I had the pleasure of preaching on the First Sunday in Advent in my home church, the Congregational Church of Middlebury (VT). The theme of the sermon was “Hope in the End Times.” What do biblical depictions of apocalypse have to do with Advent waiting, particularly in a moment like ours? Is there actually hope to be found in predictions of the world’s end? I believe there is, but not where you might think. The sermon begins at 30:30.
I grew up in a small coal town in western Pennsylvania. For many years, Colver was a typical company town, reflecting the power differential between miners and mine owners, and reinforcing mining families’ total dependence on the company for income and services. Even the name of the town reminded its citizens of company dominance, deriving as it did from a mash-up of the owners’ names: Coleman and Weaver. But by the time my father returned to his hometown to work in the mines, the industry’s influence over the town and surrounding area was mitigated by another force, the labor union. Once free as “job creators” to dictate the working conditions and living arrangements of their employees, coal companies now had to negotiate with the collective power of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
For most of my childhood, the United Mine Workers were led by Richard Trumka, who passed away recently after a lifetime of advocating for the American laborer, in roles with UMWA and the AFL–CIO. For his part, my father was active in UMWA District 2, Local 860, even after a back injury ended his active employment. Dad hurt his back when I was seven, but by the early eighties his fellow miners found themselves unemployed as well, displaced by the end of workable coal strips underneath our sleepy town. The coal industry remains the centerpiece of Colver’s history, but by the time I became a teenager, the mine’s demise (and the absence of any substitutable prospect of work) was the defining reality of the present.Continue reading
This summer I have been watching a CNN documentary mini-series called Jerusalem: City of Faith and Fury. One historian on the show invokes the saying, “the past is never the past,” and goes on to remark that “if there is one place on earth where that is true, it is Jerusalem.” What makes Jerusalem the most conflicted place on earth is the number of communities who lay claim to the city, especially the historical depths of those claims. The three Abrahamic faiths all claim Jerusalem as a holy city, and their adherents regularly make pilgrimage to it. The importance of Jerusalem has led to millennia of contested claims to the city that continue to this day, for Jerusalem physically captures a sense of the holy for the groups who lay claim to it; it symbolizes something important about the identity of those communities. To lose the city is to be displaced, to be cut off from the sacred in a visceral sense. This isn’t just about territory. It is about belief, identity, a sense of grounding in the moral cosmos, a connection with the holy. The city’s religious significance—and the Abrahamic faiths’ inability to imagine it as a shared space—is what makes the history of Jerusalem so tragic.
The conflict around Jerusalem is a particularly painful example of the intense importance of place to our sense of meaning. We are embodied creatures, so time and space are important to how we understand ourselves and our place in this world. Our sense of place reflects and gives identity, and when we are disconnected from meaningful places, we feel displaced—rudderless, vulnerable, perhaps not really ourselves.Continue reading
‘Leading Theologically’ guest makes the case for fearless, faithful preaching around the Fourth of July, Labor Day — even Super Bowl Sunday
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Many preachers get a little antsy about preaching on and around secular holidays, among them the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day — and that biggest secular holiday of all, Super Bowl Sunday. In their minds, the culture and the church ought to be kept at arm’s length from one another.
Read more at Presbyterian Mission.
Happy Easter! Below is the text of an Easter sermon I preached a few years ago at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont. And here is recording of the whole worship service. Hope you have a blessed Easter.
Witnesses of These Things
I was having breakfast with a friend of mine this week, a colleague at the college, and the subject of church came up. My friend grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but he doesn’t associate with his religion anymore. “Someday you and I need to have a conversation about this church thing,” he said to me. “I have to admit that I’ve distanced myself from that stuff in my middle age. I guess I’m too much of a scientist; I need things to be empirically validated to believe them. I’d love to talk to you about how you keep religion and the life of the mind together.”
Many of us have had similar conversations; some of us have had them with ourselves. We’re not always sure we buy all of the things read and mentioned and claimed here at church. What do we do with the disconnect between the assertions of the faith and the requirements of the critical mind?Continue reading
I recently had the opportunity once again to appear on my friend Ken Broman-Fulks’s podcast, Pastors4Pastors. We had a lot of fun talking about the themes running through the essays in my book:
Most pastors either embrace our American holidays without question or try to ignore them and hope our congregations won’t notice, which they always do. Our conversation with James Calvin Davis, author of American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture, is both edifying and entertaining!— Ken Broman-Fulks
Don’t forget to subscribe to Ken’s podcast to get notified of future episodes.
Adapted from American Liturgy: Finding Theological Meaning in the Holy Days of US Culture (Cascade Books, 2021)
We are coming up on what we in Vermont refer to as “mud season.” As the landscape emerges from its snow-covered hibernation, the spring ground cannot hold all the water produced by the melt, so the water sits on top, creating mud that seems to last for weeks. Every responsible homeowner possesses planks to serve as a makeshift bridge, essential for getting from driveway to aptly named mudrooms. Otherwise-routine trips into town now require a check of local traffic news to ensure roads and bridges have not been overtaken by water looking for somewhere to go. Yesterday’s farm field is a lake today, complete with ducks and geese taking advantage of the flash body of water. And in March and April most of our cars look like they have been off-roading.
But while we complain a lot about mud season in Vermont, there is more to spring here than mud. Nature awakens from its long winter nap with bright skies and crisp breezes that convey hope and promise renewal. The melt-off that creates all the mud also fills Vermont’s streams, brooks, and creeks to capacity (or beyond), and the water crashing down the falls of Otter Creek offers a stunning display of power and beauty. The warmth of the sun, the emergent grass, heck, even the mud, are beautiful sights to bear after months of frigid cold and fleeting daylight. Like every other season, spring in Vermont reminds us of what beauty looks like.
Celebrating beauty in the natural world is not just a preoccupation for flannel-wearing, granola-crunching Vermonters like me. Beauty is an object worthy of Christian celebration too, because it is how the Bible starts the story of God’s love affair with the world. The opening lines of Genesis offer a poetic celebration of creation. The world around and beyond us humans is good. We know this because Genesis not so subtly tells us in stanza after stanza of the creation ode: “God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
If we insist on viewing everything with ourselves at the center of the universe, then we might think creation was good because it was set up perfectly to serve us human beings. But maybe the world is good just because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful simply because God declares it is. Its beauty flows from God’s own animating beauty. Long ago, the New England preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise called The Nature of True Virtue, in which he wrote that beauty as we normally experience it in life is the apprehension of things in “mutual agreement,” a “visible fitness of a thing to its use” that is pleasing to us, rationally and emotionally. It is the experience of things like order, proportionality, and agreement, or the delight we feel when something fits smartly as part of a greater impressive whole. Edwards believed that this beauty we experience in the world around us reflects “some image of the true, spiritual original beauty,” which he understood as “union and consent with the great whole” of Being in general (that is, God). In other words, we experience things as beautiful—physically, emotionally, or morally beautiful—when we are struck by the way they reflect the goodness of God and the wonder of God’s “big picture” in which we all exist.
Edwards is adamant that things are not beautiful because we say they are. We sense beauty in our world because those things are beautiful already, and they are beautiful because they participate in God. God is “the ground both of their existence and their beauty.” God is the source of the beauty we experience, and the beauty in our world is an experience of God. So despite the popularity of the cliché, it turns out that beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder, at least not if the beholder is mortal. Beauty resides in the heart of God and extends outward to the things we experience as beautiful; in that way, beauty reflects the inherent value of the things we behold. Beauty is a gift, to the one who is beautiful and the one who regards that beauty.
To experience beauty is to participate in the divine. Listening to wind rushing through tall pines can be an encounter with God. Taking in the intensity of green on a countryside in June can be a spiritual epiphany. Gazing with wonder on the intricate camouflage worn by tree frogs is an experience of the holy. Basking in the serenity of a simple afternoon, following your lovely spouse in tow as she makes her way around a local nursery, is beautiful. Sharing friendship in a loving community is beautiful.
As with everything else in the Christian life, the gift of beauty comes with corresponding responsibility. Ecologically, we have a responsibility to protect that which God has given us as beautiful, not just so there will be an earth for future generations of people to use, but because it is God’s world and valuable as such. Interpersonally, we have a responsibility to name the beauty in ourselves and others. Especially to the bullied and harassed, to the marginalized and ostracized, to those who do not conform to what society considers right or normal, we are charged as ambassadors of God to declare: you are beautiful, just as you are, because God loves you as you are.
There is a lot of mud in the world right now—in our politics, media, entertainment, schools, and communities. Maybe what the world needs right now are people who point out the beauty in the midst of the mud. Calling out beauty when we see it, everywhere, sounds like a suitable job for the people called church.
I’m thrilled to announce that my latest book is now available to order! Official launch information will follow soon. In the meantime, here is a description and link to the publisher’s website:
How can celebrating the “holy days” of American culture help us to understand what it means to be both Christian and American? In timely essays on Super Bowl Sunday, Mother’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and other holidays of the secular calendar, James Calvin Davis explores the wisdom that Christian tradition brings to our sense of American identity, as well as the ways in which American culture might prompt us to discern the imperatives of faith in new ways. Rather than demonizing culture or naively baptizing it, Davis models a bidirectional mode of reflection, where faith convictions and cultural values converse with and critique one another. Focusing on topics like politics, race, parenting, music, and sports, these essays remind us that culture is as much human accomplishment and gift as it is a challenge to Christian values, and there is insight to be discovered in a theologically astute investment in America’s “holy days.”
For twenty years I’ve been writing and talking about civility, the public virtues necessary for a healthy democracy. My work on civility got its start in a dissertation and two subsequent books on Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the first American prophet for religious freedom.
Recently I enjoyed a rare opportunity to talk about his importance for a podcast called Multifaith Matters, which “explores various facets of loving God and multifaith neighbors through interviews with pastors, ministry leaders, and scholars” and “models neighborly multifaith conversations with members of various religious traditions.” The podcast is produced by Multi-Faith Matters dot org, an organization whose mission is to “help evangelicals fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments (love of God and neighbor) while maintaining faithfulness to evangelical convictions.” To achieve this, they facilitate dialogue and relationships among people of all faiths.
Roger Williams is known for his religious toleration, but he was also fiercely dogmatic, and his ability to hold together deeply held convictions and respect for others makes him an interesting case study for our time. In our conversation here, after a brief biographical sketch, I delve into Williams’s ideas about the Puritan establishment in Massachusetts, natural law, religious freedom, civility, and the proper relationship between church and society.
You can also watch the interview here!