Lent and Atheism

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Hmmm. Yes, Lent and atheism.

About six years ago I came across what Craig Groeschel called “Christian atheism.” In its simplest form, it means believing in God but living as if he does not exist. It is what the Bible calls idolatry: rather than worshiping and yielding to God as he is, we create a god in our own image. Made in the image of God, we make a god in our image who conforms to our expectations. Those poor people made gods of stone and metal and wood. We make gods in our imaginations. Far more subtle and dangerous. It is easy to know that I am bowing before a golden image. It is far harder to discern when I am bowing before a god of my imagination.

If we take seriously the spiritual journey that Lent offers we will see this atheism for what it is. We will allow God’s Spirit to reveal where and how we bow to ourselves or others. Am I seeking God’s will? Or am I weaving a myth in which God wants for me what I want? Convenient. And deadly.

The other atheism that Lent brings to mind is more subtle but also necessary. On the day of Jesus’ death that we will soon observe, Jesus cries from the cross “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” The weeks that remain before Good Friday allow us to ask – What if God isn’t there? What if God were to abandon us? What if God were not there and is as much our imagining as the idols we make in our hearts?

This may not seem right – to wander into doubt and uncertainty. This Lent I wonder if that is indeed a place to go. Pondering what would be if God were not. Or if God were not interested in our lives and well-being. Not to believe that God is not but to understand more fully what it means to live as if he isn’t in the subtle illusion of a functional atheism that is as bad as not believing at all.

To recognize anew our utter need for God. Our entire dependence on Christ. To hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit always speaking into mind and heart.

This Lent join me in seeing where our faith is in ourselves more than in the Self Beyond All Selves. Ask where I want what I want – and always left wanting. The looming death of Christ invites us to seek the death of the atheism in us that robs the death of Jesus of its power to transform and make whole.

May our idols die. May our atheism yield.

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Lent and Anxiety

If you are reading this via Facebook, know that I am not on Facebook for the remaining days of Lent. If you want to respond please do so on the blog page otherwise I won’t see your words. 

Been a little under the weather, too, this week so today’s post comes on Saturday rather than Friday. Hopefully back to the schedule next week.

Continuing Friday (Saturday) Lenten reflections…. today I turn to Lent and anxiety. A subject I know well. Anxiety more than Lent.

This Lent has brought to light how anxious I am and always have been. I have never been a calm person, even when I appeared so. I have always been anxious even in childhood. I don’t understand the roots of this anxiety but it is there. Fretting. Worrying. Over-thinking. Some of us are predisposed for a variety of reasons to such anxiety. Some of us experience trauma that instills it in us. Most of us are anxious and driven at times by that anxiety.

We are anxious about being left out. That we will fail. About our status – with another person, in a group, in the broader strata of life. Anxious about how someone feels about us. We fret about the future. We worry about the outcomes of decisions or mistakes made. How anxious are you?

Lent can help reveal the depths of our anxiety. In sacrificing something, we have an opportunity to reflect on our hungers and drives. Longing for chocolate or coffee or social media helps us stop and look at what drives our decisions, our reactions. Acting out of our commitment or decision is a different thing than reacting to our urges or drives. Awareness of what drives us allows us to give this to Christ and to allow the Holy Spirit to shape our drives and hungers in different directions.

As I am thinking about my interactions with people online, in person, over time I see this anxiety in bold letters. How many times I act (react) out of my anxiousness instead of wisdom, charity, or grace.  I could name specific people and situations over the last few weeks that would have been different absent anxiety.

This is not just Christian-ish pop psychology. Or a God of Therapy made in my own image. Anxiety is addressed in the Scriptures. For instance, Paul tells the church at Phillipi:

 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)

The antithesis of anxiety is peace. And a peace that “transcends understanding:” a peace that is greater than the very powerful and very real sources of anxiety. An anxiety against which God can safeguard us if we allow.

Paul’s advice is prayer. Lest we find this trite, it means hard work. It means working to put the outcome of things in God’s hands rather than our fevered and painful imaginings. It means believing that God’s imagination of what can be is greater and better than we can manage even at our best. And often do at our worst.



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Lent and Losing Things

This Lent I am doing things solo (by which I mean without a church home and therefore without the usual groups I have had or led for study and reflection and discipline and sometimes worship). It has underscored for me that Lent is partly about learning that we can do without things we think we cannot. Many of us surrender some cherished thing for Lent – an activity, a food or beverage. Some people take social media fasts.

Most of us do not need these things – chocolate, Diet Coke, Twitter, coffee, meat, Facebook. They are things we enjoy. Or (like coffee for me) crutches we need to get through the day or get the day on track.

These sacrifices, great or small, serve a variety of spiritual purposes. The one that is on my  mind today is loss. Not losing things like our keys or an umbrella. But losses that cut us to the soul – friendships, jobs, loved ones, financial security, marriages, a home, things we thought were true but turn out to be false, dreams we cherished and held but that never came to be. These are things whose loss is painful and not merely inconvenient. It can feel like death. Because it is death.

Lent is a training ground for loss. Learning by not drinking coffee how to lose a friend (either to death or the relationship’s end). Learning by not eating meat how to lose a job or a home. Inside these little losses that we intentionally suffer God works to help us grapple with the deaths that come and not just during Lent.

I am not sure I would have thought so, but this Lent is for me a time of loss. I haven’t given up anything this year but have lost lots of things. It is unsettling to have lost familiar patterns and not feeling able to reclaim them elsewhere – study groups, special activities, the weekly flow of worship. I have a new career that I love and to which God led me. But the old one hovers around in the background and won’t be ignored. My weekly pattern of life has changed dramatically and after four months it still feels… odd.

Just recently I experienced the loss of a friendship or at least I think so. It was a renewed acquaintance from my youth that now seems to be gone. Like all loss of personal connection it is disorienting, confusing, troubling. We always wonder what could have been different. What we did. What we didn’t. Even when we know the facts we don’t always  understand the why. Sometimes we just know it is gone and nothing more.

Lent can teach us about enduring even in the face of loss. We will not die even though we have experienced death. We will not be unmade because some part of us seems lost or broken or injured. We will not be overwhelmed even if we feel like we are sinking in grief.

And even when we are overwhelmed… God remakes on the other side of Lent. This is not just the therapeutic God who comes to make things better. There is a God who comes to make the dead alive. And to make death yield to life. There is destruction but also new creation. There is a cross but also a vacated tomb. There is death but there is also resurrection. We cannot bear it all but we lean on and toward a Someone who can.






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Epiphany and the Divine Plan

Today is the feast of the Epiphany – the remembrance of the Magi or Wise Men visiting Jesus and his parents. Generally twelve days after Christmas (and hence the 12 days of Christmas we hear in song and story).'ADORATION OF THE MAGI'

Epiphany is a powerful reminder that God is working even when we cannot see it. The parents of Jesus had no idea these wise searchers after truth would come to their home. They appeared one day after a long search for the one whose birth they had seen in the stars. I am sure their arrival was not only unexpected but also overwhelming.

I imagine them going about their business when suddenly these strangers arrive at the door. Or neighbors come to say there are these strangers in town asking about babies born on such a date. An ordinary day in every respect until this revelation or epiphany occurs.

I don’t often post here and not usually two days in a row. But I was struck by yesterday’s verse from Jeremiah with the emphasis on God knowing his plans even when we do not and perhaps cannot. God was nudging these wise ones to Jesus’ home all the while life was settling into the post-birth patterns of family and parenting. Stars in the heavens and advice along the way – and then dreams afterward – propelled them toward the goal of seeing this singular and peculiar child.

God is giving birth to purpose and future for each of us daily. Slowly God’s purposes reveal themselves to us. Sometimes in an epiphany. Others when we look back and see where the Divine One has led us without our knowing.

May today be a day of being open to such revelations of the divine and the divine purpose in your life and mine. May we God’s signs lead us to Christ again today and to a life of submission to his will and pleasure.


“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

Matthew 2:1-2 The Message

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Plans I Have For You

One of the oft-quoted verses when facing the future are these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)

This morning my daily devotional used this verse as its focus.

God’s plans are not the only ones, however. While God intends our good and to give us a better future, the forces around us may move us in a different direction. Like a ship buffeted by winds and waves, our lives may be pushed off this ideal course. And the longer we drift, the farther off this path of life and blessing we are.

It isn’t that God doesn’t care. Nor that God is unable to do on our behalf. It is that God is not the only player in the drama of human life. The forces I mention above? They have their own agendas. We are surrounded by people who have their own ideas and goals – and their ideas for us may be very different than the ones that God intends.

And then there is the free human agent – the other “I” in my life. Me. I choose. I dream. I hope. I worry. I despair. Even God’s deepest dream hasn’t the power to overcome my free choice to drift or even depart from the divine will.

The question on my mind today? Are God’s plans my plans? Am I willing to let God answer my prayers – or am I waiting for God to do what I want and what I hope? Am I submitting as Jesus did to God’s plan at every turn? Is every choice in submission to the plans God has for me? Am I willing to accept the hope and embrace the future that God intends?




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New Year’s Day

Every year for New Year’s I post this poem from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He wrote it in prison when I suspect he knew he would not leave prison alive. In April of the year he wrote these words he was hanged by the Nazis at the Flossenberg Camp.

It gives me such hope to read his words… to recall that he faced what he may have realized were his final days.. and yet to rest his future and the futures of those he loved in the DIvine One’s hands. To have such faith is my prayer this year and every day.

New Year 1945

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of our sorrow still endure.
Father, grant to the soul thou hast been chastening
that Thou hast promised—the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But, should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light,
leading us haply to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine e’en our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our harkening,
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us,
boldy we’ll face the future, be it what way.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
And oh, most surely on each new year’s day!


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Final Sunday of Advent – Madeleine L’Engle

My Advent observance has been… spotty. I still haven’t been to church since my final Sunday in the pulpit. I am still working out some things and honestly am not feeling any interest in going. As I say… I am working on it.

I am unsure how in my 50 years of life and faith I have not come across this poem by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved her books as a child and teen – A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my favorite books. I realized later that she had a profound Christian faith but also a deep respect for and interest in science. No wonder I loved – and love – her writing.

Here is the poem…


After Annunciation
Madeleine L’Engle

This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.

From A Cry Like a Bell: Poems (p. 58)


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What Are We Waiting For?

I have never perfectly embraced the traditional nature of Advent. I was taught in seminary that Advent is a penitential season. A period of reflection and repentance before the great feasts of Christmas and Epiphany.

As a great lover of all things Christmas, I have not wanted to wait to sing Christmas carols. While I don’t want to hear holiday music in October, on the day after Thanksgiving let it blast I say. For those who practice Advent, the month that precedes Christmas means properly preparing for Christmas Eve and Day.

What if it isn’t about that at all? What if Advent is a deeper thing…  a more unsettling thing than we have practiced it?

I am, as you likely know, writing this from outside the church this morning. I have not attended worship in a church since my last Sunday in a church’s pulpit. But I have thought deeply and long about the season and the cycle these weeks invite us to observe.

Advent reminds me that the coming of Jesus was not enough. Yes, the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest.” But is the world any better than it was those centuries ago? Is there less suffering, less evil, than in the world of the first century?

As I journey through Advent 2016, I understand for perhaps the first time with both heart and mind that the coming for which I wait is the second and final one. For the “hopes and fears of all the years” to come to their ultimate fruition.

God’s purposes are still in the “not yet” column of the cosmic timeline. Even at my best, my life does not reflect the kingdom of heaven. The world falls short of it too.

God comes to us in the now, though. To hearts that invite him. To lives that open to him. To circumstances yielded to him. But the Advent of Christ remains a partial thing.


“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”

 Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat



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Thinking About Church…

Today is the first Sunday of Advent 2016. And the first time in 20+ years that I am not spending this morning in worship somewhere.

Several weeks ago – about a week after my last Sunday – a former church member asked me where I was going to church on Sunday. When I said I wasn’t… she pressed and wanted to know how I could go from going every week to not at all. I didn’t choose to discuss the matter with her but it has come up more than a few times since my last day in ministry.

I understand the question and the unasked questions behind it. I spent 24 years as a pastor and while I missed some Sunday’s here and there I was in the pulpit almost every one of those Sunday mornings. Have I lost my faith? How can I be a faithful Christian without attending worship and participating in church life? If the church was so important to me for so many years how could it stop being important so abruptly? And what does it mean to people whom I led and pastored if I have left the chruch?

The simplest answer I can give today (and that I am trying to understand) is that I don’t want to go. I went for all those years, sometimes out of duty and responsibility when I wasn’t feeling like it. Not HAVING to go is freeing. If you haven’t been a pastor, it ‘s hard to describe how Sunday morning (at least for me) cast a shadow over the rest of my week with its needs and expectations and responsibilities. These weeks have been a Sabbath from the Sabbath.

I have not given up on the church. I have certainly not given up on Christ. I still pray and read and ponder. I know the church is there and that I need to be there. But to find a place where people don’t know me and have lots of awkward questions and expect me to be involved is a challenge. To find a place where my Wesleyan-Methodist roots can take new root and thrive is also important. To want to go is important too – not to go because I must.

As Advent begins I am preparing not for the coming of Christ alone or for his return as Advent promises but also my own return.






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All Things End

I’ve been thinking about the end of my (professional) ministry a great deal these past few weeks. I catch myself thinking “Oh, this is the last time I will do that.” Or  realizing some things that form a part of the rhythm of my life are gone – or will be shortly.

About a month ago my wife and I went on a dinner cruise on the Ohio River. During the last hour we passed places that were a part of my life for many years but no longer are. Places that I remember fondly from childhood are not even there any more. Places we frequented no longer seem familiar. Or mine.

It struck me – when we moved to the Dayton area from Cincinnati in 2009 I grieved. I had spent my entire life in the Greater Cincinnati. But I found new memories, new friendships, a new sense of place and purpose and life. And I would grieve as much to leave Dayton now as I did to leaving Cincinnati then.

All things are transitory. Even those who spend their entire lives in the same community, the same church, the same circle of friends, the same house – one day will leave this world and leave those things behind. Most of us experience more than one such leaving as we take new jobs or  unanticipated transitions. All things end. It is a part of human existence.

Most of our endings are really preludes to beginnings. For persons of faith, even death is not an ending as much as a transition to another, more wonderful life.

I hope to end well this long – the longest – phase of life I have ever experienced (at least where work is concerned). It is bittersweet in many ways. But also the gateway to a new life and a new adventure. It can be the same for you.

While hunting for quotes on endings, I found this gem with which I leave you this Monday morning:

““There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

― Ellen Goodman


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