Saturday, November 28, 2015


Would Jesus want his followers to drink Budweiser, or some locally produced craft beer?  Would he urge them to eat Wonder Bread, or a freshly baked 12-grain loaf?  These are the kind of questions one can't help but think of when reading John J. Thompson's Jesus, Bread and Chocolate.  In fact, this intriguing volume might be described as a collection of object lessons for grown-ups.  You remember object lessons, don't you?  Sometimes called children's sermons, object lessons involved pastors taking some common everyday item, and using it to illustrate a theological point or to teach a moral principle.  Lots of preachers still use them, including from time to time me.  And arguably, Jesus used object lessons all the time--however we usually call those parables.

But I digress.  The objects Thompson writes about all fall into the general category of artisanal products.  Handmade, hand crafted, individualized things like craft beer, fair trade coffee, home baked bread . . . you get the idea.  Part of the book's charm lies in the details Thompson provides about the objects themselves.  He is a home brewer himself, and lovingly describes the process of creating beer.  "The grain must first be malted," he writes, by exposing it to just enough moisture so that the germ inside starts to grow." (165)  That kind of detail is offered up for coffee, chocolate, farmers markets and indie music.  Again and again he makes the point that what makes such things extra fine is the simple fact that they are not produced by machines and assembly lines, but rather by individuals who truly care about the end result.

The key to understanding Thompson's book can be found in the final paragraphs of his text where he writes:  "In confirmation class, I learned that a sacrament is 'an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.'  Therefore, cultivating taste for the good, the true, and the beautiful is a sacramental process.  How amazing is that?  There are outward and visible signs everywhere around us."  (254) Things that can be found in places like farmers markets or small local bakeries.  Throughout the book he attempts to point out the "inward and spiritual grace" tucked away in such common things--much like the germ inside the grain.

As Thompson's half-title indicates, he is advocating for "crafting a handmade faith in a mass-market world" or what he calls "an artisanal faith."  Occasionally he gets lost in the details, but for the most part he successfully makes his point.  His object lessons work. 

Thompson's book can be read cover to cover, or, one could benefit from picking out the chapters that intrigue and gleaning the wisdom contained in those so chosen.  To some extent, Thompson's writing is at its best when he focuses on very tangible objects and the lessons they have to convey.  It is less successful when he strays into the abstract. 

Which brings me back to my original questions.  I'm not sure how Thompson would answer them.  However, despite Bud being the self-proclaimed King of Beers, I suspect he would have us understand that the local craft beer would be the choice of the King of Kings.  And even though Wonder Bread claims to build strong bodies twelve ways . . . well, you figure it out!

(Disclosure of Material Connection:  I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255)
(Note to my readers:  I am now part of SpeakEasy, a network of bloggers who review books having to do with matters of faith.  Every four-six weeks I will feature a book review that I hope will be of interest to you.  Otherwise, this blog will continue to focus on those issues and ideas that impact our lives as people of faith.  Thank you for your continued loyalty to this blog!)

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Voice from the Past, Speaking Out for Today

The news these past few weeks has been full of stories about terrorist attacks around the world:  Lebanon, Mali, Paris.  And I am frightened.  Very frightened.  Not so much by the terrorists themselves, though their actions are cause for a measure of fear.  No what really frightens me is the vitriol of the response to their actions that seems to sweeping across the nation.  It especially concerns me when it is packaged as a "Christian" response. 

There is something especially frightening about the prospect of some sort of national registration based on religious affiliation.  The suggestion that all Muslims should register as such with the federal government is abhorrent.  And then to go on and suggest that all mosques should be kept under surveillance only increases the level of fear and hatred already present in this country.  Does that mean monitoring all those coming and going from mosques?  Does that mean embedding spies in all Islamic prayer services and classrooms?  We must step up and say no to such ideas.  Not later when they become actual regulations or laws, but now, while they are still only ignoble suggestions.  If for no other reason than to protect our own religious freedoms.  For if the government can do it to one religious group what is to prevent it from doing it to all?

These ideas, as so many have pointed out, smack of the Nazi's rhetoric and actions towards Jews and others in an earlier time.  Indeed, the words of Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant pastor who was held in a concentration camp for seven years, ring as true today as they did so many years ago.

"First they cam for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew.  And then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."

Yes, there are Islamic Radicals, Extremists, Terrorists at work in the world.  And we must seek to bring them to justice.  But we must not, absolutely must not, paint the millions and millions of Muslims around the world and in our own nation, with the same brush strokes.  We must stand up and say, No!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Enough is Enough

Sunday I attended a Communitywide Prayer Vigil in Fort Myers.  It was held in response to the gun violence in our county and beyond.  Many pastors, musicians, governmental leaders, law enforcement officials and just plain folks gathered to pray and sing and light candles and hold up our common concerns.  Near the end of the service we used a litany called "Vigilance after the Vigil."  An extremely well-written piece, it called on all of us who had assembled to not only pray, but to be willing to take action.

I was reminded on the slogan promoted in years past by an organization up north:  "Pray and Picket."  I am not sure the action called for in this case involves picketing or other such demonstrations, but the sentiment is there:  we can pray, we must pray, but we also must be willing to do more.  A reference was made to an old saying, sometimes attributed to St. Ignatius, that you must "pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you."  And an expression used by  Frederick Douglas was also quoted, inviting us to "put legs on our prayers."  However you say it--what ever slogan you use--the bottom line remains the same.  We've got to get up off our knees and work towards a solution.  That doesn't mean never return to our knees--but it does mean our efforts must include more than prayer.

I'm not sure what shape that will take in my own ministry.  I'm not sure what it will require of me.  But I know I agree with the overarching theme of the evening:  "Enough is enough."  The time has long since come and gone, when people of all faiths, and no faith, need to band together and strive for a more perfect union.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Dance of Life, The Dance of Death

Very early this morning I put Linda on a plane so that she could head up north to tell one of her closest friends goodbye.  The friend is in a hospice in New Jersey where she is receiving the palliative care she needs at the end of her life. Linda's friend is one of the brightest, most inquisitive people I have ever known.  She always, always, asks questions.  Good questions.  Tough questions.  Questions about faith, about politics, about social justice.  Throughout her life, she has consistently taken a stand for those who are downtrodden.  As a nurse, she often cared for those who others had shunted aside.  She has a rather wry sense of humor--and loves life.  She and Linda and another friend are planning a private dance party later this week.  At the hospice.  I'm not surprised!

Later this morning I got a call from a parishioner, telling me his wife of many years had died over the weekend.  For several years he has taken great care of her.  He wants to hold a Memorial Service for her later this week.  So we will sit down this afternoon and make plans.  She had identified a few elements she wanted to be included.  We'll look at hymns and scriptures, and we'll consider the story of her life.

Still later this morning, I spoke with the daughter of yet another parishioner.  The family had been debating whether or not to admit the parishioner into a local hospice.  After much discussion, they finally decided, with the full consent of the parishioner, to do just that.  The parishioner is a wonderfully feisty sort of person!  Always thinking about the other guy.   It was a hard decision--but well-considered.

Today marks All Souls Day.  That annual reminder that in the end death comes for us all.  And even if we would rather avoid it, there is no escaping that reality.  But today I have also been reminded , in a very dramatic fashion, that while each of us must walk that road, we needn't walk it by ourselves.  (Despite the old gospel song!)  For even when we walk though the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.  In friends, and family, in well-trained professionals--and yes, even in dance partners!
For in life--and death--and beyond death, love truly transcends all things.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Come Hell or High Water--or Even Zombies

I took my 11 year old granddaughter to the movies the other night.  She's a charming little girl who has had a rather challenging year as her parents have gone through a separation, and she has moved from her old home--where she had lived for her entire life --to dividing her time between her parents' two different apartments.  That night she told me she missed the old house . . . but I think it goes deeper than that.  I think she misses the sense of stability that she once had.  But enough of the psychoanalyzing!  She seems to be weathering it all fairly well.

While we were making our way to the movie theater we talked about the upcoming holiday.  I asked her about her costume. 

"What are you going to be for Halloween?" 

"A Zombie prom queen," she said.  "Mommy is going to help make the costume."  And then she proceeded to tell me all about their plan for assembling the various elements of the outfit.  I was pleased to here my daughter-in-law was encouraging such creativity, even if I would have preferred to hear my granddaughter was going to be a firefighter or something a little less gruesome. 

But then I got to thinking about it a bit.  And I remembered something I once heard about Disney movies, back in the old days of "Snow White" and "Pinocchio" and other great animated classics.  Frequently, it seems folks would complain about the fact that Disney movies included evil characters and even acts of violence.  (Albeit, mild by today's standards!)  Especially the death of Bambi's mother.  You remember that scene?  Where a hunter kills the mother deer, leaving a grieving fawn behind?  At any rate, one time I heard someone defend such inclusions on a psychological basis. Such things, they said,  allow children to work out some of their fears, some of their concerns, in a fictional setting, making it easier to cope in the real world when they are confronted by the challenges of reality. 

It made sense to me back then--and it still does today.  Yes, it all can get carried too far--and today often is.  But children do need safe outlets for expressing the feelings we all experience of fear and anger and sadness.  I'd still prefer a firefighter or princess for my eleven year old granddaughter.  But maybe a zombie prom queen is just what she needs in this challenging year.  Whatever the case, I think she knows that no matter what changes she may face in life, she's got a grandfather who loves her come hell or high water--or even zombies!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Putting a Different Spin On It (So to Speak!)

Yesterday I preached a sermon called "Not Again!"  My text was Mark 10:32-45.  In case that doesn't instantly bring the story to mind, it takes place as Jesus and his disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem for what will be the climatic last week of his life.  It begins with Jesus warning the Twelve that he will be facing great opposition when they get to the capital city, and furthermore, that he will be arrested, tried, and executed. The disciples, though, only hear what they want to hear:  they are going to Jerusalem, and that must mean that Jesus is about to make his move, and take his rightful place as King.

Two of the disciples, James and John, decide to put in a bid for special positions in Jesus' court.  Jesus uses the occasion to teach them and the others a lesson.  "Whoever must be great among you," he says, "must be your servant."  (Mark 10:43b)   I had begun the sermon by sharing a few quotations from various well known folks about politicians in general. They were not flattering.    I then  juxtapositioned the concept of servant leadership with what usually happens.  "Imagine,"  I said, "if that was the  attitude of all our elected officials!  They would be true public servants."

After the service one parishioner who came through the line at the back door, a parishioner who is very politically savvy, shook my hand, and said, while she liked the general thrust of the sermon, she wasn't very crazy about the wisecracks about politicians.  "We need to support those who are doing the right thing," she said, "those who are placing others ahead of themselves." 

I got to thinking about her observation, and remembered my daughter's middle school.  Back in the nineties, when she was in seventh grade, the school had a slogan that applies.  In an attempt to look at student behavior in a new way they had strung a big banner that read, "Catch Me Doing Something Right."  In child development circles it's called positive reinforcement.  And it can be very effective.

So what if we applied that to elected officials?  We often hear about the bad things they do--the mistakes they make.  Lots of ink and air time is devoted to pointing out the failures of government, and that is probably necessary.  But what if we devoted equal amounts of time and energy to celebrating the times when public officials put the public interest ahead of their own?  What if we celebrated those politicians who do address the needs of the poor and the marginalized?

We desperately need more servant leaders in government, in the church, in business and the not-for profit sector.  But we already have some.  And it is right for us to celebrate their good work.  Let's catch them doing something right--and then let's tell folks about it.  I'd love to hear about such folks--so send me an e-mail, let me know about the servant leaders you've encountered along the way. 

(The sermon can be found on our website,

Monday, October 12, 2015

Muslims and a Wise Word from C. S. Lewis

I am currently teaching a class here at the church on the theology of C. S. Lewis.  Best known, perhaps, for his children's books about the fantasy world of Narnia, Lewis was also a prolific apologist for the Christian faith.  He did not consider himself a theologian (he was an English professor)--but he had a way of making sense of complex theological concepts that appealed to everyday folks.

In the class we are going to be examining one of the chapters of Lewis' book Mere Christianity.  Based on a number of BBC radio talks he gave in the forties, it has continued to be a best seller even now, decades after its publication.  Now you need to understand something:  I greatly appreciate Lewis, but I often disagree with him.  He is far more orthodox, far more traditional, in his understandings of the faith than I am.  Still, he is a well-reasoned thinker, and his use of words is often quite beautiful.

Lewis opens the chapter we'll be discussing with these words (originally addressed to his radio audience):  "I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe.  If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through."  (Mere Christianity, 43)

That quote came to mind as I read about the anti-Islam, anti Muslim rallies that were organized this past weekend.  Some of the organizers even called on attendees to come with weapons!  And often, all this was (and is) in the name of Christianity.

I've got to tell you, I get so tired of the kind of thinking that says to love one thing you have to hate another.  And especially when Christianity is placed over and against other faith traditions.  You know, thinking that suggest to be a good Christian, you have to hate Jews.  To be a good Christian you have to say Islam is bad.  To be a good Christian . . . well, you get my point.  But it seems to me Jesus suggests there are only two requirements when it comes to being a good Christian:  loving God, and loving your neighbor.  Your Jewish neighbor.  Your Buddhist neighbor.  And yes, your Muslim neighbor.

Maybe we'd be better off if instead of looking at other people of faith as the enemy, we viewed them as neighbors.  And maybe then we can not only begin to address the common problems we share as human beings, maybe we can actually learn something.  Because Lewis is right:  "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that other religions are simply wrong all through."