During the afternoon of this past Sunday, June 2, there was a shooting at the Midland Olive Garden. According to the Midland Police Department, around 4pm a domestic dispute between two 41-year-old people escalated into gun violence, with the victim being shot in the neck area. She was transported to the Midland hospital for treatment. The suspect was quickly apprehended by the police and taken to the county jail where he awaits arraignment.

This event is obviously tragic and shocking, because shootings in public areas don’t happen very often, especially in Midland. Clearly, this will be traumatic for the victim who was shot, but it will also have a lasting impact on the other customers and staff members who were present at the time.

An act of public violence like this might also raise questions about our general safety as we go about our daily lives. Our congregation has a few members who work in the food service industry not far from the Midland Olive Garden, so those kinds of questions might be particularly important to them.

Also on Sunday, after morning worship, several of us were engaged in a conversation about a potential ministry opportunity. During that conversation, one person commented that “we are not so isolated” out here in Mt. Haley Township – meaning that acts of violence can occur anywhere, even in a relatively remote location like our church building.

Is nowhere safe? Are we constantly in danger? How should we respond to acts of violence and threats of violence?

These are age-old questions, and, frankly, it’s a sign of peaceful privilege that we don’t have to think about violence on a daily basis. There are millions of people in various parts of the world (Gaza, Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen, and Haiti, among others) who are constantly enduring horrific tragedies much worse than a domestic violence shooting in a local restaurant. There are parts of our own nation in which public acts of violence are an everyday occurrence, not a front-page news item.

What is a faithful response to the violence of this world?

Let me point to two passages of scripture. First, Psalm 20, which will be our responsive reading during worship on June 16. The psalm begins with the words, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.” Toward the end of the psalm, we read, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

It’s a psalm asking God to protect the King of Israel, but its principles can transfer to regular people like us, too. When danger threatens us, do we trust in chariots and horses? Do we trust in our military strength? Do we trust in armed guards and metal detectors? Do we trust in our own weapons and our right to defend ourselves?

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Now, certainly, that didn’t mean that the ancient nation of Israel got rid of its chariots and horses. But the starting point for ancient Israel’s self-understanding was its trust in God, not its own ability to wield weapons of war.

The other passage of scripture that comes to mind is the Great Commandment, found in Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, and Luke 10:25-28. Jesus summarizes the entire law of God with two simple (yet difficult!) commands: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. The teaching in Luke 10 leads right into the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus tells a story about what it looks like to love your neighbor as yourself.

In a world filled with violence and chaos at every turn, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We love our neighbors because we are connected to our neighbors; we are fellow human beings on this giant and amazing planet. We are each created in the image of God who created us all. Our responses to threats and acts of violence – both to its victims and to its perpetrators – should be guided by our love for our neighbors.

Trust in God and love for our neighbors: these are two faithful responses to the violence of the world.

My suggestion for you: the next time you go to a restaurant in Midland – perhaps even the Olive Garden – take note of the other customers and staff members in the room. You might even strike up a conversation with your server and ask them, respectfully, how they are doing in the aftermath of Sunday’s shooting. Show honest concern for your neighbor – and leave them a good-sized tip, while you’re at it.

Why “Deconstruction” Isn’t a Bad Word to Me

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Matthew 7:15-20

These words from Jesus get to the heart of the matter: our attitudes and intentions are of utmost importance. The results of our actions are significant. Knowing Jesus, really knowing the heart of Jesus, is the crucial test of our discipleship (see verses 21-23).

A serious phenomenon has been taking place within Christianity, and specifically American Evangelical Christianity, over the past several years. This phenomenon is called “deconstruction,” a word that is often tossed around without much concern for either the people experiencing it or the reasons for which they are experiencing it. In this sense, “deconstruction” is much like several other words in modern society – words which have real meaning for those who describe themselves with these terms, but words which have been twisted and misused by others. (Another example is “woke,” but that’s a different discussion.)

To experience deconstruction is, according to one Baptist Reformed theologian, “apostasy.” A newly published book calls deconstruction “a postmodern process of rethinking your faith without regarding Scripture as the standard.” (Ah, there’s another twisted word: “postmodern.”)

There is much, much more nuance to the experience of deconstruction than this definition lets on.

Deconstruction is not a bad word to me. It is not apostasy (wandering away from the faith). It is not the practice of jettisoning the Bible and determining one’s own truths.

Deconstruction can be a faithful response to spiritual growth. Deconstruction can be a faithful response to poor construction.

Here is a technical definition from Merriam-Webster. Deconstruction is:

a philosophical or critical method which asserts that meanings, metaphysical constructs, and hierarchical oppositions are always rendered unstable by their dependence on ultimately arbitrary signifiers

In a sense, deconstruction in the Christian world can be compared with a reaction to the song lyric “for the Bible tells me so.” Yes, Jesus loves you and me, and it’s certainly appropriate to believe that truth because it is scriptural. But building a spiritual system on certain principles simply because the Bible says so – or because a parent, a pastor, or a denomination says so – is not always satisfactory. For those who deconstruct, these authorities appear to be “ultimately arbitrary signifiers.”

It’s as if a house of cards has been built, and up to this point the house has been pretty sturdy. But after inspecting the foundation carefully, people who deconstruct are finding that the structure is not stable. It needs to be rebuilt in order to meet the challenges and opportunities of a new day.

Part of My Story

I know deconstruction is a real experience for many people in the Christian world, because I am one of them. I have experienced deconstruction and, I believe, a reasonable amount of reconstruction in my Christian faith over the years.

This process began for me back in my early adulthood, especially after I graduated from college and then continued my education, first as a student of mathematics and then as a seminary student preparing for ministry. I never stopped loving Jesus or the message of scripture. I just began to peel away the layers of a Christian worldview that revealed itself to be built on shaky assumptions. Truth be told, the signs of this deconstruction were evident even in my high school years.

Let me give one example. When I was a teenager, my high school youth group went on a trip to a week-long youth retreat in another state. On the way there, we stayed overnight on a Saturday at another church and then participated in their Sunday morning activities. During the Sunday school hour, we attended that church’s class for students our age.

I have a vivid recollection of the discussion led by the teacher that morning. She asked, “How long did it take God to create the world in Genesis 1?” We all knew the answer: “six days.” Then she asked, “And what does the Bible say about what a day is like to the Lord?” This one was a little tougher, but the answer was: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Then the teacher made her main point: “So then, six days of creation, and a day is like a thousand years. That means the world is only six thousand years old!”

My mind reeled. This was silly. This was not scientific. This wasn’t even logical. This wasn’t what the Bible was meant to be used for – somehow proving a “young earth” theory. This was not a good foundation for a Christian worldview.

That moment was, perhaps, the beginning of my process of deconstruction.

One of my most beloved Christian teachers, Father Richard Rohr, often speaks about three movements in the spiritual life: “order, disorder, and reorder.” Deconstruction is related to that “disorder” movement. It’s what people experience after their initial system of “order” proves to be unsatisfactory. It is very much possible to move from there into “reorder,” or reconstruction, on a more firm foundation.

Back when I first began serving as a pastor, a dozen years ago or so, I attended a presentation at a local Christian high school. This presentation was about creationism and, more broadly, how Christians need to interpret the Bible literally, in every instance, in order to be real Christians. The presenter spoke for quite a while about the impossibility of evolution. Toward the end of his talk, he set up several large Styrofoam dominoes, one in front of the next, in front of the next. He said that if we take away the literalness of the creation story in Genesis 1, then we take away the literalness of the next passage, and the next story, and the next book of the Bible. Pretty soon, we take away the literalness of Jesus himself. To demonstrate his point, he then knocked over the first domino, and they all fell down one after the other.

I just shook my head. His presentation did not describe how I had come to find reorder in my Christian faith. I had deconstructed and reconstructed, over the span of many years. Many teachers, many books, many conversations with friends, and many nudges by the Holy Spirit were involved in this process. I was not threatened by the idea that some parts of the Bible were not necessarily literal accounts of historical events.

I had learned that the world is more complicated than simple questions of “right” and “wrong.” I wanted to produce good fruit, not simply to have the right answers.

Deconstruction Today

Why have many people walked away from Evangelical Christianity in recent years? Why is there so much talk about deconstruction these days? The book and theologian mentioned above, for all their opposition to deconstruction, have done well to note five key reasons for this phenomenon. They say that many people today believe the church emphasizes:

  1. A literal reading of the Bible
  2. The belief that women are to be submissive to men
  3. A belief in the sanctity of heterosexuality and the rejection of homosexuality
  4. The assumption that the American way of life is best
  5. Identification and partnership with political and social conservativism

These were not surprising for me, because I have heard these same reasons in previous books, articles, and research. For instance, in 2007 the book “unChristian” by David Kinnaman and others with the Barna Group identified several reasons young adults (who are now closer to middle age adults!) have left the Christian faith. Christians are often seen as:

  • Hypocritical
  • Too concerned with getting people converted
  • Antihomosexual
  • Sheltered
  • Too political
  • Judgmental

That was in 2007! Four years later, Kinnaman co-wrote another book called “You Lost Me” in which the authors identified several points of disconnection. Young adults (who, again, are more than a decade older now) view the church as:

  • Overprotective
  • Shallow
  • Antiscience
  • Repressive
  • Exclusive
  • Doubtless (rejecting all doubts)

These are all reasons for people to go through the process of deconstruction. The foundation of Christianity, at least as they have experienced it so far, has been shown to be faulty, shaky, not sturdy. The building needs to be rebuilt. The fruit is not good; the tree needs to be pruned.

Examining Assumptions

Let me take a moment to explore the five numbered items above and suggest why, through the lens of deconstruction, these items are not requirements for Christianity in the twenty-first century.

  1. A literal reading of the Bible

Is everything in the Bible literally true? I sure hope not. Our church is reading through the “Chronological Bible” this year, and recent daily readings came from Leviticus 13 and 14. Let me just say that I hope no one approaches me to have me, as their pastor, inspect their skin diseases, unusual hairs, and open sores.

On a more serious note, earlier this year we read the book of Job. That was an interesting editorial choice by the publishers of the Chronological Bible, because the book of Job is undated and lacks any historical indicators. It’s surely a very old story. But is it necessary for Job to have been a real person? Is it necessary for us to believe that the accuser (the meaning of the name Satan) appeared twice in God’s presence in chapters 1 and 2, without anybody batting an eye? Is it necessary for us to believe in monstrous sea creatures because God spoke about Leviathan in chapter 41? Or can we, along with most biblical scholars, recognize that the book of Job is a different type of literature than an historical record?

My reconstructed faith does not require every last detail in the Bible to be literally true. The scriptures are full of lots of different types of literature. The way and message of Jesus is still true and valid and beautiful to me. Viewing scripture in this way has deepened my spiritual journey, not caused me to abandon the faith altogether.

  1. The belief that women are to be submissive to men
  2. A belief in the sanctity of heterosexuality and the rejection of homosexuality

These two items are more closely related to each other than they might appear. And they are controversial, each in their own way. I will simply say that I have come to realize that there are many honest, authentic Christians who firmly hold both of these beliefs. There are many honest, authentic Christians who reject one but hold onto the other. And there are many honest, authentic Christians who reject both of these beliefs.

What is true? What is right? How you and I answer those questions probably depends a lot on how we react to point #1 above: the question of whether or not the Bible is meant to be read literally in every instance. Suffice it to say that these two beliefs, regarding gender roles and human sexuality, are not always seen as requirements by Christians who have gone through the process of deconstruction.

  1. The assumption that the American way of life is best
  2. Identification and partnership with political and social conservativism

These two items go together, as well. Generally, it seems that someone who agrees with one of these two will likely agree with other one. On the face of things, it is not inherently wrong to identify with political and social conservatism. It’s also not inherently wrong to prefer the American way of life, although it does smack of ethnocentrism to claim that the American way of life is best.

The trouble is when these become core beliefs of Christians, congregations, and church groups. Evangelical Christianity’s default stance of agreeing with these two items is deeply problematic, because the way of Jesus is neither culturally nor politically aligned with Americanism or conservatism. The way of Jesus transcends culture and is apolitical; the way of Jesus can and should be able to critique any culture and any political system.

If the American way of life is unquestionable, and if political and social conservatism are unquestionable, then they have become idols, gods, deities unto themselves. (The same is true of the Bible, incidentally. If the Bible is unquestionable, then it also has become an idol.) Faithful discipleship will allow for honest critiques of nationalism, political policies, and social systems.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Deconstruction is not a bad word. It doesn’t mean apostasy. It can be a faithful response to God’s movement in a person’s life, as they grow from order through disorder to a new reorder, a new way of following Jesus in the path of discipleship.

The process of deconstruction is necessary for many people to wrestle honestly with serious issues, because if they do not wrestle honestly, then they will produce bad fruit – or no fruit at all. I believe that deconstruction can be one of the tools God uses to help prune us so that we produce the good fruit associated with faithful discipleship.

Of course, not everyone who deconstructs will then reconstruct and resume the path of Christian discipleship. I know many people who have walked away from Christianity because of the above issues, and they have no intention of ever returning.

That’s not a reason to point fingers at them and blame them for walking way. That’s a reason for those of us who still follow Jesus to examine ourselves, our beliefs, and our assumptions even more carefully – lest we too become part of the reason others walk away.

My advice to my fellow Christians is this: When you hear someone talk about their deconstruction from Christianity, listen more deeply. They have a story to tell. They might have some wounds to share. They have a perspective that matters. Let your primary goal be to demonstrate the love of Jesus to them, not simply to “win them back” to Christianity. Read Matthew 7:15-23 again, and really ask yourself what “good fruit” looks like in relation to people who go through deconstruction.

Moving Sunlight

Sometimes I am reminded of the smallness of humanity compared to the vastness of the universe and, in particular, the immensity of our solar system. I always catch my breath and pause in wonder when I remember that all of us humans exist on this tiny blue ball, tilted at around 23 degrees, orbiting around a relatively average star some 93 million miles away from us – a distance which in galactic terms is not very big, but is way bigger than any of us will ever travel in our lifetimes.

I saw two signs of this physical reality today.

First, on my morning run, I was running due west on Dopp Road, a two-lane road with white lines painted on either side. When there’s no traffic around, I will run pretty much on top of the white line on the left side of the road. On Monday morning, when I last ran, the sun was rising directly behind me. I noticed that my shadow fell exactly along the white line. This was unusual because all summer long, the sun has been further north in the sky, meaning my shadow has fallen off the road to the left.

But today, for the first time this season, I saw that my shadow just barely fell inside the white line, on the road itself. The season is changing, and the sun is on its southward quest for the next four months until it turns back north at the winter solstice.

Second, this afternoon, the sunlight came in my office window and shined directly on a little solar-powered mechanism that sits on my desk.

a marble in motion

The solar panel converts the sunlight into electric energy, which makes the motor turn the small gear, which turns the large gear, which slowly brings marbles up to the top, where they drop into the spiral slide which brings them back to the bottom once again.

This toy was a birthday gift and has been sitting on my desk for about a decade, I think. And in this time of year (also the late springtime), when the afternoon sun shines directly onto this corner of my desk, this little mechanism goes crazy. It gets so much direct sunlight for a few minutes that a marble drops about every thirty seconds. Normally, with ambient sunlight, one marble might drop every five minutes or so.

We live on a tiny blue ball orbiting a larger yellow ball, and we can only sit back and enjoy the cosmic show as little reminders of our physical universe make their way into our awareness.

The sunlight is moving. The seasons are changing. Of course, the sunlight is always moving at the same speed in all directions, outward from our sun. It’s just that our perception, our reception, of that sunlight is changing because our orientation toward the sun is changing. The sunlight isn’t really moving; we are.

Our scriptures contain lots of celebrations of the created order and the God who created it. Take, for instance, Psalm 104. It includes such lines as “[God] made the moon the mark the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. … The sun rises, and [the lions] steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labor until evening.”

I encourage you to read the whole psalm today, maybe while the sun is setting. Or tomorrow morning as the sun rises. God has created this universe with rhythms and patterns and routines, and we can rejoice in the beauty of this world in which we play an extremely tiny but extremely important role as its caretakers.

What I Experienced at West Middlesex

the welcome sign at the entrance to the West Middlesex campground

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of days of the camp meeting at West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. This was the 107th annual gathering of the National Association of the Church of God, and it was my first time to visit this area and attend services on “Zion’s Hill.”

Zion’s Hill is the name given to the hill on which the campground sits. Zion is a biblical reference to Jerusalem, the holy city of God. You can get a sense, just from the name, how people view this place and value the experiences that generations of Christians have shared there. I heard people use the phrase “sacred ground” multiple times during my visit.

Getting to the campground is a pilgrimage, in more ways than one. West Middlesex is in extreme western Pennsylvania, and the campground is a few miles outside of that town. From our hotel room, I drove through the forested Appalachian foothills along winding roads, which were barely wide enough for two vehicles and were not painted with lane markings. Finally, a clearing appeared along Campground Road, and I pulled into a spacious and beautiful area. Past a large and neatly mowed field of grass stands the sanctuary, a large white brick building. Beyond the sanctuary, further up the hill, I saw a number of houses and cabins where people live during the week of the camp meeting.

the sanctuary on Zion’s Hill

One important thing to understand about West Middlesex and the National Association is that this camp meeting is predominantly attended by African-American Christians in the Church of God. It’s been that way since their first gathering on Zion’s Hill in the early 1900s. We have a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity in the Church of God, more than in many other denominations, but we don’t always visit each other’s spaces. One of the preachers last week said, “We have too many separate spaces in the Church of God.”

We don’t always make the effort to see things from others’ perspectives, to worship in other styles, to experience being in the minority. (I say this from the point of view of a white man who lives in a 98%+ white county in central Michigan).

So I went, and I experienced lots of warmth, welcoming smiles, pleasant conversations, and joyful connections. I arrived alone but was glad to run into many people I’ve met in various places in the past.

I attended three worship services on Zion’s Hill before traveling onward. Much of what I experienced was familiar to me from other African-American worship services I’ve attended. Also, many of the songs we sang were quite familiar – old Church of God standards like “I’m Going On” and “In the Light of God.” But some things were new to me: The role of the chairperson, who actively directs or emcees the service from one element to the next. The offering time, when everyone who gives an offering marches up to the front to drop their gifts in the offering buckets. The ministers’ procession on Thursday night, when all ordained ministers are honored as they process into the sanctuary and sit in the very front pews.

a worship service inside the sanctuary

But one thing in particular stood out to me. It’s something I’ve read in books and heard in talks about African-American worship and probably seen before, but it’s beautiful to observe afresh:

People often sway from side to side in absolute unison with each other while they are singing. Not always, but often, and usually in response to the choir’s movements on the platform. It’s a way for these fellow Christians to embody their unity in worship. With every step they take, they are supporting others and are supported by others who are taking the exact same steps. They carry the messages of hope, sorrow, joy, peace, comfort within their bodies. That embodied sense of connection with each other shines through powerfully in how the people sway – even people who come from different parts of the country and may not know each other very well. The sense of embodiment reaches back through generations of believers who have swayed to the same music in that exact same space. This is a crucial component of African-American Christian worship which developed and grew through the horrors of slavery and the injustices of racial discrimination. This type of embodied corporate worship is something that I, as a white person with a white church background, simply do not have in my cultural vocabulary. It is something I deeply appreciate about the brief time I spent on Zion’s Hill last week.

gathering for the annual Ministers’ Photograph

On Thursday evening, before processing into the worship service, all the ordained ministers gathered near a large church bell for the annual ministers’ photograph. I stood at the back of the group because of my height, and as I stood there, I thought about the generations of pastors, chaplains, ministers, preachers, and servants who have stood there in the past. I am grateful for this first visit to West Middlesex and for the connections I made there. I have every intention of visiting again in the future – hopefully with more first-time visitors, too.

Lent 2023: Wednesday, April 5

Lent 2023: Wednesday, April 5

How can we better seek the presence of God? That’s the question for the theme of worship in this season of Lent. It’s a question that sits at the foundation of the Parable of the Sower found in Mark 4:1-20. The presence of God is close to each of us; how can we receive that presence with joy and depth?

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Lent 2023: Tuesday, April 4

Lent 2023: Tuesday, April 4

For the final time in this season of Lent, let’s focus on the theme of fasting: letting go of something which is not in God’s will. Pastor David reads Mark 3:20-35, where Jesus does this very thing in relation to his closest relationships and connections. What do we need to put down for this season?

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Lent 2023: Monday, April 3

Lent 2023: Monday, April 3

Repentance is about changing direction in our lives. Jesus offers this possibility to his opponents in Mark 2:23-3:6, but they remain fixated on their devotion to their interpretation of the law. Where do we need to change direction in our lives? Pastor David explores this theme in today’s video.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Monday, April 3, 2023

Lent 2023: Friday, March 31

Lent 2023: Friday, March 31

Jesus’s ministry began with a whole bunch of healings – and a handful of disciples that Jesus called to follow him so they could learn how to fish for people. In this season of Lent, we have many opportunities to care for others through how we give of ourselves. Listen in as Pastor David reads and reflects on Mark 1:14-39.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Friday, March 31, 2023

Lent 2023: Wednesday, March 29

Lent 2023: Wednesday, March 29

After Jesus died, Matthew 27:57-61 records three people near Jesus at his burial: Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, and another Mary. They each had to give something up in order to honor God and to be near Jesus in that moment. Listen in to Pastor David’s reflection on this story as it relates to the theme of fasting.

Posted by Mt. Haley Church of God on Wednesday, March 29, 2023