Saturday, June 26, 2010


Note: In memory of E. Jeff Rohr (1923-2010) I am adapting and re-posting this earlier entry, which I wrote with him in mind.

   I have come that you might have life -- life in abundance.
      ~Jesus, in John 10:10

The hope for eternal life is -- at one basic level -- just an expression of selfishness: "Thank you God, that you are going to make sure that I, personally, will live forever." This may seem to some like blasphemy and to others like an understatement. At another level, of course, eternal life is a promise that comes out of the heart of God -- a promise of love. A God who is love seeks and in fact dies for an eternal relationship with the beloved. As Jurgen Moltmann has said, "God loves us so much that he cannot conceive of himself without us." Like a parent's love for a child. (Life was good before our daughters came along -- now I cannot conceive of my life without them.) So perhaps these two approaches are not mutually exclusive: As a child's self-centered self-comprehension does not negate a parent's love, so our grasping for something beyond this life does not exclude the possibility that this is God's very intention.

In fact, this is the point made in Jesus' chief description of God: the parable of the prodigal son. (A story that is better titled, "The Waiting Father," according to Helmut Thielicke.) The rebellious younger son demands his inheritance, spends it all in wild living and pleasure, then heads for home (and -- here's the thing!) not because he's repentant but because he's hungry! And what is the father's response? To hell with you? No, he runs out to meet his son (probably kind of an alarming approach when the kid looks up and sees him coming toward him), interrupts his son's carefully-rehearsed I'm sorry speech with a big hug -- and he throws a party. As one interpreter has put it, the father says, "This party is for me - I'm so happy!" And so it could be that what we call eternal life is something we're caught up in because the love of God is so broad and encompassing that we can't avoid it. Like that father's hug. Like infinity.

I actually didn't set out to write a sermon here. I was thinking of eternal life because I was thinking of my friend and mentor, Big Jeff, the Reverend E. Jeff Rohr (whom we laid to rest in beautiful Riverside, California this week), who said, "I trust God to his promises of the life to come, but living the Christian life is reward enough."

I agree. I submit that the Christian life -- a life of complete liberty lived as a response to God's free gift of grace -- holds up well when considered as a part of any philosophical conversation of what makes for "the good life." (It is we Christians ourselves who have stunted it and turned it into a set of religious rules primarily for the use of judging others.) But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Jesus didn't come to make us religious; he came to give us life." Jeff lived -- and lives -- that life. Here's to you, Big Jeff. Thanks.

The Christian is the freest lord of all, subject to no one; the Christian is the greatest servant of all, subject to everyone.~Martin Luther

Title citation: Paul, in 1 Timothy 6:19

Saturday, June 19, 2010


My brother-in-law and I have one of those quirky gift exchanges: There is a certain coffee mug we both admire -- a basic diner-style mug (I can’t recall who first owned it) -- so every Christmas one of us wraps it up and puts it under the tree for the other, in whose possession it remains until the next Christmas. We’ve been doing this for about twenty years; after the first five years we introduced a variation: We insert a gift, as long as it fits into the mug. That is, it can be thirty feet long or weigh a ton as long as some bit of it can fit into the mug. (Theoretically, my brother-in-law could give me a Porsche with the coffee mug dangling on the shift lever.) But I digress. Last Christmas my in-mug gift was a small, sleek, stainless steel, two-bladed Swiss Army pocket knife. I carry it all the time –- in my jeans’ pocket and in my clergy suit pants. I carry it all the time because I use it frequently, for all kinds of projects, expected and unexpected. I have to remind myself to take it out of my pocket before heading to the airport, and it’s like leaving a beloved puppy behind.

The knife is one of the things in my life that “works.” Many years ago, NPR had a brief series in which they invited listeners to send in an appreciation for something that worked in a satisfying way –- that delivered as promised (especially in a world where so many shoddy things are so frustratingly unsatisfying). It could be anything. I didn’t participate in that series, but today I would submit my little knife.

Or, I might send in a paean to my lawn mower. Twenty years ago I bought a bright orange Ariens lawn mower from a local dealer. When I see him, I sing the praises of my Ariens and I tell him that I’ve considered changing the oil, but I don’t want to jinx it. He responds with a sigh like the Maytag repairman.  I love my Ariens. It works. (I’ve heard that if I buy an Ariens today from a big-box store I will discover a diminished quality. I hope that’s not true.)

But my appreciation is not limited to the tool shed. I’m happy to report that my iPod Touch works. Superbly.  Not counting the books I’ve downloaded with my iPod Kindle app, I calculate that the ¼” depth of the Touch replaces at least eighteen inches of tomes and gadgets I would otherwise have to carry around: Dictionary, Bible, date book, memo pad, newspaper, laptop, CD player, etc. And in every application the Apple gods have delivered as promised. (I am intrigued by the question of what we lose when we gain such wonders – another issue for another time.) I’ve now read a number of books on iPod, and I agree with author Nicholson Baker who, in a review article in the New Yorker, didn’t like the Kindle very much but loved the iPod Kindle app. If you wrap the pod into a leather wallet or case, the feel in the hand even becomes quite book-like. It works.

Alas, if only I had a reader for this blog, I could ask for your submissions of what works for you. We could have a little exchange of ideas. Alas.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Update note: This was written just after Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with the cancer that would lead to his death, and just before I read his memoir, "Hitch 22," which was terrific.

Christopher Hitchens is a superb writer and an insightful social and literary critic. I have just purchased and am looking forward to reading his memoir, “Hitch 22.” (Here’s an enticing excerpt.) A wise and wily provocateur who challenges many of my beliefs, he fills the role that the late William F. Buckley used to play in my so-called intellectual life.

Although it is not surprising that -- as a Christian believer and a pastor -- I disagree with Hitchens’ atheism, my disagreement is not so much a black-and-white reaction to one who opposes what I stand for as it is based on a rare instance in which this probing and acerbic thinker may be accused of muddled thought. Like his fellow (but less congenial) “new atheists,” Hitchens’ critique has mainly to do with “religion” and the failings of the church (and Christians) -- a critique with which, for the most part, I agree -- and very little to do with whether or not there is a God. The “muddled” part is not just that he confuses religion with the existence of God, it is also that he gives scant evidence of acknowledging that many people of faith embrace skepticism and doubt, and are completely open to the world of science and ideas.

Abler critics than I have pointed out that the new atheists select the most insipid model of faith to attack as a straw man. Carl Sagan once wrote, “The difference between people of faith and people of science is that people of faith never question their authorities.” Sagan was apparently unaware of the Psalms! Or the whole tradition of biblical criticism. (As Douglas John Hall says, “The Bible writers will give up on the glory of God before they’ll ignore the reality of human suffering.”)

In an expression that Hitchens could almost sign on to, the theologian Adolph Harnack once complained, “Jesus promised the kingdom, and what did we get? The church!” The dastardly deeds of the church (most recently Roman Catholic sexual abuses, but Hitchens recites an historical litany of them) cause both Hitchens and me to shake our heads -- Hitchens at the idea that anyone could believe in a God who would condone such things, I at the idea that anyone could believe that such things could be attributed to God. The question “Is there a God?” hovers somewhat tangentially over the discussion.

Critical thinking makes strange bedfellows, and thoughtful, skeptical Christians have perhaps more in common with Christopher Hitchens’ approach than with the unquestioning religion of “Bible-believing” literalists. And, to use a recent coinage, “Who would you rather have a beer with?”

The Apostle Paul says that our human understanding is like looking into a cloudy glass. So there we stand, side-by-side, looking into that clouded window -- my friend Christopher Hitchens and I.

Is the burden of proof on the believer or the unbeliever? Here's a proposition that says it's equal.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


My wife found it amusing when, a number of years ago, I took on the assignment of becoming a disciple-like practitioner of “the non-anxious presence.” Her amusement was twofold: One, because I learned about it in a book* while she, it turns out, was one of those naturally non-anxious people all along, and; two, I am decidedly not a naturally non-anxious person so let’s just say that I continue to struggle with the concept.

If you will allow me to invent a statistic: About fifty per-cent of people are naturally non-anxious, and the other fifty per-cent of us are not. (And it seems that the two types often marry each other!)

Our kids think it was a good thing that they had at least one non-anxious presence in their childhood home. If asked, they will agree that they never heard their mother raise her voice to them…  ever… not once. Caryl says this is not so surprising, as she never heard her father raise his voice. And he was no wimp; he was a strong, self-reliant, successful farmer. He was just a non-anxious guy.

Me? Some of us, the book says, can learn to be non-anxious, and I’m still trying.

I’m a big proponent of talking things out. I used to demand -- in the middle of a conflict with one of our daughters – that we needed to discuss this right now (when she just wanted to escape to her bedroom). Caryl would calmly say, “Give her some time…, she needs some time.” And of course she was right. (And so did I -- need time, that is. One of the lessons of becoming a N.A.P is to wait until heads have cooled before discussing an issue.)

Although I confess that I’m still a student of N.A.P., I also need to say that what I have learned of it has changed my life. As Edwin Friedman says, “In a situation of anxiety, no real communication happens and no conflict gets resolved.” And in terms of parent-child relationships, someone needs to be the non-anxious one; it had best be the parent.

I’m thinking about this because President Obama is being criticized for “not being angry enough” about the oil spill. But I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment. I know his kind -- I’m married to one: He’s one of those naturally non-anxious types. As with my wife and my father-in-law this is not an indication of softness but rather of an inner strength. (Of course I realize that politics also come into play here, something I’ll happily take on in another post, but it’s not my intention to explore the politics of the matter right now.) After a life-time with my steely-soft non-anxious wife, and learning how to be a parent to two remarkable kids, and some real-life schooling in communication and conflict-resolution, I’ve finally concluded that the best way to express anger is to say, “I’m angry.” Non-anxiously.

*Generation To Generation, by Edwin Friedman, is a classic in the field of family systems theory. The first half of the book is a very helpful primer and introduction to the concepts of family systems. (The "non-anxious presence" is just one of the ideas that I was introduced to through this wonderful book.)