Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Easter and the hope of resurrection

First published March 26, 2016

When my grandmother was old and widowed, I would visit her almost every weekend. She had a sharp mind and a wry sense of humor. I enjoyed her company.

I don’t think she knew the word “goodbye.” When I’d get up to leave, she would tell me that she would see me again.

The last time I talked with her was when she was dying. She had been on a respirator when I visited her at the hospital, but she was brought out of her drug-induced slumber so she could say her goodbyes.

Only she didn’t say goodbyes.

She was in good spirits and ready to move on. There wasn’t a hint of fear in her voice, only peace. And when the conversation ended, she said she would see me again.

For Christians, death isn’t the end, it’s only a transition, and it is not the last one.

I believe heaven is a way station for the righteous until the resurrection.

Many Christians, including most members of my family, disagree. They point to Scripture that says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yet in that same passage, 2nd Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that we will not remain disembodied spirits; rather, we will have new bodies that do not grow old or tired or waste away.

This is what St. Paul writes: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and … then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”

Easter is when we celebrate the Savior’s victory over evil, sin (ours) and death. If we see Jesus’ crucifixion only as an example of sacrificial love, we’re missing the point. The Messiah’s resurrection after his atoning death on the cross is the fulcrum of history, the moment in time when everything is changed, the decisive battle in the spiritual warfare that rages still, but will end in triumph when the King returns and sets everything to rights. Until then, we are living in the new age that has already begun.

Some scoff at the notion that Jesus rose from the dead, but as a historical event, it is better documented than others of antiquity that we take for granted.

It is believed St. Paul’s Epistles were written just 10 to 15 years after Jesus’ death, when many who witnessed the risen Christ walking and talking were still alive and could tell about it.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that after Jesus was raised, as the Scriptures had foretold, he appeared to Peter, then to the other disciples, and after that, to more than 500 Christians, “most of whom are still living, though some have died.”

As Jesus was raised so will his followers be raised, and the earth will be cleansed, restored, renewed.

In Revelation 21, Jesus — as he is revealed in St. John’s vision —  says, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

The idea of a disembodied existence comes from the ancient Greeks, not the Jews, whose saga is the foundation of the Christian story, the “true myth,” as C.S. Lewis called it. When we recite in the creeds, “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” we are not only referring to the soul.

My understanding of the traditional belief in bodily transformation and restoration of the world is something I owe in part to N.T. Wright, a Church of England bishop and probably the world’s leading New Testament scholar. In his book, “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church,” he explains, based on the Bible and church tradition, that there is a heaven, but it is not our final home.

When the Bible says that in the Father’s house are many dwellings, the Greek world used for dwellings is monai, which means a resting place on the way to someplace else. And in the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus tells the brigand on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Yet in those same verses, the condemned man asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This implies that the kingdom to come is in the future, in the renewed heaven and earth.

That thought should give comfort to all who have surrendered themselves to the Father through his Son, who gave his life to save us and redeem Creation.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose fiction parallels the true story of the universal struggle between good and evil and the restoration of the world. In his epic novel, “The Lord of the Rings,” Sam Gamgee, the hobbit, sees Gandalf returned from the dead, strong, radiant and transformed.

Sam can’t believe his eyes, and asks Gandalf: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Christianity’s answer to that question is yes, it will, in the fullness of time.

That is the hope of the resurrection and the reason we celebrate Easter.

First freedom isn’t a secondary human right

First published July 11, 2015

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, there has been a growing chorus calling for the resignation or removal of county officials in Kentucky who cannot, for reasons of faith, support same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, Gov. Steve Beshear joined those voices, telling Casey County Clerk Casey Davis that he should issue marriage licenses to all who may now marry or step aside — in which case the governor would appoint someone to fill his position until there is another election.

While Davis’ grandstanding approach has gotten the most attention, 57 county clerks last week signed a letter asking the governor to call a special session to address the problem of how to protect their religious liberty while also complying with the court’s ruling, which made gay marriage legal in every state. This was after Beshear had already turned down such a request by Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, a leader of the governor’s own party.

Beshear said the issue can wait until 2016. Meanwhile, nearly half the county clerks in the state, who have until now faithfully executed their responsibilities as public officials, are faced with the choice of either participating in something that violates their consciences or giving up their careers and turning their backs on those who elected them, in most cases knowing they were people of faith.

It is a conundrum the justices created when they decided by a 5-4 margin to create a new civil right by changing the definition of marriage that has existed since the beginning of civilization. It comes as no surprise, yet it comes with questions that must be addressed regarding the place of faith in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and religious freedom as well as on Enlightenment ideas about the nature of humanity and liberty.

Although our nation’s founders were men of diverse views — from Thomas Paine, a Deist who despised Christianity, to Patrick Henry, who was a devout Christian — they were able to agree that all of us are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights …”

In other words, all rights come from God, and so does all political authority, according to the Bible in Romans 13:1. Those who oppose same-sex marriage make the case that God cannot grant a right that is contrary to his perfect order. And in Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus — who was the Word of God incarnated (John 1:1) — teaches that God was the author of marriage from the beginning. Quoting the ancient Jewish scriptures (Genesis 2:24), Christ said that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

The Bible is also unambiguous in describing homoerotic relationships as sinful, although I believe we are guilty of the ultimate sin of pride if we believe those relationships are worse than other sins or that any of us is without sin.

Conservatives conveniently forget that the sin of Sodom, according to the prophet Ezekiel, was that the city’s people had become “overfed and unconcerned” and “did not help the poor and needy.”

That’s something we might want to keep in mind when we’re stuffing ourselves full of fried chicken and potato salad at a church social and grousing about our taxes paying for food for the children of the working poor.

As the United States becomes an increasingly secular society, more Americans conflate Thomas Jefferson’s limited idea of the idea of separation of church and state with the broader postmodern notion that religious beliefs have no place in the public sphere. Not only is that not possible, but if it were, it would be discriminatory.

“Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to those of organized religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider the most vital,” said Stephen L. Carter of Yale, a prominent constitutional scholar.

And John Adams, who played an eminent role when this nation was conceived in liberty, wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

At the heart of Christianity is the commandment that we must “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and there is no caveat that excepts our LGBT neighbors. And at the core of American democracy is the principle that all of us “are created equal” and endowed by the Creator with human rights.

In balancing LGBT rights with religious liberty, though, we should not forget that the First Amendment right of religious freedom is first for a reason.

Christianity, Islam and understanding

Published Feb. 28, 2015

Following the horrific murders of innocent Americans by jihadists, the president went on television and said “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country” and should be respected and not feared or blamed for what happened.

Millions of Muslims in America and around the world were just as “appalled and outraged” as the rest of us were by those evil acts, he said.

“These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith, and it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that,” the president said. “Islam is peace.”

Some of you might be surprised to learn that the president who made those remarks was George W. Bush, and that he made them less than a week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

President Barack Obama has continued the war on terror. He gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, took out many of Al Qaeda’s top leaders with drone strikes and carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is neither Islamic in the normal sense nor a state.

Like Bush, Obama has been careful to make a distinction between ordinary Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s people, and the religious extremists whose understanding of Islam is as different from that of most Muslims as the Ku Klux Klan’s understanding of Christianity is from that of most Christians.

Speaking at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, Obama took what I thought was a Christian stance against pride (the original sin) when he said that we shouldn’t “get on our high horse” and think that violence committed in the name of religion is unique to others. He mentioned Christian attempts to justify atrocities committed during the Inquisition, the Crusades, American slavery and the Jim Crow era in the South by saying that throughout history, some people have “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

It didn’t matter that he made this statement in the context of his strong condemnation of the Islamic State as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism” against religious minorities, although he might have strengthened his argument if he had specifically mentioned that Christians have been the minorities most victimized by this cult.

All some listeners heard was that he was bringing up the Crusades again (as liberal secularists almost always do), and that he was comparing some Christians to Islamic jihadists.

Within moments, what was trending on social media were the same tired untruths about the president having been brought up as a Muslim and being anti-Christian. It doesn’t matter to these people that he never knew his father, a Muslim convert to atheism before Barack was born, nor that it was a Catholic school, not an Islamic one, that the future president attended in Indonesia for two years. And there was the same tired arguments about the true nature of Islam.

Many conservative evangelical Christians don’t want to hear that jihadism is an aberration. Misled by celebrities such as Bill O’ Reilly and the Rev. Franklin Graham — who has called Islam an “evil religion” — they think Muslims are the enemies of Christians.

I’m a conservative evangelical Christian myself, and I think Graham and those who think like he does are wrong.

It’s true that Muslims don’t believe that Jesus, whom they call Isa, is God incarnate, or the “Son of God.” Nor do they believe he was executed on a Roman cross.

Based on what I’ve read from those like Ihsan Bagby, a scholar of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, and Shirin Taber, an Iranian-American evangelical Christian and author of “Muslims Next Door,” I was surprised by the similarities between the two faiths.

Here are a few.

Muslims believe Jesus is the Messiah — the herald of the last days — who will usher in a kingdom of peace and intercede for his people at the time of judgment.

They revere his mother, Mary, and believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

They believe he was the only man who never sinned, and that he performed miracles, including raising people from the dead.

They believe the first five books of the Bible, the Psalms and the New Testament are God’s “inspired word,” and they refer to Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” indicating a common religious heritage among all the Abrahamic faiths.

“Allah” is the Arab word for God, and it is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims.

I’m astounded when I hear some people say Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians and Jews, or that they worship Mohammed, the Prophet, or that Allah is a “moon god,” or some other nonsense.

Maybe, before we are critical of someone else’s religion, we should first try to understand it a little better — not that we should ignore differences.

I believe, as C.S. Lewis did, that there is some truth in all religions, and that, where other religions differ from orthodox Christianity, they are in error. But every one of us is in error to some extent. As the Apostle Paul said, we see through a glass darkly.

I also believe that in discussing matters of faith, we should be open-minded and, perhaps even more importantly, openhearted.

Thomas Merton, who was certainly no syncretist, said: “If I insist on giving you my truth, and never stop to receive your truth in return, then there can be no truth between us.”

That seems to me the Christian way to have a dialogue with people of other faiths.

Lessons in faith from servants of the homeless

Published Feb. 20, 2015

Two out of three Sundays, my niece and I attend a Eucharist service in Lexington’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood. The liturgy always ends with these words — “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Then we drive back, past stately old houses and leafy yards, bicyclists, bakeries and boutiques, and onto Winchester Road, past greasy diners and gas stations, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and street people, and a brick building with a large Latin cross.

I never knew what the building was until I went there recently with students from St. Catharine College. It’s an overnight shelter, the Community Inn, run by the Catholic Action Center, which also feeds, clothes and provides laundry service to the destitute at other facilities nearby.

In these places, saints and sinners love and serve the Lord by loving and serving those he called “the least of these.”

The St. Catharine students’ class on faith and homelessness is taught by Matthew Branstetter, professor of philosophy and religion, who volunteered for the Catholic Action Center while he was in seminary in Lexington and was changed by his encounters with the poor. Now he wants his students to consider how they are changed once they’ve looked into the faces of those in need, and consider questions such as whether charity is enough and what their religious traditions say about poverty and social justice.

Helping the hard-core homeless can be frustrating and humbling. I know. For many years, I led a group of volunteers from my church who served meals at Lexington’s Hope Center to drug addicts, mentally ill men and some who seemed normal. It was as discouraging to see new faces and wonder how they ended up there as it was to see the same old faces month after month for nearly a decade.

Some of the Hope Center’s guests were ingrates. Others were gracious, like the ragged man who held my eyes with his when I asked how he was and answered with sincerity, “I’m blessed. I really am.”

In that moment my own hurts and disappointments didn’t seem so important anymore.

Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”

Ginny Ramsey, Gary McKinley and Barry McGuffin are believers. They spoke to the class on Fridays in February. Ginny runs Catholic Action and often does battle with city officials on behalf of Lexington’s outcasts. Gary is a Purple Heart veteran and cook at Catholic Action’s kitchen and ministers to homeless veterans. Barry is a pastor who operates Bethany Haven, a transitional homeless shelter in Bardstown.

Something I’ve learned from these people — and I hope the students have learned too — is that that to effectively serve those who are broken, you have to look past “their hang-ups,” as Matt said, and see them as our neighbors.

Barry told us Bethany Haven’s success rate — which is defined as someone getting an income and a permanent place to live — is a little better than 50 percent. But he added, “I can’t dwell on the 48 percent who don’t succeed because that would be devastating.”

While Bethany Haven serves women and families as a transitional residence, there is no emergency shelter or homeless shelter for single men in Nelson County. Barry and others hope to change that.

The need is great. We have people living in caves and woods, and, as I described in a recent story, in their vehicles in the brutal cold.

Some local leaders I’ve talked with about the need for an emergency shelter, who have a heart for the poor, are concerned that the shelter would attract vagrants and undesirables from other counties. It would. But there are ways to coordinate efforts among social service groups and faith-based charities to make sure those people aren’t gaming the system, and there are leaders among us who know how to make that work.

As I write this on Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded that each of us has failed. The fact that others have made mistakes shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to help them.

We’ve heard it said God only helps those who help themselves. Nothing could be further from the Gospel. God helps those who deserve nothing, and so should we. And sometimes our helping can be the spark that reignites hope in them that they can help themselves.

The first Thanksgiving

Nov. 25, 2014

(This is a shorter, edited version of an earlier post.)

Myles Standish wasn’t so upstanding, and the Puritans weren’t so pure. And inviting the Indians to dinner was just politics.

Schoolchildren know the sterile version of the story: In 1620, the Pilgrims sailed to America to escape a tyrannical king and gain religious freedom. They landed on Plymouth Rock and established the first settlement. The Indians, led by Squanto, befriended them, taught them how to fertilize corn with fish and saved them from starving. The grateful Pilgrims invited the Indians to join them for a big turkey dinner and offered prayers of thanks. But what if what we know about the first Thanksgiving is mostly wrong?

In his book, “A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving,” Godfrey Hodgson makes a convincing argument that the feast recorded in 1621 by Edward Winslow wasn’t a Puritan thanksgiving at all, but a harvest celebration that was interrupted by a force of Indians.

The Separatists (they weren’t called Pilgrims with a capital “P”) showed their gratitude to God by fasting, not feasting. Being strict Calvinists, they didn’t celebrate holy days (holidays) because they considered them superstitious relics of Catholicism. Being English, they did celebrate the medieval harvest festival with food, beer, wine and games.

These wanderers or “pilgrims” were called Separatists because they wanted to separate from the established Anglican Church, but were willing to deceive King James by swearing fealty to the established church in exchange for being granted a colony. They had been run out of England, and in liberal Amsterdam some of their women dressed provocatively, and there were charges of sexual misconduct. The Separatists then left Holland, sailed for Virginia and wound up in Massachusetts by mistake.

They did not land on a rock, which would have splintered their ship. It remained a mile offshore, and they landed in longboats.

As early as 1621, the English settlers of Plymouth had hostile encounters with the Indians, whom they stole from, kidnapped and sold into slavery. White men had been coming to New England since John Cabot established Newfoundland in 1497, and by the time the colonists arrived, “thousands of European sailors were accustomed to spending the summers fishing” on northern coast, according to Hodgson.

Squanto, who had been captured and enslaved, escaped from Europe and made his way back to America, where he became an English translator for the Wampanoag chief Massasoit.

Standish, no Puritan, was a soldier for hire who “thought nothing of cutting off an Indian’s head if he thought it was the right thing to do,” Hodgson wrote.

The Wampanoags were at war with the Narragansetts and Massachusetts, and 100 Wampanoag warriors showed up at the Separatists’ feast with freshly killed deer (not turkey) as a gesture of goodwill to enlist the English in their fight.

“It was a kind of backwoods diplomatic encounter,” Hodgson wrote.

The alliance didn’t last. Within a generation, Massaoit’s son, King Philip, united the tribes against the English, who were depleting their natural resources and spreading diseases such as syphilis. The English won King Philip’s War and had the chief beheaded and quartered to underscore their point.

American artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris portrayed the Pilgrims as gracious hosts to the Indians at the first Thanksgiving. Godfrey Hodgson says it was frontier diplomacy involving a power struggle with other tribes.

The Pilgrims were not rugged individualists at first, but were communists who, like the early Christians, held their property in common and provided for each other’s needs. But communism has never worked in practice, and when the families started providing for their own needs, the colony prospered.

The story of the first Thanksgiving is, according to Hodgson, an example of what historians call “the invention of tradition.” While it is fiction, however, it is not fraud. It is, as Hodgson described it, a story that has been shaped into a “powerful and virtuous symbol.” It has become a “domestic celebration of gratitude, humility and inclusiveness.” Those are qualities for which we need not apologize.

Regardless of how it began, Thanksgiving has become a celebration of all that is good about America. It is a tribute to faith, family and country, and generosity of spirit.

And that is why it is, in my opinion, it is the best of all American holidays.

‘In all things, charity’ — a church’s legacy

Thursday, June 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm (Updated: June 5, 2:43 pm)

Since moving to Bardstown two summers ago, I’ve learned that in the Kentucky Holy Land, mainline Protestants are as scarce as Sikhs. You could fit all the Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans into a chapel and still have room for most of the Methodists.

I’m being facetious. But it is true that if you’re a church-goer in Bardstown, you’re probably a Catholic, a Baptist or a member of a nondenominational church.

It’s ironic that nondenominational groups usually end up as denominations. That’s true of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which was an early attempt at ecclesiastical unity.

During the early 1800s, the region around Lexington was ground zero for the evangelical revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Two hundred thousand souls gathered to worship at Cane Ridge in Bourbon County when Kentucky’s largest city had only 2,000 people. It was there that Barton Stone, a signer of “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” decided religious structures were unnecessary, so rather than be Presbyterians, his parishioners would simply be “Christians.”

About the same time, two other Presbyterian preachers from Northern Ireland, Thomas Campbell and his son, Alexander, had a similar idea and made a case for “a complete restoration of apostolic Christianity.” They called their flock Disciples of Christ.

When the two groups came together on New Year’s Day in 1832, they couldn’t decide on a name, so they kept both. The new Disciples agreed they didn’t need a creed because the Bible was easy enough for the common man or woman to understand. As long as members affirmed the fundamentals, they could differ on the details. The Christian Church, which numbers only about 625,000, still has an open approach to theology and an ecumenical spirit. Its motto is: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

The Disciples’ influence has been disproportionate to its size. It was a charter member of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Renowned Disciples have included President Ronald Reagan, Coach John Wooten, Kentucky Fried Chicken originator Col. Harland Sanders, Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller and Don West, a prophet of the social gospel and co-founder, with Myles Horton, of the Highlander Folk School.

In Kentucky, institutions affiliated with the Disciples include Lexington Theological Seminary, Midway College and Transylvania University, where I worked for a season.

I’ve never been a member of the Christian Church, but as a young seeker in the early 1990s, I was attracted to the denomination because of its open-mindedness and strong commitment to social justice. It seemed the Disciples were into everything I was — from Habitat for Humanity in Central Kentucky to liberation theology in Central America.

In Bardstown, the denomination is represented by First Christian Church, which is celebrating its 120th anniversary this weekend.

Pastor Rick Loader thinks the Bardstown church is newer than our other Disciples churches in Bloomfield, Boston, Botland and Chaplin.

According to a history of the local church written by Joseph B. Fitch, pastor from 1943 to 1946, there were “Reformers” in Bardstown going back to 1834 — two years after Stone and the Campbells came together. But First Christian marks its establishment in 1894, when a brick veneer building was erected at the corner of Third and Broadway. It shared its building with the Church of the Ascension for a couple of years, until 1992, when it moved to 175 E. John Rowan Blvd., near U.S. 31E, leaving the old building to the Episcopalians.

Beginning at noon Saturday, everyone is invited to join the congregation for its 120th anniversary festivities, including live music, reunions and children’s activities. There will be a worship service at 4:30, a spaghetti supper at 5:30, sponsored by the youth, and a raffle at 7.

On Sunday, there will be special worship services in the morning, at 8:15 and 10:30, and followed by a potluck dinner. It will be a good opportunity for spiritual and bodily nourishment.

Come hungry; leave filled.

Ruling doesn’t infringe on religious liberty

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Within hours of the decision by U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II that Kentucky law barring recognition of same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, the politicians started piling on.

It must be an election year.

Four couples, including Jim Meade and Luke Barlowe of Bardstown, sued the state, claiming that a 1998 statute and a 2004 state constitutional amendment invalidating same-sex marriages performed legally in other states violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Heyburn ruled in favor of the plaintiffs Wednesday, saying laws that “treat gay and lesbian couples differently in a way that demeans them” deny them equal protection under the Constitution.

The reactions were swift.

“Today’s ruling is an important step forward in the march toward recognition of all marriages under the law and full equality in our commonwealth,” said liberal Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville.

Martin Cothran of the conservative Family Foundation denounced the decision.

“Kentucky marriage policy will now be dictated from places like Boston and San Francisco,” Cothran said. “This decision puts Kentucky voters on notice that if their reasons for defining marriage as between a man and a woman don’t correspond with the political ideology of liberal judges, their votes don’t count.”

Cothran said this despite the fact that Heyburn is a Louisville Republican who was appointed to the federal bench 22 years ago by President George H.W. Bush on the recommendation of a Louisville Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Remarks by McConnell and the candidates who want to deny him re-election to a sixth term and the chance to become Senate majority leader were more mystifying.

Calling himself a “traditionalist,” McConnell said he would “fight to make sure that Kentuckians define marriage as they see fit, and never have a definition forced on us by interests outside of our state.”

Matt Bevin, McConnell’s challenger for the Republican nomination, blamed the senator for promoting Heyburn, who once worked for McConnell, and accused the judge of “judicial activism.”

The Madison Project, a tea party fundraising group that’s backing Bevin, issued a press release saying that “a McConnell crony forces gay marriage in Kentucky.”

Most baffling was an ambiguous statement by Charly Norton, an aide to Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the Senate race.

She told The Courier-Journal: “Alison has been married for seven years and has stated publicly that she wouldn’t want to deny other couples the opportunity to make that same commitment. She’s also made clear that while the Supreme Court has ruled that state sovereignty applies, churches should not be forced to recognize anything inconsistent with their teachings.”

But nothing in the judge’s decision would require that churches or other religious institutions recognize or perform same-sex marriages. That would be an unconstitutional infringement of religious freedom, he emphasized.

Heyburn wrote at length about the religious ramifications of his decision. Because recognition of same-sex marriage “clashes with many accepted norms in Kentucky — both in society and faith,” he said, he felt a “special obligation to answer some of those concerns.”

This is how he answered them:

“Our religious beliefs and societal traditions are vital to the fabric of society. Though each faith, minister and individual can define marriage for themselves, at issue here are laws that act outside that protected sphere. Once the government defines marriage and attaches benefits to that definition, it must do so constitutionally. It cannot impose a traditional or faith-based limitation upon a public right without a sufficient justification for it. Assigning a religious or traditional rationale for a law does not make it constitutional when that law discriminates against a class of people without other reasons.

“The beauty of our Constitution is that it accommodates our individual faith’s definition of marriage while preventing the government from unlawfully treating us differently. This is hardly surprising since it was written by people who came to America to find both freedom of religion and freedom from it.”

I’m a conservative traditionalist, and, as a Christian, I don’t think governments should force churches to perform same-sex marriages or individuals to approve of anything that violates their conscience. But Heyburn’s ruling doesn’t do any of those things. It simply states that under the Constitution, governments cannot deny persons legal rights that it affords others. It honors religious freedom as well as other civil rights and affirms the constitutional principles of due process and equal protection, and it doesn’t go beyond the question the court was asked to address.

In my layman’s opinion, Heyburn got it right.

The hope and promise of resurrection

Saturday, April 19, 2014

It’s been said there are no atheists in foxholes, but that isn’t true.

C.S. Lewis didn’t believe in God until long after he fought in the First World War, and it was longer still before he accepted what he called the “true myth” of Christianity.

In his youth, Lewis lived “in a whirl of contradictions.”

“I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing,” he wrote.

War reinforces some people’s belief and shatters the belief of others.

My friend Mary grew up singing the old hymns, which she loves. When her brother went to fight the Third Reich, she prayed God would protect him, but he was killed. Mary lost her faith and hasn’t found it in nearly 70 years.

Contrast Mary’s experience with that of Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad,” who spoke at my church a few weeks ago. More than 1,000 of his parishioners have been killed. In 2004, 11 of his staff were murdered or disappeared. He himself has been beaten, held hostage and threatened with death.

If that weren’t enough, Father Andrew suffers from a debilitating illness. Yet he believes “it is only the glory of God that truly sustains.” It is what gives him the ability to rescue captives, work for peace and proclaim Christ’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

The “argument against God from evil” is one of the biggest obstacles to faith: If God is benevolent and sovereign, he would not allow evil to exist. But evil exists; therefore God does not exist.

What’s harder for me to believe is that God exists and is almighty, yet allows evil for his own purposes. I prefer to believe evil exists because there’s a struggle between the powers of darkness and light; and in the fullness of time, Christ will reign over a world where evil and suffering are vanquished.

Recently, I read something by Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei in Portland, Ore., that brings together these seemingly contradictory ideas of God’s sovereignty and cosmic warfare. He explains it using a story by J.R.R. Tolkien, the friend who led C.S. Lewis to faith.

What if, McKinley asks, God is like the conductor of a beautiful symphony who takes the bad notes and blends them into his work in a way that magnifies it?

In Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion,” Iluvatar reflects God, and Melkor, Satan. As Iluvatar created his music, “it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the throne of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”

Melkor’s discord spread. But Iluvator rose and the Ainur (Melkor’s tribe) “perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty.”

The best fiction is true.

St. Paul tells us “all things work together for good” for those who love God and have been “called according to his purpose.”

When the kingdom comes, there will be no suffering or sorrow, and evil will be defeated.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” St. Paul wrote, and we will be raised, not in spirit only, but also in body, perfected in strength and beauty.

Creation will be redeemed. And the returning King will say, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

That is the hope of resurrection.

That is why we celebrate Easter.

Was Thomas Merton a determinist?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Last November, some of you may recall, I wrote about my involvement in a “Reformed” Baptist church in Bardstown and the questions it raised for me about some tenets of Calvinist theology, particularly predestination and determinism.

As I understand it, predestination is the belief that God, before the beginning of the world, chose some for salvation and others for damnation. Determinism is the related idea that God has determined everything that will ever happen.

As someone who came to faith late in life through mainline Protestant traditions, I was taught that God invites everyone into a saving relationship with him, and it’s up to us to accept or reject his call. I also believe God creates men and angels with free will, that evil is a result of wrong choices, and that in the fullness of time, evil will be defeated, God will renew the earth, and righteousness will reign forever.

Finally, I’ve believed natural disasters occurred because God chose to create a world in which he does not micromanage everything, but allows it to operate according to natural laws, although he sometimes intervenes.

Those beliefs are consistent with Arminianism, which differs from Calvinism on those fundamental questions.

At the time that I wrote “We See Through a Glass, Darkly,” I was reading defenses of Calvinist doctrine others shared with me, as well as a book by two Asbury Theological Seminary professors, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, “Why I Am Not a Calvinist.”

It seemed to me Dongell and Walls had the better argument, based on Scripture, tradition and reason, the three criteria we Anglicans have used for centuries to verify beliefs. I mentioned to some Calvinist acquaintances that I would also like to read a companion volume, “Why I Am Not an Arminian,” by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, both of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Last week, I found a copy of it in a secondhand bookstore and have added it to my reading list.

Also while I was pondering these questions, I read “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, about his coming to faith and becoming a Trappist at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County.

I thought Catholics believed in free will, although I knew some teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were similar to Calvinism. I was surprised, therefore, when I got to the end of the book and read Merton’s words describing his apparent belief that God had led him irresistibly on the path from youthful hedonism to the cloistered life, as God had led Merton’s fellow monks on their journeys.

Here is what Merton wrote: “Before we were born, God knew us. He knew some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy, and that others would love Him from the moment they could love anything, and never change that love. He knew there would be joy in heaven among the angels of His house for the conversion of some of us, and He knew that He would bring us all here to Gethsemani together, one day, for His own purpose, for the praise of His love.”

Imagine, a man who devoted most of his life to prayer, saying that his prayers, his own will, did not lead him to become a monk, but that he was led by an Author, who had written him into the script before his birth.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about faith in recent months, it’s that it’s important to keep an open mind.


In another column last fall, I told of how I had met Anna Burd and Lambert Boone on one of my day hikes at Gethsemani, and Lambert had recalled his boyhood encounters with Merton. Recently, I received a letter from one of their cousins, Ed Cecil of Owensboro, who also said he knew Merton. As a boy, he said, he would catch goldfish in the monks’ ponds and take them back to the Boones’ farm.

“Father Louis, Thomas Merton, would come by and talk to us while we fished. We were a little nervous at first, because we knew we weren’t supposed to talk to the monks,” he wrote, but he was friendly and the children became familiar with him.

“People are a little skeptical when I tell them I knew Thomas Merton growing up, but when I tell them how I knew him, they come around,” he concluded.

Anglicanism ‘no novel or strange religion’

[Dec. 21, 2013]

‘No novel or strange religion’

In 1865, Phillips Brooks, an American priest, was traveling on horseback from Jerusalem to the City of David, where he would assist in a service of the Church of the Nativity, supposedly on the site where the Christ child was born.

Along the way, he came upon shepherds watching their flocks by night and was inspired to write “O Little Town of Bethlehem:

“ … in thy dark streets shineth

the everlasting Light:

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.”

On Christmas Eve 1941, as tyranny cast its darkness on a world at war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and visiting British Prime Minister Winston Church gave a message of hope. As historian David McCullough recalls, Churchill described the English-speaking nations as “a brightly lighted island of happiness and peace.” The next day, the two attended church, where Churchill heard Brooks’ hymn for the first time and was moved.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is one of our most beloved Christmas carols. Twelve years earlier, Charles Dickens penned a classic holiday novel, “A Christmas Carol.” Brooks’ carol and Dickens’ “Carol” have the same theme — that by opening our hearts to the Christmas Spirit, we can be changed. As Ebenezer Scrooge learned, however, conviction comes before conversion.

As Brooks described the work of the Spirit:

“Cast out our sin and enter in,

Be born in us today.”

Something else Dickens and Brooks had in common was that both were Anglicans.

So were Roosevelt and Churchill.

The Anglican Communion, represented by the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Church of England in the United Kingdom, is a confederation of churches that follow a “middle way” between Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. They are evangelical and sacramental, and they are catholic in the sense that their bishops are part of the apostolic succession, going back to St. Peter.

Famous Anglicans include John Newton, the slave ship captain who repented and wrote “Amazing Grace,” abolitionists William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Christian apologist and author C.S. Lewis, Alpha course creator Nicky Gumbel, evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley (who never intended the Methodist reform movement to become a separate denomination) and John Henry Newman and Thomas Merton, who were Anglicans before they became Catholics.

In this country, Episcopalians and other Anglicans are few in number, but punch above their weight. From George Washington to George H.W. Bush, more U.S. presidents have been Episcopalians than members of any other church, and our National Cathedral in Washington belongs to the denomination.

Still, many other Christians see us as a kind of cult.

I’ve been an Anglican for a decade, yet my family has no knowledge of my faith’s history and beliefs. They only know we kneel in prayer, make the sign of the cross, drink wine during Communion and profess belief in “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and the Trinity.

Being misunderstood is something we Anglicans have gotten used to, though, even when we were the “established church.”

I like what Queen Elizabeth I had to say about the Anglican faith in a letter to the German emperor in 1563: “We and our people — thanks be to God, follow no novel or strange religion, but that very religion ordained by Christ, sanctioned by the primitive Catholic Church and approved by the consentient mind and voice of the early fathers!”

All I can add is “Amen!”

Whatever your faith, may the everlasting Light brighten your Christmas and bring you comfort and joy in 2014.

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