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.

Earlier this month, I attended a brilliant presentation by Petra Alsoofy, the Outreach and Partnerships Manager from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). You may not be familiar with ISPU: it’s an organization based in Dearborn, Michigan, which was founded after the attacks of September 11, 2001. According to their website, “ISPU provides objective research and education about American Muslims to support well-informed dialogue and decision-making.”

ISPU seeks to help everyone understand more about what life is like for American Muslims. That was the emphasis of Petra Alsoofy’s presentation a few weeks ago. She shared lots of information with about fifty of us who gathered together at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Midland. (You can watch her presentation at this link; enter the passcode Xffx&8s9 and you’ll get access to it.)

After Petra’s presentation, I signed up for the ISPU email list. It’s important for me to hear perspectives that are outside my tradition. That’s why, among other things, I have listened to the podcast Inspired (by Interfaith Voices) every week for around fifteen years.

Yesterday, ISPU sent out results of a survey on what American Muslims believe about climate change. The title of the report reads like this: “The Majority of American Muslims Believe that Climate Change is the Result of Human Behavior and that Government Regulation is a Way to Solve for it.

What I’m writing about today is “Why I’m Not an Evangelical.” I promise, these things are related to each other. Continue reading

Dynamic tension. Compromise. Beauty.

I found these three practices today in a book written by Brian McLaren. It’s called “A Generous Orthodoxy” and was published in 2004. In a chapter titled “Why I Am (Ana)baptist/Anglican,” he explores the reasons why he is attracted to both the Anabaptist and Anglican traditions within the broader Christian family.

The Anglican tradition offers these three practices, which McLaren summarizes in a few paragraphs. These practices speak clearly to what I want to be about as a Christian and to what I believe is important during this season of life in the Church of God and, more broadly, in Christianity (at least in America). Continue reading

Two remarkable things happened in my life this past weekend: card games and a choir rehearsal. Now, in and of themselves, playing cards and singing with others are not unusual activities for me. But the specific things we were doing? Those were noteworthy to me:

On Saturday evening, we played euchre in our church’s fellowship hall. On Sunday evening, we had the first rehearsal for the upcoming “Lamb of God” choral/orchestral production.

The last time both of those things happened was three years ago, immediately before the covid-19 pandemic began.

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Today I would like to introduce you to a little-known Christmas carol called “The Christmas Candle.” Its lyrics were written a century ago by an American poet named Anna Hempstead Branch. These lyrics were set to music by another female American, a composer named Roberta Bitgood, in 1937.

I discovered this carol when Tara and I sang it with the church choir at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bay City during their Christmas concert this past Sunday afternoon. I can’t find an online recording of the carol for you to listen to, so we’ll have to make do with just the lyrics. But they are powerful enough by themselves. Read them slowly, thoughtfully, carefully: Continue reading

Not a Manger Scene

“No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”

Those are the words spoken in a single-panel comic by Steve Breen for the San Diego Union-Tribune on December 2, 2022.

In this comic, a few people are walking down a paved sidewalk, surrounded by trees and shrubs in a public park. A couple of strands of white Christmas lights are hanging overhead across the sidewalk. In the foreground, we see an adult and a child – perhaps a grandfather and grandchild – walking hand-in-hand down the path, away from us, as if we are following them on their outdoor walk. They are looking over to the side, where, away from the path and in front of a low brick wall, a young family sits on the ground, huddled together with a few blankets. This family consists of a father, mother, and young child, and they are arranged in such a way that a passerby (like the grandchild) might notice a similarity to the familiar Christmas scene of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus lying in a manger.

“No, honey, that’s not a manger scene.”

Take a few moments to sit with that comic, and think about it. I’ll share a few thoughts below. Continue reading

Final Jeopardy and the New Testament

Jeopardy got it wrong!

Last night, on Jeopardy’s “Tournament of Champions,” the Final Jeopardy category was “New Testament.” As a student of the Bible and an ordained pastor whose work revolves around this collection of writings, I would have bet everything on this last clue. But I would have lost everything…because the “correct” answer is, in reality, incorrect.

Here’s the clue: “Paul’s letter to them is the New Testament epistle with the most Old Testament quotations.”

The answer that was deemed to be correct: “The Hebrews.”

This is understandable, but it is incorrect, specifically because Paul did not write the letter to the Hebrews. That’s the overwhelming consensus of biblical scholars. Yes, Hebrews contains the most Old Testament quotations of all the epistles (letters) in the New Testament. But Paul didn’t write that letter.

How do we know?

Three main reasons:

First, the letter to the Hebrews is anonymous. Usually, when Paul wrote a letter, he put his name on it, often at the beginning and the end of the letter. This was common practice for people who wrote letters in the first century – the equivalent of putting your name and address in the upper-left-hand corner of an envelope when you send a letter in the US mail. Check it out for yourself: find the very first word of Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. In every instance, each one starts with the word “Paul,” the author of these letters. (There is scholarly debate about Pauline authorship of, for instance, Ephesians and Colossians, but that’s another story.) But Hebrews has no authorship designation, no introductory material at all. Hebrews jumps right into some heavy content: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”

Second, the content of Hebrews is quite different from Paul’s writings. The perspective of Hebrews is substantially different from Paul’s letters. Hebrews is a deep, complex theological treatise. It does not address moral and ethical situations like Paul often does. Hebrews uses language differently than Paul does. Hebrews is concerned with different topics than Paul is. Besides, Paul considered himself to be an “apostle to the Gentiles” – so why would he write a long letter to Jewish folks? Paul’s letters are almost always addressed to Gentile churches or to people who worked with them.

Third, the order of the New Testament letters is significant. The New Testament was assembled through a lengthy process over many years in the fourth century. What emerged from this process is, more or less, the New Testament that we have in our Bibles today. The structure of the New Testament is deliberate:

  • The Gospels are first: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
  • A book of history is next: Acts.
  • Then we have Paul’s letters: Romans through Philemon (see the list above), arranged in descending order of length.
  • Then we find the other letters: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, arranged in descending order of length.
  • Finally we arrive at Revelation, which is unique among the books of the New Testament.

The 27 books of the New Testament have stood in this order for centuries. Long, long ago, Hebrews was considered to be one of Paul’s letters, but students of the New Testament gradually came to understand that Hebrews was not written by Paul. Otherwise, they would have included it in the block of Paul’s letters. Instead, Hebrews is the longest of the letters that were not written by Paul. That’s why it appears after Philemon, the shortest of Paul’s letters. (For more information, read this summary about the authorship of Hebrews.)

But what about King James?

This is the KJV Bible I received from the American Legion when my grandfather passed away in 2001.

Yes, I know, the King James Version of the Bible gives the full title of Hebrews as “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.” And many people, especially today’s older adults, grew up with the King James Bible as their primary (or only) Bible. Even today, some Christian groups are “KJV Only,” meaning they reject any other English translation in favor of the King James.

However, remember that the King James Bible was created in 1611, long after the New Testament was finalized. (The KJV has several serious textual problems and translation mistakes, but that’s another story as well.) Remember also that the titles of books of the Bible are not divinely inspired. Neither are chapter and verse numbers, section headings, footnotes, or any other study aid. These devices have all been added to the biblical text as an aid to readers.

But just because the KJV says Paul wrote Hebrews doesn’t make it true. (The same principle holds for the five “Books of Moses,” the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Once again, that’s another story.)

Why does this matter?

I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and the sacred text that guides my spiritual life is the Christian Bible. I need to be familiar with this book, to study this book, to understand how this book is constructed, to recognize what this book teaches. I need to put into practice all the literary principles that I learned in grade school, college, and seminary. This includes considering authorship, context, language choice, genre, character development, and many other characteristics of literature. I don’t just assume that Paul wrote Hebrews because someone taught that to me once, or because I read those literal words in a certain translation of the Bible.

If I am locked into a literal reading of the phrase “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews,” then I might be locked into a literal reading of, say, Mark 16:18, where Jesus himself says that his followers “will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.”

I need to take this book seriously, to handle it carefully, to know it deeply. I need to be open to this text, to exploring this text, to accepting facts about this text that might seem counterintuitive to me.

Perhaps the same is true for you, too.

So who wrote Hebrews?

Nobody knows.

What should have been the correct Final Jeopardy answer?


You can read them in Luke 16:1-15 and Luke 18:1-8. They are sometimes called “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” and “The Parable of the Persistent Widow.” And they are strange teachings from Jesus.

In the first passage, Jesus tells a story about a manager who is being fired by his employer because he was accused of wasting the employer’s possessions. In his final few moments of work, he makes friends among a few clients by reducing the debts they owe his business – some by 20%, some by 50%. This dishonesty is celebrated not just by the employer in the story, but by Jesus himself!

In the second passage, Jesus tells a story of a widow who went to her local judge to beg for justice against her adversary. The judge denied her request, but she kept asking over and over and over again. Finally the judge gave in, not because he changed his mind, but because he wanted to get rid of this nuisance of a woman!

What odd stories. We have a hard time making sense of them. Continue reading

On Funerals, Rituals, and Being Human

This morning, I watched a livestream of the final committal service for Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. This took place two days after I led a funeral service for a lady in our community. Two very different people who lived very different lives; each died and was remembered by loved ones through the distinctly human practice of funeral services.

Sometimes people shy away from talking about death and funerals, because those events often evoke painful and difficult feelings among us. Yet I believe that grief can be a good thing (see our recent sermon series called “Good Grief” for reasons why!). Of all the species of life on this planet, we human beings have the most developed and intricate celebrations of life, expressions of grief, and rituals around the deaths of our neighbors. This is important and needs to be respected and acknowledged.

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