“Ants in the Pants of Faith”

The Pew Research Center reports that the fastest growing religious group in North American is the “Nones” (not “nuns”, though the way things are going, there may be none of them in the foreseeable future, sorry to say). “Nones” are those, primarily among young adults but not exclusively so, who do not identify with any organized religious group. Neither do the “Nones” embrace any particular creed or champion any particular body of theological tenets. If they do, it’s the view that since all theological systems have their valid points, it’s not particularly desirable, therefore, to espouse any one body of doctrine.

As a pastor and chaplain on college and university campuses for a quarter of a century, I encountered many “Nones”. They weren’t difficult to find on campus, but they were hard to engage in a conversation about religious manners. The idea of religion simply didn’t appear on the iPhone screens and so was pretty well irrelevant to most.

However, every once in a while, I’d manage to get a “None” to sit down with me and carry on a conversation over a cup of coffee. A couple of those conversations come to mind now. In both cases, the young person indicated to me, somewhat wistfully, that he/she had been taken to a Sunday school by his/her parent or parents, but felt they had “graduated” and moved on.

“Do you think anything you learned in Sunday school had stuck with you?” I asked.

“Sure. The idea that God was a big judge up there whom I had to please, or else. I did like Jesus, though. He seemed like a nice guy, somebody I’d like to have a beer with.”

“Do you talk to him regularly now?”

“No. When I got into me teens, I found I just couldn’t believe wholeheartedly in many things I’d been taught about the Christian religion.”

“Can you say more? What kind of things didn’t make sense for you?”

“Gee, I haven’t thought about these things for a long time. It’s hard to remember one just now . . . I suppose the idea that Jesus was born from a virgin, for one. That was too much of a stretch. At my childhood church, we used to say ‘We believe that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary”. I couldn’t say that, or else I’d be a hypocrite. So, I kept silent during that part. After a while, I just stopped going to church completely since I couldn’t buy the whole package of goods they were selling.”

A shame, really, to abandon one’s religious quest just for the sake of what I consider a side issue in the Christian faith. It seems this person got the idea somewhere that by faith, Christians mean for one to give intellectual assent to certain doctrines. Therefore, if one cannot give such intellectual assent to something like the virgin birth, then one is being faithless, a “None”. So goes that line of reasoning.

I recall thinking that way myself when I was younger. I almost panicked as a college freshman when I couldn’t incorporate some things I’d learned at church into my developing intellectual worldview. The virgin birth was one of those things, though there were others. What would my pastor or parents say if I told them I had doubts? How could I even consider becoming a pastor if I couldn’t accept unswervingly every doctrine contained in or suggested by the Bible? Secretly, I feared I was disqualified from being a Christian, much less a man of the cloth.

It was my own campus pastor, the late Larry Martin, who helped me understand the nature of faith. “If you know something for a certainty,” he would say to me over our own cups of coffee, “that’s knowledge, information, not faith. Faith is to trust in the reality of something when you don’t know it for certain.”

“Do you believe that all that is has been created by a loving God?” he asked me once.

“Yes,” I said, “provided we can agree that God didn’t literally fashion it all in six days, but is somehow a power or force that is embedded within and perhaps guides a process of evolution.”

“Agreed,” he said. “Well, then, don’t you think the Creator of it all, by whatever means, can arrange to be incarnated in the womb of a virgin, or anybody God chooses?”

“Good point,” I conceded.

“Besides,” he continued, “I’m surprised that as an English literature major you can’t appreciate the poetry of the Bible when it talks about things like the virgin birth.”

I felt a little slighted. But also liberated. For one thing, Larry didn’t chastise me for any doubts I had about the virgin birth and any number of other matters that troubled me that he and I discussed during my college years. Secondly, I could apply my brain and use reason in reading the Bible? That was a novel concept for me at the time.

Larry was the first to teach me that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather an essential part of it. Doubt is as unavoidable for faith as is our own shadow on the sand at the beach on a brilliantly sunny day. It comes naturally and unavoidably with the territory.

My second novel, currently nearing the end of the first draft, deals with the fate of Finnish Jews and Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I have been able to weave thoughts about profound doubt into the story. As Jews in Finland begin to hear about Nazi atrocities in Europe, their faith in the God of the covenant with Abraham is sorely tested by doubt. I help my character’s struggle with faith in the shadow of Auschwitz.

A few years after college, I discovered Frederick Buechner, novelist and preacher extraordinaire, who has been my bookshelf companion ever since.  He called faith “the ants in the pants of faith”; hence, the title for this post. “They keep faith alive and awake and growing.” For other such gems of religious and practical wisdom, see http://www.frederickbuechner.com/wishful-thinking-a-seekers-abc/ 

Until next time, live each day to the fullest. Keep asking questions and voicing your doubts, perhaps in the space for comment below. Or send me a personal message. Don’t forget to click the “Follow” button for future posts.






The front page of this past Saturday’s Inquirer (that’s the Philadelphia daily newspaper, not to be confused with the notorious purveyor of fake news and “alternative facts”, the National Enquirer), featured a color photo of the bloodied face of a bearded young man carrying a large wooden cross. The young man, compete with a crown of thorns, was a Mexican immigrant portraying Jesus in a live re-enactment of the Good Friday passion in Bensalem, PA the previous evening.

I thought it significant that the great majority of the 300 or so who followed Jesus’ progress along the Via Dolorosa were also immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Ecuador – many of them, according to the accompanying article, undocumented. They came into the open to witness the re-enactment, in spite of President Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigrants.

It’s not at all surprising that in the current political climate in the United States, immigrant communities, like the one in Bensalem, is under duress. Many, especially children and youth, are fearful for their future, or that of their parents, even if they are in the United States legally.

It makes eminent sense to me, therefore, that such painfully realistic re-enactments of Jesus’ suffering and death have a particular appeal for immigrants, especially ones who have fled from oppression or violence in their native country, and now may be made to feel unwelcome and unwanted by many in their adopted country.

German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was sentenced to prison by the Nazis during the Second World War. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote that “God helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”  As the bewildered, often guilty German people were trying to make sense of the rubble of defeat as the war was coming to a close, Bonhoeffer said, “only the suffering God can help.”

As my pastor was doling out reading parts for Holy Week and Easter services last week, she assigned readings from Good Friday to me. Because she and I had discussed earlier my positive feelings about Good Friday, she added with a smile, “It’s your favorite service, anyway.”

She’s right. In the rather earnest Lutheran piety in which I was raised in northern Finland, Good Friday was the liturgical pinnacle of the church year. One got the impression, in fact, that Easter was merely a necessary add-on to make us conform to the rest of Christendom. But Good Friday was where it was at.

A little historical background about my native country might help explain. For most of its post ice-age history, Finland has been a land of oppression, suffering and poverty. For five centuries, the Swedes lorded over the Finns, and after 1809, it was the czarist Russians. Even after independence in 1917, the country was racked by a bitter and bloody civil war. In 1939-40, and again in 1941-1944, the Finns fought the invading Russians valiantly, but both times had to surrender and accept punitive terms for peace.

When my family and I left for Canada in 1955, before the ascent of Nokia, Kone and Marimekko, Finland was still a chronically poor agricultural economy.

So, it’s no wonder, it seems to me, that Jesus’ radical vulnerability and apparent defeat on Good Friday speak so profoundly to the Finnish psyche. Don’t misunderstand me: Finns celebrate Easter, too. But, Finns know that “only a suffering God helps” a people acquainted for much of its life with grief.

There is suffering in other places and among other peoples as well, of course. Boy soldiers in the Congo; girls abducted en masse by terrorists in Nigeria; mass starvation in South Sudan; refugees drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to flee a dictator who poisons his own people with sarin gas.

I am almost to the point some days where I am tempted to tune out the daily news – uncharacteristic for a newshound like me. The juvenile “mine is bigger” contest between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seems, at first blush, a matter to chuckle about until one realizes the unspeakable suffering and destruction if one or the other doesn’t blink, turn down the volume of the bellicose rhetoric, and walk away.

So, immigrant or not, documented or not, we live in a world where there is plenty to fear. Don’t we feel hopelessly vulnerable much of the time? In that kind of world, nothing short of God’s submitting his own heart to be broken will enable God to reach the terrified hearts of the people God loves. Only a God willing to be totally vulnerable in the person of Jesus on the cross will help.

Yes, my pastor had it right. I thoroughly enjoyed Easter service this past Sunday. The world surely needs the good news of life in the midst of death, of hope beyond despair. But the news of resurrection and victory would be infinitely less credible for me and have a less profound impact on me, if I were not convinced that the one who was raised on Sunday was first crushed on Friday.


That is why Good Friday remains at the top of my personal theological pinnacle.


It shouted out at me from the page in the worship bulletin this past Sunday. It was in bold print, and we recited it together. The verse. The fateful one. The 25th verse of the 27th chapter of Mathew’s gospel: “His [Jesus’] blood be upon us and on our children!”


I wonder if Matthew could have known in the middle of the first century what havoc, what tragedy, his inclusion of this verse in his gospel will cause, would he have simply omitted it? I dearly wish he had.


Matthew 27:25 has been called “the blood guilt text”. It’s been cited in every generation since by Christians as justification to continue to punish the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus.


We Christians will continue to hear other similar verses in our Holy Week services. Some of what we hear will be ironic since Jews celebrate their grand festival, Passover, this week as well.


The gospel of John, especially, has long provided anti-Semites with grist for the racist mill. There are 31 instances where John uses the word Ιουδαίοί, the Jews, in a hostile, if not provoking, sense. John lumps all Jewish groups of the time together, with no distinctions made between different parties and factions. The Jews were no more uniform then than they are today. There is some credibility, to be sure, in the suggestion among scholars that by the word “Jews”, John is referring to the religious leaders who worked together to present Jesus to Pilate for crucifixion. But when we hear potentially inflammatory verses from John’s gospel in the pew, it’s too easy to hear them as his ascribing to “the Jews” en masse the unjust death of Jesus.


Jews have been paying en masse with their lives for such an incorrect, if not willfully incorrect, interpretation of history. Though much of what I discovered was not entirely new to me, my research for my second novel (which will deal with the ambiguous fate of Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II) overwhelmed me with the crushing catalogue of instances of unthinking, spiteful violence against Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. (For the record: the treatment of Jews by the Finns was largely free of violence, but as those who read the book when it comes put will see, there were other issues.)


Of course, not all Christians have participated in such ruthless behavior against Jews. But more than we can count have been silent, (and therefore complicit, wouldn’t you say?) when many of their brothers were committing vindictive acts.


As a Lutheran Christian, I have to acknowledge, sadly and embarrassingly so, that the one for whom we are named, Martin Luther, had a shocking, merciless, difficult-to-read anti-Semitic streak. In his pamphlet, On the Jews and their Lies, he excoriates the Jews, particularly those who stubbornly refused to convert to Christianity, as “venomous beats, vipers, disgusting scum, devils incarnate.” He encourages the princes to engage in pogroms. “Let the magistrates burn their synagogues and let whatever escapes be covered with sand and mud. Let them be forced to work, and if this avails nothing, we will be compelled to expel them like dogs.” Sure, you can say that Luther was merely a product of a dark, particularly anti-Semitic age. But since some four centuries later, Adolf Hitler read Luther’s pamphlet and quoted from it, Luther’s harsh and bigoted words were a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust.


We Christians need to be wise and judicious hearers of the Holy Week texts and thoughtful doers of the gospel of compassion and tolerance. We need to listen in a spirit of penitence for the anti-Semitic and other prejudicial elements of our heritage and a willingness to expose our hearts to God’s correction.


The ending of the Martin Luther story, by the way, is a good one. In his very last sermon before he died in 1546, he proclaimed, “We want to treat [the Jews] with Christian love and to pray for them. . .”


Pretty good advice for Holy Week.


Until next time, live each day to the fullest.

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My Act of Witness, Resistance and Defiance

No matter how recently or how long ago you were in high school, my advice is that you try to retain as much of what you learned – because you never know when that knowledge will be needed.

Shortly after I retired in 2015, Ben, a local pastoral colleague, contacted me about volunteering as a mentor to a refugee family from the Congo. The family was being housed temporarily in “Welcome Home”, a small house near his church which the congregation rents in order to welcome newly-arrived refugees for the first month or so of their stay in the United States.

“Jack,” he said cheerily over the phone. “You’re Canadian, aren’t you? You must speak French, then.”

Ben didn’t know that I came to the U.S. from English Canada. But I did take five years of French in high school (Ontario high schools had five, not four, grades at the time.)

“Well, sort of,” I answered. “But my last French class was 48 years ago, in 1967!”

“You’ll do just fine,” he said, more confidently than I felt.

The Congolese family speaks no English, only Swahili. The father, 54, however, had studied French in school. Therefore, Ben needed someone who could communicate with the family using Swahili or French, take your pick.


I have been the family’s mentor since November 2015. The French vocabulary has slowly crept up from the back of my mental hard drive closer to the front. I get by.

There were three in the family at the start: a father, mother, and a daughter, 13.

They had fled war-torn, violence-prone eastern Congo to neighboring Uganda in 2002. The United Nations accepted them into a refugee camp – and that was their home until 2015. They waited for a chance for a new, safer life for 13 years in a not-altogether secure and safe environment! During the last 4 of those years, they were being vetted by numerous intelligence arms of the United States government.

They were joined in Philadelphia some seven months later by their adult son, his wife, and their four young children, who had had to remain in the refugee camp temporarily to clear up some medical issues that prevented them from being accepted by the U.S. with the rest of the family in 2015.

Outreach and welcome to refugees has become a major plank in my unwritten mission statement for retirement. My second novel, currently under construction, will deal with the plight of Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II. I was happy to respond affirmatively to Ben’s invitation to mentor this refugee family for various reasons:


  • Hospitality to strangers and “outsiders” is a primary value of the Christian faith which I espouse.
  • The protagonist in the Christian story was forced to flee suddenly from his hometown with his parents as a toddler to escape the insane violent jealousy of King Herod. My driving the family to the bank and grocery store, and helping them navigate their way in a new and highly complex environment, is therefore, an act of Christian witness.
  • My relationship with a family from a distant part of the world and a culture unfamiliar to me is also an act of There is a disturbing tendency in our society to fear the “other”, to be suspicious of people who look different from ourselves, particularly if they have a darker skin color than we ourselves. The current presidential administration in the U.S. has, it seems to me, stirred up fear and anxiety, normalized xenophobia, and unintentionally, (or, perhaps not s unintentionally?) created an environment where acts of hostility, or even violence, against the “stranger” are tolerated. Reaching out to one refugee family is my way of challenging and countering that disturbing trend.
  • Furthermore, I consider my sharing in a relationship of give and take with these none individuals from the Congo to be an act of downright The current administration has, twice now, attempted to reduce the number of refugees allowed into the country annually by 50% from the number accepted under the previous President. The administration has attempted to order a temporary halt to accepting refugees. (Who is to say that the 120-day halt will not be extended?) The President’s executive order in January ordered the denial of all refugees from Syria. Thankfully, in each instance, a federal judge put a temporary halt to the President’s order. Refugee resettlement agencies, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, can continue their work of mercy, and refugees can taste freedom – at least for the time being.


After seeing ugly, distressing video of Syrian children writhing in agony after the government of President Bashar al-Assad attacked them with bombs containing deadly sarin gas, don’t we have a clearer, more pressing picture of just what awaits desperate Syrians in refugee camps who are barred from our country.

Till next time, live each day to the fullest. A penny for your thoughts. Leave a comment in the box below. If you would like to continue receiving this blog, click the “Follow” link below.