – and maybe we can realize that life is the everydayness, that the love and meaning are in that everydayness or nowhere.

No grand journey around the world or to a resort, no perfect party with fantastic people, no sizzling gift, climbing Mt. Everest, nothing actually is sufficient to provide the fullness we seek. Partly, God wired us this way, so it might dawn on us that we crave something beyond, that we aren’t just cockroaches or squirrels; but also that we might learn, mysteriously, to find God in the everydayness.
The best thought in my sermon I stole from George Ragsdale’s sermon earlier in the morning – but turned out he’d stolen it from another preacher… Once upon a time we clergy spent Saturday nights running bulletins on mimeograph machines, which were maddeningly difficult to use, and you couldn’t avoid an hour of retyping, or the telltale ink all over your hands and shirtsleeves. One older minister recalled one exasperating effort, and in his chagrin hollered at God, “You called me into the ministry to do this???” Then he noticed that the maddening mimeograph machine was perched on top of the church’s old, no longer used Communion table. Carved into the wood were these words: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The everydayness. Can we notice what it’s resting on? Can we let a little voice whisper into our ear, every time we’re fumbling with a to-do list or hauling out the garbage or running late in the carpool or picking up a neighbor’s mail or … whatever we might be doing – “Do this in remembrance of me”? Maybe that’s the coming of Christ during Advent. Mary, after all, had to sweep the floor, she had to stack little bits of wood for a fire to cook supper, she rocked her baby and wipe his brow when he had a fever, her arms ached as she squeezed out the laundry – and she probably forgot from time to time that she was doing it for Christ. Advent is the season to remember, and to notice, or else the gale force wind of the month will leave us frazzled and for yet one more year it will end and we will have missed it.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I’m encouraging readers to remember special people who have made life lovely, who made us feel loved, who taught us to love and give us good reason to love God. My mind gravitates to my grandparents, Mama and Papa Howell. I can announce with total objectivity that they were the finest, most loving and wonderful grandparents any child has ever had. If you want to contend with me on behalf of your own, I should warn you that I will never concede – and simultaneously suggest that instead of arguing with me you should simply fall on your knees and give thanks to God.

There is a profound theological meaning in people like grandparents or your parent’s home town, if you are blessed to know such loveliness. I spent most summers (all summer! – what could they have been thinking when they took me and my sister in?) and Christmases in Oakboro, a little town with one traffic light (with the colors upside down) you reach by driving through Locust, hang a right at Frog Pond, bear left at Big Lick, and you are there. My grandparents were poor, uneducated people, yet dignified, devout in the best possible way, solid, admired citizens – but none of that really matters. They loved me.

When I would be deposited on their step, they would rejoice, and sweep me up in loving arms. When I would leave, they appeared to be sad. My grandfather had this little liturgy of departure: we would be stashed in the car, my dad would back out of the driveway, and begin to accelerate toward that lone traffic light down the road. As if suddenly remembering what he’d forgotten, Papa Howell would hurry toward the car, imploring us to stop. I would roll down the window, he would reach in his pocket, and press into my palm a 50¢ piece. In those days, my monthly allowance was 50¢, so I needed a little money – but I never ever spent a single one of those precious gems. To this day, when I stand in a line and a priest presses a piece of bread into my hand, I recall the gift of Papa Howell. He was giving me money, in a way – but really he was giving himself, he wanted me to be able to clutch a piece of him with me when I was far from him. Jesus must have had the same idea in mind when he thought up little pieces of bread that are really just bread, and yet they become for us the Body of Christ, and we are healed, and renewed.

I learned the meaning of theological vocation from him, although no one used hifalutin terms like “theological” or “vocation.” He was a rural mail carrier, and he let me ride with him from time to time. He was put on earth to deliver the mail, as if on a mission from God, dispensing kindness with the mail, handing out chewing gum and crackers to children, delivering medicine and groceries along with postal packages, stopping at times to pray with persons along the way. He could perhaps have landed a better job somewhere else; but he had a keen sense of his crucial place in the functioning of his small hometown.

Now I have his desk, his mail pouch, a few 50¢ pieces, and his Bible – just things, but they carry him with me through life decades after his passing. How did he pass, you ask? The night is still clear in my mind: the telephone rang – one of those “burglar alarms of the heart,” as John Irving aptly described such calls. My dad, or perhaps my mother, shook us out of bed. Hurry! Now! – he’s very ill. We piled into the car and drove hard for hours, silently, along the road we had traversed so many times filled with joyful anticipation. Not long after dawn, we finally pulled up in front of the house. We just sat, as if paralyzed, as my father turned off the car, opened the door, and somberly walked up to his brothers and sisters, who were standing under the giant oak tree where we had all played and churned ice cream a hundred times. My sister and I could not hear what was said, but we saw my dad and his siblings fall on each other’s shoulders, and they cried out loud.

In that moment we children learned that life is precious, that love is intense, that a life could matter so much. There is a beauty hidden in grief. Love unfailingly plunges you into excruciating agony, but we would not think for a moment of loving any less. By analogy we could say “God’s love is like that,” and so it is. God’s love costs God and costs us everything, and tears are shed. But the Gospel is not merely illustrated by this moment of my grandfather’s death. God was under those trees and in my gut, as God is always palpable when God’s children suffer but manage to stand and take another breath. In a grown man’s sobbing we overhear God’s own lament. In a child’s stricken agony we are enveloped by the heart of God.

Mama Howell lived a few sad years past his death, through days of illness, pain, and I think much loneliness despite the tender care of family. Papa and Mama Howell live in me; they are the grace of God rippling through my vascular system, populating my head with happy thoughts, girding me to believe in myself. Recollection of grace can do that to you. Under that same old oak tree where my father and his brothers wept, we used to churn ice cream in the gathering afternoon shade. Mama Howell would prepare her milk, peach, chocolate, sugar concoction, my sister would carefully shimmy chunks of ice down into the perimeter of the churn, lacing the ice with salt, and Papa Howell would sit on a little wooden chair and turn the crank. Filled with expectation, I was surprised, eager, a little hesitant, when Papa Howell summoned me to the task: “Whew, I’m getting’ a little tired… James, come over here and help me.” He hoisted me over his knee and into his lap, and I cockily grasped the handle, and pushed with all my might. His hand rested on mine, strongly, helping in that gentle way that you don’t notice until you’re grown, turning, turning, turning again, the voice of praise right in my ear, “Good job, good job.”

Seminary taught me formal prayers to unfurl in a hospital room, but my grandfather taught me how to be a faith healer. When I would get the hiccups, my aunts, uncles, and cousins would ply me with foolish remedies until he arrived home. “Hiccups? I know just the thing.” He would lift me up, and situate me on his lap, facing forward, straddling his legs – and then he commenced with a voodoo of taps and bumps from his fingers and fists up and down my back, a pattern of here, there, harder, softer… and the cure worked every time. His cure worked, I now know, because I had faith in the healer. Somewhat hilariously, I found myself years later, knowing precisely what to do when my own children complained of their inevitable hiccups. A spoonful of sugar? Holding your breath? Sipping water upside down from a glass? I waved off such ineffectual antidotes, and confidently placed my children on my lap, back toward me, and began the patterned thumps. Hiccups cured! – and I would tell them I learned this medicine from Papa Howell. If my children have their own children one day, I trust they will know what to do.

Laughter regularly rang through the house – and out of doors. Papa Howell took his young son-in-law Johnny hunting. Some doves flew overhead, Papa Howell aimed, and shot – and the doves kept flying, prompting him to announce to Johnny, “Did you see that miracle? Those dead doves I killed just flew away!” We missed some of his funniest material, since in attempting to tell something humorous he would laugh so hard we couldn't understand him.

Mama Howell was holy in her own different way. She hummed and occasionally whistled old hymns as she cooked, swept, knitted or rocked. Although they were poor, she dressed every day, and took great pride in her jewelry, hats, and shoes. And yet when my sister and I would get into her closet and dress up, she never seemed to mind. Her room was adorned with Degas prints: those pretty, elegant ballet dancers. She knew and appreciated beauty, although she could not afford many beautiful things. Her real treasures, we at least believed, were her grandchildren.

One day my sister and I had a little contest in that room with the Degas prints. We climbed onto her old sewing machine, the kind with a flat pedal that operated the needle, to see who could make it go up and down the fastest. Jann went first, and pedaled rapidly, the needle whirring away. My turn came, and I pressed even harder, the needle a mere blur. Not to be outdone, she shoved me off the bench and began bicycling the thing herself even more recklessly – and then we heard the piercing of an unanticipated voice behind us: “Children?” We turned, mortified. If your parents catch you doing such things, you ar e scolded and punished. But it was Mama Howell, and she knew precisely what to do with such hoodlums: “Children? I just pulled some peach cobbler out of the oven; don’t you want to come get some?” And there was always room at her small table for one more – a passerby who happened to be in the yard around mealtime, a cousin at loose ends, a laborer with time on his hands.

And there were others in Oakboro: my great grandmother who was spry and funny into her late 90’s, my Down syndrome cousin Sharon who was always seemed to be the happiest of us all in that she was content with a few shiny coins in a cheap purse, my Uncle Famon who raised cows, pigs and chickens, and my Aunt Zonia. I suppose my grandparents wearied of me at times, so I would get farmed out to others in town, and I loved staying with my great Aunt Zonia. I’m unsure how an orthopedist would diagnose my aunt, but her hands were gnarled, underdeveloped somehow, fairly useless, awkward. You would think, “Oh, those are not good hands, they must be a problem.” One night, a stiff fever and awful nausea laid me low. In my misery, Aunt Zonia stayed with me all night long, and with her twisted fingers she took a cold cloth and wiped my brow. She could have held back, thinking “Oh, my hands are bad hands, I wish I had soft, supple fingers instead of these cramped digits.” But she took my small hands in her hands as best she could, and she didn’t let go.

As a little boy, I discovered another hidden beauty in her hands. Returning home from the grocery store, she couldn’t carry the bags into the house. She really needed me. No pretending: I was important at Aunt Zonia’s house. I had a skill that made a difference. An odd quartet of hands the two of us shared: I could serve this woman who had served me. Years passed, and she phoned me from the hospital. I found her in intensive care, where she lay with a brain tumor, not expected to live long at all. Proud that I had grown up to be a man of the cloth, she asked “Will you preach my funeral? and will you pray for me?” I took her hands, or perhaps it was she who took mine, and we prayed. We offered her up to God.

When I think back on the meaning of my life with my grandparents, and in that unbeatably glorious town of Oakboro (which might not strike you as much at all), I am grateful to God beyond all measure for Papa Howell, and for Mama Howell. Have I idealized them? Probably – but what’s wrong with that? And how many lovely moments have I forgotten? And I do believe this, which I have written in a book coming out soon: “If you are lucky like me, you have fond memories of summertime junkets to the home of your grandparents. For me, it was a house that is factually small now when I drive by as a grownup – but as a child it was large, large in love, large in special treats, large in cousins and fun, another home, one without problems or homework or chores, a special place of a more unconditional kind of love. Does God give us such places in our memory so that we will learn to desire the home for which God destines us when this life is over?”

And if the God I believe in, the same one Mama and Papa Howell believed in, is to be trusted, then we will all be together again, in that home that will be better than any idealized dream we might fathom.

Monday, October 25, 2010


There are only a small handful of people on this planet I love more than I love my books. And I adore even the difficult ones, those described by Mark Helprin as “hard to read, that could devastate and remake one’s soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule.” But the worst kick I’ve received from any book in quite a long time came from Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian – depressing, alarming, with the feel of what it must be like when the doctor says “It’s malignant and there’s little chance of a cure,” and you knew it all along but had let yourself fantasize that everything would really turn out to be okay.

Dean teaches at Princeton, and is smiling in all her photos; but she's not making me smile. Her book runs 250 pages, but the diagnosis could be captured in something as short as a blog. On the very first page the bell tolls: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith – but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school. One more thing: we’re responsible.”

I knew that, but kept deceiving myself that maybe teenagers have a robust faith they just don’t put on display, sort of the way they don’t tell you about the inner workings of their minds, and don’t reveal the complexities of their relationships. But Dean has done the research, and I’ve followed up by asking a few teenagers myself, and it’s plain as day: teenagers aren’t against religion at all. But when asked to give an account of what Christianity is, they fumble, stumble… and the basic sense they have of the rich treasure that is the Scripture and two millennia of rich theological tradition and practice is that Christianity is about being nice, feeling good about yourself, and perhaps being able to call upon God for assistance in the occasional emergencies of life.

That’s pathetically thin – and yet Dean says this is what parents either believe themselves, or it’s the most parents have been able in their shyness to put on exhibit for their children; and she claims this is what the churches have trumpeted as well, through a long diet of vapid sermons, youth group programs about hip topics like “friendship,” and a hollow round of Church activities that are more about being nicely busy than about anything courageous or radical. We are close, but only “almost Christian.”

Dean’s studies have turned up a paltry few – perhaps as high as 8% of all teenagers – who have a lively faith, pray regularly, read a Bible and have a sustainable spirituality. But for the rest, God, holiness, prayerfulness, and the Bible simply are not on the radar screen. Partly they have lived with screens: they are wired, connected, on Facebook and texting, with ever attenuated attention spans and no exposure to the quiet of contemplation or the absorption in the printed Word of God. Partly they simply have witnessed the most superficial faith imaginable in churches and their homes.

The gloomy failure of a generation of parents and their churches to do better is exasperating. I suspect we thought that by some mysterious osmosis kids would soak up faith, or be sharper at the life of faith than we are (the way they are more internet savvy than we). Or we imagined that if we simply deposited them in a Sunday School room on the Sundays we happened to be in town, and sent them to youth group, and on the occasional mission trip, all would be well.
What teenagers have no clue about is the kind of thick, deeply meaningful life of faith that understands the curious strangeness of God’s way that doesn’t sit well with our culture, or the delights of being still and contemplating the wisdom of life, or living close to the heart of God in a way that can bring comfort and hope during crises or more chronic agonies, or the vision of who we are as creatures fashioned in the image of God and what that means for our identity and how we interact with others.

This makes me brutally sad, and I simply have to stop looking at Almost Christian, and writing this blog, or driving by the local high school – where I feel I should stop and co-opt that loud speaker system and issue a grievous apology for the failure of the church to do better. We have left our beloved children empty-handed, sending them out into the world with quick brains but hollow souls. We need to apologize to ourselves: no wonder we are so weary, so confused, so angry. We’re “almost Christian,” and therefore miss the real thing.

I try to remind myself that Dean’s title, Almost Christian, comes from a sermon John Wesley preached. He was discouraged but not at all defeated. His whole purpose in preaching the thing was to persuade people to get busy about the endeavor to become “altogether Christian, not an “almost Christian.” Perhaps there is still hope – but we had better get active, right now, with our own reading and prayer, not thinking we will out-entertain the entertainment culture, but offer a vital if bizarre alternative, and decide we will be the kind of people Wesley described – those who can cry out, “My God, my All!”

Wesley’s questions are daunting: “Do you desire nothing but God? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? As Christ loved you?” Until we can answer these questions, we have to knuckle under in shame to the doctor’s sad diagnosis: it’s malignant, and the way we are going we have no hope. But “with God nothing is impossible” – so even in this funk Dean has put me in, I believe in miracles. I wonder if we can tackle this – or be seized by the sorry truth of where we are – and let today become the beginning of something new and vital? It's not too late for the younger children, is it? and God can really redeem any of us, teens, parents, churches?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


With the avalanche of books, blogs, and webinars on leadership, why read one more offering by a rabbi/family therapist who’s been dead for 14 years? Because even in its cobbled together state (the author died before finishing it!), Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix is wise and peculiar, hopeful and iconoclastic, and you can learn not only about leading but also about your personal life as an unanticipated benefit. If thinking about your psychic place in your family of origin and the impact of this on how you lead seems intriguing, and if contemplating your own inner balance versus the demands of the moment is appealing to you, if you think emotional maturity might help you get "imaginatively unstuck," then read on.

Friedman, the author of the much- and rightly-beloved Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, was a genius at applying family systems theory to the life of institutions. Late in life he decided to write about leadership “in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety.” We are an anxious people in a stressed culture that demands quick fixes. But leaders miss their opportunities and true calling by “trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results.” Indeed, “there exists throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amid the raging anxiety-storms of our time. It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society – a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes. It is my perception that this leadership-toxic climate runs the danger of squandering a natural resource far more vital to the continued evolution of our civilization than any part of the environment.”

What might this natural resource be? It is the leader herself, or himself: “The way out requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader’s own presence and being.” Friedman can talk about the “maturity” or personal wisdom of the leader as a person, not as a leader: “Children rarely succeed in rising above the maturity level of their parents and this principle applies to all mentoring, healing, or administrative relationships.”

The leader is the one who must recognize the emotional forces at play, not only in a given company, but in society at large: “Sabotage comes with the territory of leading, whether in a family or an organization.” The leader’s “capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is – that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals – is the key to the kingdom. Contemporary leadership dilemmas have less to do with the specificity of given problems, the nature of a particular technique, or the makeup of a given group than with the way everyone is framing the issues.”

The issues that make or break us are not technical or even corporate, but inner, and emotional. Like addictive families, we tend to be driven by problems and the dysfunctional. We are all familiar with the way “the most dependent members of any organization set the agendas… thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.” What we fail to attend to is the process of “individuation,” personal growth, especially in leaders, who typically “rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive.” Not surprisingly, we have an “obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction and turns professionals into data-junkies and their information into data junkyards,” and so we misconstrue the “relational nature of processes.”

Friedman seeks the “well-differentiated leader,” one who can “focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others. By well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat…although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others.”

Staying above this emotional swirl sounds a bit lonely, and it is: “A leader needs the capacity not only to accept the solitariness that comes with the territory, but also to come to love it.” But it isn’t real loneliness; in fact it is all about where you are connected emotionally, and how. Friedman, as a family therapist, understands that “to the extent leaders are successful in their differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over to their functioning in the organizations (or families) which they lead.” I cannot recall reading anything in any leadership book or blog about self-differentiation in one’s family of origin! Indeed, Friedman noted that “it certainly has not been my experience in working with imaginatively stuck marriages, families, corporations, or other institutions that an increase in information will necessarily enable a system to get unstuck. And the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data…Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”

Leaders do not wish to be “imaginatively stuck”! Breaking out into new life isn’t about more information or better technique. Rather, hope is all about better questions, uncertainty – and long, hard labor. “The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information. Perseverance can also perpetuate a fix. In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience. When families get fixed on their symptoms – abuse, alcoholism, delinquency, marital conflict, or chronic physical illness – rather than on the emotional processes that keep those symptoms chronic, they will recycle their problems perpetually. The same is the case when an entire society stays focused on the acute symptoms of its chronic anxiety. For there is no way out of a chronic condition unless one is willing to go through an acute, temporarily more painful phase.”

Indeed, for leaders who are “led hither and yon from crisis to crisis” but wish to lead differently, “there is no quick fix for avoiding a quick fix.” To begin, the leader must forget about the prized virtue of “empathy.” “It has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those others to be more self-aware, that being more understanding of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for their being. Ultimately, societies, families, and organizations are able to evolve out of a state of regression not because their leaders ‘feel’ for or ‘understand’ their followers, but because their leaders are able, by their well-defined presence, to regulate the systemic anxiety in the relationship system they are leading.”

Friedman devotes space to the well-known problem of emotional triangles – and surprisingly, they are not all bad for the leader: “Emotional triangles thus have both negative and positive effects on leaders. Their negative aspect is that they perpetuate treadmills, reduce clarity, distort perceptions, inhibit decisiveness, and transmit stress. But their positive aspect is that when a leader can begin to think in terms of emotional triangles and map out in his or her mind (or even better, on paper) diagrams of the family or organization, such analysis can help explain alliances and the difficulties being encountered in motivation or learning. This in turn can help the leader get unstuck by changing emotional processes and becoming more objective about what is happening. Identifying triangles is also useful in evaluating the maturity of family members or coworkers.”

All such changes are hard, and require the calm, differentiated self of the leader: “As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.”

The shift Friedman envisions is away from “old world superstitions” (such as ‘The key to successful leadership is understanding the needs of their followers,’ ‘Communication depends on one’s choice of words and how one articulates them,’ ‘Consensus is best achieved by striving for consensus,’ ‘Hierarchy is about power’) to a “new world orientation,” in which a leader’s major effect on his or her followers has to do with the way his or her presence (emotional being) affects the emotional processes in the relationship system; a leader’s major job is to understand his or her self; communication depends on emotional variable such as direction, distance, and anxiety; stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others; hierarchy is a natural systems phenomenon rooted in the nature of protoplasm.”

So Friedman is all about a new kind of self in the leader, an inner strength that is hardly dependent on technique, information, or even the particular challenges of the company being led. Interestingly, in a Democracy, and certainly in religious institutions, there is a wariness of the strong personality. Jim Collins (Good to Great) suggests that corporate vitality does not hinge on the charisma and personal greatness of the leader; in fact, he and others suspect that the strong personality might prove to be counter-productive. Friedman could not disagree more. He certainly would eschew a sick personality that only appears to be ‘big’ on the outside. But the healthiest, strongest personality possible is the leader’s best gift to the organization. “The expression of self in a leader is what makes the evolution of a community possible.” Institutional problems “are not the result of an overly strong self in the leader, but of a weak or no self. Democratic institutions have far more to fear from lack of self in their leaders and the license this gives to factionalism (which is not the same as dissent) than from too much strength in the executive power.”

This is my summary of Friedman’s very wise, if disjointed, book – disjointed because others had to weave together notes and unedited pages into the final whole. But the unusual approach, and deep wisdom, of A Failure of Nerve is hopeful, I believe.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blogs, Blogs and Books

The term "blog" makes me giggle, or run through rhymes in my head (fog, frog, smog, bog, dog, flog, hog, slog...), and I would never dub myself a "blogger." But this is a blog, and I have others. Sometimes I write for Duke's Faith & Leadership - and they went "live" (that's the cool blog jargon, I believe) with one today on Inability and Leadership (my specialty); I love the very unleaderly title - "We do not know what to do..."

I also am running a non-blog blog - on heroes of the faith. Our Church is studying great heroes, and I send out emails raising questions and issues from their lives - so I use this other blog for a basic bio and some pix. Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Julian of Norwich, Gandhi, and Francis so far. Fun.

My favorite thing, actually has been on this blog, but probably nobody has noticed. I read - and most onlookers add "a lot..." My book budget is absurdly high and will force me to work 5 to 8 extra years at the end of my career to make up for the money lost. When I read something long or difficult, or a bit obscure, I write up little summaries - for some of you who might not get these books read. They are listed over there on the left - Hamlet's Blackberry (a wise reflection on technology), a new biography of Francis Asbury, a review of Bart Ehrman lamely speaking of evil, a Christian commentary on Leviticus (think about it...), a book on serpent imagery, one on women disciples of Jesus, etc. I hope you'll browse some of these and find them beneficial.

The other night one of my children laughed when I knew all the answers to my teenager's study sheet for medieval and Renaissance history. "Oh, daddy, you know so much useless information." And I do. And I would protest the notion that information must be useful. What a waste of a lovely fact or a delightful tidbit from history or art or literature or math - that it should be pressed into some use or another? It's just fun to know.

Or better: I like to think God appreciates it when we know things. God gave me, and you, a brain. Can I glorify God simply by using my brain, by thinking, knowing, remembering, reflecting, accumulating little facts and ruminating on truths that have no function except that they are intriguing, and must reside not only in my mind but even more clearly in the mind of God?

Sunday, August 1, 2010


The greatest peril to the life of faith is not skepticism, or secularism, or intellectual doubt or the confusion of options. My gravest worry is precisely what you are looking at right now: the wired screen. We are wired, constantly. For decades I could drive to another city alone, but now if I forget my cell I feel panicky; regularly I check email, and Facebook, receive and send texts… but never ask what it all means for how my brain is being reshaped, or how society is shifting inexorably in – well, in what direction?

I went to Brazil and left lots of contact options for people staying here – but why? “I’ve got to be reachable!” God must sigh, and say “Indeed, you’ve got to be reachable” – but if we are constantly peppered with titillating little Facebook posts or texts or emails or blogs or YouTubes or Netflixes (Netflices?), I suspect we flat out aren’t reachable by God. We can’t be with one another: we sit at dinner with a friend but reach for the screen in our pockets… If we can’t be with each other, how can we be with God?

Mandatory reading for any person who is wired, for any person who wants to connect with God, for anyone who harbors a sneaky suspicion we may be rambling rapidly downhill and out of control, is Williams Powers’s Hamlet’s Blackberry. Oddly I read this while I was reading Margaret Atwood’s ominous novel, Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines a society where selfhood is repressed, where freedom is no more… and it occurred to me that Powers is right in his analysis of all we are losing in our technologically-dominated way of life, unexamined, ever more wired and “reachable” – and hence unreachable by all that really matters.

Powers, like me, loves technology, and understands its many benefits; I’m in close contact with lots of people, and can find information quickly. But who are we becoming as a civilization? Powers’s analysis is accessible, funny, and profound. Free time is consumed by relating to dozens, maybe thousands of people via the screens we possess. But the price? “The more connected we are, the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live… We don’t turn inward.” What we lose is – depth.

Depth is what makes life fulfilling, and meaningful, but we become increasingly superficial. Home once was a safe haven, a refuge from the busy, frantic world – but now home is even more frantic, for at home we are never alone, and we are never just with our family or friends. We vanish into texts or Facebook, and do not sit and reflect, reminisce, or simply be with one another.

The costs in the workplace are estimated into tens of billions of dollars, as employees flit from email to email, lose focus, and frankly use work time answering personal emails and texts, and surfing sites. The greatest cost is to our sense of self. Powers suggests that our only philosophy now is “It’s good to be connected, it is bad to be disconnected.” “Out there” trumps “in here” every time, and most sadly, our sense of worth is now hinged to whether we receive communications – or not. “The digital medium is a source of constant confirmation that, yes, you do exist and you do matter. However, the external validation provided by incoming messages… is not as trustworthy or stable as the kind that comes from inside. We are forced to go back and ask, ‘Who’s read my post? Who’s paying attention to me now?’”

Powers calls this “needy outwardness,” a far cry from our ancestors’ ability to be alone, to enjoy solitude, to reflect, to become wise, to love, to be present to those with whom we really are present, and who ultimately matter. Do we prefer screens to real people? How might we be people of faith or goodness in such a wired world where we have to “check Facebook,” or can be interrupted by a mere phone vibration?

Powers rifles through history to excavate some ancient wisdom, from Socrates taking a walk outside the city walls (our need for some space, some distance, some down time away), to Seneca’s counsel that we find seclusion even in a crowd, from the advent or printing with Gutenberg and the virtues of private rumination, to Shakespeare’s feelings about little erasable tablets that were all the rage (and the virtues nowadays of jotting down our own thoughts instead of merely absorbing those of others). The chapter on Thoreau is stellar: Thoreau went into the woods to avoid “quiet desperation” in a world that just discovered the telegraph and train. He noted how “we become tools of our tools,” and the way that “when our inward life fails, we go more constantly to the post office” – to look hopefully for a telegraph message! How prophetic of our digital age! Thoreau wrote, by Walden pond, “The man who goes desperately back to the post office over and over to check for a telegraph message is a man who hasn’t heard from himself in a long while.”

Hamlet’s Blackberry includes some simple suggestions: observe an Internet Sabbath, an unconnected day each week. If you are with someone and they reach for their iPhone, simply say “Would you put it aside? I want to be with you.” Work with your hands out of doors; write – on paper, with a pen; cook, commit to two disconnected hours daily, go out and look up at the stars. Trust yourself; go deeply into yourself, or a great book – or the beautiful silence of the world.

I would say read a Bible, close your eyes and pray. The question God asks is, Are you reachable? By being perpetually reachable, we are unreachable – at least by what genuinely matters. The alternative is to wind up like the sorry citizens of Gilead in Handmaid’s Tale, our freedom and joy sacrificed on the altar of a thoughtless conformity to the digital wave.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


While I can feel sympathy for clergy who have lost their faith, I do have a few questions for them, more for their professors in seminary, a handful for Daniel Dennett, and a couple of very basic ones for Solange de Santis. It was the journalist, de Santis, who has just now covered the publication of “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, co-authored by Dennett. Five clergy are studied, and a high percentage of them silently carry an awful secret that would destroy their careers or families. Privately they nurse a shocking disbelief that causes them immense agony and loneliness. To one, God is a poetic human invention. For another, seminary “blew apart” his faith, when he realized there were diverse viewpoints about God. One discovered that what he learned about the historical origins of the Bible doesn’t fit what was taught in Sunday School. Another read a little, and stumbled upon the fact that there are variations in the ancient copies of the Bible, and he wonders if they picked the right one.

I know the loneliness and pain of the clergy, and hard questions that riddle the life of the soul. But I am totally puzzled by this report of de Santis, and these five clergy. Who trained these clergy in seminary? and have they done any reading since seminary? The questions they raise are old, and wisely reflected upon, and profoundly handled by our best (and even our middling) theologians. The Church has always known, for 2000 years, that there has always been diversity within Christianity – which is its beauty: God’s work isn’t a straitjacket, but God is flexible, and doesn’t mind being apprehended a bit differently by me and my neighbor, much less a Terra del Fuegian or a Russian Orthodox priest.

Sunday School has never done a brilliant job of probing historical origins; but Christianity has always known its historical origins, and its mixed heritage of beauty and embarrassment. We have always known there are variations in the earliest manuscripts we possess. But this is true of everything in history: we have divergent versions of the Gettysburg address, and Shakespeare’s plays; encounters between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra are notoriously difficult to specify with historical accuracy – but they certainly were tight. I have personally looked over hundreds of textual differences among early manuscripts, and can’t find a single one that raises the slightest question about the heart of what we believe Jesus said or did.

Bart Ehrman, who has sold more books in this zone than anybody else, acts as if historical questions and textual uncertainties have just been discovered, or that the Church has locked these truths away in secret vaults in order to prop up a bogus institution. But every great theologian in every century has known about, grappled with, and understood what these five clergy somehow missed in their education and reading. I feel for their ache, but I could have recommended a couple of books that could have resolved their intellectual dilemmas.

I’m a bit startled by the superficiality of de Santis’s review of Dennett. De Santis works for The Religion News Service, and their web site claims they are “devoted to unbiased coverage” of things religious. Were I reporter on any other subject, I would ask a question like “Who is this Daniel Dennett who has conducted this research?” or “Is five a decent sampling of clergy?” Five is admittedly a small number of people to interview, but you see immediately that the low number implies masses: we asked five, and Whoa! look what we found! What if we’d interviewed hundreds?

Dennett is indeed a social scientist, but if you simply Google him, you will discover he’s a social scientist with a pointed, hostile agenda when it comes to faith. He has written often, blasting faith, and hardly in the “just the facts, ma’am” vein. I never buy conspiracy theories. But Dennett is one of quite a few authors who have jumped on a runaway bandwagon, and now they feed off one another’s popularity. I stumbled upon de Santis’s article in my local paper’s “Faith” page; clearly the “faith” story we gobble up nowadays is the loss of faith. In a country where candidates for office pander to the religious sensitivities of voters, the bestselling books in America are Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Dennett’s own Breaking the Spell, Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great, and above all else, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, in which the eminently learned Leigh Teabing unveils long hidden truths about the manufacture of the Bible, political maneuvering on the divinity of Christ, and a hush campaign about the sexuality of Jesus. The problem is The DaVinci Code is fiction, and much of what Teabing claims in the novel and movie is simply, historically, and verifiably (even to atheist historians) false (read more here!). And what is true in what these authors write is, as we have noted, old, utterly familiar to undergraduate religion students, regurgitated knowledge but cast in a sensationalist spin.

To me, de Santis might have done a bit of interviewing to understand Dennett’s sampling of five – not to find five others who would declare “I really do believe!” or “Profound theology is identical with Sunday School!” or “Doubting is evil,” but to inquire into Dennett’s agenda, and methods. Did the five clergy at some point miss something, and so instead of the implied deduction, that if even our clergy are hiding disbelief, why would those who rely upon them as guides believe? so how could there be a God? De Santis might have noticed the way texts and history and science are regarded as great friends of the vast majority of us in Christianity, not perilous foes to be feared and silenced.

Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Ehrman are wrestling with a straw man, a simplistic, twisted version of Christianity only fools would believe. David Bentley Hart (whose Atheist Delusions humorously dismantles the absurdities of Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and Ehrman) wishes Christianity’s detractors “had the good manners to despise Christianity for what it actually is” instead of a silly, trivialized, watered down version no one has ever espoused – and so do I. We do not mind hard questions, or sharp critique, or even disbelief – but at least make your assault on whom we really are, and refuse to believe in the Christianity that has withstood the test of centuries, for we want to know more, to have any and all illusions dispelled.

Being disillusioned about God or what we may have been mistaught in Sunday School is always a good thing, for to be dis-illusioned is to shed illusions. Most critics of Christianity point to the problem of suffering, and conclude “If God is good, how can there be suffering?” But we have always known about suffering, and the Church has not only caused our share of it, but we have also shared with those who suffer: we see them up close, in hospitals and in shelters we operate, on the mission field and in orphanages, and we would not have anyone labor under the illusion that God fashions some sort of protective bubble around us, or is a rapidly functioning magical salve when something hurts. Our story is about a God who actually suffered, and suffers, and we miss the true God then if we never figure out how to pair up God and suffering, for they are very close, and that is our comfort and redemption.

Or the critics point to the great harm Christianity has done in history. Indeed, we are ready to confess every sin; but have atheists ushered in peace? Hitler loathed Christianity, and Stalin wasn’t exactly a pious man. Are the mockers of a made up Christianity getting organized around this world to alleviate human suffering?

I just returned from a mission trip to Brazil, where I spent time with someone Dennett didn’t interview, and would never understand. Marion Way grew up in South Carolina, and his childhood heroes were Methodist missionaries. He learned Portuguese and offered to try to help hurting people in Angola. A civil war erupted, and he was thrown in jail and beaten within an inch of his life. When they finally let him go, instead of scurrying to safety back in the United States, he asked “Where else do they speak Portuguese?” So he and his wife Anita went to Rio de Janeiro, to live in the poorest favella in the city – in 1962. They are still there, 48 years later, humble, working, feeding children, providing medical care and job training, and all because they believe in God.
But they would not even say much about their faith. This is the real issue: the five clergy Dennett listened to spoke of “my faith.” Have I lost my faith? Does my faith work? Marion Way would be a bit mystified by this thought. He is a person of deep faith, but for him the real reality is God. It is God who saves, God who is always there, God who motivates and loves, God who survives faith or unfaith or doubt or piety or viciousness or any other turn in the history of the world.

Marion Way would know what to do with these five clergy, and even with Dennett, Harris, Ehrman, Brown, and de Santis: he would do what he does with the Brazillian children. He would smile, and hug them, and offer them a bite to eat, and say a prayer for them.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


My mood sours every July 4 - because the day set aside to recall the founding of our country is absurdly debased, and also because Jesus gets pinned on to the ugliest versions of patriotism. I just feel ill.

When our extended family is together on July 4, I attempt my annual reading aloud of the Declaration of Independence (something American families did for decades) - and even though my family is on the high end of an appreciation of history and tradition, this elicits impatient groans... It appears to me that July 4 is pretty much a day 1. to be off work, 2. to drink much beer (sales set records on this day!), and 3. wave flags and expostulate upon vapid caricatures of what America was actually created for.

The flag? The U.S. flag code stipulates that the flag is not to be worn, should not be draped over a car or truck, or used on any disposable items. Bikinis and beer mugs just don't seem very respectful to me...

Freedom of religion was a cardinal principle for the Founding Fathers - and no matter how much we try to rewrite history, the simple facts are that some of them were quite pious, and others took snide views of Christianity, Church and the clergy. But how loony is freedom of religion when it is trivialized into I will worship God any way I want to! - but how would God wish to be worshipped? Or freedom of religion becomes I'll just stay home and go swimming or sleep in or drive to the beach on a Sunday: just check the Church attendance registers for the Sunday closest to July 4 each year... Pathetic attendance, and many of the no-shows are the very people who trumpet the piety of the Founding Fathers and wistfully yearn for the day when America was "one nation under God," when Christianity reigned.

And the co-opting of Jesus onto Americana: the curiously popular painting of John McNaughton, depicting Jesus in the thick of American heroes (including some whose faith would be quite questionable...) illustrates the way we would cram Jesus into a little U.S.A. flag box and make him our own, when the real Jesus came for everybody, everywhere, and his mission didn't seem to be the spread of capitalism or the security of America or the heightening of a single country's prestige, but to lift up the downtrodden, to be a light to the nations (including America!); Jesus is more appalled than I am at the mean-spirited, divisive, absurdly angry emails that fly around, those that spew venom and feed on fear and our darkest side. I don't think the New Testament has Jesus declare "I came that you might get mad, that America might be great, and so that people who aren't doing so well might just try harder and get over it or go away."

When did the beautiful nation the Founding Fathers, who were highly educated, philosophically wise, and respectful people, conceived become a battleground of ideologies, ignorance in constant combat with ignorance, where the loudest, shrillest rancor wins the day? When did patriotism get whittled down to nothing more than anger, heady feelings about wars and weapons, and an edgy bias against people who are different? When did apathy become our true mood? and because we don't study, and care only about me and mine, little tasty sound-bytes suit and become the substitute for real political, social, and religious exploration and conversation?

I've been accused of being insufficiently patriotic by quite a few Christians - and this rankles me. I was born on an Air Force base, and my father flew in World War II.  Family vacations - when I was a child, and as I've raised my own children - have been to Washington, Boston, Valley Forge... and I am a voracious reader of American history. Not long after we returned from a trip that included a walk of the Freedom Trail in Boston, I heard a conservative defend President Bush, saying, "Never question the President, and if you do you aren't a patriot." Curious - for in Boston, colonists rose up against those who said you could never question authority. And not surprisingly, the conservatives who said "never question the President" are questioning the President constantly now that it's a Democrat in the White House. And they should! but they should also notice their own hypocrisy - and we all should recognize and appreciate the goodness of diverse viewpoints within a country where you can disagree without having to shoot one another.

Jesus - not the one swiped by liberals and conservatives in America, but the one who lived in Palestine among the poorest and mortified the powers that were - suggested we love our enemies, and touch the untouchables, and exhibit immense mercy, and live holy lives, not a cocky, prideful, prejudicial existence that feels superior only by criticizing somebody, anybody, blaming somebody, the President, anybody, waving flags while never bothering to get engaged in the real work of citizenship and community-building...

But I am rambling now. July 4 should be a lovely day of memory, history, recalling exalted ideals, and finding happy coincidences between what America was designed to be and what the Church might dream of achieving. July 4 might even be a day to show up at Church and worship God... what a radical notion!

Sunday, June 27, 2010


So our sanctuary is undergoing 6 weeks of renovations - and I could only laugh out loud when I noticed all the warning signs posted at the entryways: "Danger: Hard Hat Area." Naturally I thought of Annie Dillard's often-quoted thought from Teaching a Stone to Talk: "I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, to be sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have any idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers... and lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense..."

We had to bring in scaffolding, circular saws, and scarily heavy . equipment to render our beautiful sanctuary risky. "Oh, it's dangerous now? How long before it's safe to go back in?" I noticed the subheading on the Danger: Hard Hat Area sign - which adds Authorized Personnel Only. "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?" Psalm 24 inquires - and the reply, if authoritative for us today, would keep us all out permanently: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart."

And yet, at our denominational annual conference, we had a motion tabled - one about inclusivity. Nobody wants to talk about it: we are weary of the debate on how much inclusiveness is too much. Bizarre to me: it is precisely the necessity of clean hands and a pure heart that requires us to be utterly and uncompromisingly inclusive. Mine aren't clean or pure, and neither are yours - or anybody else's. Inside the building, the chemicals that catalyze the explosion are grace and mercy, which you never find outside a Church. So we realize what God requires, we realize we've whiffed embarrassingly - and that is precisely why we enter, trembling, hoping for mercy, needing nothing less than a transformative explosion of unseen power.

How inclusive then should we be? My small wisdom is this: if any one of us isn't welcome in Church, ever, for any reason, then none of us is ever welcome. God may wake up one day and be grossly offended we ever thought otherwise; God has already noticed, and is grieved - and wishes to strip the place, and us, down to the foundations and start over with us. Danger: Hard Hat Area.