The Christian Hospitality Blog

Formerly the Irreverant Reverend Blog, the focus of this blog has been changed to ideas for promoting Christian Hospitality.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Attack of the Cranky Athiests

Another day, another cranky athiest. Christopher Hitchens, who is apparently a respected journalist, has published a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Here's what he has to say about his friends who are religious, as excerpted in Slate online magazine.

Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. For this reason, I would not prohibit it even if I thought I could. Very generous of me, you may say. But will the religious grant me the same indulgence? I ask because there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it. I would be quite content to go to their children's bar mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to "respect" their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.

I would say somebody needs a hug, but I think he's past the point where a hug will help.

Check this out, though: he says he just wants his religious friends to leave him alone. Maybe he needs some new friends? Cause, like, I don't remember ever getting in the face of my atheist friends, and I have plenty of them. And I don't EVER remember accusing Atheists of "Plotting...the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments..."

Maybe I shouldn't take this personally, but it's kind of hard not to, because he is lumping me in with, like, suicide bombers.

Why do people do this--educated people who know which fork they are supposed to use for the main course and which one for salad at a formal dinner, I mean?

Well, I'm guessing Mr. Hitchens is really frustrated with a lot of bad things going on in the world. I don't blame him for that. And I don't blame him for wanting something or someone to blame. I'd kind of like to be able to blame the Soviets, or the Devil, or whatever. But the Soviets had to go and self-destruct on me, and I've found that there is some good and some evil in everyone, so blaming stuff on the Devil doesn't really give me much satisfaction. Bad stuff happens, and I'll be the first one to admit that the world's religions have not come up with a perfect, all-encompassing explanation for the problem of evil. I guess it could be because, as a religious person, I am in fact the answer to the question "What is the cause of the problem of evil?" but I don't really think so.

I guess in Mr. Hitchen's mind, religion is about answering the big questions, and he's right. But not all religious people think that religion has the answers to the big questions. I sure don't. I guess religion that claims to have all the answers has a lot of appeal in uncertain, scary times like ours. It doesn't have any appeal for me. It makes me really sad to see so many people settle for easy (if imperfect) answers to what the Garrison Keillor charactor Guy Noir calls "life's persistent questions," but right now I'm not in an angry place about that. If it wasn't religion claiming to have the answers it would be (and in many cases is) political parties or multinational corporations or Think Tanks or some other institutions. Institutions are run by and for humans, and like the humans that create them, they are flawed. This includes the institution of journalism, I'm sorry to tell poor Mr. Hitchens.

I do feel that it is important to wrestle with the big questions, to wrestle with them together in a like-hearted community with a spirit of compassion, because none of us has all the answers. That is what religion is about for me, and for a lot of other people too.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, April 20, 2007


When I was a teenager, a group called the Boomtown Rats sang a song called, "I Don't Like Mondays" about a girl who went on a shooting rampage. When they asked her why she did it, she said, "I don't like Mondays." In the song, the Boomtown Rats sang, "They can see no reasons 'cause there are no reasons." And so it is with another shooting incident on another Monday many years hence.

We can see no reason that a student at Virginia Tech shot dozens of innocent people before turning the gun on himself. I myself had a pleasant day and heard nothing about the tragedy for hours. "It's not fair," my kids say when confronted with something they don't like. They say "it's not fair" when they have to go to bed on time, or when someone is driving recklessly on the highway or for what seems like a million other reasons. They're right. Life isn't fair. Sometimes circumstances drive this fact home with great force.

Because the killings are close to home--not in our backyard, maybe, but in a place like the place where we live. Because the brutality was unexpected--this was a quiet corner of the world.

Because the victims and the perpetrator seemed to have everything to live for--all were in the prime of their lives, and seemed destined for future success.

Because it might have been prevented, if the alarm was sounded earlier, or if previous cries for help by the perpetrator had been heeded.

Life isn't fair. I've presided at the funerals of young people like these young victims, cut down tragically in the prime of their lives. What do you say to their families? There is nothing to say except "I don't know what to say." Some things go beyond words. Sometimes all we can do is be present with those who suffer, and maybe after a while they will see that, in the words of the gospel according to John, "The light still shines into the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Labels: , , , , ,

Prayers for Virginia Tech

The UCC has created a prayer forum for the Virginia Tech tragedy. (It requires registration.)

They have also provided this prayer for Sunday: The Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, has released a special litany in response to the violence at Virginia Tech. Here is the text:
Through the ages we hear the Risen Christ: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." Yet today we grieve for precious lambs, not fed, but slaughtered. For those sons and daughters, students and classmates, colleagues and friends whose lives we cherish, whose loss we mourn, we pray, Lord, have mercy.
Through the ages we hear the Risen Christ: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Tend my sheep." Yet today your flock is scattered by fear at Virginia Tech and throughout the world where guns and bombs kill and maim. For those paralyzed by fear in Blacksburg and Baghdad, Kabul and Karachi, Gaza and the Golan Heights, we pray, Christ, have mercy.
Through the ages we hear the Risen Christ, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord, you know every thing, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep." Yet today we are hungry - hungry for peace, hungry for justice, hungry for security, hungry for hope. For children who look for bread but are given the crushing stone of violence, often with our complicity, we pray, Lord, have mercy.
Take us, O God, to places we are reluctant to go, to the wounded places, the shattered places, the terrified places. There may we feed your lambs with compassion, tend your sheep with healing, feed your flock with hope. There, with Peter, may we move from denial to discipleship, and thus find strength in the midst of this week's sorrow and rage, to sing again the Easter song, "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen. (This prayer uses themes from the Gospel lesson for the third Sunday of Easter, John 21.1-19)

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Media on Jesus

As Easter approaches, we are in the middle of "National Write about Christianity" week. One of the most interesting articles in this vein appeared in Salon earlier this week.
It is an interview with the famous Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels about "The Gospel According to Judas." I read this gospel last year when it came out, along with the commentary included in the published version, but I guess I didn't totally get it. Pagels says the gospel was written around the same time as the gospel according to John (at the end of the First Century or early in the Second Century, or about 1900 years ago.)

Pagels helped me to put the gospel in context by explaining that the author (probably a fan of Judas, not Judas himself, who was long dead by then) was advocating an alternative position on Christian martyrdom. At the time this book was written, Christians were widely persecuted. According to popular Christian history, the "right" choice for Christians, if confronted by civil authorities and accused of being a Christian, was to publicly embrace your faith and just take the torture and even death that followed. Pagels says that the gospel according to Judas is advocating a "those who fight and run away live to fight another day" position.

My formal education in early church history was completed 19 years ago (I am getting sooo old) but I do remember what I learned about this topic. While martyrs (those who were persecuted and/or died for their faith) have always been celebrated and honored, the church made a provision for those who renounced the faith under the strain of persecution. Indeed, it was this very thing that apparently led the early church to create the act of penance. Penance was originally a one-time chance for a serious sinner to redeem him/herself. According to my Church History Professor (Mark Burrows, now of Andover Newton seminary) the sinful act for which a person received penance was usually cracking under the pressure of persecution and renouncing Christianity.

We think of this as something that only happened in the distant past, but I personally know people (not from the US) who were tortured for their Christian faith, so this is not necessarily a dead issue, though it is not really an issue in the United States today.

The other thing it brings up is the idea that there was never a time when all Christians agreed about major matters of faith. There have always been different ways of understanding and practicing faith.

Read the Salon article (you must watch a brief ad first.)

Visit us at

Labels: , , ,

Monday, April 02, 2007

New Life

Several months back I blogged about The Rev. Terry Ryan, a local pastor in my own denomination who needed a kidney transplant due to a congenital problem. I am happy to report that Terry received his long hoped for kidney last week. The kidney is working, the donor is recovering nicely, and it appears that there is every reason to be hopeful and even joyful, although Terry is still in a lot of pain and requesting prayers for an end to pain and a full and speedy recovery for himself and his donor.

I'm not exactly a fan of Marianne Williamson, but sometimes her prayers hit just the right note for me. This healing prayer of hers really inspired me, and I hope it inspires you, whatever healing you need right now.

Dear God,
Be my redeemer, my internal teacher, my divine physician.
Thank You for Your presence in my life.
I surrender to You all I am, all I think, all I feel, and all I have.
I recognize in this moment that Yours is the power to heal and make whole.
You who have the power to work miracles, You who rule time and space, please take me in Your arms and hold me.
Dear Lord, please lift me up and heal me.
Cast out of my mind all thoughts that are not of You.
Cast out of me all harsh and critical nature.
Cast out of me all violence and all anger.
Cast out of me all demons from my past.
For I would be made new.
I wish to walk so close to You that we might be as one.
I ask for new life, new mind, new body, new spirit.
Dear God, please come into me and release me from this pain.

Labels: , ,

Reflections on Palm Sunday

A cynical person might say that Palm Sunday doesn’t matter in the grand scheme because less than a week later, Jesus dies. A hopeful person might say that Palm Sunday does matter because a week later Jesus is alive, and Palm Sunday is a sign that those who celebrate and Bless Jesus are right. There are two ways you can look at the incident in the Bible we now celebrate on Palm Sunday—you can see it as the beginning of the end, or as the end of the beginning. It is the last time, at least according to the Bible, that Jesus is treated like a hero prior to his persecution and death. But it is also the beginning of a religious celebration we observe 2000 years later.

Last week, sometime between our church service on Sunday and Monday morning, our church furnace quit. It had had a long, hardworking life and it was the furnace’s time. You could say the timing was bad—it has made for a cold Palm Sunday. On the other hand, it could have been far worse—it could have quit during a week when the weather plunged to near zero at night, leaving the congregation with a dilemma about how to keep the pipes from freezing. Instead, the furnace brought us through another winter. The new furnace will probably be much more efficient, meaning we will spend somewhat less per gallon of oil to heat the building.
It seems like it has been one thing after another because maintenance of this building has been deferred for a very long time. This congregation has been through a lot over the years. In some ways this time is easy—when a furnace breaks, we know how to fix it. When conflicts between members arise and relationships break, it can be much more complicated to try and fix that.

It has been my practice in life to try and take the blessing in every good experience, and look for the lesson in every bad experience. On the Palm Sundays of my life, I have tried to go with the flow, soak it all in and stored it up in my memory banks, but too often, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop and ruin the good times. After the Good Fridays of my own life, I have looked to find lessons, hoping I can make changes and prevent things from getting so bad again. In all of this something has been lacking. I didn’t know what until I received my star gift in January. Star gifts, for those of you who don't know about them, are little paper stars with a word on them passed out on the first Sunday of the new year. The word is your gift for the year, a word that will serve as the basis of meditation in the coming year. My gift for 2007 is "hope." Too often, I don’t give hope much of a chance. I certainly don’t lead with hope, and I don’t like it when people try to get me to do it. Sometimes hope dawns, as it did for the followers of Jesus on Easter morning. But I don’t do very well at making hope my default mode, my starting place. That’s too bad, because when I get to the place of hope, I’m pretty good at it. I get inspired. I inspire others.

Today, on this chilly Palm Sunday, God is calling us to lead with our hopes and not with our fears.

We all know hope can seem misplaced, and even silly. We know that if we’ve ever seen American Idol auditions. But the hope of 16-year-olds who’ve decided to try and be a star this week is a far different thing from the collective hope of this congregation, which has gone through so much and endured so much and accomplished so much. If we don’t try, we don’t ever fail, but we don’t ever succeed, either. So this Palm Sunday, I’ve decided to lead with hope. I’ve decided to lead with hope because Palm Sunday is about hope. Even though the week that begins with Palm Sunday ends with Good Friday, the following week begins with Easter. I hope you will decide to lead with your hope as well today and every day.

Labels: , , , , ,