Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Martin Luther King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.

When today we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1964 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic and painstaking work as a civil rights activist, I am struck by King’s words on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.  At the time, King was a young, relatively unknown Baptist minister who had just been chosen to lead the boycott.  In his first speech as the newly dubbed leader of the effort, he said this: “We have no alternative but to protest.  For many years we have shown an amazing patience.  We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were treated.  But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”

“To be saved from patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”  How often do we stop to think that our “salvation” includes deliverance from complacence with all that is wrong with our world?  Could this be what it means to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul in Philippians exhorts?  I can’t help but think so.

Today’s admonition in the devotional, Today, was to be “peace makers”:  “Cosmic peace has been secured by God in Christ (Colossians 1:19-20), yet God tells us to ‘let the peace of Christ rule.'”

When God “breaks into” our world in the person of Jesus Christ, God shows that “peacemaking” is not the same thing as just “keeping the peace.”  “Peacemaking,” I suspect, is nothing less than the disruption of our comfort with the status quo wherever “business as usual” fails to reflect the peace that God in Christ has already made with our world.  A peace that, if real, is inseparable from justice or freedom.

And yet we remarkably have the freedom to choose whether “to let the peace of Christ rule.”  God does not force God’s Self on us: God gives us free wills; but when we decide to be part of the peace that God has made with our world, which sometimes can be as simple as not getting in its way, we have the opportunity to live into a God-given dream.  A dream that King not only preached about but died for.

It is easy to die for certain things.  We can work ourselves to death by trying to build ourselves a nice retirement nest.  We can smoke and drink ourselves to death in the spirit of Christopher Hitchens, who said his two bad habits made him a better writer.  We can kill our very selves and who we were meant to be because of others’ expectations.  We can die trying to be good.  These forms of dying are almost second nature to us.  But to die because we truly believe in God’s dream- a dream that all of us will one day be “saved” from the injustices of our world, including our own complacence- how many of us will do that?

Whenever I drive by Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta or, en route to the gym, stroll down the “Walk of Fame” featuring the shoe prints of famous civil rights leaders, I cannot help but marvel at the proximity of King’s story and the deep legacy it leaves.  Which is a reminder, among many things, of the costliness of salvation and our invitation to be peacemakers.  Happy Birthday, Dr. King.  May you always rest in peace.


The below video, titled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus,” has stirred controversy on Youtube by implying that Jesus is opposed to religion.  Which begs a question: did Jesus come (at least in part) to abolish religion?  If you’re brave, leave your thoughts below.  I, for one, think that Jefferson Bethke (the video’s creator and preacher-rapper) is on to something- not dissimilar, I would add, from theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity.”

YouTube Preview Image



This bumper sticker may not appear in my forthcoming book, Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls. It's witty all the same.

“Jesus said to him, ‘What do you think, Simon?  When the kings of the world collect taxes or duties, who do they collect from?  From their own families, or from outsiders?’

‘From outsiders,’ he replied.

‘Well then,’ said Jesus, ‘that means the families are free.  But we don’t want to give them offense, do we?  So why don’t you go down to the sea and cast out a hook?  The first fish you catch, open its mouth and you’ll find an coin. Take that and give it to them for the two of us.'” -Matthew 17:25-27

With Tax Day not far around the corner, how’s this for an option? Instead of taking the trouble to fill out all of that annoying paperwork, or paying H&R Block to spare you the pain, just go fishing instead.  When you catch your first fish, be it the coy in your next-door neighbor’s backyard pond or that ugly grouper on the open seas, look for a coin or two in the fish’s mouth and send that to Uncle Sam.

Weird.  Just plain weird.  What could Jesus possibly be talking about here?

For starters, it helps to recognize that Jesus has a deadly sense of humor.  He can be very good at dropping cynical, outlandish one-liners, and this is very likely one of those moments.  Does it mean that Simon is actually meant to go fishing for the temple tax? Probably not- although if Jesus wanted to make this happen, I am sure he could.

What can safely be concluded from this passage is that Jesus is not a fan of the temple tax, which has become just another way to prop up a corrupt religious system, usually on the backs of the poor.  Not long from now we will see him in the temple unleashing his anger.  He overturns the tables of the money changers, declaring “my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).

That bumper sticker that reads “Born Free, Taxed to Death”?  It’s not too different from the message that Jesus is sending here in his exchange with Simon Peter.  Because in Jesus’ time, God’s holy meeting place had turned into the local mall, or worse.  Those T.V. evangelists we often see offering healing to the next caller with a working credit card?  They were all over the place in the temple, cheaper by the dozen, you might say.  And they were sending the message that God’s Love could be purchased for a few extra gold coins.

I suppose this sort of thing makes Jesus of all people especially angry.  If he has any idea what is in store for him- and Scripture gives an indication that he does- then he knows the costliness of God’s Love. He is about to demonstrate it on a cross.  So Jesus has little time for religious leaders who claim they possess God’s Love by selling it to line their pockets.

Does this righteous anger suggest that Jesus would vote Republican or for politicians who promise lower taxes?  Does it imply that he is a card-carrying Tea Party member?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Chances are that if Jesus were running for office, he would do plenty to infuriate both parties.  Chances are that Jesus might not even vote.  Who really knows?  Because the truth of the matter is that we can’t answer this question from Scripture- and we ought to distrust anybody who claims to know Jesus’ political persuasion (be it Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other) on the basis of Scripture.

What we do know from this passage is that even as Jesus rejects injustice he chooses to pick his battles. Sure, he thinks the temple tax is wrong; but in this case we don’t see him inciting Peter to loud protest. Instead we see Jesus placating his rivals in a bit of a “wink-wink” moment with one of his disciples.  His words here signify a coup-d’état of wit, with a view to dying in the ditch (or, in this case on a cross) for his principles later.

Jesus, I suppose, is no soundbyte-fed protester.  He is a shrewd strategist with unwavering ideals- the priceless, undomesticated love of God for all human beings being one of them.  And he is willing to die for those ideals when the time is right.

If you are still unsure about how to vote, you might try consulting Beliefnet’s “Politic-O-Matic” here:

“I’m telling you the truth:  if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.  But this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”  Matthew 17: 20,21

Jesus’ claim here is weird because it seems so preposterous.  If an itty-bitty display of faith on our parts can move a mountain, why is it that so often the “Mt. Everests” in our lives have an annoying habit of standing still, despite our best efforts to believe in God’s healing?  The dear friend dying from cancer whose healing we have prayed for over and over again.  The broken marriage that we keep pouring our best into with the hope that God will restore it.  The homeless person you pray for every day, who is still jiggling their tin can at the local CVS asking for money while high on crack.

When Jesus makes this bold statement, he is responding to his disciples’  unsuccessful attempt to heal a man’s epileptic son. Which is notable in itself because the text tells us that the disciples have already witnessed many displays of divine power in answer to their prayers: when Jesus had sent them out in pairs in the power of the Holy Spirit, they had healed the sick, raised the dead and cast out demons (10: 8)- but here the disciples find themselves in a bind. This child’s condition is a tough nut to crack even for these spiritual heavyweights.  Which can leave us feeling a bit inadequate.  I mean, if we were at the gym, these guys would be pushing the 200-pound barbells while we would be flexing those wimpy 5-pound dumbbells.  Where does this leave us?

The answer, Jesus says, is faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed.

For a long time what has made this passage so difficult is my presumption that Jesus had to be talking literally here.  That when he says “I tell you the truth” there is no note of hyperbole in his voice. That he is rattling off a fact like any other, so that he could just as well be talking about today’s weather. Which is a strange inference, really, because there are plenty of places in Scripture where Jesus is clearly using exaggeration to make a point- “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to enter the eye of a needle” being just one example.

"If I, a one-eyed shoemaker can do it, you can, too!"

But if Jesus is talking literally here, can our faith really move mountains?  Many Egyptian Christians think so.  They record the tenth-century story of a Muslim caliph who came to the Christian patriarch, Abba Abraam, asking the very same question we are, only with an accompanying threat to make the skin crawl: if the Patriarch and his Coptic Christian flock could not make the mountain move, their God was false and they would be put to death; and they had three days to come up with an answer.  All the Copts fasted and prayed for three days, at the end of which the Patriarch was led in a dream to humble, one-eyed Simon the Tanner, whom God had chosen to move the mountain.  Tradition holds that Simon, the Patriarch and their Coptic Christian flock all went out to the mountain with their Muslim interlocutors and prayed, chanted and bowed some forty times; and most remarkably, every time they raised their head in prayer, the mountain moved up, and every time they lowered it, the mountain moved back down again.

This story may be true- as true as stories of manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea centuries earlier.  But whether or not it is true, and whether or not Jesus is talking literally here, I suppose the point is not so much our faith as it is God’s greatness. Greatness in the fact that even the things that we puny human beings think are totally impossible are of little difficulty to an all-powerful God.

I’ve often heard it said that we human beings use anywhere between 2 and 10 percent of our actual brain capacity.  Which always leaves me wondering how I might tap into the other 90 to 98 percent. (Any ideas?) I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is sharing a similar sentiment when it comes to our spiritual life. Maybe the disciples had become smug in thinking that God’s healing depended on their own efforts. Maybe they had begun to doubt that God really was nearer than breath itself, all the while waiting for us to reach out in faith and claim God’s promises.  Maybe they had fallen back into living in that 2 percent zone in which God was safely relegated to prayers for parking spaces but couldn’t be appealed to for help with the much bigger stuff.

Yet Jesus here seems to be saying that there is so, so, so much more available to us in the way of God’s healing power.  All we need to do is reach out and ask for it- sometimes with our whole being, in prayer and fasting. And in this sense, yes, our faith can move mountains.



Ruby Bridges goes to school accompanied by U.S. marshals.

“Make ready for the Christ, whose smile- like lightning- sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh- like dynamite.”-Thomas Merton

Just the other day my son played his first basketball game as the only white kid in the 6-and-under age category on his team, “The Freedom Riders,” (which plays at the Martin Luther King Natatorium a few blocks from our home in downtown Atlanta).  This accomplishment was no small thing for our family: it had been preceded by several instances of our son showing up to practice only to stand crying on the sidelines, adamantly refusing to join the rest of the group and kicking and screaming with any parental efforts to cajole him to play.  Apparently, our five-year-old had felt not just intimidated but downright terrified by the prospect of being the only white kid on the court.

The experience has deepened my appreciation for the tremendous courage it would have taken to be one of the first black children to show up for class at an all-white school during the early years of the civil rights era.  Take six-year-old Ruby Bridges, for example, who in first grade had to be escorted to class by U.S. marshals and who watched as some white parents literally dragged their children out of class because Ruby was there.

It would have demanded that same level of courage to be one of the first Freedom Riders.  When in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat for a white passenger, this seamstress at a local department store may not have had much in the way of status or worldly power.  But her courage was enough to spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and it was enough to inspire similar acts of bravery by the men and women who, starting in the 1960’s, began to ride various forms of public transportation as a way to challenge existing segregation laws.  Last May marked the 50th anniversary, in fact, of the day when the first 13 of these activists set off on a bus headed south to confront racial discrimination.  You can find photos that tell their story here:

These Freedom Riders were otherwise ordinary people.  I have to believe that what distinguished them was their conviction and a capacity to suffer for it.  They must have believed that being fully human meant being fully free- so much so that they would not let anything stand in the way of that freedom.

I also suspect that inside each of us there is the courage of a “Freedom Rider.”  We might have to dig deep to find it.  We might, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have to withstand a painful chiseling away of layers of sediment in order to uncover it.  But, I suspect that there is a core to each of us that resists those things that would tell us we are not free.  A flicker of life that fiercely desires liberation for ourselves and others from the powers, principalities and systems in place that seek to oppress and enslave us.

The Gospel tells us that in Jesus we are set free from sin and death (Romans 8:2), and that it is for freedom’s sake that Jesus set us free (Galatians 5:1, 13).  God, more than anyone- including our own self- wants us free, free from our various forms of bondage in order to be free for a life of freedom in the Spirit.  Until we are free, I suspect we will just be kicking and screaming on the sidelines of where true joy and God’s justice are. Will we have the courage to step out and play?  Can we ask God to give it to us?

Find some of Beliefnet’s prayers for strength here:

Mark Driscoll, the founding and preaching pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, apparently has a new book out titled Real Marriage:  The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together.  I was introduced to Driscoll’s book by a friend (Rachel Held-Evans) of a friend (Michael Frost) on Facebook, and while I have not read it, I now feel qualified, having read Rachel Held-Evans’ very helpful review of the book, to register my own deep discomfort with pastors who take it upon themselves to wax as experts on every matter under the sun- from what we do with our checkbooks to how we perform in bed.  Held-Evans is right: in a celebrity culture that places pastors on a pedestal, “evangelicals expect too much of their pastors,” with the result being that we set our pastors up for all sorts of failure.

This gripe may be my biggest after reading about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in Driscoll’s book. But it certainly is not the only.  Why, for example, do we evangelicals so often read Scripture like a self-help manual, so that the beauty of erotic poetry in Song of Songs can become little more than a prescription for how wives (in Driscoll’s case) should pleasure their husbands?  Why do we evangelicals tend to place marriage on a pedastal over singleness, with the implication being that we are not complete persons if we find ourselves without a spouse?  Why, similarly, do we evangelicals (who by definition claim to have such a high view of Scripture) find it so easy to read deeply contextualized Scripture passages with a view to propping up our own agendas, so that the Driscolls (wife Grace included) might just as well “color code” all the sections in the Bible that support a very particular, traditional form of American marriage in which a wife “submits” to her husband?  These are only a few of my gripes, thanks to Held-Evans’ review.  I include it in full below.  If it makes your blood pressure soar, don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Evangelicals expect too much of their pastors.

In addition to demanding they serve as nearly flawless leaders and teachers, many of us demand that our pastors serve as professional counselors and advisors, experts on everything from politics to science to sex to health to money to marriage to relationships.

As a result, some pastors simply crumble beneath the weight of the pressure, “faking it” for years and then burning out. Others develop a heightened sense of self-importance and arrogance, as they slap the word “biblical” in front of each of their opinions, claiming to speak on behalf of God on every given topic. Still others live complete lies, lecturing the congregation on the importance money management on Sunday while struggling to overcome secret credit card debt on Monday. Others project their insecurities and obsessions onto their followers and demand that everyone look just like them. Very few manage to remain humble, honest, and brave in the face of our unrealistic expectations.

And so I believe we all bear some responsibility for creating an environment in which controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll can write a book about sex and marriage that tops the Amazon bestseller list.

Given Driscoll’s alarming preoccupation with sex and “masculinity,” and the immaturity with which he has addressed these subjects in the past, one would think Christians would approach this book the way they would approach a book about nutrition written by a pastor who struggles with obesity…(or a book about overcoming procrastination written by me!) But Pastor Mark continues to grow a devoted and impassioned following, which means thousands of couples around the world will be looking to his new book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace, for advice.

The Good

It’s no secret that I’ve expressed concerns over Driscoll’s teachings and antics in the past, particularly those that encourage the bullying of men who don’t fit into Driscoll’s macho-man mold, but I tried to approach this book with an open in mind, and indeed I found some pleasant surprises in Real Marriage.

The chapter on the importance of nurturing a true friendship in marriage includes some good reminders about kindness and reciprocity. I thought Grace wrote a brave and honest chapter about sexual abuse. In places where Mark has been insensitive in the past, he seems to have softened a bit. For example, rather than insisting that a woman stay attractive for her husband lest he be tempted to cheat on her, Mark suggests that a man make his own wife his standard of beauty (and vice versa). He does a much better job of emphasizing mutuality in sexual relationships than he has in the past, (though I’ve never quite understood why so many complemementarians insist on hierarchal-based relationships in which wives submit to their husbands “in everything,” while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of mutuality when it comes to sex…but that’s a topic for another day).

The Bad

Books that claim to prescribe “biblical sex” will always be selective. Much of the Bible was written at a time when women were typically sold to their husbands as teenagers, polygamy was the norm, and losing your virginity before marriage…even being raped…could get you stoned. Even in the famous “household codes” of the epistles, instructions for women to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters. And so comparisons between modern marital relationships and those of an ancient near eastern culture should always be approached with caution and with attentiveness to context. (I’ve written more about this in my forthcoming book.)

Grace’s chapter on submission will make egalitarians cringe, but it would take too long to dissect all her arguments here. Let’s just say it drove me crazy to see the biblical character Vashti criticized for not submitting to her husband (by refusing to parade around naked in front of his drunken friends!?) and Esther praised for graciously submitting (by illegally requesting an audience with her husband, who she was forced to marry after he slept with hundreds of other concubines to pick his favorite?!). Grace’s conclusion that “[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands,” fails massively to understand the context of that story.

Mark also misses the point when he praises Martin Luther and his wife Katherine because “they set in motion a model for Christian faith and maturity through marriage, sex, and children, rather than through singleness and celibacy,” a position that wholly discounts the apostle Paul’s high praise for celibacy in 1 and 2 Corinthians. I don’t know why Christians keep fighting over which is better—singleness or marriage—when it seems rather obvious, both from Scripture and from Church history, that both can glorify God.

As he has in the past, Mark essentially reduces the Song of Songs to a sex manual, instructing wives to be “visually generous” with their husbands. Believing the poem to be about Solomon himself, Mark has to admit that the impassioned exchanges between the two lovers must have occurred “before the multiple wives and concubines ruined the love and oneness they had together.”

The chapter entitled “Can we…?” which has scandalized so many people with its advice on everything from oral sex, to role playing, to sex toys really isn’t that shocking to me. It seems like common sense that couples should feel free to engage in such activities if both partners enjoy them, so long as they don’t become obsessions. The fact that Christian couples seem to need the approval of a pastor along with some strategically placed Bible verses in order to engage in these activities is a bigger concern to me. It seems that we are once again demanding more from the text and from our pastors than they can and should give.

In short, believers should be wary of overzealous attempts like these to prescribe “biblical sex,” when sex—like beauty and like God—remains shaded with mystery. Paul likens the love between a man and a woman to the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, the writer of Proverbs to the inscrutable way of an eagle in the sky. When sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes and strictly enforced roles, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love.

The Ugly

As others have noted, the book focuses so much on sex that it can create the impression that it’s the most important element of marriage. Also, as I’ve noticed before, Mark has the tendency to project. Because his wife was abused in the past, he believes that the majority of women were abused in the past. Because he and Grace struggled with their sexual relationship, he believes that most couples struggle with their sexual relationship. Because he likes sports and hunting, he assumes that “real men” like sports and hunting. Because his marriage is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission, he believes that “real marriage” is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission.

In addition, Pastor Mark provides us with a few of his classic face-palm-inducing quotes:

“The previous church I had attended was Catholic, with a priest who seemed to be a gay alcoholic. He was the last person on earth I wanted to be like. To a young man, a life of poverty, celibacy, living at church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell, so I stopped somewhere around junior high. But this pastor was different. He had been in the military, had earned a few advanced degrees, and was smart. He was humble. He bow hunted. He had sex with his wife.” – p. 9


“We did have mediocre sex that eventually resulted in five children and one miscarriage.” – p. 15

But by far the most disturbing part of the book is the first chapter, in which Mark and Grace go into extraordinary detail about their troubled sexual relationship. In this section, Grace is often cast as the damaged and sinful wife who withholds sex from her deserving husband, Mark the hero who is justified in leaving his wife but instead comes along to rescue her. The amount of guilt and shame that pervades this part of the book makes me so sad.

The review over at Friendly Atheist explores this section in more detail, but here’s an excerpt:

My previously free and fun girlfriend was suddenly my frigid and fearful wife. She did not undress in front of me, required the lights to be off on the rare occasions we were intimate, checked out during sex, and experienced a lot of physical discomfort because she was tense…One night, as we approached the birth of our first child, Ashley, and the launch of our church, I had a dream in which I saw some things that shook me to my core. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating. It was so clear it was like watching a film — something I cannot really explain but the kind of revelation I sometimes receive. I awoke, threw up, and spent the rest of the night sitting on our couch, praying, hoping it was untrue, and waiting for her to wake up so I could ask her. I asked her if it was true, fearing the answer. Yes, she confessed, it was. Grace started weeping and trying to apologize for lying to me, but I honestly don’t remember the details of the conversation, as I was shell-shocked. Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her.” (p. 6, 11-12)

What’s perhaps most interesting about all of this is that Mark admits that this was how he felt about his wife and his marriage while he was confidently preaching through his first Song of Solomon series at his growing church!

“In the second year of the church we had a lot of single people getting married,” he writes, “so I decided to preach through the Song of Songs on the joys of marital intimacy and sex. The church grew quickly, lots of people got married, many women became pregnant, and my counseling load exploded. I started spending dozens of hours every week dealing with every kind of sexual issue imaginable…Although I loved our people and my wife, this only added to my bitterness. I had a church filled with young women who were asking how they could stop being sexually ravenous and wait for a Christian husband, then I’d go home to a wife whom I was not sexually enjoying.” (p. 15)

He also notes: “I grew more chauvinistic. I had never cheated on a girlfriend, but I never had a girlfriend who did not cheat on me. And now I knew that included my own wife. So I started to distrust women in general, including Grace. This affected my tone in preaching for a season, something I will always regret.” (p. 14)

While I appreciate Mark and Grace’s honesty in admitting that they don’t “have it all together,” and while I would never expect a pastor to preach only on subjects which he or she has mastered, the fact that Mark was not only making some of his most famous (and controversial ) comments about women and sex during this difficult time in his marriage, but also providing counseling to couples, says something disturbing about the degree to which he can live in dishonesty and denial…and, perhaps, the degree to which we allow (even expect!) our pastors to do so.

It will also inevitably raise questions in the reader’s mind about how much of the content of Real Marriage can be trusted. (I personally find that whole bit about Mark’s “vision” a little strange.)

By his own admission, Driscoll’s troubled sex life affected his teaching of Scripture, so it will not do for Christians to continue to insist that pastors who teach the “timeless truths of Scripture,” cannot be wrong.

Which brings me back to my original point: Just because someone is a pastor does not mean that he or she is an expert on sex…or money or relationships or marriage. Christian couples struggling in their marriage should seek professional counseling, and not rely exclusively on a single pastor (or his or her interpretation of Scripture) for help.

Meanwhile, evangelicals in particular need to do something about our celebrity-pastor culture. Mark Driscoll is simply not qualified to serve as a sex therapist—most pastors aren’t!

True maturity is marked not by how much a person knows but by the wisdom he or she shows in discerning when to speak with authority and when to hold back. And when it comes to maturity, I’m afraid that Pastor Mark still has a long way to go. 

"The four horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Just the other day I heard someone speculate that 2012 could be the year of Jesus’ return.  At the very least, we weren’t getting any further away from the day.  But, if you’re wondering whether to stop investing in your 401K plan and start building a fallout shelter, or make for the highest summit closest to you with a stock pile of bottled water and freeze-dried foods, you may want to think again.  Mitch Horowitz, Huffington Post blogger and author of Occult America:  The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, has shared the following “top ten myths” behind the notion that 2012 could be the year in which the world as we know it ends:

The ancient Mayan people, whose empire extended across much of Central America from late-antiquity to the 1500s, maintained a complex system of calendars — which, oddly enough, ended with this year, 2012. This anomaly in Mayan timekeeping has caused many today to wonder whether the great calendar-makers foresaw an apocalypse in our era. The truth is more complex. Here are today’s top 10 myths about 2012.

1. OK, it’s past 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2012. Why didn’t anything happen?

Actually the great endpoint of the Mayan Long Count calendar is winter solstice 2012, which falls on Dec. 21 of this year. Keeping counting.

2. Is the world really going to end on winter solstice? Yikes.

Not according to most people who’ve recently written on the topic. Author John Major Jenkins has tracked some remarkable astronomical phenomena due to occur this year, in particular a “galactic alignment” of the earth, sun and a black hole at the center of the galaxy. While that may sound ominous to people who follow portentous signs, Jenkins finds nothing in Mayan literature to suggest an apocalypse. Ditto for writer Daniel Pinchbeck who, like Jenkins, envisages a shift in consciousness rather than a global meltdown. An earthly sign of what these and other writers have in mind, perhaps, is the worldwide protest/Occupy movement.

3. But the Mayan civilization DID predict the world’s end, right?

The truth is: We don’t know. Virtually no surviving Mayan carvings or documents make any reference to 2012, beyond the calendar system. Conquistadors and missionaries destroyed vast amounts of Mayan records and scholarship beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1500s. We are left today with just remnants of Mayan thought. Hence, what these ancient mathematicians and calendar-makers actually believed would happen in 2012 remains a mystery of the antique world.

4. But other signs in the environment point to something creepy happening, don’t they?

Actually, one legitimate cause for environmental concern that is sometimes tied to 2012 is the problem of solar flares, which could disrupt electrical grids. Author Lawrence Joseph, a 2012 theorist, has written very ably on this question — though he doesn’t necessarily pinpoint the issue to the calendar year 2012 itself.

5. I should stock up on water and provisions just in case, right?

Well, Napoleon put it this way: “Every plan immediately fails upon contact with the enemy.” Hence, it’s really difficult to say whether generators, freeze-dried food or the massive jug of water that leaked in our kitchen last night (this is true) will make any difference for anyone, anywhere, on Dec. 21, 2012, or any other day. Ethical living, on a personal and global level, takes precedence any day in my book.

6. The famous early-20th century psychic Edgar Cayce foretold bad tidings for 2012, didn’t he?

No. While this rumor widely circulates on the web, and while Cayce did forecast earth-change prophecies for the late 20th century, he never uttered a word about 2012.

7. But the soothsayer Nostradamus warned us over 2012, right?

Again, no. While this is another rumor that makes the rounds online and in tabloid weeklies, the Renaissance-age seer never mentioned 2012. Of course, many analysts of Nostradamus would find that debatable. Nearly all of the middle-French quatrains produced by Nostradamus were imbued with ambiguous, shadowy images and language, which led to the profitable development of a cottage industry out of their interpretation and translation. But the best scholars in the field, which include Stephane Gerson (author of a monumental forthcoming biography of the seer) and Richard Smoley, who has recently retranslated the middle-French quatrains, find nothing in the work of Nostradamus that deals specifically with the year 2012 (or with the events 9/11 either, for that matter).

8. Didn’t a computer program called Web Bot predict a 2012 apocalypse?

The Web Bot Project is a program that scans the Internet for repeat phrases to search out cultural and business trends. Its findings are broad and widely open to interpretation — and some do use its data for prognostication. But it hasn’t pinpointed anything that plainly speaks to 2012.

9. I’ve heard the earth’s magnetic poles could shift in 2012.

This too makes the rounds online. If the magnetic poles suddenly shift our climate and environment could be thrown asunder, according to theorists. The author John White has written an authoritative book on this very question and finds little evidence for a sudden, contemporary pole shift. 

10. OK, so this is all a bunch of hooey from a backwards primitive culture, right?

Again, the truth is more complex. The Maya were an extraordinary civilization, possessed of a greatly intricate and multilayered system of calendars, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, geometry and religion. They were a truly great civilization, on par with other ancient cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans. The fact that they abruptly ended their calendar on winter solstice 2012 is a historical mystery. Did they believe this year marked a great transition? An endpoint of some sort? Or were they merely taking a break in their vast system of time-keeping? We really don’t know. But anyone who is fascinated with the philosophies of the ancient world has a legitimate interest in wondering what the Maya had in mind.

Next up: some reflections on courage and Martin Luther King Day and a continuation in our “Weird Jesus Sayings.”

“You’ve been given the gift of knowing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus replied, “but they haven’t been given it.  Anyone who already has something will be given more, and they will have plenty. But anyone who has nothing- even what they have will be taken away!  That’s why I speak to them in parables, so that they may look but not see, and hear but not understand or take it in.”  -Matthew 13:12 (Translation by N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)

So we’re back to our “weird sayings of Jesus” series, and this one may top the list for me.  Maybe you can identify: the claim that those who have something will be given more, and those who have little will lose even that, inflames my innate sense of justice.  If you’re a parent then you know what I mean. Try putting five M&M’s in front of your two-year-old and one M&M in front of your five-year-old- and then take the one M&M away from your five-year-old and give it to your two-year-old.  The ensuing protest will make you wish you had never tried the sick experiment, as will the call from Defax citing emotional abuse.

So there is something downright weird if not deeply insulting and disturbing about Jesus’ claim here- maybe precisely because it overturns our human understandings of fairness.  The question is, what can Jesus possibly mean when he says this?  What is he getting at?

And here again context becomes important.  Just one verse later Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah, who was speaking to a people who had plugged their ears to God’s voice.  Isaiah’s message, like that of all the prophets, brought the life-giving promise of redemption and restoration, but in this case, judgment was to come first. The great tree that was God’s people would have to be cut down- quite literally “stumped”- before it could grow strong, flowering branches. New life could only arise after Israel had been humbled by her waywardness and misdeeds (Isaiah 6:9-13).  Budding, prosperous growth? This would have to come from the stump.

Jesus’ words here contain a warning then about the parabolic nature not only of his stories but of his life itself.  If you want to know me, you have to listen carefully, Jesus seems to be saying; and if my words and actions are falling on deaf ears then chances are you have not been listening at all; chances are you have resigned yourself to be one of the sick trees in need of a good, painful trim.

Atlanta is known for its big, leafy trees.  We have a couple in our backyard.  This summer one of them began to lean a bit too closely over our next-door neighbor’s roof, in addition to showing signs that it was rotting from the inside-out.  We knew that it was time for a painful pruning- an experience that would be as painful for the tree as it would be for our bank account.

I researched a number of local tree cutting businesses, including one that called itself “The Tree Cowboy.”  After watching a bit of the ensuing operation, I could appreciate the name’s significance: you have to lasso the tree and then one of the braver “cowboys” has to climb up into the branches with a large trimmer and saw away, all the while perilously perched some fifty feet above the ground.  (I was glad we were paying somebody else to do this.)

But that dear old tree with the long, overhanging, leafy branches in no time became a stump: a thorough cutting was the tree’s judgment for forsaking good neighborliness by selfishly crowding out the next-door neighbors’ sky and threatening to one day topple over onto their house.  And we were assured that in the end, our tree, despite its humbler, less regal appearance, was now actually healthier- that its rotted stump might now have a chance to live again when it otherwise would have been condemned to die.

This is Jesus’ message, too.  When we forget to love God and our neighbors as our selves, we may grow proud and strong for a time, but judgment awaits us.  We will be cut down to real size.  The very little we have will be taken away.

The good news is that God’s judgment never comes without restoration.  We know this from Isaiah and the prophets.  If we fast-forward just a bit to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can see this same pattern in the life of One who chose to be cut down for us.  In our place.  So that we would not have to bear the full brunt of the tree-cutting operation.  Jesus, you might say, became the stump so that we would not have to.

He also, in rising from the dead, became the life-giving tree, or “vine” (John 15:5).  And when we dwell in Jesus, and abide in His life-giving presence by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to experience the “more” that awaits us.  More strength.  More life-giving goodness. More freedom to be who we were made to be.

This is the great mystery of the Gospel- that in dying we live- and the older I get, the more I suspect this same cruciform pattern shapes the reality of all of life, including the universe itself.  It is what great poets, theologians and scientists alike have marveled at.  Take these lines from the nineteenth century German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his “The Holy Longing,” for example:

Tell a wise person, or else keeps silent,

Because the massman will mock it right away.

I praise what is truly alive,

what longs to be burned to death.


In the calm water of the love-nights,

where you were begotten, where you have begotten,

a strange feeling comes over you

when you see the silent candle burning.


Now you are no longer caught

in the obsession with darkness,

and a desire for higher love-making

sweeps you upward.


Distance does not make you falter,

now, arriving in magic, flying,

and finally, insane for the light,

you are the butterfly and you are gone.


And so long as you haven’t experienced

this: to die and so to grow,

you are only a troubled guest

on the dark earth.

I suspect that everything in life is somewhere in this process of dying and being reborn- as are we. Our only choice is to resist or surrender to this all-encompassing reality.  When we resist, the very little we have to begin with burns up with the rest of the timber.  We see ourselves in the face of “only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”  But when we surrender, we join ourselves to that great, cosmic work of redemption- much like the “higher love-making” to which Goethe refers- that begins and ends in Jesus Christ.  And this is the “more” that Jesus promises, which is really more of life itself.  In the spirit of T.S. Eliot, who said “to make an end is to make a beginning,” may this New Year be one of living into the more that God holds for us.

Read more of Beliefnet’s New Year’s quotes here:

Carlos Eire's book was published in 2010 by Princeton University Press.

I recently finished a wonderful, little book by Yale historian Carlos Eire. The book lives up to its name: it manages to cover in relative brevity the breathtaking expanse of “eternity” from its very first beginnings in antiquity to its life (or lack thereof) in the present.  As the offspring of Eire’s involvement in a round table at the University of Virginia on “lived theology,” the book traces the impact of eternity as a concept on how people throughout history actually lived their lives.

And I must confess that from his very first lines, Eire captures his reader’s attention:  “Why dawdle?,” he begins.  “Let’s stare the monster in the eye, close up, right away: this book amounts to nothing, and so do you and I, and the whole world.  Less than zero.”

What proceeds is a sobering description of the fate of our universe- from the sun’s incineration of all living things on earth some one billion years from now, to some four billion years later, the total annihilation of both the sun and planet Earth.  Eire concludes, in referencing the various scientific prophecies out there, that “our universe is in for a very rough and tragic ride.”  Even so, this cosmic gloom and doom belongs to a long, unfathomable stretch of road called “eternity” that human beings for centuries have been trying to make sense of.

Only more recently (relatively speaking, of course) has the subject of eternity largely made a noticeable exit from our public discourse, and Eire, a Catholic, blames this severing of ties between the here and now and the world beyond, on my stock, the Reformers.  Eire’s argument here is convincing, too. Knowingly or unknowingly, when sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers did away with, for example, masses for the dead, they chipped away at this permeable boundary between earthly and heavenly existence.  We have been feeling the impact both for the better and the worse ever since.  One might say that our current time’s all-encompassing focus on the material reality of our earthly existence, not to mention secularism itself, is an outgrowth of these earlier efforts to “let the dead take care of the dead,” so to speak.

The book is worth a read and I commend it to you.  It is an engaging, thoughtful and sympathetic treatment of the enduring human hope that there is life beyond our earthly expiration date.  I could not help but put it down and feel some of the same sentiments that led the mystic St. John of the Cross (whom Eire quotes) to exclaim, “That eternal wellspring hides though well I know where it abides, in spite of the night.”

"A Presbyterian minister walks into a confession booth..."

Almost ten years ago, I, at the time a seminary student preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian church, confessed my sins to a Catholic priest and received the sacrament of reconciliation:  I cried tears of repentance, received absolution for my sin and was then challenged to go do one good work as “penance.” I walked away having experienced in a new and profound way the regenerative grace of what Catholics describe as the “sacrament” of confession.  And I was grateful for it, even if I had been obliged to find it in another denomination.  That’s because somewhere between the sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther, who would have retained confession as a sacrament, and subsequent reforms, we Protestants (most of us at least), managed to throw the baby out with the bath water: the sacramental act of confession, as the honest, laying out of all the places where we have missed the mark and a priest’s ensuing absolution, came to a halt in our churches.

I regret to think this was probably for the worse.  Sure, in the vein of John Calvin, we Presbyterians typically open our worship services with a corporate act of confession and reconciliation, as a way of remembering that our worship depends on the fact that God first loved us when we were “still enemies” in our sin.  But this once-weekly, corporate act doesn’t go far enough in saturating our minds and hearts with the reality of God’s forgiveness, apart from which we (or at least I) would be hopeless.  Something is lost when we fail to honor our need as human beings to confess our sin in confidence to a trusted minister or prayer partner.  We deprive ourselves of a deep, mutual accountability and communion with one another in the community of faith, and I suspect we need this grounding today more than ever, in a time when the ground beneath our feet is so often shifting.

Of course there are dangers in opening ourselves up to another human being within the community of faith.  In unhealthy congregations, one person’s confession can soon become the latest source of gossip- it might even be written up to our great horror in the church newsletter.  But when there are healthy safeguards in place that honor confidentiality and mutuality in sharing, confession, I believe, is fundamental to our life together as those called and sustained by God’s Love.

There is something enormously freeing about being known, the clay jars that we are, and being loved just as we are.  Unfortunately, many of us these days find that we must look elsewhere, outside the walls of our church communities, for this kind of unconditional love- and many of us find it there.  I recently spoke with a friend, an artist, who said he experiences this sort of “unconditional love” every year at “The Burning Man” festival, and there are many like him.  Sadly, too many of us have been hurt by the church, or have found that a veneer of “holier-than-thou” God talk there keeps us from opening up about our deepest wounds (those places where we fall short of God’s best for us and our neighbor).

My resolution this New Year is to be more truthful with those closest to me about my struggles- and this is a scary thing for me.  But when we learn to tell the truth about who we are and where we have come from, we free ourselves from the power of our secrets.  In his memoir, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes, “I not only have my secrets. I am my secrets. And you are your secrets….Our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.”

If you have read Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, which is one of my favorites, then you may recall that poignant scene in which Raskolnikov, having committed murder, confesses his crime to his love interest, Sonia, and asks her what he should do.  She replies, “Go at once, this very minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’  Then God will send you life again.”

Most of us, saints and sinners alike, haven’t killed anyone- at least literally.  But the turbulence and even violence in our own hearts can hurt those around us, manifesting itself in unhealthy ways of relating to those closest to us.  (To paraphrase the writer, Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil goes right down the center of the human heart.) And we can let these wounds fester, keeping them to ourselves in the dark nooks and crannies of our hearts, out of shame, spiritual pride or despair over our brokenness.

But Sonia’s challenge to Raskolnikov- to tell the truth about who he is and who he has been- is not a self-destructive death wish.  It is the very pathway to new life that Raskolnikov so desperately needs. It is a surrendering to God’s love- the very thing that makes the world go round despite our efforts, knowingly or unknowingly, to get in its way.  When we, like Rasknolnikov, surrender, we make way for new life to break in on our darkness.

The secret, I am learning, is that we don’t do this kind of surrendering just once.  We do it over and over. Often we have to do it about the very same things.  And this surrendering hurts, precisely because it involves the suffering of having to change.  Wendy Farley, in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, likens this process to the way in which our physical bodies heal: in the same way that a broken bone needs to be re-set, or a fever “awakens the body to the need to drive our disease,” or our healing requires “painful measures like surgery, bad-tasting medicine, or diet and exercise,” our being reconciled with God and one another requires sometimes painful but therapeutic measures, the practice of confession being one of these.

Fortunately, it is precisely in these places that God’s grace meets us.  My new favorite band these days is Mumford and Sons.  They sing a song called “Roll Away Your Stone,” which might just as well be talking about what we Christians call “confession”:

Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think

And yet it dominates the things I see

It seems that all my bridges have been burnt

But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works

It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart

But the welcome I receive with the restart.

Confession is just this: it’s not the long walk home but the “welcome we receive with the restart;” it’s telling our secrets so that we no longer have to live in the dark; and it’s doing this over and over again with the right, trusted people, that keeps our souls alive to God’s love.