Saturday, December 22, 2012

Meditation for the “Longest Night” 2012

The "Longest Night" is a worship service at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, held on or close to December 21st, the longest night of the year.  In the service, the fact that, amidst the joy of the season, many know grief and loss and sadness, is acknowledged, marked, and inwardly digested.  What follows was my "Meditation" for this year's service.

      What to say in grief.  What to say after tragedy?  What to say amidst loss?  I suppose writing is a form of “saying” and Annie Dillard says of writing:
Write as if you were dying. At the same time assume you write for an audience consisting of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage for its triviality?1
In light of tragedy, what could I say, we say, that will not enrage by its triviality?
Many preachers seemed to revel in the trivial this week.  Their theologizing only deepened our grief.  Preachers are called to preach, but sometimes the preacher would do best to remain silent.  In light of tragedy, what could the preacher say, that will not enrage by its triviality?  It is with fear and trembling I break my silence.
We are staggered by the events in Sandy Hook.  In those events we feel (not merely observe) the evil of our world made manifest.  Falling about, unbalanced, we find ourselves praying--saying stumbling, searching, beseeching prayers.  We pray, instinctively, familiar prayers.  I found myself muttering:  
Save us in the time of trial
and deliver us from evil.
Traditionally, we pray: "Lead us not into temptation."  That phrasing, however, has troubled many followers. Does the phrase not suggest that sometimes God does lead us into temptation? The phrase was confusing enough that before the New Testament was even finished James felt it important to say:
Let no one say when tempted:  "I am tempted by God;" for God...tempts no one  (James 1:13).
Later, Latin manuscripts tried to help out by translating the petition: "Do not permit us to be led into temptation."  The prayer book’s contemporary translation of our Lord’s prayer is the one I found myself praying:  “Save us in the time of trial.”  It’s the translation we most often use at the Saturday evening worship at St. Mark’s.  
“Save us in the time of trial.”
In times of testing or trial we are called upon to prove our true identity and character, who we are and whose we are. Sometimes the temptation comes in the form of sin; other times it comes as a time of great difficulty or suffering; other times it is a life-changing moment of choice, choice between two paths, good and evil. Will we in this moment of trial be true to God? Be true to our best self?
A Jewish, evening prayer of Jesus’ day may help us understand:
Bring me not into sin, nor into iniquity, nor into temptation.  May the good inclination (yetzer hatov) hold sway over me, and let not the evil inclination (yetzer hara) have it’s way.
As in the Lord’s Prayer, we have this Hebrew idiom "lead me not" or "bring me not" into temptation; it really means "do not let me be overcome" by temptation or sin. So we pray,  “Save us in the time of trial.”  On the longest night, we pray, “Do not let the darkness overcome the light”
The first century, Jewish, evening prayer also emphasizes that in any time of trial or testing we have a choice between the good impulse and the bad impulse. We can be pulled in either direction. So we pray to stay true to God’s way, for the true self to prevail over the false self:  “Save us in the time of trial.”
To use the language of Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address, we pray for "the better angels of our nature" to prevail.
To be human is to face temptation, trial, tests.  So we pray:  “Save us in the time of trial.”
Look back at the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. They were a test of who he was and what he was called to be and do in this world.
Luke’s telling of the temptation of Jesus ends with these words:
And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time (Luke 4:13).

Evil is an opportunistic disease which waits until the right moment of vulnerability to attack. So we pray every day, all days, any day: “Save us in the time of trial.”
The tests, trials, temptations will come, some by way of the evil one, some by way of our own stumbling--but God is with us there too, even in our stumbling--some as part and parcel of the human condition. These are soul-making moments: times of spiritual formation and re-formation. We therefore pray:  “Save us in the time of trial.”
At Sandy Hook, we have looked evil in the face. We have seen the "heart of darkness."  So, the next phrase of the prayer, takes on an anguished urgency:  “Deliver us from evil.”
Or, as some manuscripts have it, "from the evil one."  Jesus recognized a malevolent power at work in the world, and he knew that apart from the power of God, we could be overwhelmed by this evil.
Sometimes the evil is within us; other times it comes from without. We pray to be delivered from the evil we would do and from what evil can do to us.  
On a very personal level, tonight, we are made acutely aware, in this liturgy, of the evil we have experienced; the tragedies inflicted upon us personally; not just those of which we have become aware via modern communication, but the way evil has done it’s work where our own eyes have seen, our own hears have heard, our own hands have felt--where evil has come close.
There is a mystery to the presence of evil in the world, a mystery we cannot explain but which enters into our world through the freedom which God has placed in the fabric of the universe, a freedom which allows the terrible and the wonderful to happen.
Evil is that which destroys life. It creates lies and thrives on falsehood and deceit.  Evil can happen when we project our inner shadow, inner darkness, onto others. We project our inner darkness onto others and do them violence.  Perhaps, this is what happened in Sandy Hook.  Perhaps, the gunman’s inner darkness was projected onto others and great violence ensued.
Evil can take hold of institutions and groups of people and cause individuals to do what they would never do as individuals, apart from the group. The New Testament calls these supra-personal powers which can be overtaken by evil "principalities and powers."  Perhaps, in the days to come, we will discover this kind of evil was at play in Sandy Hook.  Tonight, it is too early to know.  But, I know you know, from personal experience, the evil of principalities and powers.
Jesus was not naive about the power and pressure of evil. He saw the Kingdom of God laying siege to the strongholds of evil, whether that evil was in the human heart and mind, or whether it was imbedded in social systems of oppression and exploitation. No wonder the New Testament says that it was these "powers that be," the "rulers of this age" who put Jesus to death (I Cor. 2:8).
In the face of such evil, we cry, “How can we defeat such evil without becoming evil ourselves?”
One of the marks of evil is the demonization of your enemy.  This is what fundamentalist Islamic leaders have done to America. They call America, "The Great Satan." When you call your enemy Satan you are apt to justify any measure you take to defeat them. "Allah wills it," was the battle cry of 9/11. 
But remember, in 1095, Pope Urban began the Crusades, a two-hundred year war against Muslims, with the rallying cry, "Deus lo Volt!": "God wills it!"
Jesus refused the way of the Zealots of his day who called Rome "The Great Satan" and opposed it with violent measures.
Here is a distinction important to me. We can call what a person does, or group does "evil." But it is dangerous to say that person or group is evil. When we do, we are apt to do evil ourselves in order to defeat them.  We must, therefore, be careful in the face of evil.  The dangers posed are many and not all immediate nor obvious.
The bringing to justice those who do violence and harm is part of the way this world restrains evil and maintains a minimum of order and safety. Theologians have termed the system of justice and community-sanctioned violence to restrain evil "the left-hand of God."  The nature of the evil of Sandy Hook will call us to our best reasoning about the reach and the use of “God’s left-hand."
You would be right to remind us, however, that Jesus, of course, concentrated on the "right-hand of God."  "Love your enemy." he said, "Do not return evil for evil." How does this apply to Sandy Hook? I struggle to know. We will each struggle how to follow this one we call Lord.
But, perhaps, it begins as we pray our stumbling prayers. Maybe we will find ourselves praying Jesus’ prayers after Jesus: the Lord’s Prayer; or perhaps, some of the prayers he prayed on the cross. As we go through the agony of the cross of Sandy Hook, or our very personal crosses we must bear, his prayers can guide ours. Two of them come to my mind on this night:  his cry of desolation, and his prayer of relinquishment.
The honest cry of abandonment: "Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  We must be honest with God and with ourselves as Jesus was honest.  We must name before God the truth as we experience it, as we know it.  Jesus felt abandoned and he cried out:  “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
And, then, the prayer of relinquishment, "Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit." It is a prayer that relinquishes our lives and the life of the world into the hands of God, trusting in the justice and mercy of God. It "faiths" that though the darkness is great; (darkness as thick as that which engulfed Sandy Hook or as lengthy as the darkness of the longest night) that light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not put it out.
Save us in the time of trial
And deliver us from evil
we pray; then...the prayer issues into the impossible possibility of praise, doxology amid the ruins:
For thine is the Kingdom
and the power and the glory
forever and ever. Amen.

1. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 68.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in Gaelic culture.

Samhain has been celebrated in Britain for centuries. Samhain was the time of year when the veils between this world and the world to come were believed to be at their thinnest: when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living once again.

Later, when the festival was adopted by Christians, they celebrated it as All Hallows' Eve, followed by All Saints Day.

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Homily for Proper 24 Year B 2012
Jesus had a particular way of being in the world--a pouring out of himself for others. Once, referring obliquely to himself but directly to God’s plan for us all, Jesus said,
"The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

The many, not the few.

Jesus had read the suffering servant poem of Isaiah.

He was despised and rejected by others; a man suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.  Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

        He said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom.”  He trusted that God uses innocent suffering, to redeem the world.  It is not the power of the sword, but love made eloquent in suffering that transforms the human heart and saves the world.
A ransom indeed.
Jesus’ words reveal his hope, however bright or faint, that suffering, even his own suffering, might be used by God for the greater healing of the world. He said:
Greater love hath no one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend . . . .

And this:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit (John 12:24).

And this:

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many.

Welsh poet R.S. Thomas wrote, “The Coming.” In the poem, he imagines a conversation going on between God and his son.  God shows him the world, a small globe in his hand. The son looks and sees a troubled world; then he sees a bare cross and many people holding their thin arms out to it. The son says: “Let me go there.”
            At some point, at many points, I imagine Jesus having that kind of conversation with God.  And, over and over again, Jesus said, “I will go there.”  At his baptism, in the wilderness, when he saw the tide turning against him, as he turned toward Jerusalem, as he entered into Jerusalem, at Gethsemane. “I will go there,” he said.
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Service is self-expenditure for the sake of others. Jesus says the losing of self, in self-expenditure for others, is the way of finding the true self.  The Apostle Paul speaks of "spending and being spent" in Christ’s name. To follow Jesus means to take on the character of his life. This character is the giving from your plenitude into others’ emptiness, from your fullness into their need. Whatever your plenitude may be, whatever their emptiness may be. There was this way about Jesus, a pouring out of the self for others.
Jesus set the standard by placing at the heart of our faith love that takes the form of a servant.  When his disciples were jockeying for power, Jesus said:

You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve. . .

Jesus reversed the meaning of power and authority in the world.

        At the Last Supper Jesus, wrapped a towel around his waist and, taking the house servant’s role, began to wash his disciples’ feet.  He became “The Help.”  Peter protested, “Lord, you must not wash my feet!”  Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you will have no part with me.”  Peter then in headlong, unabashed devotion said, “Lord, then wash all of me, my head, my hands!”
Then after the meal Jesus said,

A new commandment I give unto you
that you love one another; even as I have loved you,
that you also love one another.   By this all
will know that you are my disciples, that you
have love for one another.

It is a love that takes a servant’s form.  The general word for “ministry” and the word for “deacon” are the same in the New Testament Greek: diakonos, literally to go through the dust, as a waiter waiting tables, as an orderly emptying bed pans, as a servant washing feet.
It is difficult for we disciples to grasp his teaching.  It is hard to hold, not because it is slippery, but because it is hot.  It burns at our touch.  We want to drop it and drop it fast.  It does not have the desired feeling.
Jesus used the metaphor of a “Kingdom” (“Empire”).  They were an occupied people, ruled by the Roman Empire.  They knew what an Empire was.  They associated Empire (Kingdom) with power.  When Jesus said Kingdom, they heard King.  They said to themselves: “And, Jesus will be King of the Kingdom.  Jesus will be Ceasar of the Empire.”  
Power.  We are drawn to power.  You want to be close to power.  Who gets to be on the right side of the King?  Who gets to stand on his left.  Who will get to be the closest to King?
In God’s Empire, when Jesus is Ceasar, who, among the disciples, will be favored?
At their jockeying for place, for proximity to power, Jesus shakes his head and says, truthfully, “you don’t know what you are asking.”
They are thinking power and authority.  But, Jesus says, I’m not talking about the Roman Empire, the Kingdom of Rome, I’m talking about the Kingdom of God.  
“Yes, yes” they say.  “We know. And, when you come into your kingdom....”
Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”  
The greatest in God’s Kingdom is very different than the Greatest in Rome’s Kingdom.  “Trust me,” he says, “you don’t want to be the greatest in God’s Kingdom.”  It is not the sort of thing anyone would want.
But, they protest, “it is what we want.”  “Give us what we want.”
Jesus, as he often does, asks another question.  He changes metaphors.  Now, he speaks of bathing in pools of water and drinking from cups of wine.  “Can you” he asked “be baptised with me?”  “Can you drink from my cup?”
They eagerly answer, “Yes.”
Jesus loves them.  And because he loves them and because he knows they don’t know that for which they are asking, he sighs.  He knows that if they follow him, it will cost them everything.  He knows if they bath where he baths and drinks form his cup, they will pay the price--not sit enthroned in splendor.  So, he sighs, and tells the truth:  “its not mine to give.”  Jesus can’t choose it for them.  They must make their own choices.  
In the recent film “Loopers,” criminals send victims back through time to be killed by hit men living in the past.  One of the hit men gets sent back in time to a younger version of himself.  But, the older version escapes “the hit.”  So, the younger version finds himself in the strange position of having to chase and kill his older self.
But, like in all time travel narratives, actions and consequences get all mixed up and are difficult to disentangle.
There is a loop of violence in the film.  They are all caught in a seemingly endless loop, not only of time, but of violence.  Murder, killing, hit men, power, victims that later become perpertrators.  How will it ever end?  It is a circle--a viscious circle.
In a moment of insight, a moment lacking in our gospel story for today (for in our story, the disciples lack insight into what they are asking), our character becomes a most unlikely Christ figure.  He realizes that he can change the seemingly endless circle--if he sacrifices himself for the others.  He realizes that, not by using violence on others, but by allowing himself to be the victim, he can end the loop.  He can make a difference, but only if he gives up power, only if he is willing to suffer, only if he will give his life.
The film plays on the theme we have before us:  To be the Master in God’s kingdom, you must be the slave.  To be the greatest, you must be the least.  To save your life, you must lose your life.  It is a paradox full of irony.
There was this way about Jesus: A pouring out of himself for others. Once, referring obliquely to himself but directly to God’s plan for us all, Jesus said,
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On Choosing an Archbishop of Canterbury

I've been asked about the process for choosing a new Archbishop of Canterbury.  One of my students in Anglican Studies this past Spring Semester dug this bit of info up for me.  Below is a summary of the process.  (Hat Tip to Robin Garr for digging this up for us). 

Announcements in the Church Times, Church of England Newspaper and The Times have started the consultation process ahead of consideration by the Crown Nominations Commission as to who will follow Dr Rowan Williams as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

Prime Minister's Secretary for Appointments
c/o Honours and Appointments Secretariat
Admiralty Arch
The Mall

Archbishops' Secretary for Appointments
The Wash House
Lambeth Palace

The Chair (a layperson) - to be appointed by the Prime Minister

A Bishop - to be elected by the House of Bishops

The Archbishop of York or, if he chooses not to be a member of the CNC, a further Bishop to be elected by the House of Bishops

Six representatives elected from the Diocese of Canterbury by their Vacancy in See Committee
The six representatives (three clergy and three lay) elected by General Synod to serve as members of the Commission for a five year period

A member of the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion elected by the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.

In addition, the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, the Prime Minister's Appointments Secretary and the Archbishops' Secretary for Appointments are non-voting members of the Commission.

The Prime Minister's and Archbishops' Secretaries for Appointments will conduct a wider consultation exercise to inform the Commission's consideration of the needs of the mission of the wider Church of England and the Anglican Communion. 

The expectation is that the Commission will have an initial meeting around the end of May to agree its process, which is likely to continue over the summer. The number of meetings will be for the Commission to determine. The process will among other things include;
Consideration of candidates

This is the first time the process for nominating a new Archbishop of Canterbury has begun with such an announcement, following changes to introduce more transparency in the appointment of bishops. 
The Most Revd and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams will be stepping down from the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury on 31st December 2012. 
Any person wishing to comment on the challenges and opportunities that should be taken in to account in considering the appointment of his successor or who wishes to propose candidates should email, by Monday 30th April, to . 
Comments and proposals can also be sent in writing to one of the following: 
Sir Paul Britton,
Ms. Caroline Boddington 

Outline of procedures for the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury
The responsibility for choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury rests with the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC). Its task is to submit the name of a preferred candidate (and a second appointable candidate) to the Prime Minster who is constitutionally responsible for tendering advice on the appointment to the Queen. 
The membership of the CNC is prescribed in the Standing Orders of the General Synod. When an Archbishop of Canterbury is to be chosen there are 16 voting members 

Before the Commission first meets there will be an extensive consultation process to determine the needs of the diocese, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. This has several phases; 
The diocesan Vacancy in See Committee will prepare a brief description of the diocese and a statement setting out the desired profile of the new Archbishop
Review of background material and results of the consultations, discussion of the challenges for the next Archbishop and, in the light of these, consideration of the personal qualities required  

Voting to identify the recommended candidate and a second appointable candidate, whose names will go forward to the Prime Minister. 
Since 2007 the agreed convention in relation to episcopal appointments has been that the Prime Minister commends the name preferred by the Commission to the Queen. The second name is identified in case, for whatever reason, there is a change of circumstances which means that the appointment of the CNC's recommended candidate cannot proceed. 
Once the Queen has approved the chosen candidate and he has indicated a willingness to serve, 10 Downing St will announce the name of the Archbishop-designate. 
The College of Canons of Canterbury Cathedral formally elect the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
The election is confirmed by a commission of diocesan bishops in a legal ceremony (the Confirmation of Election), which confers the office of Archbishop on him.
The new Archbishop does homage to Her Majesty. 
The new Archbishop is formally enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral. 
Further details on the nomination process for Diocesan Bishops can be found at
This includes the particular arrangements made for the See of Canterbury.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Homily for Proper 15 Year B 2012
Wisdom is one of the seven Christian virtues; one of the seven of what Harry Emerson Fosdick called "Christlike graces."
Wisdom is almost synonymous with humility and reverence, which mean, respectively, to know our human frame and to bow before God.  That is why Hebrew scripture says in various places (including our Psalm for today): "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (e.g., Proverbs 9:10). Not a cringing fear before a threatening God, but awe and reverence before a good and merciful God.
Wisdom, then, knows how much it does not know.  A good physician knows when to refer a patient to someone who knows more than they.   Humility and wisdom go hand in hand.  You will recall that it was Socrates who, having heard it said that he was the wisest person in Athens, canvassed the city, speaking with every citizen, looking for wisdom.  Socrates began his search saying, “I cannot possibly be the wisest person in Athens, for I do not know anything.”  He concluded his search by discovering that he was indeed the wisest person in Athens, for he was the only person in Athens who truly knew how very little he knew.
Scripture is candid about how scarce true wisdom is. "Where can wisdom be found?" it asks over and over. Where is its abode?
We live amidst an explosion in knowledge and an avalanche of information.  But wisdom is as scarce as ever.  I use my iPhone to Google an idle curiosity and almost instantly have my answer.  Siri, however, is no help in discerning what is just?  Information is bountiful.  Wisdom is in short supply.
In the book of Proverbs (a book long associated with Solomon, who, as you heard in our first lesson today, asked God for wisdom) wisdom is personified as a woman, the daughter of God.  Hochma is her name in the Hebrew or translated into the Greek, Sophia
God gave her to Solomon and has given her to us.  As we learn from her, we grow wise.  In the words of Proverbs, we hear this said of Hochma:
Do not abandon her, and she will keep thee safe.
Love her, and she will stand guard over thee.
Cherish her, and she will lift thee up. 
(Proverbs 4:5-8)

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that wisdom in Hebrew scriptures,
...needs to be understood as a serious way in which responsible, reasonable knowledge of the world and passionate trust of God are held together.1

We must fearlessly face what is real, looking truth and reality directly in the face. Wendell Berry says, "There is relief and freedom in knowing what is real."2  Berry is echoing Jesus who said, “the truth shall set you free.”
For people of faith this knowledge of what is real is joined to a passionate trust in God:  a Psalm 23-kind of trust where we trust there is a faithfulness at the heart of things, that goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days.  You have probably seen this wisdom in some wise older persons who've lived long enough to have seen it all and who have learned to trust in the goodness of God in all.  Truth and trust.
Jesus taught that wisdom is hearing and doing the word of God.  Not just hearing.  Jesus told the parable of the house built on rock: “everyone who hears and does these words of mine will be like the wise man who built his house on rock.”  Our Psalmist for today says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding” (emphasis mine).  Acting.  Doing.  
Imagine someone acting as though they have no fear of God.  What does that look like?  
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church in Ephesus admonishes the Ephesians saying: “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise.”  Be careful how you live, how you act, what you do.  Remember, actions speak louder.
“Where can wisdom be found?”  There is a reason we say “Thanks be to God” as a response to the conclusion of our lessons-- “The Word of the Lord.”  The wisdom of God is found in those lessons.  Before we can do the Word of God, we must hear the Word of God.
And, created in the image of God, the wisdom of God dwells within us.  Wisdom arises from the whole self: mind, heart and body.  Wisdom arises from where mind, heart, body, spirit dwell together.  Paul says to us today, “ not be foolish, but understand...”  To understand, to discern, requires a going inward.  Solomon was given understanding to discern what was right and wrong.
We must listen to the word of God inside us.  As we turn inward, go deep, we know when things are true, know when things are right; we know when things are false and know when things are wrong. Our minds tell us, our hearts tell us, our bodies tell us.  There is a spirit of guidance always trying to communicate to us through our minds, our bodies, our hearts, our spirit.  Paul gives direction:  “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.”    Not a belly full of wine, but a belly full of the Holy Spirit.
Recently there was a pop song, in heavy rotation on fm radio, in which the singer, Jamie Fox advises the object of his affection that whatever she says and does should be blamed on the a-a-a-a-a-a-al-co-hol.  People are known to do stupid things when drunk.  “Don’t be foolish,” Paul says.  Be wise.  Act under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
We thirst for wisdom. We need to hear the word of God and we need to act accordingly.  And so, to that end, we come together, like patrons of a pub bellying up to the bar, we gather here to seek wisdom together.
Some people go to church looking for answers.  And, there are some churches ready with the answers. Some people go to church looking for a place they can ask their questions.  Ours is such a place.  All of us are searching for something deeper. They, we, are seeking wisdom.  And so, when we gather, we bow in awe and reverence before God and do as Paul suggests, sing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, giving thanks.  It’s a beginning.
1Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 140.
2Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 68.
3Wendell Berry, Standing by Words (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983), p. 200.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Death of a Biblical Literalist

I began life as a Baptist and I studied at a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary.  Back in the late 1970‘s and all through the 1980‘s, it was popular amongst prominent Baptist preachers to claim to be biblical literalists.  Having been born on Sand Mountain, in Northeast Alabama, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the only biblical literalists I knew were snake handlers.  The rest, as far as I was could tell, were pretenders to the title “biblical literalist.”

The Rev. Mack Wolford was a true biblical literalist.  Wolford, a Pentecostal preacher, was known in Appalachia as a man of his convictions. He believed that Christians, such as himself, should handle serpents to test their faith in God.  Further, if they were bitten, they were to trust God to heal them.

Wolford searched the woods of Appalachia for the snakes he kept for worship services at the Church of the Lord Jesus where Pentecostal Christians, like himself, handled poisonous snakes, drank strychnine and played with fire as required by their faith.

The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 16, verse 18 clearly states that Christians are to  "take up serpents.”  A biblical literalist who is true to his convictions could do nothing else.  The passage reads (verses 17 & 18):  “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;  They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (King James Version).  Those verses are a pretty good description of the worship services at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If worshipers are bitten and they do not recover, like Wolford did not recover, then it is believed by the other worshipers at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ that it was “simply their time to go and God took them.”  Mark Wolford, like his father before him, died from the bite of a rattlesnake.  Such is the price some of the biblical literalists at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ pay for their convictions.

I am not, and have never claimed to be, a biblical literalist.  I do not share Wolford’s convictions.  I, in fact, believe he was mistaken in the way he read Holy Scripture and wrong-headed in the way he practiced his faith.  I do, however, admire a believer who practices his faith even when that faith is likely to cost him something.  It seems to me hypocritical to call yourself a biblical literalist, and then not pick up snakes in worship.  Wolford was misguided but, he was no hypocrite.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Senator Rand Paul in the news talking religion.

Rand Paul, my senator from Kentucky, recently gave a critique of President Obama’s religious views.  In reference to Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, he said, "It did kind of bother me though that he used the justification for it in a biblical reference. He said the biblical golden rule caused him to be for gay marriage. And I'm like, what version of the Bible is he reading?"
President Obama told ABC's Robin Roberts that he treats others as he would want to be treated because he's a Christian, and he said that contributed to his support for marriage equality. 
Paul said, "I don't know what version he's getting that from."
Obama got it from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 7, verse 12.  The Gospel’s writer is quoting Jesus.  The King James Version (KJV) reads, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
The New International Version reads, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
The New Revised Standard Version reads, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
I checked several versions and they all conformed to Obama’s use of the verse.  Whatever version of the Bible the President used, the message was the same.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tech and Me

I was asked by some clergy colleagues recently what software-apps-computer-smart I was currently using. Such things change too regularly, but as of today here is my list (in no particular order):

(1) Rite Stuff. I was a Beta tester for Rite Stuff and despite the fact that they ignored all my suggestions, it is still a "work horse" for me. I run it on my MacBook using the "snow leopard" operating system (Rite Stuff does not yet have a "Lion" update).

(2) iCal (now called "Calendar"). Of all the programs/apps I use, none gets more work than iCal. My life is organized in iCal. As forgetful as I am, I would never be anywhere I was supposed to be if I didn't have iCal. It runs on all my electronic devises: MacBook, iPhone, and iPad (via "mobile me"--I haven't yet updated to iCloud, but soon I must).

(3) Pages. Pages is the Apple equivalent of MicroSoft Word. Once I create liturgy in Rite Stuff, I edit in Pages. I write my sermons in Pages. I write letters in Pages. You get the idea. It gets lots of work.

(4) Mail. Along with iCal above, I couldn't survive without email these days. Apple's email program named "Mail" syncs across all my devices (see iCal above) and keeps me in contact with tons of people that need to let me know something. The great thing about email vs. phone is that with email, I get to respond on my schedule. With the phone, I have to answer when the call comes in, or...

(5) Voice Mail. Old School, not an app, but still a techno marvel. The modern equivalent of the "Answering Machine," Voice Mail with your "smart phone" is wonderful. When you can't answer, it answers for you and lets you take a message. When I am with someone, I can turn off my ringer and know that as soon as I am free, I'll be able to return calls.

(6) Notes. I take "Notes" on my iPad with "Notes." Simple. Exactly what I need for staff meetings, vestry meetings, clergy conferences, etc., "Notes" is an app that comes with your iPad (already installed).

(7) Maps. Google's "Maps" comes already installed on your iPad and iPhone. When making pastoral calls, it is indispensable for getting me from wherever I am to wherever I need to be. In the old days I used a Garmin manufactured devise for navigation. I still have a "Tom Tom" app for my iPad and iPhone, but I find myself almost always using "Maps." (Which is odd, because, in all honesty, "Tom Tom" is a better app.)

(8) Twitter, Hootsuite, and Tweetie. I tweet. The parish has a twitter account for happenings, news, etc. The parish also has an "devotional" or "inspirational" twitter account. I have a personal twitter account. With all that "tweeting" I find myself using the app built by Twitter for my iPhone. I use Hootsuite on my iPad and I use Tweetie on my MacBook. I do the "heavy lifting" with Hootsuite on my iPad.

(9) Facebook has become a means for information dissemination and pastoral care updates, etc. Just as the advent of the telephone made possible a quick call to "check-in" as a tool for pastoral care, Facebook has likewise become such a tool for me. I know so much more now than I did before about what is going on with those who Facebook by watching my "news feed." To "Facebook" I use the apps provided by Facebook. I also have my "tweets" repost on my "wall" on Facebook. The parish has both a "group" page and a "Fan" page. The "Fan" page is also integrated with the parish's twitter account, so that what gets posted on Facebook automatically is reposted on Twitter.

(10) iBCP. iBCP is an app for the Book of Common Prayer. I keep the app on both my iPhone and my iPad. It is amazing how often I turn to it. Now, I have my Prayerbook with me everywhere I go.

(11) BizXpensTrkr. Business Expense Tracker is how I log my mileage and other reimbursable expenses. It is an app for both iPhone and iPad.

(12) I do a great deal of news reading on my iPad. My favorite way to do so is to use an app called "Flipboard." I really enjoy "Flipboard" and highly recommend it. I am convinced that "Flipboard" is representative of magazines of the future. I read "The Economist," "The New Yorker," "The Atlantic," "Time," "Salon," "Wired," "Mashable," "Newsweek" (called "The Daily Beast), and "Slate" from Flipboard. I can also read Facebook and Twitter with Flipboard for a change of pace.

(13) Contacts. I could not function without my "Address Book." Names, phone numbers, email addresses, street addresses. Everything I have, all in one place. When I think back to the days of paper address books, I wonder at how inefficient it was!

(14) iBooks. I carry my library with me now. Its like Hermione Granger's purse. If I have my iPad with me (and I always do), I have a good book to read (or reference).

(15) Things. "Things" is my electronic to-do list. It helps keep me focused and on task, aiding in my prioritizing and scheduling projects and tracking their development. Much better than my scribbled "to do list" on the back of a napkin.

(16) Evernote. Whether I am collecting material for my next sermon or the book I will never actually write or the diocesan project upon which I am presently working, "Evernote" helps me keep it all organized and sync'd across my various devices. Whether I am on my laptop or smartphone or tablet, I can add to or retrieve from my virtual "filing cabinet."

(17) Logos Bible. Ministers, on rare occasions, actually get to read or at least reference Holy Scripture. When I need to do so on the go, I have found "Logos Bible" to be useful. Whenever feasible, however, I tend to use the Oremus Bible Reader online.

(18) Dropbox. All my documents, backed up and in one place and sync'd across all my devices. Way cool. Colleague called me at 9 at night for a document they needed first thing in the morning. It was one of those: "Do you remember three years ago when we were working on...." Yes, I remembered it, but no I had no idea where it was now. I figured it was probably on my desktop at work. I could have gotten dressed, gone to the office, etc. But, thanks to "Dropbox" I didn't have to leave me seat. I searched my documents in "Dropbox" quickly located the document in question (a document that I had not touched in three years), and emailed it to my colleague. I could have just given her a link to it and she could have gotten it herself. Dropbox--way cool.

What Motivates Doing Good?

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." In a new study by the University of California at Berkley, the "religious" do good motivated by doctrine and the non-religious do good motivated by compassion. On the surface of it, the study seems to be confirmation of the continuing prevalence of the affliction Jesus noted amongst the religious of his day. You will recall his railing against the behavior of some Pharisees (read "the identifiably religious). However, the study could also be read to indicate that religious people do good because of a sense of duty (a Kantian Deontological morality), rather than acting purely on feelings; that is, doing good even when they don't feel like. Another study needs to be done of the "religious" to separate the Kantians from the Pharisees.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Funeral Homily (given on Holy Saturday)

In the Episcopal Church, Charley’s community of faith, Holy Communion is often celebrated on Sundays. It is a multifaceted symbol--a cue to think on a number of things. One of those things to be brought to mind is that heavenly banquet at the end. When all is said and done, and Christ’s work of reconcilliation (reconciling us to God and us to each other) is done, and we finally know the meaning of “the Peace of God.” This vision, this picture we hold in our imagainations, is an element of our hope--our Christian hope. A portion of that which Charley hoped and in the words of St. Paul, all “creation awaits with eager longing.” It is, what theologians call, the “eschatological vision”--a picture of all creation in perfect harmony. At funerals, we pray that we all may find a seat at that table--the table of the heavenly banquet.
In some congregations, when observing the Lord’s Supper, the congregation will receive sitting in pews with each serving the one seated next to them. It is like a family dinner, where after a prayer giving thanks, the green beans are picked up and passed around, each taking a portion of what is on offer. Green beans are followed by mash potatoes. You hand off the later, and take the platter of fried chicken. Soon everyone is served. Plates are piled high. You feast. An earthly banquet.

I imagine such family dinners looking like that Norman Rockwell painting, with the family seated at a dinning room table, father is standing at the head, about to carve a turkey. You figure it must be their Thanksgiving Day meal. The scene is truly picture perfect.

I know families who can take a picture like that; who can go down to Olin Mills, and pose and for a moment, they can appear like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting--Perfect.

I don’t, however, know any families that really are like that, who really are perfect outside of that frame. Most families can present a good front for a moment, long enough for a snap-shot to be taken, if not a portrait painted. But, no family can sustain picture perfect. We are, after all, human. And, you have heard it said of old, “to err is human...” In truth, that perfect picture is a lie. Our lives are far messier.

I’ll tell you a story. The story is not short. The story is too messy, messy like our lives, to be short. It takes a movie to capture it, not a snap-shot.

I tell you of the film “Places in the Heart.” Perhaps you’ve seen it. The film opens in Waxahachie, Texas in 1935 to scenes of the town and the sounds of a church choir singing. Edna Spalding places a dish on the kitchen table. Her husband, Sheriff Royce Spalding sits down to eat as gunshots in the distance are heard.

At the railway yards, a young black boy is staggering around obviously drunk, firing off a revolver. The Sheriff approaches cautiously and calls him by name, "Willie." The boy tosses up his bottle and tries to shoot it, then fires off two more rounds before the gun missfires. Impulsively the boy points the gun at the Sheriff and pulls the trigger. Spalding, shot in the stomach, falls to the tracks. He is taken back to his home and his lifeless body is laid on the kitchen table. The scenes change to Willie being dragged down the streets coming to rest at the Spalding home in view of Edna and her two small children Frank and Possum. Edna’s sister Margaret, and her husband Wayne, arrive. Margaret runs off the two trucks of fully armed white men dragging Willie's body. Eventually his body is hung from a tree and Willie’s family and friends come to cut him down.

In the aftermath, Edna is in a daze.

A black man, a drifter, Moze, comes by Edna’s house looking for work. He chops some wood and lobbies for more work. He suggests planting cotton on the fallow land and offers his expertise in that regard. As he drops the wood off in the kitchen, he pockets some of her silver utensils.

A bit later, the banker appears at Mrs. Spalding's door. He notes that she will soon owe the bank $240 to keep her house and reminds her of the reality of the Depression. He offers to help sell her house so that she can still have some cash left to meet family needs. Both realize that this would involve dividing up her family to live with other family members. He notes that “Sometimes it is necessary to split families up.” She rejects his offer. She wants to keep the family together.

Moze appears at the door in the custody of the deputy sherrif. He was caught with the stolen silver, but Edna sees an opportunity and covers for him. With new found assertiveness she gathers information from Moze about the cotton market, obligates his participation, and warns him to keep clear of any trouble. He is to stay in the shed outside.

Edna goes to the bank and presents her plan to pay for the house note with the proceeds from her new cotton farm. The banker expresses his disbelief in her plan and warns her but she persists.
At the cotton gin, Edna negotiates her first deal but is given poor quality cotton seed. Moze runs afoul of the gin owner as he exposes the cotton seed as less than first rate. Upon the return home Moze vents his frustration at sticking his neck out by pounding nails. He is, at this inopportune time, introduced to Frank who informs him that his daddy was killed by a black man.

Messy, indeed.

The banker makes a house call to the Spalding house with his brother-in-law in tow — Will who was blinded in the war. The banker deposits Will at the doorstep and negotiates with Edna to place him there. He couches his language as an attempt to help her in her misguided efforts to hold on to her home and family. She politely defers but he persists with a veiled threat regarding her loan. Will is shocked at the behavior of his brother in law and clearly has no knowledge that he was being dumped.

Across town, Edna’s brother-in-law Wayne returns home from a romantic rendevous with a woman who is not his wife, the local schoolteacher, Viola. Later that evening, Wayne appears with his wife, Margaret, at the local dance hall. Viola observes their approach and their obvious intimacy and Viola is obviously not pleased to see Wayne with his wife. Viola can no longer participate in the infidelity to her husband Buddy Kelsey and her betrayal of her friend Margaret. Life has become too messy for Viola and she ends the affair.

Meanwhile, Edna's children invade Will’s privacy, enter his bedroom, and play one of his records. They hear him coming and burst out of his room, scratching the record. Will is outraged, stumbles down the stairs, and bursts into the kitchen. Edna has set up a bathtub in the kitchen and is enjoying a brief moment alone in a hot bath. Will does not know she is in the bath until, in his anger, he slams his finger into the tub. She helps him recover his composure and his direction and he bids her good night.

The eventful night, far from picture perfect, concludes with the musicians cruising the long night miles back to their home.

Wayne Lomax buzzes the schoolyard in his speedster to once again woo Viola into returning to him while Frank gets caught smoking at school. Edna is forced into yet another male role previously performed by her husband, as she must punish Frank. Edna gathers instructions from Frank as to the way she should spank him; she hesitates, then delivers the punishment while Moze and Possum empathize from outside. Frank takes his spanking bravely, while Edna confides to Moze that she will not do this again and that she dearly misses her husband.

A major Texas storm is gathering as people scurry about the town. The schoolchildren are herded into the school building, but Frank takes off for home at a run. Will realizes that Possum is in the house somewhere and begins searching for her. Edna runs in and joins the hunt. As Will feels around for Possum upstairs, she reaches out and grabs his hand and they head downstairs as the house begins to shudder. All head to the storm shelter as the tornado approaches. Moze somehow hears Frank and gathers him in and all go underground as the wind strips howels. Windows explode as the schoolhouse goes down with the children screaming.

Moments later the winds die down and sunlight appears. The town is devastated, with buildings leveled. The schoolhouse is in the center of the devastation. Viola's husband reaches the school first. He comforts his wife who is virtually catatonic. She has managed to herd the kids into the only room in the schoolhouse that is still standing. Wayne drives through the rubble to be with Viola, but Viola is already being comforted by her husband. Viola has had it and demands to move away. Moze and Edna look out over a changed landscape cluttered with galvanized corrugated metal.

At the bank, Edna is faced with the obvious facts: with cotton at 3.5 cents a pound, this will only generate 175 dollars. This is not enough for the house payment and there is no chance of cotton prices increasing. She leans on the banker to ask the bank president about less than a full payment. During her wait, Edna sees pictures at the bank that remind her of the Ellis County prize of $100 for the first bale of cotton brought in to the gin. Edna shares her new bailout plan, but her “family” members note that her plan is impossible. Edna reminds them that her family is at stake and asserts her will upon the others.

Viola and Buddy Kelsey make a last regular visit to Margaret and Wayne to play cards. Their gin rummy game is interrupted by the announcement that they are leaving Waxahachie for Houston. The recent exchanges between Viola and Wayne are enough to convince Margaret that something is up between Wayne and Viola. After the Kelseys depart, Margaret confronts him and slaps him, telling him that they are through as well. Wayne is devastated. He has lost Viola and Margaret in the same day.

Back on the cotton farm Edna’s family all begin picking cotton but make little headway on the 30-acre crop. The sweltering heat and the drone of the insects build to a fever pitch as the cotton bolls tear at fingers, arms, backs, and bodies. Moze turns to muttering. He discusses the lack of progress with Will, and Edna overhears their conversation. Edna orders him to hire extra pickers, but can pay them only if they win the prize for the first bale.

Will takes over the kitchen duties as all hands pick cotton. His hears 11 trucks of cotton pickers arriving from further south. He reports this to Moze, who calculates that they have 3 days left to pick the cotton. In Edna’s exhaustion her mind escapes back to good times dancing with her husband and she wakes up in bed early in the morning still dressed. Edna is still in her dream as she moves through the kitchen, as the music and the dance come to an end and she is back in reality. She reorients to the day and then goes back to the day in the sweltering heat and the blistering cotton.

They work into the darkness of night, under lanterns. Wayne shows up to help but this is not yet enough to convince Margaret that their relationship is worth redeeming. As the morning arrives Moze gathers Edna from her daze. On the way to the cotton gin Moze instructs her on how to make the negotiations. The dealer arrives to see if he and Edna can do some “bidness.” Edna drives a hard bargain and gets her price. She does well enough that Moze has dreams of a tractor and much more.

All are back at the dance hall again. Frank moves a step up toward manhood as he asks his mother for a dance and leads her stiffly but confidently. Wayne manages to convince Margaret to dance with him once again. The community responds by complimenting the two of them together. Margaret still has flashbacks of Wayne and Viola together.

All is not right at the house while Edna is away. Moze goes outside to investigate and is accosted by white-hooded Klan members. Will hears the disturbance and finds the Sheriff’s revolver. He comes out shooting into the air to end the beating. The hooded figures are surprised by his ability. Will identifies the hooded figures by their voices and they depart. Moze apologizes but packs up and moves on, leaving his best wishes and small gifts for Edna and the kids. Edna tells him that he was the one who brought the first bale of cotton and saved their farm and that he should never forget this.

Viola and her husband depart for Houston and a new life.

The movie ends as it began, on a Sunday with the sounds of a church choir singing. The minister reads some scripture. At the church Wayne and Margaret are together and she accepts him back, taking his hand. As the choir sings, Wayne passes communion to Margaret and communion is passed from person to and dead: the banker, the wealthy, the musician, Moze, Will, Possum, Frank, Edna, Royce, and the young black boy, Willie, who killed him.

The last words are “Peace of God” spoken by Willie to the Sheriff.



Film summary is based on the synopsis from Wikipedia, but edited for sermonic effect. :-)

Moze is an "angel" figure in the film. His role follows the pattern of angelic visitors in the Bible. He is a stranger. He shows up unexpectedly. He delivers a message. Then, he leaves as quickly and unexpectedly as he arrived.

Homily for Good Friday (that I didn't preach)

This was my first attempt at a Good Friday sermon this Holy Week. I trashed it and wrote another. It makes a better blog post than it would have made a sermon.


William Hamilton, theologian, died at the end of February of this year. Hamilton was featured prominently in a 1966 article in Time Magazine. The headline read: “God is Dead.” Reading Hamilton’s obituary, I thought about Friedrich Nietzsche’s Madman as he steps into the market-place and shouts:

“I seek God! I seek God!...Where is God gone?...I mean to tell you! We have killed him,--you and I! We are all his murderers! We are all his murders! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?...Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?--for even gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife--who will wipe the blood from us?...What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God.”2

Good Fridays invariably turn my thoughts to the death of God. This service, has always felt for me, like a memorial service or a funeral service; as if we have gathered to pay our last respects. I am never really sure if I am preaching a sermon or a eulogy? If I was reading God’s obituary (rather than Hamilton’s), I wonder what it would say. Perhaps it would begin: “The deceased had no universally recognized survivors. His age is also unknown, but he was certainly very old--even ancient. He was known by various names--Allah, Yahweh, Bhagavan, Great Spirit, Ground of all being, Higher Power.”
Most of those whom I know, however, called him God. I say “he and him,” but some of his names and titles were feminine, so even the gender of the deceased is a bit sketchy. The cause of death is also ambiguous, but the most often cited possibility?--a modern form of crucifixion--called scientific objectivity. Recently, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, one and all; had confirmed God’s demise.

His terminal illness was, perhaps, first observed by a physician named Nietzsche, Dr. Friedrich Nietzsche. After first reading Dr. Nietzsche’s prognosis, I had hoped that Dr. Nietzsche was wrong. At times I was encouraged by other physicians--like Dr. Barth, and Dr. Buber. But, Dr. William Hamilton, now himself deceased, assured me that there was no hope for his recovery and that I should prepare for his passing.3 Some (like Dr. Hitchens, Dr. Dawkins, Dr. Dennett, and Dr. Harris) supposed his death was very late in coming.
When, back in 1966, Hamilton pronounced the time of death, many felt that a mistake had been made--some error in the reporting. When reading of Hamilton’s death a few weeks ago, I broke out my scrapbook, and looked at the yellowing headline: “God is Dead.”

I close my eyes and I try to imagine the funeral. I picture myself graveside. The crowd would be small, many would believe the announcement was inaccurate. But, in my mind’s eye, I am there at the graveside. I see the casket. I see the hole--deep and dark. I hear the sobs, mine included, of the small congregation gathered to pay our last respects. I hear the clicks of the rig lowering the coffin into the ground. I feel it hit solid ground. I heard the jangle of the chains pulled from around the casket. I see the shovels, full of dirt, one after another, cover the coffin and fill the hole. I am handed a shovel and I do my share.
When the gravediggers and I heap up a mound of earth on top and cover the mound with sod, I know I should go. Most didn’t stay as long as I have, there by the graveside, but I just couldn’t leave until the very end. I wipe my eyes, one more time, with the handkerchief I hold in my hand, then I fold it and place it in my pocket.

I know that, way back in 1966, Hamilton said that I now live in a post-God world, a world of “humanity come of age.” I know that you and I must work out for ourselves exactly how we will face such a world. But, I must warn you, as one who has been at this for a bit, that just as surely as I am thrown into a state of contemplation upon the death of God each Good Friday--I have, as the years have passed, second thoughts--reservations--as well.

I admit to you that I am haunted by a question: “Could we have buried, instead of God, someone else?” I have this reservation because, you see, nothing changed and I thought I when God died everything should change. Dawkins and Hitchens and company assure me that everything should change. But, I detect no changes.
For instance, I do not feel differently; and I wonder if something must be felt for it to be real. I was raised by Baptists, who were (more often than not) quite certain of God’s presence in their lives and equally certain of their personal awareness of God’s presence. You would think, therefore, that with the passing of God, I would feel different. I don’t. I feel the same in God’s death as I did in his life.

At the time of the death, I remember Billy Graham, now himself deceased, being quoted as saying that the news of God’s death was a surprise to him--he had just spoken with him that morning. Dr. Graham was sure the report of God’s demise was mistaken. He took the lack of change in the way he felt as proof that God had not died. I, however, thought about Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, who talks at length with his dead mother. A mother I might add, that Norman, himself, had killed. Madman, indeed.

Does the fact that I presently do not hear the wave lengths of WHAS or WFPL mean that their transmission has ceased? If those attending the Lady Gaga concert fail to fully appreciate Beethoven’s Ninth, does it mean that great music is diminished? If I fail to appreciate the beauty of a rose, has the rose lost some of its beauty? Does my experience of something or failure to experience something establish either its existence or its non-existence? I ask this because, I suspect that it may mean that the God we buried may or may not be God because I do or do not feel his presence.

Dr. Graham, way back when, was certain--but I am full of uncertainty. Must one be certain? I find myself with a searching doubt, looking to believe.

Likewise, the fact that I don’t feel blessed assurance--may not mean that God is dead. We could have buried either a live God or a dead impostor--and I wouldn’t know or feel the difference.
Further, amongst my “second thoughts” is the gnawing suspicion that God’s absence might just be God’s presence. Again, I feel the same as before. And I am told that I should feel different. I have heard people sing of talking with him and walking with him and telling him they were his own.

After being at God’s graveside--I am now wondering why I ever thought God was that kind of god. Such a god sounds more like my need for a prop to a sagging spirit, a shoulder on which to cry, a projection of personal fear--not the Absolute, the Ground of All Being, the Ultimate Reality.
On this day, of all days, I cannot help but think about the words of the man, who according to two of his biographers, said in his dying gasp on a Roman cross, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” To him, God’s absence was his personal “My”--a curious kind of presence.

Job said, “When I go forward, God is not there; backward, and I cannot perceive him; when on the left I seek him, I cannot find him, when I turn to the right, I cannot see him.” Job complained: “God passes me by, and I see him not; he moves on; I do not perceive him.” Maybe Isaiah was right, maybe God really is “a God who hidest thy self.”

So, you can see why I am having second thoughts, why I am wondering if God’s absence proves God’s death. Perhaps, God’s character, God’s nature is God’s absence. If so, to identify his absence with his passing would be a terrible error.
You see, each and every Good Friday, I am forced to re-think the basic nature of faith in God. From childhood I was taught that God’s existence was a foregone conclusion which no one with any degree of intelligence and respectability would question. Faith in God meant, then, mere acceptance of an established sociological fact. Faith was an intellectual assent to a fait accompli. Faith was the easy opening of the heart to that which was pressing for entrance from every side.

Again, I struggle. Faith for me was never that easy. And again, I don’t feel any different in this regard since God’s death. And if God’s presence is his absence, then faith in God may be a radical leap into an unknown, not an easy and simple acceptance.
Again, I recall the words of the man from Nazareth. He said to his disciples, who had demanded tangible evidence for faith, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Could it be that genuine faith believes in spite of a lack of evidence? Perhaps faith is swimming in a sea of doubt. Perhaps faith is not the absence of doubt but rather its absorption. Perhaps genuine faith is only possible after God has died, when God is no longer pressing in on me, perhaps then, and only then, can I exercise faith. Perhaps for there to be an Easter, there must be a Good Friday.

This is not, I remind you, my first Good Friday. I have been here before. I know how the story ends--and its ending is disturbing. In a few days we will be recalling the the story of two despondent men, returning to their hometown of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, discussing the death and burial of a man from Nazareth. Their hope had died with him. But before they reached their home to begin living in this hopeless world, ruled by cruelty and intrigue, the man whose death they had been discussing mysteriously began to walk and talk with them, later even ate with them. They became firmly convinced, so much so that they immediately carried the news back to Jerusalem that this dead man was not dead after all.

The story is unsettling for me on Good Friday. For I wonder, even if I did bury the real God--and I don’t know whether I did or not--I wonder if God is gone forever.

On Good Fridays (and a few other days) I can clearly hear the howling of the strong wind, bending over the trees and roaring “God is dead.” But, but, I also hear the faint hum of a tiny insect, buzzing around my ear, exclaiming “He’ll be back.”


1 Karen Joines, my college Hebrew, Archaeology, and Old Testament professor, once preached a sermon called “Thoughts on the Death of God.” This sermon is a homage to his. His sermon was preached in the context of the “Death of God’ theology of the 1960’s. Mine, obviously, has a different context and a different audience in mind.

2 The Gay Science (German: Die fröhliche Wissenschaft), section 108 (New Struggles), in section 125 (The Madman), and for a third time in section 343 (The Meaning of our Cheerfulness). It is also found in Nietzsche's classic work Thus Spake Zarathustra (Deutsch: Also sprach Zarathustra), which is most responsible for popularizing the phrase.