Archive for the ‘global Christianity’ Category

Ruth Part 2

April 20, 2020

If you’re interested in my Zoom class on the biblical book on Ruth, here’s the link to all three sessions.

Bitterness and Fullness

April 2, 2020

I did a little video blog on the biblical book of Ruth for my church. It’s now posted here. The story of Naomi’s discouragement and bitterness, and the God-given factors that lifted her from them, is a word for our time.

The Invisible

March 13, 2020

These are weird times. My church voted to cancel worship services for the rest of the month. My daughter’s college (Lafayette) and my son’s K-12 schools (LA Unified School District) are closed. March madness is out. Baseball’s opening day(s), cancelled. All because of something that hasn’t happened and that we can’t see.

It feels like the moment in the alien-invasion movie when the spaceships appear on the horizon. It feels like the anticipation after a tsunami warning, scanning the ocean for big waves that may or may not appear. We believe in the threat, but we can’t see anything.

That’s the upside-down version of Christian faith. We look for something wonderful, on its way but not fully arrived. We can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreal. We’re waiting and hoping to be ready—as with COVID-19.

They Say It’s Your Birthday

March 11, 2020

I turned 70 today. That sentence has a slightly hallucinatory ring to it: how on earth can I be seventy? I woke up early and spent time praying—mostly thanking God for the gift of these years. I have so much to be grateful for! A wonderful wife. (As my friend Fred said earlier this week, “We definitely married up!”) A terrific family—particularly three kids and their spouses whom I deeply admire and love. And grandchildren! Also, almost fifty years of very satisfying work. From the time I was in third grade I wanted to be a writer, and that is what I have been.

There’s a line I love in “Babette’s Feast,” in which the opera singer says, “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” I’ve had that chance.

When you have been treated as I have been, it seems almost churlish to ask for anything. What I asked God for this morning was the ability to accept and rejoice in whatever comes next.

“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” In my threescore and ten I have seen little sorrow. Perhaps—probably—I will see more. I pray I may take whatever comes as a gift and an opportunity, whatever strange clothes it may wear, to find in the remaining years of my life an opportunity to serve and honor my Lord and my God, who loved me and died for me.

 

Choosing a Leader

December 3, 2019

About six weeks ago I preached the installation sermon for Dan Baumgartner, a long-time friend, at The Cove, a church in Santa Rosa that I know well. The topic is David’s anointing as told in 1 Samuel 16. You can listen to it here. The sermon begins at 3:07.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

December 22, 2018

Ross Douthat has a great Christmas column in today’s New York Times. He’s writing to Catholics losing heart from church corruption, but what he says applies just as well to Protestants losing heart in the era of Trump.  Douthat’s starting place is the genealogy of Jesus offered up in Matthew’s gospel. Douthat makes the point that this list is not composed of saints and heroes. Rather, “in claiming the divine is entering the world through this line of ‘murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars,’ Matthew isn’t offering some particularly Christian innovation within the larger biblical story. He’s simply picking up what his own people, the Jewish people, already said about themselves: We’re the chosen people of the one true God, and to prove it to you here’s a long story about how awful and promiscuous and murderous and fallible we are, how terrible our leaders often turned out to be, and how we deserved every exile and punishment we received.”

It’s been a tough week in America. As I wrote a British friend today: “We have been having a continual debate in this country as to who is more stupid, Brits or Mericans. Most of the time I think we are winning, but in recent weeks I believed you had pulled ahead on the stretch. However, this week it appears that you are not quite up to the stupidity of Mericans, we have a leader who can blow you to smithereens in the stupid department. So there.”

You may not share my politics, but I think we all share an understanding that these are difficult times and that our leaders are not inspiring confidence. Let us take Christmas hope from the story told in Matthew’s gospel.

What is Justice?

August 9, 2018

I preached at my church on Sunday, offering an introduction to the minor prophets, the topic of justice, and the book of Micah. Here’s the link:

 https://www.fpcsantarosa.org/2018/08/what-is-justice/

What’s Fair

July 18, 2018

I liked very much Alice McDermott’s The Ninth Hour. One of the characters is Sister Jeanne, a small, cheery nun in the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Spending every day nursing poor people in 1930s New York, she’s very familiar with suffering. Here’s what she believes about its unfairness:

Sister Jeanne believed with the conviction of an eye witness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident, and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believed this because, because (and she only possessed the wherewithal to explain this to children—trying to say it to angry or grieving or bitter adults only left her tongue-tied), because fairness demanded it.

It was, to her mind, a simple proposition. The madness with which suffering was dispersed in the world defied logic. There was nothing else like it for unevenness. Bad luck, bad health, bad timing. Innocent children were afflicted as often as bad men. Young mothers were struck down even as old ones fretfully lingered. Good lives ended in confusion or despair or howling devastation. The fortunate went blissfully about their business until that moment when fortune vanished—a knock on the door, a cough, a knife flash, a brief bit of inattention. A much-longed-for baby slid into the world only to grow blue and limp in its mother’s arms. Another arrived lame, or ill-formed, or simply too hungry for a frail woman already overwhelmed. There was a child in the next parish with a skull so twisted his mouth couldn’t close, and every breath he took, every word he spoke, even his childish laughter, rattled through dry and swollen lips. Another with a birthmark like a purple caul. Blindness. Beatings. Broken or bring bones. Accident, decay. Cruelty of nature. Cruelty of bad men. Idiocy, madness.

There was no accounting for it.

No accounting for how general it was, how arbitrary.

Sister Jeanne believed that fairness demanded this chaos be righted. Fairness demanded that grief should find succor, that wounds should heal, insult and confusion find recompense and certainty, that every living person God had made should not, willy-nilly, be forever unmade.

”You know what’s fair and what isn’t, don’t you?” Sister Jeanne would ask the sick child, the grieving orphan, Sally herself when she was old enough to understand the question. And us.

“And how do you know?”

Sister Jeanne would put a fingertip to the child’s forehead, to the child’s beating heart. “Because God put the knowledge in you before you were born. So you’d know fairness when you see it. So you’d know He intends to be fair.”

**

“Who’s the dumbest boy in your class?” she once asked us. This was in the Hempstead house where we were young. “And if the teacher’s dividing up sweets and gives him only one while everyone else gets two, what will he say? He’ll say it’s not fair, won’t he? If you call him out playing ball when everyone can see he’s safe by a mile, what will he say—dumb as he is in school? He’ll say it’s not fair, see? And how does he know? Did he learn what’s fair from a book? Did he take a test? No, he did not.”

 

 

Cheers and Amen

July 2, 2018

a year-long, 50 state adventure 

by Dean and Mindy Anderson

This may be the ultimate road trip. Dean and Mindy (friends of mine, and otherwise quite ordinary, sane, middle-aged and middle-class people) had dreamed of setting off across America in their aging van, to spend a whole year sleeping on couches, eating fast food, and visiting a church and a bar in every state in America. Cheers and Amen is the story of how they did it. It’s a cheerful, whimsical account, polite, lacking put-downs but laden with humor and healthy curiosity. In every state they asked people, “What makes a good church? What makes a good bar?” They were seeking clues to deeper questions, such as: why are so many young people disinterested in organized religion? How do we make “outsiders” feel welcome? And, what’s really going on in American churches?

Reading their book gives you ample opportunity to chew these questions over, but for me, the best part of Cheers and Amen is the chance to accompany Dean and Mindy on their journey. You get to know some unusual corners of America, such as the rescue missions in Las Vegas and New Orleans, a church that devotes its summers to feeding hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and a church that is also a gym and invites people to dance classes. Dean and Mindy didn’t go looking for the exotic in American churches (or bars) but they found some of it along the way. It’s fun to travel with them, and as you do,  you get to know two quirky, funny, unique personalities.

Religious Freedom

June 27, 2018

IMG_1146A few weeks ago I was in New Orleans for a wedding, which took place at the Old Ursuline Convent, built in 1745. The convent displayed a letter (see above) written to them by Thomas Jefferson just a year after the Louisiana Purchase.

The nuns at the convent were fearful that the barbarian Americans (mostly Protestants) who had taken power from the French would confiscate their property and put an end to their work. Jefferson answered as follows:

Washington, May 15, 1804

To the Soeur Therese de St. Xavier Farjon Superior, and the Nuns of the order of St. Ursula at New Orleans

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to it’s own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and it’s furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up it’s younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was an Enlightenment deist, and no particular friend to Roman Catholic religious life. It says something for his character that he answered the letter so civilly, reassuring the nuns on two grounds. One was the constitution, which guaranteed religious liberty. Jefferson says that the convent has the right to its physical property, and to organize its community life according to its own rules, without interference. He goes further in stating that its charitable work will ensure its support from the government, since all citizens whatever their religious point of view will appreciate it.

The sisters can rest easy because the law protects them; but they can also rest easy because their good works will be seen and appreciated by people of all persuasions. It’s a subtle response. There is perhaps some interplay between the two points: for when religious institutions are known for doing good to society, that strengthens the legal protections they enjoy. Jefferson does not say, but one can certainly think, that if the convent became so ingrown and narrow that it did no good for anybody outside the convent, the legal protections might prove to be much less robust in practice.

Today many believers (not just Christians, but Muslims too, and others) feel threatened, rather like those Ursuline sisters. Having lost the culture wars, they fear being compelled to surrender their consciences and participate fully in the reigning liberal regime. It’s no idle threat: bakers may be compelled to use their art to celebrate ceremonies they consider immoral; doctors may be compelled to oversee abortion or suicide; religious organizations may be compelled to hire staff who don’t share their beliefs. Religious people offer a strong defense, based on the American Constitution, for their right to continue their unique way of life. Some may feel that is all that needs to be said: The Constitution says it, that settles it. They would like to pursue a purely legal strategy.

But the Constitution won’t help most religious people in the world. It won’t do you a bit of good in China. And even in America, the Constitution’s protections will be far more vigorous if believers are known for contributing to the common good. I believe that we do. However, I suspect that a very strong and growing minority of Americans don’t. They don’t believe that religious institutions and religious people contribute to the common good. Therein, I suspect, lies the greatest threat to religious liberty. We should do everything in our powers to change it.