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What the long history of Christian dissent means: 8-31-17

As we work our way up to Oct. 31, the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, what is becoming clearer to me is that astonishing breadth of the protesters and dissenters who were inspired by the spirit of change sweeping Western Christianity at the time.

Undomesticated-DissentIt wasn't just the people who, as adherents of the approach proposed by Martin Luther, eventually came to be known as Lutherans. Oh, no. It was also the Presbyterians, the Quakers, Baptists, Independents, the Familists and Fifth Monarchists, the Levellers and the Diggers, the Ranters and the Muggletonians and on and on.

And the spirit of dissent, though still alive today, sometimes seems overcome by the spirit of descent, as the church in North America and Europe experience decline.

But a new book explores all of this history of dissent and encourages Christians to stand against those cultural forces that cause them to drift into accommodation with the idolatrous spirit of the times, a spirit that is mostly happy being entertained to death in mindless ways as it lives an unexamined life.

The book is Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity, by Curtis W. Freeman, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, and it tells the story of dissenters by making its primary focus John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake.

It is a fascinating read, though at times it feels more like a doctoral thesis in which even the many footnotes have footnotes. And, for me, it took too long to get to the application of all this history to today's circumstances. But, in the end, Freeman delivers a clear call to Christians to be in the world but not of it, to be what Freeman's colleague at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas, has called a court jester, meaning a church and its members who can communicate with the ruler but point out clearly what the ruler is doing wrong.

". . .dissent," Freeman writes, "is simply another word for the stance of resisting accommodation to the way things are. Christian dissenters serve the whole church and the wider society as a check against the tyranny of the majority and the domination of the powerful. Christian dissent, however, is not simply a matter of adopting a contrarian outlook toward what most people think. The Christian dissenter is not merely a maverick who resists conventional wisdom but rather a prophet who tells the truth. Yet the powers that be are never comfortable with allowing dissenters free exercise of conscience. They seek to domesticate them, while dissenters look for ways to resist domestication."

Stated more simply: ". . .followers of Christ must learn to live in a perpetual state of tension with the status quo, regardless of what it is. Stripped of privileged standing and majority status, Christians perhaps may again become the salt of the earth."

What finally matters, Freeman says to Christians, is who your God is. If you make status and power and prestige your idol, you've lost your way and you're in no position to protest what needs protesting. When, for instance, the early followers of Jesus declared "Jesus is Lord," it was in many ways a political protest -- at the time against Caesar. That's certainly how Caesar read it. And that's how Christians should mean it today, too, though against whoever is today's Caesar.

Anyone like Freeman trying to tell the story of protesters and dissenters in Christianity faces the problem, he writes, "that dissenters could differ as much from one sect to another, and even among members of the same sect, as from the established church."

The book is full of the histories of various dissenters from the 16th century on, and the variety and zeal is almost overwhelming. It was a wildly different time, when people on street corners would argue about the meaning of the Eucharist and not about whether the referees were fair in the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match.

But, as I say, all this history finally moves toward the question of how Christians are to be prophetic voices of conscience today. And history that doesn't teach us something about our own time is merely words on the page. This book is much more than that.

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The recent so-called "Nashville Statement" by Christian evangelicals against LGBTQ people is receiving lots of backlash, as it should. Even Nashville's mayor hates it. At a time when Christians should be using their prophetic voices against racism, including white supremacy, this statement returns to an old, misguided fight that anti-LGBTQ forces have already lost. The Nashville Statement is in many ways a dying cry from people on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of the Bible. As President Trump might say (though probably not about this), sad.

The murderous business of boxing: 8-30-17

I have never boxed and have never been a fan of boxing. The closest I've come to seeing boxing, except in flipping by it on TV now and then, was in the late 1960s when I covered a visit to a high school in Rochester, N.Y., by Muhammad Ali.

Boxing-1True story: A kid on stage surprised Ali, caught him off balance with a punch and knocked him down.

What I've never understood about boxing -- amateur or professional -- is why this brutal sport is allowed to be legal and why people of faith who are tasked with protecting human life don't work harder to ban boxing as an inhumane, illegal activity.

Saturday's Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor fight brought all this back in view for me. (The fact that this fight went 10 rounds, was widely considered an entertaining match and nobody died doesn't change my mind about all of this.)

The idea of banning boxing because it's potentially lethal or brain damaging is not new. As far back as 1985, the American Public Health Association issued this statement calling for the "sport" (a misnomer if there ever was one) to be banned. The year before that, the American Medical Association called for abolishing boxing.

In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle published this column that notes this: "Among inherently treacherous sports, boxing is unique -- the only one in which a contestant achieves the pinnacle of success by pummeling an opponent into a state of unconsciousness. It encourages actions that would warrant assault charges if they occurred on the street."

Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of boxers have died because of injuries sustained in the ring. In fact, The New Yorker reported in 2015 that there have been 2,036 "fights in which a boxer was killed. It starts with the friends Job Dixon and Richard Teeling, who fought on May 14, 1725."

The world's great religions teach that every person is of inestimable value. In light of that, why is it legal to have a sport in which the primary aim is to beat someone senseless, even if the ultimate result is death?

(Yes, I know. Money is the answer. Money is often the idolatrous answer.)

Boxing should shame humanity, especially given the fact that there are many other sports in which there can be an awesome spirit of competition and a high level of skill but that are not potentially fatal. (If we ban boxing, should we also ban American football and mixed martial arts? Discuss.)

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is cutting and reorganizing various functions in his department, though this report says he's expanding the roles of special envoys for religious freedom, HIV/AIDS and Holocaust matters. It's too soon to tell whether this is a necessary rearrangement or whether it's mostly a political gesture. If you care about some areas being cut or expanded, you'll want to pay close attention.

His first name was really 'Praise-God': 8-29-17

Sometimes you just have to laugh at people of faith. (That sometimes means laughing at myself.) Laughing is just what I did when I ran across the name of a 17th Century Englishman: Praise-God Barebone.

Praise-God-BarebonesWhat's better is this: The Wikipedia piece to which I just linked you reports that he was "said to have been christened 'Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone.'"

I discovered his remarkable name while reading a new book, Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity, by Curtis W. Freeman. I plan to write more about the book later here on the blog.

Praise-God, it's reported, had at least one son, to whom his parents gave a much more common name, Nicholas Barbon. The spelling of the last name varied, as did a lot of spelling in the Elizabethan period. In fact, the English folks back then were a lot like tweeters and e-mailers today, many of whom seem proud of their inability to tell "its" from "it's" and "you're" from "your" and who write about Fredrick Douglas when they mean Frederick Douglass.

And Praise-God is not forgotten even today. Did you know there's a blog called Praise-God Barebones? (The writer pluralized the last name.) Check it out.

But as for faith-based names: In our time we have softened the practice a bit, meaning we don't name our kids "Praise-God," but, rather, such names for females as Grace, Faith and Hope. Males, by contrast, get names less attached to religion but more indicative of living according to certain moral codes -- names like Earnest. Still, both sexes among Christians and Jews often get biblical names: David (my own middle name), Mary (the name of my youngest sister), Samuel, Joshua (the first name of one of my grandsons) and Moses. Not to mention Jesus, a popular name in Latino cultures.

But I'm thinking the world might actually be improved if we returned to such names as Praise-God. For instance, would our president be as flighty if, instead of Donald, his name were Ten-Commandments Trump?

Or might not Pat Robertson make much more sense if he had gone through life as Saved-by-Grace Robertson? Maybe. Maybe not. Naah, probably not.

In any case, I'm going to keep Praise-God Barebone in mind in case any of our kids announces that another grandchild is on the way. If it's a boy, I'm going to suggest Praise-Grandpa as a lovely first name.

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One thing you can be certain of about racist vandals, and that is their soaring ignorance. In England, for instance, vandals assumed that the family moving into a home was Muslim. Not true. The family is Hindu. So the criminals scrawled misspelled Islamic words on the home. Anonymity allows lies to be told. Just the other day, for instance, after the local blog Tony's Kansas City picked up and reposted one of my blog posts, an anonymous reader left a comment saying I live in an all-white neighborhood in Kansas. Wrong on both counts. Anonymity is the shield of cowards and liars.

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P.S.: The next visiting scholar at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village will be Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York. She's coming in March. Her topic: "American Theology." Details are here.

What Nazi attachment to occultism means for us: 8-28-17

Recently here on the blog I talked about the various ways some people in our culture seem to be vulnerable to conspiracy theories, fake news and magical thinking.

OccultBeing susceptible to bogus science, to far-out occult theories of supernatural intervention in human affairs, to the Big Lie -- whatever that means in our time -- creates conditions that can lead society down a terribly dangerous road.

I am not equating what's happening in 21st Century America to what happened in this regard in the 1930s and before in Germany, but some observers are finding disturbing parallels between the widespread acceptance of fantasy thinking then and similar gullibility today.

For instance, this Slate article asks what we might learn from the ways in which many of the Nazis were fascinated by the occult, by creation myths, by pseudo-science, such as eugenics.

How did their connection with all this supernatural magical thinking contribute, for instance, to accepting the idea that the Jewish people were vermin and needed to be exterminated?

The Slate piece is an interview with historian Eric Kurlander about his new book on Nazi occultism: Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich.

"Educated urban liberal elites and Jewish intellectuals," Kurlander says, "were the least likely to embrace any of this as authentic, or see it as anything other than a pathology of modernity that was particularly strong in Austria and Germany and needed to be dealt with. They could see people they otherwise respected finding some of it interesting, and worried about that response, but they were almost universally opposed to it.

"Then you have the German and Austrian middle and lower-middle classes. Traditional religious practice was waning over the course of the 19th century."

This group of people was much more open to occultism and strange scientific theories, he says. The result was that "in Germany so many of the people who joined the Nazi Party or supported it are using language and ideas directly borrowed from these occult and border scientific doctrines."

In some ways it's this kind of phony science in which white supremacists are marinated. They ignore the real science, such as that gleaned from the Human Genome Project, and prefer their twisted versions of racial origins, including the bogus and bizarre idea jackhammered out of the Bible that black people are cursed and degenerate because they are descendants of Ham, a son of Noah.

Prejudice based on religious belief may be the hardest to counter because the people holding it think it represents divine thinking.

The point in raising any of this -- besides letting you know about Kurlander's new book -- is that, as I wrote here recently, facts matter. And when we pledge allegiance instead to wild myth and theories detached from reality, we set ourselves up for the kind of clashes we saw in Charlottesville, where the problem did not lie on "many sides," no matter what President Trump alleged.

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The earliest known Latin commentary on three of the four New Testament gospels indicates that early Christians didn't always read the Bible literally. Nor do many Christians today. Those who do take it all literally miss a lot of the point.

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To Hear the Forest Sing: Some Musings on the Divine: Margaret Dulaney. For some years now, the author has offered her essays rooted in her love of nature and imaginings about eternal matters in readings available on her Listen Well website. Now she's put them in print. Dulaney walks daily through the woods next to her home in Pennsylvania, attuned to what she didn't hear, see, feel, smell or think about on yesterday's walk. Then she shares her experiences via spoken essays and now in this small book. She comes across as a person who cares deeply about spiritual matters but has not pledged allegiance to any particular religious tradition. "My suspicion about those who avoid the word 'God,'" she writes, "is that they have heard the term hurled around by too many careless people or had it repeatedly slung in their faces over the years." No doubt she's right. Sometimes her questions seem naive, sometimes sharp and engaging. Her spiritual experiences move out to the edge of mysticism and beyond at times, such as when, she believes, she was personally visited by St. Teresa of Avila. Margaret Dulaney walking in the woods doesn't have Annie Dillard's remarkable eye, but she sees enough to interest others in walking with her.

* * *

P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about clergy gathering together to help fix education in Kansas City -- now is online here.

What can Brownback do for religious freedom? 8-26/27-13

This weekend I want to return to a subject I dealt with earlier here and here -- the nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to be the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom.

State-sealThe Senate has yet to confirm Brownback for the job -- so lots of Kansans still are waiting anxiously for him to leave a state he misgoverned in countless ways.

But once he is confirmed -- and I think he will be -- what are the challenges he faces representing the Trump administration and all U.S. citizens in monitoring and promoting religious liberty around the world?

There are many, as this interesting Foreign Policy piece notes. And if Brownback is to be effective, he will need to assert his independence from the often-rambling and often-misguided president and his sometimes-offensive views on this subject.

As the Foreign Policy piece notes, ". . .despite the president’s many blunders on religion-related issues, there are signs of a more conventional and constructive focus on religious freedom at the State Department."

The piece also describes Brownback with the kind of praise he's had almost none of as governor: ". . .most significantly, the administration has nominated a highly qualified, highly respected religious freedom ambassador. During his many years in Congress, in the House and then Senate, Brownback was a well-known champion of religious freedom and myriad humanitarian causes. His nomination has been praised by a wide spectrum of religious leaders and religious freedom advocates — including some who have been intensely critical of Trump."

My expectations of Brownback aren't nearly that high, but perhaps there's more to be hoped for than I imagined. So what should Brownback do as religious freedom ambassador? The Foreign Policy piece lists several tasks:

-- Emphasize early and often that religious freedom is a universal principle, not identity politics.

-- Especially reassure and defend vulnerable Muslims. (Is Brownback willing to be noticeably different in this regard than Trump? I hope so, but I'm not holding my breath.)

-- Communicate the value of religious liberty in language that appeals across the ideological and theological spectrum. (This may be no easy task, given that "religious liberty" has come to mean [to many] the freedom to engage in even unconstitutional behavior, such as businesses denying service the way some used to deny service on the basis of race.)

-- Champion democracy and the full range of human rights.

-- Defend and collaborate with the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs.

This ambassador position can provide lots of opportunities to raise up religious liberty around the globe, especially in countries that really do persecute people of faith (and there are many).

If Brownback is confirmed, let's hope he's wise enough to pledge allegiance to this universal human right and not to a narrow, partisan view of it.

* * *


Pope Francis says that the reforms to liturgy that were made at Vatican II will not be rolled back. This is one more piece of evidence backing my belief that the primary thrust of his papacy is to implement the Vatican II reforms that were stalled by his two predecessors and to recapture the open spirit of the Second Vatican Council for a new era.

* * *

P.S.: I've written several times in different venues about the need for Sabbath, for sabbaticals, for retreats, for just some time off to refresh our spirits. Recently I learned about another approach to all of this. It's called Renewal in the Wilderness. As the organization's website to which I've just linked you explains, "We consider engagement with wilderness to be a spiritual practice. Our approach is rooted in the understanding that wilderness has a lot to show us as we navigate our way toward a more compassionate world." Have a look and see if you or someone you know might benefit. And if you're looking for a few days away at somewhere beautiful that won't be physically demanding, I hope some of you will join me at Kirkridge Retreat and Education Center in Pennsylvania in late April when I lead some discussion growing out of my latest book, The Value of Doubt. Details about the Kirkridge offering are here.

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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest Flatland column -- about clergy gathering together to help fix education in Kansas City -- now is online here.

Can people of faith de-nuke the world? 8-25-17

In recent weeks, the idea of nuclear war has been floating around our political atmosphere like a dreaded ghost from the past, a specter so distressing and destructive that it's in a category all its own.

Anti-nukeThe threatening shouts between and about North Korean President Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump have forced us to reimagine what we should think about nuclear weapons, especially if we identify as people of faith whose task is to promote peace and harmony in the world.

The Economist recently offered this helpful piece about how Christians have dealt with atomic weaponry since it first burst upon the world in 1945. (I myself also burst upon the world in 1945, though to much less public attention than atomic bombs received.)

But the conclusion in the article may not be as clear and final as many might wish: ". . .right from the beginning of the nuclear age, Christians have found themselves on both sides, often in rather dramatic ways. . .The one thing organized Christianity doesn’t seem to offer is a clear, unanimous answer to the dilemmas of a nuclear age."

Which is to say that Christians have found themselves on various sides of the many issues that nuclear weaponry inevitably raises. Here, from the Economist piece, is a shocking example:

"When the nuclear era dawned, Christians were 'on both sides' in a more literal sense. The American aircraft which obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crewed by Christian servicemen and counseled and blessed by Christian military chaplains. And Nagasaki, as it happened, was the main bastion of Japanese Christianity, a tradition which had survived harsh persecution between 1600 and 1850. Its Urakami cathedral was an early mega-church with 12,000 members, and it provided the bombers with a landmark that could be identified at 31,000  feet. It has been estimated that 8,500 of those faithful died as a direct or indirect result of the bomb. Worshipers attending Thursday morning confessions were annihilated instantly by the fireball which exploded 500 meters above the house of prayer."

I am among those Christians divided about the use (and non-use) of nuclear weapons. I thought President Harry S. Truman made the right choice in dropping the bomb on Hiroshima because I believe that it ultimately saved many lives by bringing the war in the Pacific to a conclusion. I thought the second bomb on Nagasaki could have and should have been delayed and, ultimately, not dropped at all. But that's hindsight from someone who was only about eight months old at the time.

It is true that nuclear deterrence -- the eerily named policy of "mutually assured destruction" -- has kept nuclear war away since then precisely because both the U.S. and the Soviet Union (later Russia) have recognized that any use of nuclear bombs would mean the end of our civilizations as we know them. So having the bombs has, ironically, served a peaceful purpose.

But despite humanity's long history of being a warring animal, I'm not yet convinced that there's no other way to achieve peace than merely threatening to destroy one another in the most horrible way imaginable. I think we're capable of better than that, though for sure some days I wonder.

What Christianity and all religion should be about, of course, is peace and helping everyone live full and grateful lives. Somehow nuclear weapons seem anathema to all that. And I hope we can find a reliable way to de-nuke the world. The sooner the better. But to denuclearize unilaterally while evil rulers like Kim Jong Un still are in power is simply a way of committing national suicide.

* * *


Pope Francis, it's reported, is becoming the voice that speaks on behalf of the world's many refugees. For instance, this week a Vatican group he oversees issued this document about how those refugees should be treated. Give it a read. Then think of some politician who could benefit by reading it and send it along.

How the truth sets us free: 8-24-17

Recently here on the blog, I wrote about the various ways that Americans have bought into fake news, conspiracy theories and magical thinking.

Churchill-OrwellTruth becomes a casualty when that happens. Facts become what an aide to Donald Trump has called "alternative facts." In the end, we cannot diagnose our condition because we can't accurately describe our reality. It's one reason that world religions teach the importance of seeking and sharing truth, even while recognizing that sometimes truth is best communicated by metaphor, myth and allegory.

I've just finished reading a book by Thomas E. Ricks, Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, in which he praises both Winston Churchill and George Orwell for their uncanny ability to find and face facts and for how that led them to be important leaders -- one in statesmanship, one in literature -- who were able to guide people toward truth and liberty.

Ricks urges all of us to use Churchill and Orwell as models in being relentless about finding what is true and what is not.

"Facts," he writes, "are impressively dual in their effects. 'Truth and reconciliation' meetings in Argentina, South Africa and in parts of Spain's Basque country have demonstrated that facts are marvelously effective tools -- they can rip down falsehoods but can also lay the foundations for going forward.

"For democracies to thrive, the majority must respect the rights of minorities to dissent, loudly. The power often will want to divert people from the hard facts of a given matter, whether in Russia, Syria or indeed at home. Why did it take so long for white Americans to realize that our police often treat black Americans as an enemy to be intimidated, even today? Why do we allow political leaders who have none of Churchill's fealty to traditional institutions to call themselves 'conservatives'?

"The struggle to see things as they are is perhaps the fundamental driver of Western civilization. . .It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter."

So it's no wonder that Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, shot to the top of Amazon's best-selling book list when Donald Trump was elected president (and as of Wednesday was still No. 14). In the book, Orwell argues on behalf of the kind of truth that Trump and his ilk dismissed by pushing the erroneous idea that Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.

We cannot live without access to reliable information. When we try to, the values that religion teaches are among the first casualties.

* * *


Speaking of the truth setting people free, sometimes that can mean strange things. For instance, it's reported that a Catholic priest in Alexandria, Va., is now free from public ministry duties after he acknowledged the truth that as an "impressionable" young man he had participated in Ku Klux Klan cross burnings and other hateful activity. By all accounts he has repented of all that long ago and has been a faithful and effective pastor. So perhaps the church can find a way to use his compelling story of redemption.

The blind stupidity of racism: 8-23-17

HARRISON, Ark. -- Drivers traveling through here on northbound U.S. 65 close to the Missouri border can find evidence that the fragility of human reasoning undergirding white supremacy is not just alive and well but willing to take its place alongside billboards for car dealerships and restaurants.

Harrison-2The billboard you see here -- well, the bottom part of it, anyway (the top used to be a "Welcome to Harrison" sign) -- includes this website about fighting "white genocide." I don't recommend you spend much time there if you have anything like a weak stomach. If the site doesn't make you sick, you already may be sick.

One particularly sickening thing on the site is a photo of a man with white nationalist signs demonstrating in Harrison while behind him is a woman holding a Christian flag.

It's a reminder of how often religion in general and Christianity in particular has been drafted into armies supporting causes that are in violent tension with the foundational principles of the faith. (But this shouldn't come as a surprise to people familiar with Harrison. Its ties to white nationalism and the Ku Klux Klan are deep.)

And yet in white nationalist rhetoric from Charlottesville to Harrison, from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City it's possible to hear white supremacy justified on the basis of religion.

Not only does that make no sense at all, but white supremacy on its own, without religion underneath it, is based on a ridiculous misreading of history. Did not white people support the evils of slavery? Didn't they fight a Civil War to retain the right to own people as property? Didn't they bloody up Europe in World War I and World War II in support of fascism and Nazism and other isms, including communism, that have proven to be monstrous mistakes? And didn't the white people of Germany mostly stand by while their admired leader developed a plan to murder all the Jews of Europe -- a plan that almost succeeded?

I'm a white guy -- from Swedish and German stock. And in many ways that has made life easier for me. But to imagine that being white is somehow a superior condition or to pretend that the growing pluralism of the U.S. amounts to white genocide is lying of the worst sort.

What we do know -- from results of the Human Genome Project, for instance -- is that race is much more a political than a biological construct. Race is a simplistic category that's mostly a surrogate for skin color and it's often used to oppress people. In the end, there really is only one race -- the human race. And folks who put up ignorant, belligerent billboards so travelers on American highways can read them are standing in opposition to healthy religion, good science, plain common sense and basic decency. To do or say anything that might encourage people who believe diversity is a code word for white genocide is to join their ignorant armies.

(As the story to which I've linked you above on the words "are deep" notes, there are folks in Harrison fighting back. In fact, just up the road from the billboard pictured here is one that says, "Diversity: A Code Word for Salvation." That billboard may claim far too much but at least it's an effort to stand against the big lie of white supremacy. In any case, I'm really proud to live in a country that permits the kind of freedom of speech that allows even idolatrous prejudice to be spewed from billboards.)

* * *


This Baptist News story reports that some pastors find it difficult to preach against racism and white supremacy and still keep their jobs. Why would you want to keep your job if your congregation is full of racists and white supremacists? Either convert them to decency, preach the membership down to zero and start over or go somewhere with people open to hearing the truth.

What the two solar eclipses told us: 8-22-17

The first solar eclipse yesterday where we live in Kansas City was loud and wet (as this photo of our driveway shows). A storm cell moved through soon after 9 yesterday morning, blotting out the sun. And the moon wasn't at all responsible.

Eclipse-1I went to the Post Office in the downpour to pick up mail held for us while we spent several days in Arkansas celebrating Marcia's birthday and some long friendships. A woman ahead of me in line noted my sandals and opined that I was wearing the wrong kind of shoes for this weather.

"I know," I said. "But the good news is that we get two solar eclipses today."

 By 11:40 a.m., the sky over our neighborhood had mostly cleared, and I watched as a fingernail of the moon began to eat up the sun, imagining what people hundreds and thousands of years ago might have made of what surely to them was a frightening phenomenon.

Solar-2017As 1 p.m. approached, the outside world grew dimmer and dimmer. And then about 1:10, it was dark enough for the automatic outside porch lights on our house to turn on. Our neighborhood was a few miles south of the area of totality, so we didn't get a complete obliteration of the sun. But it was close -- and impressive, nonetheless.

The amateurish photo of the sun and moon you see here I snapped by putting my eclipse glasses over my camera lens. Still, it captures a bit of the mystery and mystique that folks like us all across the U.S. experienced yesterday.

Lots of people attach some kind of spiritual significance to events like a total eclipse. Why? Aren't we simply seeing the reality that science predicts?

Solar-2017-1Well, yes, but if we can't get beyond mere materialist science to appreciate a broader picture marinated in meaning, we'll miss a lot. Author Annie Dillard saw a total eclipse back in 1979 and wrote this lovely piece about it, which The Atlantic just republished online. It included these wise words:

"This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?"

And yet, at least so far, the cosmos -- though expanding at an accelerating rate and carrying with it all those loose spheres -- holds together. Laws of nature are dependable enough that we can build homes, plant crops, fly airplanes and cross bridges knowing that there is in the very structure of reality some kind of dependable foundation, some ground of being, as theologian Paul Tillich called it, that lets us live without fearing that the rules will change in 10 minutes and water will fall upward or the moon will smash into Earth and kill us all. What people of faith would add here about the dependable way the world works is something like the phrase, "as God intended."

We humans are fragile and it's true that we often are at the mercy of forces we can't control -- from solar eclipses to noisy thunderstorms (to ourselves, at times) -- but what people of faith trust is that God loves them and, in the end, they will be eternally safe. And that should be enough even in the darkest morning or noonday.

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The largest annual Christian festival in Great Britain has decided to expand its boundaries to include Muslims, it's reported. Good. This does nothing to disrespect Christianity. Rather, it's a demonstration of the kind of hospitality that Christians always should demonstrate.

Finding faith news while I'm gone: 8-21-17

HEBER SPRINGS, Ark. -- While I'm gone a few days with friends for an end-of-summer break, I'm going to give you a couple of sources from which to get updates about religious news.

NewspapersThe first is Religion News Service. This excellent group of journalists provides coverage of lots of religious matters. It's a good place to keep up. You can even support RNS with a donation.

Another good source of news and analysis in the world of faith is the Pew Research Center. Lots of studies worth reading can be found there, too.

While I'm gone I also invite you to explore the various essays I have here on the blog under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. And, of course, if you've missed any postings over the last 12-plus years I've been writing this blog, now's your time to go to the archives section on the right side of this page and catch up. 

Miss me. I plan to be back to regular blogging tomorrow, once the eclipse is gone and life has returned to something like abnormal.

By the way, many of you know that if you friend me on Facebook, a link to my daily blog will show up in your newsfeed.