Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lessons from a DC Pastor

For the past couple weeks I’ve been suffering from an irritating and unsightly bacterial infection of the eyelids called blepharitis, but I’m nearly over it. (Prayers appreciated.) I also didn't have phone or Internet service for a week until Verizon fixed the problem today. It’s good to be back online.

Yesterday I received in the mail and read Dr. Edward Hughes Pruden’s memoir, A Window on Washington (Vantage Press, 1976). Pruden was pastor of FBC Washington, DC (FBC DC) for 32 years, from 1936 to 1969. President Truman attended this church while Pruden was pastor, and it’s the same church where Jimmy Carter later taught Sunday School while he was in the White House.

Here are some interesting lessons I learned from Pruden’s book:

1. Church growth is driven primarily by demographics.

“The city soon became crowded, and it was estimated that between the years 1940 and 1950 the increase in the population of the metropolitan area was the same as though the entire population of Atlanta and Richmond had moved into Washington and its suburbs. With such a rapid influx of new people, acquiring new members for the church was no problem. One of my fellow ministers said that all one had to do on Sunday mornings was to open the front door of the church and jump back so as not to be run over. It was at this period that several of the downtown churches, including our own, went to two morning services” (20).

2. Contemporary worship and other-than-Sunday services were already tried in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Some churches conducted two types of services—a traditional service at eleven in the morning and a contemporary type service on Sunday afternoon. Other churches tried week-night worship services for the convenience of people who were out of the city for the weekend” (21).

I’m not sure exactly whether the above comment referred to the 1930s or 1940s, but it’s in the chapter on “The Roosevelt Era” before the chapter on “The War Years,” so it’s likely pre-1941. Also, what did they consider “contemporary” worship—Fanny Crosby instead of Isaac Watts? It would be interesting to find a contemporary worship bulletin from this period.

3. Outreach to apartment dwellers flopped.

“The churches in the general area of the one I served got together and organized what was called the Massachusetts Mile project. We selected that portion of Massachusetts Avenue nearest the churches involved, and sought by various means to reach the people who lived in the apartment houses in this area. Mailing lists were secured from apartment house managers, and letters and literature were sent. Efforts were made to have church member in these apartments to invite their neighbors to tea or have them in for dessert, and have one of the pastors present so that he could get acquainted with some who were not attending church. A retired minister was employed to go from door to door as a representative of all the churches involved and extend an invitation to services, and leave printed materials containing pertinent information regarding the various congregations. Some churches conducted two types of services—a traditional service at eleven in the morning and a contemporary type service on Sunday afternoon. Other churches tried week-night worship services for the convenience of people who were out of the city for the weekend. Few of these efforts were really successful. Either the apartment houses attract a type of individual who does not feel the need for fellowship with other Christians in corporate worship, or else the very nature of apartment houses themselves does something to the person who has formerly felt the need” (emphasis added, 21-22).

4. Pulpit robes are deeply rooted in Southern Baptist tradition.

“Within our [FBC DC] membership at that time were two aristocratic ladies, Misses Fannie and Lucy Boyce, the daughters of Dr. James P. Boyce, founder and first president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Boyce belonged to a wealthy and influential South Carolina family, and, during the early years of the seminary, had assured its continued existence by his own financial support. The commodious apartment in which the Boyce ladies lived seemed almost like a museum with its family portraits, furniture, and silver. Miss Fannie Boyce indicated on one occasion that she would like for me to wear a pulpit robe, saying that her father and other Baptist ministers in the early history of South Carolina were accustomed to wearing robes in Baptist pulpits. This was all the encouragement I needed since I had been wanting to wear a robe for some time” (emphasis added, 26).

According to Pruden, he was the first FBC DC pastor of to preach in a robe, more than 130 years after the church was founded in 1802. A few members left the church in protest. I’d surmise that J.P. Boyce and the SC churches referred to above were part of the Charleston tradition, which is both older and more liturgical than the Sandy Creek tradition. Both of these Baptist traditions have their modern-day heirs, but an overwhelming number of SBC churches follow the more informal Sandy Creek tradition.

5. Pastors should avoid politicking.

President Truman stopped attending FBC DC after Pruden publicly opposed his decision to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican. There were plenty of clergy speaking out on the issue but only one pastor ministering to the sitting president. While Pruden had the right to speak out, it cost him his unique ministry to America’s Chief Executive as Truman apparently no longer felt comfortable attending FBC DC after that (102-103). (Truman also got hopping mad at a young preacher named Billy Graham when he used a visit to the White House for his own self promotion.)

6. Racial integration took a long time, even in the nation’s capital.

Pruden highlighted his belief in “inter-racial . . . goodwill and understanding” in his first sermon at FBC DC in 1936, but he makes clear that the church did not welcome its first non-slave black member until about a century after the Civil War. Although he does not pinpoint the year, it was “after the Supreme Court decision of 1954” Brown v. Board of Education (134). Sadly, there are still many Baptist (and other) churches that do not welcome African Americans.

Related to the topic of racial reconciliation is an excellent article in today’s Washington Post by Rev. David R. Stokes: “Pro-Life and Civil Rights Camp Should Band Together to Right Wrongs.” I made a similar argument in my recent blog post Less Racism, Fewer Abortions.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Different Kind of Teacher

What image comes to mind when you hear the word “teacher”? I picture a bespectacled middle-aged woman with hair pulled back in a bun. How about “exorcist”? A very different image comes to mind. In our culture, teachers and exorcists are at opposite ends of the normality spectrum. Exorcists deal with dark, satanic forces and are featured in horror flicks. Teachers assign homework and wipe children’s runny noses. Many kids want to become teachers, but I’ve never heard one say, “I want to be an exorcist when I grow up!” In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus is both teacher and exorcist.

Before the Enlightenment most people thought about demons much the way we think of germs. They’re everywhere. You can’t see them. They’re dangerous and potentially deadly. Many people no longer believe in demons, at least not in the literal sense. But Jesus certainly did and had some spectacular encounters with them, showing that he had power even over evil spirits.

What great joy and relief the demon-possessed man and his family must have felt when Jesus finally delivered him from the evil presence. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him before—partly because we don’t really have a category for demon possession in our society. We only encounter it second hand, in missionary stories and Hollywood films. We do, however, have many people whose lives are controlled by various physical and mental handicaps and addictions. Anyone who has had a special needs child or a mentally ill spouse or a sibling with a drug addiction or a friend with AIDS understands something about suffering and social stigma that accompanies these conditions. I’m not suggesting that demons are the cause of any of these problems. I’m saying that these situations can give us a clue about the suffering the demon-possessed man and his family went through before Jesus set him free—the same Jesus who taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil.”

Yet there was something that impressed Jesus’ contemporaries more than exorcism. (Exorcists were a dime a dozen in Bible times.) What really astonished them as Jesus’ teaching. Mark doesn’t even tell us what Jesus taught on this occasion. But he does tell us how he taught: “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (22).

Jesus’ authority was different than that of these experts in Jewish law. The word “authority” comes from the same root as “author.” A few months ago, I overhead a chaplain arguing with my boss about whether or not something was in a particular Secretary of the Navy directive. “I assure you,” my boss said, “it’s in there. I know it’s in there because I wrote it.” Jesus was not only an expositor of scripture, but he was also its origin. Christians believe in the deity of Jesus. As God, Jesus is the one who “inspired”—literally breathed into—scripture (2 Tim 3:16) similar to the way God breathed life into Adam (Gen. 2:7). Indeed, Jesus is the source of all life (John 1:3, Heb. 1:2). That’s why his teaching was, and is, powerful.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Give ’em Hope

If you’re my age or a little older and grew up in an evangelical home, chances are you had the bejeezus scared out of you by end times films like A Thief in the Night and Hal Lindsay’s book The Late Great Planet Earth. The younger generation has the Left Behind series to give them nightmarish visions of the future. Yet when the Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus’ coming and our being caught up to meet him, he says, “Comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes. 4:18). Where’s the disconnect?

Barbara Rossing’s book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004) shows the many errors and contradictions in dispensationalist teaching which lie behind popular end times books and movies. She accuses dispensationalists of selective literalism, poor exegesis, and down right fabrication. Instead of predicting the future, she sees the Book of Revelation, which never mentions the rapture, as a source of hope.

Here’s a small sample of Rossing’s book: “Like the visionary journeys in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Revelation’s vision of seals, trumpets, bowls, and other manifestations are meant to be a wake-up call. . . . The journeys are not intended as literal predictions of events that must happen; they are nightmarish warnings of what may happen—if we do not follow God’s nonviolent Lamb” (91).

Although an engaging and thought-provoking book, The Rapture Exposed goes so far to avoid the mistakes of dispensational literalism that it may to take too much of Revelation symbolically. I was left wondering whether the author even believes in Jesus’ Second Coming in any real sense. Read it with caution, but read it.

The Revolution

“Every generation needs a new revolution.”—Thomas Jefferson

It amazes me how many thousands of men and women willingly leave everything behind to answer the call when their country goes to war. Families are separated, careers put on hold, studies suspended, lives rearranged. I wonder how many of us would drop everything and willingly go into harm’s way when Jesus calls. That’s exactly what he demanded in Mark 1:14-20, which includes Jesus’ first recorded sermon. And, unlike most sermons, it was short and imperative: Repent! Believe! Follow me! There’s a sense of urgency in Jesus’ words.

Jesus told people first of all to repent. It’s not popular today to talk about sin. It’s not popular, but it’s the loving thing to do. German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing is more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”

Why was Jesus so urgent? Because the kingdom of God is “at hand.” The kingdom is not just in some distant future. It’s here! Paradoxically, God’s kingdom is both a future and present reality—both “now” and “not yet.” In a real sense, the kingdom we’re expecting and praying for (“thy kingdom come”) has already arrived. We’re like underground revolutionaries who have been waiting a long time and are now being told it’s time to start the revolution. To misquote Karl Marx, “Sinners have nothing to lose but their chains. They have the world to gain. Sinners of the world, repent and believe the Good News!” It’s a radical reinvisioning of society more revolutionary than Communism. Just read the Sermon on the Mount.

But unlike Communism, the movement Jesus began is a non-violent revolution. (“My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight,” John 18:36; “Do not resist evil.” Matt. 5:39) Isn’t that kind of . . . weak? Exactly! (“My strength is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor. 12:9) In combat my Marines used to marvel at me, “Chaplain, you don’t even carry a weapon. You’re the bravest one out here!” (Yeah, whatever.)

People are looking for something greater than themselves. Something they can believe in. Something they can live for. Something worth dying for. Only the something is really someone. His name is Jesus, and he’s still looking for a few good men . . . and women.

Are you ready to join the revolution?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Prayer Punditry

In 1980, Rev. Bailey Smith, then president of my own Southern Baptist Convention, caused a brouhaha when he declared “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews.” Today, Dr. Rick Warren, another prominent Southern Baptist, didn’t even give them (or any other non-Christians) a chance to pray when he offered a faith-specific, Christian prayer at President Obama’s inauguration—unlike Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave an inclusive and memorable benediction, and Rev. Barry Black, the U.S. Senate Chaplain, who prayed reverently and appropriately at the inaugural luncheon. Warren had every legal right to do what he did, according to the First Amendment, but he was still wrong to do so.

He was wrong because there is nothing in Scripture that requires adding the words “in Jesus’ name” to every prayer. That’s not what praying in Jesus’ name means anyway. He was wrong because Paul tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient: all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23). Warren may have had the right to pray in Jesus’ name, but it didn't edify those present who don't call on our Savior’s name. He was wrong because it went against the spirit of the occasion, which focused on diversity and bringing us together as a nation in spite of our differences. But most of all he was wrong because it violated the Golden Rule.

Put the shoe on the other foot, Christian, and ask yourself how you would have felt if at the inauguration a Rabbi prayed a Jewish prayer that excluded Christians. Or if an Imam prayed an Islamic prayer. If you can't say amen to someone else’s faith-specific prayer, how can you expect them to say amen to yours?

For an intelligent discussion of the issue from one Jewish military chaplain’s perspective, see the following article by Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff: “Prayers That Hurt.”  (I served with Chaplain Resnicoff one summer in 1993 when he was a  senior Navy Captain and I was an Ensign Chaplain Candidate.) 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Speak, Lord

And Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant hears.”—1 Samuel 3:10

All the children were invited to come forward in church for the children’s sermon. One little girl was wearing a particularly pretty dress, and as she sat down the pastor leaned over and said, “That is a very pretty dress. Is it your Easter dress?” The little girl replied, directly into the pastor’s clip-on microphone, “Yes, and my mommy says it’s a bitch to iron.” Much to parents’ chagrin children often speak the unvarnished truth, saying things adults would never say—at least not to their pastor!

God had a message to give to Eli the priest and it was not a pleasant one. It was a word of judgment on Eli and his sons because of the father’s permissiveness and the sons’ corruption and sexual immorality. But where could the Lord find someone who would have enough moral courage to speak truth to power? After all, Eli was a Judge and God’s Priest at Shiloh. Not many people would be willing to tell such a prominent man what needed to be said. So God bypassed all of the normal channels and gave his message to a young boy named Samuel. (Jewish tradition tells us he was 12 years old.) After some coaching from Eli, Samuel listened to God and faithfully reported God’s message to the superannuated priest, even though it was a harsh Word of judgment on Eli and his house: “Then Samuel told him everything, and hid nothing from him” (v. 18). Eli accepted his fate with resignation, though I think God would have relented had Eli and his sons repented like the Ninevites in the book of Jonah.

And the end of the chapter we read, “And all Israel . . . knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the LORD” (1 Sam. 3:20). A crucial difference between true and false prophets is that the former seek to please God more than people and the latter seek to please people more than God. Like it or not, when God speaks it’s not always to pat us on the head. If God’s voice is saying only what’s nice and pleasant and what we want to hear, we can be sure it’s not God. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hit It Hard!

I just returned from a two-day conference in New Orleans. While in the Big Easy a friend and I visited a local landmark, Café Du Monde, for their famous café au lait and beignets. It was a little disappointing. Besides the chicory (only Cajuns would think of putting daisies in coffee!), the coffee was so hot it scalded my tongue. The beignets (BEN-yays)—fried dough with powdered sugar—were not my favorite.  They tasted like, well, fried dough with powdered sugar. (At another meal, this one in the Gumbo Shop, I had a hot bread pudding with whiskey sauce, which was to die for.) My friend and I strolled around Jackson Park past St. Louis Cathedral and were hailed by fortunetellers hawking their services. (No thanks.) We even walked down part of Bourbon Street on our way back to the hotel Maison Dupuy.  Every sin imaginable is for sale on Bourbon Street.

What kept coming to mind while I was in New Orleans was a story about young Abraham  Lincoln's business trip to the city on a flatboat full of produce. In the market he witnessed a slave auction in which people were bought and sold like the goods he had come to sell on behalf of his employer. Husbands were separated from wives, parents from children, and brothers from sisters. Lincoln was so disgusted by what he saw he is reported to have said to a friend, “If ever I get a chance to hit that thing, I will hit it hard!”

I wonder what injustices in our society today are shocking the consciences future Lincolns.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Less Racism, Fewer Abortions

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.—Psalm 127:3

I listened to a story yesterday on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life with Ira Glass entitled “Babies Buying Babies.” It really made an impression on me. Elna Baker tells about the time she worked at FAO Schwartz, an upscale toy store in New York City. Dressed as a nurse, she sold, life-like, newborn Lee Middleton Dolls for an “adoption fee” of $125. After a segment of MTV's show Rich Girls aired in which a girl adopted one of the dolls, they began going like hotcakes. Rich parents and their spoiled children lined up to “adopt”  these newborns until the unthinkable happened—all of the white babies sold out five weeks before Christmas. With the dolls on back order from the factory there was no chance of resupply until the following January. Minority babies sold slowly, first the Asian babies, then the Hispanic babies, until all that was left was a nursery full of black babies. Even a defective, factory-reject monster baby the workers nicknamed “Nubbins” was adopted ahead of dozens of perfect little black babies.

Thankfully, racism in America is not as bad today as it used to be, though the story above illustrates we still have a long way to go. On January 20th, we will get our first minority president, and with all of the excitement and celebration this day rightly deserves I’m afraid we might forget that it nearly coincides with the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade (Jan. 22). This coming Sunday (Jan. 18) is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, a day to remember how precious human life is and to mourn the loss of over forty million babies who have been aborted in America alone.  (You can get resources for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday here.) 

The point of focusing on the sanctity of human life is not to condemn people who have had abortions, but to shine a light on an important moral issue. I realize some women are caught in impossible situations where there is (or seems like) no other choice besides abortion. I’m not passing judgment on them, and the answer is to go beyond merely preaching, though it’s not a bad place to start. Overturning Roe v. Wade, whether by constitutional amendment or judicial action, will not solve the underlying ethical and social problems or end abortion. We need to do more to prevent unwanted pregnancies, help pregnant mothers in difficult circumstances, promote adoption, reduce poverty and racism. And, yes, there is a connection between race, poverty, and abortion. (Interestingly enough, this year Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  is the day after Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, though rare is the church that will celebrate both.) 

The rate of abortions for non-whites in America is double compared to white women. The ratio of abortions to live births is higher among minorities—39 for every hundred live births for nonwhites vs. 25 for every hundred among whites. Some have, using hyperbole, even compared abortion to racial genocide because of this disparity. 

Maybe if more white parents were willing to adopt minority babies there would be fewer abortions. Just a thought.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One Lord, one faith, one baptism

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—Eph. 4:5

I take a broader view of baptism than most Baptist preachers. I credit my seminary professor Rev. Dr. George R. Beasley-Murray and a dear, hydrophobic Methodist saint for challenging my views on the subject.

While I regard immersion (the meaning of the Greek word baptizo) as the most historically and biblically accurate method of baptism, I do not believe using a different mode (e.g., pouring) makes baptism invalid. (By the way, the image above is an early 3rd century Roman catacomb fresco depicting baptism by “effusion,” or pouring.) And although I couldn't imagine administering baptism any way other than by dipping a person fully under water, I’m not sure how much is gained by insisting that those who were initiated in other Christian traditions be immersed, if they are satisfied with their own baptism—even if it was infant baptism. I know this is not “believer’s baptism” and it’s far from ideal, but we live in a less-than-perfect world in which regenerate believers belong to a wide variety of Christian groups with a myriad of differing beliefs and practices. And there are probably more true Christians who have not been immersed upon their own profession of faith than who have been. I smirk whenever “pedobaptists” (baby baptizers) call our practice “adult” baptism, since I know Baptist pastors who baptize four and five year olds (I’ve even heard of three year olds), which is not much different than infant baptism. Anyway, Shouldn't the doors of church membership be as wide as the Pearly Gates . . . and no wider?

Isn’t it inconsistent that we Baptists consider the elements of the Lord’s Supper (Communion) an indifferent matter (white bread, matzo, little square crackers, who cares?) but turn around and insist on baptism by immersion, which is always done one time backwards? Would a baptism be “invalid” if the person were dipped three times forward as in the Brethren churches? Or if a person baptized himself, as John Smyth did, who founded what some consider the first-ever Baptist church four hundred years ago this year? If we do not insist on unleavened bread and Kosher wine for Communion, why are we such sticklers for historical accuracy when it comes to baptism, especially when we consider it “an outward sign of an inward reality”?

The sixteenth-century Anabaptists practiced baptism by pouring, not immersion. And no less than John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress and the most well-known 17th century Baptist, held the position called “open membership,” resulting in a “mixed” congregation with both those baptized as believers and those who were baptized as infants in the Anglican Church and later joined the Baptist church as adults. He articulated his views in A Confession of My Faith (1672). Bunyan’s broad-minded approach to baptism and church membership raised the ire of some of his co-religionists, especially Particular Baptist William Kiffin—just as I’m sure this blog post is bound to irritate some of my fellow Baptists today.

Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation, and it signifies the believer’s spiritual baptism (1 Cor. 12:13). How appropriate is it to “initiate” a person who has been a believer and member of another Christian denomination for decades? Doesn’t insisting on baptism by immersion in such a situation make it simply a pro forma ritual that focuses on externals, instead of a truly spiritual act?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Deus revelatus

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem —Mathew 2:1

No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him —John 1:18

Today is Epiphany Sunday, though someone forgot to tell my pastor. It’s too bad many Baptist churches celebrate Christmas but ignore Epiphany (Jan. 6), which falls on the twelfth day after Christmas and marks the beginning of a new season in the church calendar. Both Christmas and Epiphany date back to the fourth century when the Roman Empire was being Christianized. Christmas, which was originally created to compete with and eventually replaced the pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun (Dec. 25), recalls the birth of Jesus. Epiphany, meaning “manifestation,” reveals the purpose of his coming: the manifestation of God in Christ. Without Epiphany we wouldn’t know why Jesus’ birth is significant. You might say Epiphany answers the So what? of Jesus’ birth.

In the West, the visit of the magi is commemorated on Epiphany. Magi (sing. “magus”) were Zoroastrian astrologers from ancient Persia, not three kings. (The English word “magic” is related to “magi.”) One of my favorite depictions of the magi is Peter Paul Rubens’s masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi (above), which now sits above the altar in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, UK. You can find an image the painting with the altar here.

Shortly after his conversion and baptism in 1927, T.S. Eliot published his poem, “The Journey of the Magi.” You can listen to a recording of Eliot reading his poem here.

The poem ends with these lines:

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different;

This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us,

Like Death, our death,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Eliot makes the point that for the magi there was both a birth and a death—the birth of Christianity and the death of magic. After returning home things could never be the same again. I imagine it was the same with Eliot’s conversion, because conversion always involves both death to sin and self and rebirth.

The Apostle Paul put it this way,

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. —Gal. 2:20

Jesus is the manifestation of God—Deus revelatus. Happy Epiphany!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Where Was God?

In my last post, I wrote, parenthetically, Where was God? when telling the story of a little boy named Brent Davidson who was brutally murdered. This frequently asked question gives voice to one of the most troubling conundrums of monotheism (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, whatever). It’s a dilemma called the “problem of evil” or the “problem of suffering.” For polytheism this is no problem. Either you didn’t appease the right god or you angered the wrong one. Monotheists have a hard time explaining how an all-powerful, benevolent God would allow innocent people to suffer. It’s a sticky problem to say the least (just ask Job), and it’s been sticking to me like Uncle Remus’s Tar Baby for a long time.

Where was God? There’s something healthy about saying what’s in your heart and mind, even when it’s not polite or pious. But it’s also good to be reminded, even rebuked, when what you say is wrong, perhaps even heretical. At the recommendation of my friend and former pastor, Dr. Tom Jackson, I’m reading The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Peter J. Gomes, pastor of Harvard University’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Morals. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his progressive theology, Gomes gives me a lot of food for thought. In fact, there’s even a section entitled “Where Was God?” dealing with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I found it particularly convicting. Gomes writes, “Nothing in the Bible promises us a stress-free existence in this world, and that to confuse worldly success with divine approbation is a dangerous, even idolatrous, enterprise.” (I thought I knew that.)

Where was God? Gomes takes issue with the question itself: “The implication was that that God was not on duty, for if God had been doing the right thing by God’s people, the disasters . . . simply would not have been permitted.” The question Where was God? commits the “fallacy of the declarative question.” That is, it’s not really a question at all. It’s an accusation: “God, you weren’t there!” Really?

On that awful day a dozen years ago, when an innocent little boy was tragically murdered, his throat cut from ear to ear the same way lambs were ritually sacrificed in biblical times, God was all around me—both metaphorically and in reality—yet I was too overwhelmed with anger and fear to see it.

Where was God? God was beside me, in the parents, mourning the loss of their beloved son. God was within me, comforting a distraught mother and father through me. God was before me, lying dead on a blood-soaked gurney. And God was above me, whispering in the deafening silence, I am here.