Monday, December 24, 2007

light and darkness and christmas eve sermon

Moon Set 12-23

I began the day watching the moon set - had a full day with a wonderful Christmas pageant, greening the church in preparation for the Christ child, visiting a sick parishioner in the Vallejo hospital, two other parishioners in their homes on the opposite ends of the hills of Green Valley. Then a bit of shopping, a training session with my new thurifer, and off to my daughter's house to get some last minute Christmas preparations. On the way to my daughter's I saw that the moon had come up again- and my day was only about 2/3 over. You know it's a long day when it begins with a moon set and the next day's moon hangs in the sky and you're still moving fast.

Moon Rise for the next night, although it's still 12-23

Christmas Eve Sermon

Resources: Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor,

Cloth for the Cradle, Iona and Rev Gal comments

Please close your eyes just for a moment and let go of all those things you have been busy with; the shopping, baking, cleaning, wrapping … let them all go and just and breathe.

God of the Manger, God of us all, we gather tonight in this holy place where hope is born to welcome you into our very souls once again.

Can you feel a hum in the air – The time of frenzy preparations is over. The stores are closed, the gifts are wrapped, - and the celebration begins. That membrane that separates heaven and earth is thinner – Everything that happened yesterday is before Christ and everything that happens tomorrow is after Christ – which leaves us right now, that eternal NOW – when God comes among us and is made out of the same stuff we are all made.

That’s the main thing we are waiting for tonight – but it’s not the only thing is it? I imagine that there is at least one person here who is waiting to find out what’s in that box propped against the Christmas tree. And someone else who is looking forward to waking up in a house filled once again with children and grandchildren who have come home for the holidays. There are families part of Grace church who have had new babies this year – which means that they will be waiting for the first Christmas morning when they wake up to their own nativity scene.

There are those for whom this is a hard time- and no matter how much they try to muster up a feeling of joy, there is still the empty chair to deal with, the stocking that stays folded up in the box this year and is not hung. All those rituals that were designed to share and do with others is now done alone. Christmas is the season when you want to see if the hurt has let up any since last year. On one hand you want to let go so you can go on with your life, but are afraid that letting go might mean you stopped caring and so you hang on.

For better or worse Christmas Eve acts as a time machine that takes us back to every other Christmas Eve. Right? We remember those times when we were in the front row of the holiday show and not the stage manager of it; the smell of pine boughs and cloves stuck in oranges, turkey roasting. We carry an image of mom and dad sitting around in their bathrobes sipping coffee while kids chase the new puppy through the sea of wrapping paper. And even though we are now the mom and dads, we still carry those memories of when we were the children – for me as a child growing up in Michigan I loved those times when the snow would softly blanket the trees behind our house. I would go stand outside at night and watch the snowflakes fall, as if in slow motion, reflecting the street light as they fell – it was like watching diamonds falling in the night air. The snow blanketed the noise and there was a silence that you don’t often hear.

Last week I got an e-mail from a friend of a friend who wrote: this is the time of year when we all think of our friends and our families - when we think of the people we love - and try to tell them how we feel. And this year, like everybody else, we have been thinking hard about how to reach out to the people we hold in our hearts - About a week ago, my daughter solved the problem when she emailed a link to NPR's This I Believe website. She pretty much said what the season's all about.

If you have never heard the This I Believe series on NPR you should check it out. Anyone can send in their stories and they are truly amazing reflections on life. This woman’s daughter sent in her story –– she wrote that she was the kid who took everything for granted and rebelled – she scoffed at religion and its threats of damnation. She ran away from home, got a tattoo, shaved half of her head, became a truant and barely graduated high school.

Bu then her father died when she was 19 and she wrote “I realized that that all of life’s lessons I had so adamantly rejected were meant to be taken seriously. .. I now have a new belief. .. I believe that I would never have learned how precious life is unless I lost someone irreplaceable, I stay healthy because I appreciate my body’s fragility, I enrolled in and graduated from college to gain knowledge previously ignored. I teach individuals with Autism to give people opportunities to live better lives. I’m getting married because I have found my life partner. I love being alive!

My father never got to experience the new me who was molded from his death. I am the product of his passing. I am a living painting, drawn by an artist whose work may not have been complete if he was still alive.”

No wonder the place is humming .. we bring to the manger all the losses as we gather around the manger looking for a glimpse of new life – and fresh dreams.

Because we come to God in Christ, not with a childishness, but with child like wonder. Sometimes we find those experiences of new life by listening to the child like parts in ourselves or, if not, in the children around us - I am blessed to still have young children living with me. And if I make time to listen to them I remember the child like sense of wonder.

A few nights ago I was waking past my 10 year old daughter Maria’s room at night and saw her sitting in bed praying – very seriously –

I sat down next to her – and asked what did she say when she prayed?

Well, tonight I was just asking God what his favorite color was. And? “It’s purple, she replied matter of factly, God said that purple is the color of royalty and God is a king after all. Right now God is wearing purple pajamas with angels on them!-

It began over 2000 years ago when on that first Christmas - God in Jesus, crept in beside us - a vulnerable human child, trusting human hands to hold him, trusting human hearts to love him.

Whatever the circumstances of our lives just now, in all of our mixed experience of being human,– the ones who walk past the empty chair, and the ones who simply take the time to ask God what his favorite color is – and get an answer – that the God of creation comes.

I close with some words from a reflection from a book called Cloth for the Cradle …

'When the world was dark and the city was quiet, you came. You crept in beside us. And no-one knew. Only the few who dared to believe that God might do something different. Will you do the same this Christmas?

We ask this not because we are guilt-ridden or want to be, but because the fullness our lives long for, depends on us being as open and vulnerable to you, as you were to us, when you came, wearing no more than nappies, and trusting human hands to hold their maker.

Will you come into our lives, if we open them to you - and do something different?

When the world was dark and the city was quiet you came. You crept in beside us. Do the same this Christmas, God Do the same this Christmas.'

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

God's favorite color

Painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner ...Angels appearing to the shepherds

God appears to Maria quite often. Last night she had a conversation with God. It had been a good 15 minutes since I had tucked her into bed when I walked by her room and saw her with her hands together, sitting up in prayer in her bed. I went in and asked her what she says when she prays. She said that tonight she was just asking God was his favorite color was. It turns out that God's favorite color is purple because that is the color of royalty and God is a great king. At that moment, in fact, God was wearing purple pajamas with angels on them.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

the light of Christ through the eyes of a 6 year old

Thanks to my Rev Gal pals for introducing me to this poem:

After Annunciation

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.
- Madeleine L'Engle

I began to grasp some of the mystery Christ's light on one of those pitch black, moon-less nights. I was in a deep sleep when I was awakened by a tug on my sleeve. I opened one eye and saw little Maria standing there. She was 6 years old at the time and asked if we could go sit in the hot tub. It was 3 am and a school night, but for some reason I resisted my initial reaction to her request and said ‘yes.’ It happened to be one of those nights when the dark sky was filled with shooting stars, one right after the other. She listened very attentively while I explained what a shooting star was. She was silent for a long time and then quietly said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you’re wrong.’ She went on to tell me that when a star falls out of the sky at night, it really is the light of God coming from heaven and being born in someone’s heart!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

John the Baptizer in 2007

I haven't posted in a while, due to a case of carpal tunnel - ouch - but this is the latter part of a sermon I'm preaching tomorrow - a great story from a new young pastor who took his youth group to Uganda -

Modern Day John the Baptist

Robert and Maria’s godparents are missionaries in Uganda. They heard about a group pf pygmies called the Batwa pygmies who had been ordered to leave their home in a particular forest, called the Deep Impenetrable Forest, so that the country could better service tourists who were coming to look at a certain type of gorilla.

The pygmies presence interfered with tourist trade. This had ben their home ever since they appeared on this planet and when they left, and scattered to various places, they were dying of things like the common cold. They had no resistance to diseases that others had built up immunities to. So Dr. Scott Kellerman and his wife Carol set off to build communities for pygmies to live in together, and began bringing in vaccinations, refrigeration for medicine, etc.

This is an email I got from Scott a few months ago -

Dear Rob and Debra, Greetings from the Bwindi.

We recently had a visit from Seth, (their son) who is now an Episcopal pastor in Dallas. He brought a youth team of 14 with him. They built two houses for the Batwa, participated at a mobile medical clinic, played with the kids at the schools and did dramatizations of the parable "the Good Samaritan".

Saturday we worked at a Batwa settlement atop a steep hill. All were exhausted after the climb and weather threatened to terminate the home building efforts early. Little progress was being made, the mobile clinic proceeded slowly and the clouds continued to gather. The kids volunteered that they needed to do some ministry before the rain chased us off the mountain. After several worship songs they performed the "Good Samaritan", they substituted a Mutwa (pygmy) for the Samaritan and then asked for questions. The Batwa became very animated and vocal and talked about the demons that they worshiped when they lived in the forest but over the last few years they had found out about a Ruhanga (God) who loved them.

Seth told them that Ruhanga loved them so much that He sent His Son to die for them. This produced another series of questions and then one Mutwa asked what was necessary to accept Jesus Christ. Seth told him that it was a free gift and he just needed to open his heart in prayer. The man immediately ran off and Seth was a bit chagrined… but… he shortly retuned with his son so that he also could have Jesus. A large portion of the village of Mpungu became Christians that day and after the last person was prayed for, rolling thunder began, and everyone praised God as all descended from the mountain top.

The following day I had arranged for Seth to preach in church. The local pastor was unavailable but I assured Seth that they could communicate prior to the service. The usual crowd of around 500 turned up but the pastor was strangely absent. The choir began lively worship songs and after a half hour the pastor appeared, gave a hand shake to Seth and sat down a distance away. Seth felt a bit nervous as the youth group introduced themselves in the local language and then several gave testimonies about their lives. They then performed a dramatization of the Good Samaritan which was very well received. Seth did have a brief discussion with the pastor during the singing prior to his sermon and mentioned that he might ask for folks to come forward, the pastor seemed confused but agreed. Seth gave an inspired sermon focusing on how we are all called to be like the Good Samaritan but in reality the Good Samaritan is Jesus bidding us to physical and spiritual health. Seth then asked if there was anyone in the congregation who wanted to give their life to Jesus or needed to be healed of spiritual or physical afflictions. There was a long pause after the request was translated but eventually a few folks stood up. Suddenly there was an explosive response as a crowd of 200+ surged to the altar. The pastor asked Seth what they were to do next. Seth said he wasn’t sure as he had never done this before but that these people needed to be prayed for. The pastor suggested that perhaps a group prayer would be expeditious but Seth thought that individual prayer would be more appropriate. “That would take a long time” responded the pastor but he agreed. There ensued over two hours of prayers with three teams praying with individuals for physical or spiritual healing while the congregation sang worship songs. The service continued for almost 5 hours eventuating with multiple offertories and a lively auction where the youth group bought a goat and many other items. The youth group agreed that it was the most inspirational service that they had ever attended and suggested that the US Episcopal churches should replicate it but considered that it would take the average pew sitter a while to get used to.

Wish that you were here!!

Love, Scott

Monday, November 26, 2007

the morning

i wake up each morning and before i open my eyes i ask myself 'what day is it?' and then all the details of that day come crushing over me like a huge wave. when i come up for air i remind myself that i have the whole day to get things done and fight the urge to get up and get to work. my goal each day is to check off the things on my list and maybe find some time that isn't already scheduled. so monday is filled - write, meditate, exercise, kids up and ready for school, calls re new health insurance, new spiritual director, sermon for wedding, final plans for advent, Christmas and epiphany.

i need a new way to wake up.

on another note, we've been hosting an interfaith forum at the church. yesterday there was a buddhist priest there and i asked him what difference does ordination mean in his tradition. and it makes me stop and pause to ask myself the same. who am i as an ordained priest? what difference does that make? i could go back to priest call 101, but want to delve more deeply into the question rather than rattle off an answer i know too well.


Saturday, November 17, 2007


One week ago today a friend of mine was told that her son was killed in Afghanistan. He had signed on for his third tour of duty with the marines and shipped out in August. She begged him not to go this time, but he wanted to go one more time. She is the kind of person who ached to have grandchildren and wanted him to settle down and have children, not go back to the middle east. He was her only child.

To complicate things, she was divorced from her son's father and the father is making all the decisions about the funeral and their son's belongings. He is going to be cremated, but the father is going to take the urn supplied by the marine corp. She will get half of his remains in a cardboard box. She wants the flag that covered his coffin on the flight home from Afghanistan, but the father is going to get it. It seems to get worse with each new bit of news.

I just pray that God will be evident to her, tenderly walk before her and enfold her these next days to cushion the harsh reality that she is facing.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I have not blogged in a over a week - just the busy-ness of life. My 30 year old son juts moved back in with us. He was diagnosed with Lyme disease and is on disability. I have 9 year old twins at home as well. You know, things like swim meets, helping in the classroom, basketball, and all the rest keep me a bit too busy. I cherish my 5 am time to meditate and still my mind that seems to be full of bouncing ping pong balls.

We just had our diocesan convention last week end. It was a good convention - the first one that was led by our new bishop. I'll try to post a video I made of the women in ministry dinner. I'm still trying to figure out how to save videos to a computer and a cd. It's not very intuitive for me.

I've also just joined a blog community - revgals - and have been thinking about the questions asked for one of their Friday at Five sessions. Take a look at their blog. It's fantastic.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A perfect day

I think I had an almost perfect day. It began with a birthday party for my amazing and absolutely gorgeous grandson, Gabriel. He was one year old and did great with all the activity and people.

After the party I went on a kayak trip with my 9 year old daughter, Maria. I have always wanted to kayak a portion of the American River at sunset. We put in the kayaks at 5:30 - I thought there was plenty of time to get to the take out point. But I misjudged the distance. What I thought was one mile, turned out to be 3 miles - and it was pitch black by the time we reached the take out point. She was a real trooper though and didn't know I was getting a bit panicky about the current.
Then I stopeed to visit my one week old granddaughter, Sage, to hold her for a few minutes.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

Year of living biblically
We have begun a new Bible Study at Grace - 11 am on Tues mornings. It follows the 10 am Healing and Eucharist service in the small chapel. All are welcome. I recommend that you read some of the Bible every day. I guarantee that you will find yourself in the same story and struggles and triumphs on the pages as you read.

The following comes from a New York Daily News on Oct 11, 2007. A.J. Jacobs decided to spend a year living as biblically as he could. He followed the more than 700s rules found in its pages.

"Since researching and writing "The Year of Living Biblically," A.J. Jacobs has a richer appreciation for religion.

He also has bag of beard stashed under a sink.

Jacobs' memoir is subtitled "One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible." It retraces the 381 days that he tried to obey every Good Book rule - about 700 of them - exactly as written.

"My goal was to get to the original intent of the Bible, to go right to the source," notes Jacobs, 39, who is editor at large for Esquire magazine.

Jacobs, an agnostic, said the idea came from his fascination with the role religion plays in people's lives. And, he admits, it was a stunt that could sell a book.

He knows about such things. In 2004, he came out with "The Know-It-All," which chronicled months spent reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z.

The eyestrain from immersing himself in that project was a picnic compared with what Jacobs went through to live the ultimate biblical life.

He heeded the Ten Commandments, natch, and didn't lie, steal or covet. He tithed his income. He wore white and attached tassels to his shirt-sleeves. He didn't touch his wife, Julie, or any woman, at certain times of the month. He pelted an adulterer with a pebble. "It was a surprisingly intense encounter," says Jacobs.

He consulted regularly with priests, rabbis and ministers. He wore biblical attire, purchased at a Halloween store. He invited a Jehovah's Witness into his upper West Side home. "I realize this fact already puts me in an extreme minority," he muses. "It's like volunteering for jury duty or paying to see a Vin Diesel movie."

He also did field study. He tended sheep in Israel, visited with the Amish and chatted up evangelical Christians at the Creationism Museum in Kentucky ("the Louvre," he writes, "for those who believe God made Adam less than 6,000 years ago from dust").

He also danced - hard - with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. "It was like an Orthodox rave, and an interesting insight into the joy that religion could provide. There's sin and the dourness of religion, but there's a whole other side."

Until Sept. 18, 2006, the day his crusade ended, Jacobs left the edges of his beard unshaven, because the Bible tells us to do so.

"The facial hair is simply the most noticeable physical manifestation of a spiritual journey I began a year ago," he notes. That's why he felt compelled to save his whiskers in a Ziploc.

In a true act of biblical devotion, Jacobs was fruitful and multiplied. His wife gave birth to sons Lucas and Zane on Day 359 of his biblical odyssey. "I take my projects very seriously," he says, with a laugh. "We were trying anyway, book or no book, but the timing was, pardon the pun, divine."

Jacobs' book has been bought as a movie and has brought some lessons. "The outside shapes the inside, like Method acting," he says. "If you behave like a good person, you eventually become a better person."

Not that he always got it right. "I failed on an hourly basis, and that was one of the lessons," he says. "You'll never be perfect."

Nonetheless, he has changed in ways big and small.

"I spent so much time giving thanks while doing the book, I'm more thankful now. I focus on the 100 little things that go right every day.

"I'm a workaholic," he adds. "But there's a mandatory day of rest, if you follow the Bible. I see the beauty of it."

But there's always another book. His next stunt?

"Julie says I owe her one," he says. "She thinks I should do 'A Year of Giving Foot Massages.'"

For now, she is happy with Jacobs' fur-free face."

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Count down until the baby comes

My daughter, Becca, is expecitng her first child. This will be my second grandchild. I have a 10 month grandson named Gabriel. Bec is due on Oct 16th, and today she went kayaking with me.

Book Chats

I am reading a couple of remarkable books right now and thought I might put some things on this blog as 'grist for the mill' to get a virtual book club going. I'm starting with a review of Christopher Hitchen's new book called God is not Great. There was an article in Vanity Fair about Christopher Hitchen's chance encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury. When the the archbishop was asked about the current issues that our church is facing, he replied that he was just keeping his head low for a while.

I think it's important not to keep our heads low, but to be to articulate, with enthusiasm and passion, who we are and what we believe.

This was a good review of Hitchen's book and we may find ourselves in conversations with seekers who are reading this book- so I thought I'd share this review for your info.

Any comments?

peace always,

Devorah (aka Rev Deb aka Debra aka.... you don't want to know)

Review from Christian Century on Hitchen's new book: God is not Great

Fighting atheist

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve, 288 pp., $24.99
In olden times, Hitchens contends, there were excuses for being religious, but arguments from the order of the universe to the existence of God collapse in the light of modern science.

After you have written books attacking Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa, what is left, really, but to write a book attacking God—or rather, since God does not exist, attacking all who believe in God? So Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant bad boy of Anglo-American high-culture journalism, must have concluded.

Though now an American, Hitchens still writes in the best tradition of British polemic—clever, vicious and very funny. No sense of political correctness, moreover, restrains him: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—you name it; they are all stupid, and all dangerous.

In olden times, he argues, when ignorance abounded, there were excuses for being religious: "The scholastic obsessives of the Middle Ages were doing the best they could on the basis of hopelessly limited information." But now science has provided us with correct ways of understanding the world, and thus "religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago." Arguments from the order of the universe to the existence of God collapse in the light of modern science. Appeals to revelation are absurd once we know that there are many different purported revelations.

Judaism, Hitchens writes, rests on an ancient text whose barbaric laws and false history far outweigh its "occasional lapidary phrases." Also, "the 'new' testament exceeds the evil of the 'old' one." Jesus probably did not exist, and the center of his story is in any event appalling: "I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life."

Islam, he continues, is a fraudulent mixture of bits of Judaism and Christianity. Hinduism has done India terrible harm. The British were about to grant the country independence anyway, but Gandhi turned what could have been a healthy secular movement toward a modern state into a disastrous attempt to return to the values and customs of the ancient Indian village. Buddhism fries the brain: "The search for nirvana, and the dissolution of the intellect, goes on. And whenever it is tried, it produces a Kool-Aid effect in the real world."

Hitchens insists that religions are not just silly but also dangerous. Jews, Christians and Muslims are always fighting on behalf of their faiths. Sri Lanka is torn apart by Hindu-Buddhist violence. Your own religious neighbors may seem friendly enough, but do not trust them: "Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, . . . competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong." And do not think those days are over: "As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction." Religion poisons everything.

To be sure, religious folks do good as well as evil. Hitchens particularly admires Martin Luther King Jr. But at the core of what King taught, Hitchens maintains, were simple human values; King expressed them in Baptist sermons because that was the language shared by the people with whom he was communicating. On the other side of the ledger, Hitchens admits that nonreligious regimes, like Stalin's and Pol Pot's, can do terrible things. But they do so only to the extent that they become quasi-religions, with sacred texts, absolute authorities and measures for condemning heretics. "Totalitarian systems, whatever outward form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would now say, 'faith-based.'"

It would be hard to find the standard arguments against religion presented in livelier form than they are in God Is Not Great. The book reads quickly, and even for most religious people grunts of annoyance will be balanced by regular laughter. Hitchens has not forged such a successful career without knowing how to entertain. Nevertheless, this is a flawed and frustrating book.

First—how to say this politely?—it is full of mistakes. George Miller, we are told (actually it was William Miller), founded a new sect in upstate New York in the 1840s, but the group soon disappeared. More than 20 million Seventh-day Adventists will be surprised to hear it. Hitchens reports in an excited tone, "One of Professor Barton Ehrman's most astonishing findings is that the account of Jesus' resurrection in the Gospel of Mark was only added many years later." Well, it is Bart rather than Barton (names are not Hitchens's strong point), and scholars generally recognized long before Ehrman was born that the ending of Mark is a later addition.

T. S. Eliot was an Anglican rather than a Roman Catholic. The Talmud is not "the holy book in the longest continuous use." Solipsists are people who doubt the existence of a world outside themselves, not people who are ethically self-centered. The ontological argument is not even close to the silly syllogism described on page 265. Hitchens writes that it is "often said that Islam differs from other monotheisms in not having had a 'reformation,'" then he goes on to correct that claim. But sure enough, 11 pages earlier he himself had said, "Only in Islam has there been no reformation."

And so on and so on.

The errors are particularly disturbing because so much of Hitchens's argument rests on statements that the Catholic Church teaches such and such, the archbishop of Canterbury said this, Muslims believe that. Most of these claims are simply unsupported assertions; when no sources are cited, one cannot help wondering if someone so sloppy with his facts might make up some of his quotations as well.

The second frustration of reading this book, at least for a theologian, is that its author seems not to have read any modern theology, or even to know that it exists. He does cite C. S. Lewis a few times and mentions Bonhoeffer with respect (implying that Bonhoeffer had stopped believing in God by the end), but in general his sources for contemporary Christianity are Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Tim LaHaye. Of Barth or Tillich or Rahner—or their equivalents in other religious traditions—he has not a clue. When Hitchens wants to discuss modern interpretations of the Bible, he turns to Mel Gibson (really!).

Suppose I watched Bill Nye the Science Guy on TV, read the first three Web sites that popped up when I Googled "quantum mechanics," talked to the junior high science teacher who lives down the street, and then wrote a book about how superficial contemporary physics has become. Readers might reasonably protest that I should have read or interviewed some of today's leading physicists before jumping to such a conclusion.

Similarly, when Hitchens dramatically announces that parts of the Bible are not literally true, one wants to say that Origen figured that out and decided what to do about it roughly 1,800 years ago. Many theologians are thinking in interesting ways about the relation of science and faith. Thoughtful historians try to sort out how much of the inspiration of "religious warfare" has actually come from religion, and how often religion has just been the excuse for people who wanted to fight anyway.

I do not mean that there are always clear answers to the issues Hitchens raises, much less that the religious side would always win the debate. My point is simply that among serious people writing about these matters, the argument has often advanced a good many steps beyond where Hitchens is fighting it—so however good his basic questions are, and however enjoyable his style, it is hard to take his contribution to the conversation seriously.

So here is a puzzle. When I went to buy this book, the first bookstore was sold out, and the second had a rack of God Is Not Great surpassed only by the stacks of Harry Potter. No doubt good writing deserves readership, and Hitchens can certainly write. In the age of talk radio and Fox News, the complaint that he often gets his facts wrong may be an old-fashioned objection. But something more, I think, is at stake. Similar books by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are selling nearly as well.

Many Americans today are scared of religion. Radical Islamic terrorists threaten the safety of major cities. George W. Bush assures us that God has led him to his Iraq policy. The local schools, under pressure, avoid teaching evolution. The Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles is selling off property to pay victims of priestly sexual abuse. One trembles to think that many people get their picture of faith from the "Christian channels" on television. No wonder religion has, in many quarters, a bad reputation.

I think many of us—I do not mean just trained theologians, but ordinary folks in churches, mosques and synagogues as well—have found ways to be religious without being either stupid or homicidal. We are, as the cover of the Christian Century puts it, "thinking critically, living faithfully." Not enough of our nonreligious neighbors know enough about what we believe. We need to speak up.

Repeatedly Hitchens cites some horrible thing that some religious folks did or said and then notes that mainstream religious leaders did not criticize it. Although I do not always trust his claims, I suspect that in this case he is at least partly right. Too many of us have been too reluctant to denounce religious lunatics, and because of our reluctance we risk arousing the suspicion that we are partly on their side.

Hitchens ends his book with an appeal to his readers to "escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars, . . . to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it." Shouldn't one of the lessons of this book have been that comfortable intellectuals should be more careful of using words like fight? Fundamentalists of one sort or another, after all, urge their followers to fight the evils of secularism and atheism. As the battle lines are drawn between the two extremes, it seems to me that folks like those who read the Christian Century need to put aside our obsessively good manners and shout, "Hey! Those aren't the only alternatives! We're here too!"
William C. Placher is professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana

Friday, October 5, 2007


I admit it- Sukkot is my favorite holiday. It might seem a bit strange for a white, very Anglo Episcopal priest to love Sukkot but it's true. It is a festival that is marked by joy and is part of the final ingathering of the harvest before winter. There are several customs to observe during the 7 day festival. My favorite part of Sukkot is the sukkah - a temporary structure that we live in for seven days. People eat, study, play, and some people even sleep, in the sukkah. It is meant to remind us of our vulnerability and that our true shelter can only be found in God. The sukkah is a temporary structure to remind us of the type of shelter that the Israelites had as they wandered in the desert for 40 years. It reminds us of the impermanence of our lives.

The walls of the sukkah can be made with anything - canvas, comforters, hung from bamboo poles, - but the roof is supposed to be made of a natural product like tree branches. It is supposed to be cut though - an overhanging tree would not make a kosher roof. You are supposed to be able to see the heavens and stars through the roof. It is to be place that reflects beauty an can be decorated in any way way you can imagine.

There is a custom of inviting seven symbolic guests each day to join us in the sukkah- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. I also invite their respective wives to join us. Tonight Isaac and Rebecca will be our guests.

The roof of my sukkah is not kosher - it has a canvas top, but there's a hole in it so you can see the sky - if you squint a lot. Last night my 9 year old daughter and I slept in the sukkah. I didn't get much sleep, but as I laid there, outside in the old, listening sounds that only come out in the stillness of night and watched the glow of the full moon wind its way across the sky, I felt a connection to the women who walked through the desert so many, many years before. I imagined their lives, snuggling with their children to keep them warm at night, their feelings of impermanence and gratitude for whatever harvest they might gather.

I didn't quite make it all night though. At at 3:24 am Maria woke up and asked me in a quiet, pathetic sort of voice, "Mom, can we quit being Jewish now and go inside where it's warm?" And we did.