Our Upcoming Interfaith Peace Conference

As some of you know, Sylvia and I have been working for the past eighteen months as co-chairs of the Tenth Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference, which will take place at Lake Junaluska, NC, November 21-24. The theme of this year’s Conference is “The Arts of Peace: Imagining the Way.” For the past ten years this Interfaith Peace Conference has explored many aspects of the work of peace-building at the intersection of the great Abrahamic religious traditions. In all of them the arts have played a crucial role in focusing our understanding, inspiring our imaginations, and moving our hearts. These conferences were originally intended as a ten-year effort to lift up the work of peace. In this capstone conference we will celebrate the role of the arts in peace-building as an inspiration to each of us to continue the work of peace in many other ways.

We are deeply moved by the depth and breadth of the offerings being brought by our presenters. You can see more about the Conference at www.LakeJunaluska.com/peace, but here I just want to lift up some of the highlights and why I think they are significant.

The first involves the art of calligraphy and the illumination of texts. At the heart of our ancient religious family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lie sacred texts. As mere words they have sometimes been twisted and used to support terrible destruction and enmity. But they also can inspire us to the depths of God’s grace and the heights of God’s peace. In all these traditions these sacred words have been artfully re-presented, illuminated and embellished to bring out the deeper meanings that may be hidden from the casual eye. Two full-size “Heritage” volumes of The Saint John’s Bible will be on loan to us from Carson-Newman University, with interpretations by their university care-takers as well as by Jonathan Homrighausen, author of Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of the Saint John’s Bible. The astonishing beauty and complexity of this extraordinary Bible, the first handwritten Bible since the Middle Ages, will be present throughout the conference.

To complement this Bible, Bahman Panahi, foremost present-day calligrapher in the Islamic tradition, will exhibit and interpret samples of his artistry and open up the importance of calligraphy and illumination in Islamic tradition. A nearby Jewish temple has graciously agreed to loan us a Torah scroll to complete our calligraphy explorations.

Our ancient texts are the ground not only for these marvelous flights of vision, but for the sounds of speech, chant, and song. Ilyas Kashani, a practitioner of Chinese and traditional Islamic healing, will open us up to the way the sounding of words shapes our inner dispositions and our relationships with the world, forming yet another possible pathway to peace.

And we will hear music that lifts us beyond the written word to the sounds beneath and around them. Mariela Shaker, a young classical violinist in exile from her native Syria, will perform and speak about the call to bind up the wounds of our fellow human beings torn apart by the conflicts of our day. The voices of African-American Gospel tradition as well as a song especially composed for the conference by Scott Taylor will stir our deepest yearnings for peace. We will also have the opportunity to feel the pace and dance of a meditative labyrinth. Gloria Hage, the North American Director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories, will lead us into the way artistic expression can help us deal with the traumas that keep us from a more peaceful life. Fiber artist Laurie Wohl will exhibit and reflect on her work as it weaves new connections in a post 9/11 era among our traditions as well as our aspirations. And, with a performance of Women and War, we will enter the dramatic world of women struggling with the ravages of war and the haunting hope for peace. Through the power of dance, we will be drawn into the meditative circling of God’s peace in the ancient Sufi practice of the Sema, led and interpreted by Kabir and Camille Helminski, foremost interpreters of Rumi’s poetry.

This does not even exhaust the opportunities at the conference. It has been a great privilege to be in contact with these creative people and to explore the ways the arts can inform our efforts at peace-building in a time of great ugliness, distorted vision, and tragic deceptions. We wish everyone could be there at this marvelous feast. I can’t end without a pitch for anyone who might still be able to free up time and resources to be with us.

Yes, you are invited here to a feast of artistry that we hope will illuminate our understanding, excite our imaginations, and inspire us to the ongoing work of peace in a world torn by conflict and burdened with environmental destruction. I hope the conference will lift up our hearts, our voices, our eyes, and our hands. Maybe it will help us live more deeply into the beauty of our Creator’s call to peace.


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Dorian and Greta

From the Atlantic Ocean has recently come the devastating power of hurricane Dorian as well as the quiet voyage, by solar sailboat, of 16-year old Greta Thunberg from England to New York. Dorian destroyed huge swaths of the Bahamas and brought extensive damage once again to our east coast. We still don’t know how many people lost their lives and loved ones. The roar of the storm and the quiet voice of this Swedish girl carry the same message. The global climate change predicted for decades by scientists is now upon us. We can no longer afford, if we ever could, the lies or silence of leaders in government, business, or cultural institutions. Even if we wake up now, we are walking into a radically altered world in the near future.

This awareness comes with personal demands. How and how much should we travel? Travel and transportation account for about 14% of current greenhouse emissions. Air travel has doubled since 2003, yet airplanes remain dependent on fossil fuel combustion as far into the future as we can see. In a single trip across the Atlantic I create emissions equal to an entire year of driving. Yet we and our friends travel constantly by air and auto, extolling the benefits of international tourism. We depend at every moment on goods brought to us over many miles by ship, plane, and truck. We continue to eat meats and dairy products from animals generating enormous amounts of methane. Those and other agricultural processes contribute another 14% to current emissions. We turn to the internet for incorporeal contact with the wider world, only to generate in turn enormous amounts of emissions for electrical production to drive and cool the internet. We respond by traveling, often by air, to yet more conferences on climate change or to visit places that may disappear before our children die.

All of which is to say that we are caught like fish in the whale. We are part of a system of earthly destruction. As with the venerable words of confession, “there is no health in us.” It is here that we enter into a fresh appreciation of what theologians might call “original sin,” but not what you might have learned at church.  In western Christianity this notion, born out of St. Augustine’s life and thought in the fourth century, located some original aberration in our history in the sexual act. Though with little or no Scriptural basis, it became the main lens through which western Christian understood the story of creation. I cannot rehearse here the spiritual dead end into which this preoccupation led us.

But “original sin” can also find other meanings as we think about what has gone fundamentally wrong in our world. The ecological crisis that is upon us awakens other interpretations. From this vantage point, we might say that somewhere, back in the beginnings of the industrial revolution, something happened that drove us into this ecological dead-end. Certainly, one part of it was seizing the knowledge of how nature works. This is, in a sense, the “wisdom” of the tree that stood in Eden’s garden. Yet this knowledge became the basis for exploiting the earth for our own narrow purposes. The knowledge itself, then, was not evil. It was used to dominate the natural world rather than find how to live within it. The evil lay within the fearful anxiety in which we try to avoid our earthly finitude by grabbing more and more from the life around us. We clutch, we consume inordinately, we covet, steal, and murder in order to be secure and survive. And, as in the Garden story in Genesis, when we come to the contradiction between the wisdom of the tree and our own fear, we hide and lie. Hiding and lying invade our public and private life. making it even more difficult to confront the truth of our situation.

Now we can no longer hide and lie. The little child has ripped off our pretentious façade. This little whisper of history drives me back to a constant theme in Jesus’s preaching, first in his attack on hypocrisy, lying, and self-deception; second, in his invocation of God’s constant care for the birds and flowers of the field. He attacked fear and lying with the courage of one who lives beyond the curtain of death and with the quiet peace of recognizing his origin in the God of Life. I still haven’t fully absorbed what this means, but I am, perhaps, crawling the way there.

I’m thinking more about how much I will travel and how. How much I will rely on purchased goods from afar. How much I will string out my life on the digital highway. It’s personal. It’s political. It’s economic. It’s religious. It’s upon us. I’m feeling these questions acutely; how much more are my grandchildren, who will be living in  it. And I’m thinking about Greta, the little child who is striking out to lead us.


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Roundtable Worship: August 2019

As many of you know, for the past sixteen years a group of ten to twenty people has gathered monthly around a round table for a kind of worship gathering we simply call “Roundtable Worship.” I have written about it from time to time in these blogs. You can find out more about it elsewhere on these pages. (See Roundtable Worship: A Reflective Guide.)

This activity is an effort to lift up and internalize the characteristics of dialogue, communication, mutual recognition and empathy that are at the core of life’s longing for fulfilment. Through the acts of heartful speaking, attentive listening, sharing of food and drink, and openness to the wider conversation we call prayer, we seek to live into this trajectory of life’s consummation. Out of this “rehearsal” of life’s full mutuality we have stimulated specific conversations about immigration, restorative justice, and, most importantly in our own congregation and denomination, full inclusion of all people regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation.

We work with a fairly stable format. The first part is a call to gathering, a remembrance, and a thanksgiving, which I generally compose in conversation with others in the group. The middle part contains a time of table conversation according to the circle process format. The third part is a prayer we have evolved to echo Jesus’s formula for his disciple’s use and a recitation of the commitments we seek to live by.

This year, I want to share the monthly liturgy with you, whether for your own reflection or for use in your own prayerful gatherings, should that be your practice. You can look to it for a little example of liturgical poetry or, of course, skip it and hang in there for another reflection or poem in subsequent weeks. Here is our liturgy from August 18, with the calligraphy piece by Timothy Botts that shaped our reflection.

Roundtable Gathering

August 18, 2019


Call to the Table

On stony roads the prophets cry,

                        O see the grandeur of God’s city.

On stormy seas the sailors call

                         O hear the waves on God’s celestial shore.

In blistered deserts of despair

                        We taste the living waters of God’s love.

Beneath the trees that line the city’s streets

                        We find the welcome of God’s arms.

We come to God’s table,

                        God’s table of peace.

ALL: Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Song of Gathering: “City of God”                               Dan Schutte

Remembrance (Unison)

Out of Babel came confusion and a constant war of words.

Out of Jerusalem came a blessing to renew the people of the earth.

On the peaks of Sinai came a code of life to guide the world.

In Babylon the faithful found a way to worship God beyond their land.

Out of Galilee a lonely teacher brought a life to heal the nations.

Out of pilgrim’s hearts the vision of a city filled with joy.

Silent Reflection

Thanksgiving  (Unison)

O Light of the World,

For the comfort of your saving love, our hearts are opened wide in thanks. For every hand outstretched in love, our voices rise in gratitude. For the table of your conversation our lips pronounce your praise. For the daily sustenance by which we live into another day, our voices rise in thankful praise.

We give our thanks to you  (4x).

We give our hearts to you (3x), because you first loved us.

Sharing at Table

         “The Bread of Life”                 ”The Cup of Hope”


         Psalm 122:6-7                         Matthew 23:37-39               Revelations 21:1-5

The Conversation: “Pray for Jerusalem”

Gathered Prayers

The Hope Prayer

O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Reflective Moment

Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Blessing Song: “We are Walking a Path of Peace”

We are walking a path of peace (3x), Lead us home, lead us home.

We are walking a path of joy (3x), Lead us home, lead us home.

We are walking a path of hope (3x), Lead us home, lead us home.

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About “The Word of God”

I’ve been mired in boxes of books, tools, supplies, and household paraphernalia as we seek a more manageable shape of life. The thrift stores have welcomed us with open arms. But now it’s time to return to more public matters, even as our country grieves once again at the senseless carnage that has engulfed the citizens of El Paso, Dayton, and many other places in our country.  Out of an ongoing effort to struggle with the religious roots of our inability to walk the path of reconciliation, I share this reflection. It’s a theological rumination, but I invite everyone to reflect with me from their own angle of vision.

Many Christians claim that the Bible is “the Word of God.” It is not. As attested to by John’s Gospel, Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1: 1-5, 14). The main problem with saying that the Bible is “the Word of God” is that we are soon led to a literalism that gives every word, sentence, and passage equal value. This leads to a legalism and fundamentalism that casts aside the spirited relationships of love, mutual persuasion, humility, and service characteristic of Jesus’s message and ministry. In the church battles over human sexuality the words of the Bible become legal clubs for attacks on others and defenses of our positions. Every time we make statements in worship, writing, or speech, that assume the Bible is the Word of God, we further encase ourselves in this literalistic legalism and fundamentalism.

The concept of “the Word of God” is firmly embedded in churches shaped by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The more Protestants rejected the Papacy and the Roman Church as the proper interpreter of divine truth, the more they appealed to Scripture. The more they appealed to “scripture alone,” the more they fed the literalism we suffer today. Yet Jean Calvin, at the fountainhead of the major strand of the Reformation informing American Protestantism, held firmly to the position that it is Jesus Christ who is “the Word of God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Ch. 13, section 6). As Methodists and other Christians appeal to the Bible in their struggle over the proper forms of human sexuality and activity, reclaiming this simple truth becomes crucial.

What then, does it mean, that Jesus Christ, not the Bible, is “the Word of God”? First, it is important to remember that the Bible itself is a collection of books written between about the tenth century before Jesus to around seventy years after his death. Other writings, such as the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas contended for canonical status well into the third century AD, when the basic collection of canonical writings took shape. Even today, Catholics and Protestants are divided over which books constitute “the Bible.” These books themselves do not claim to be “the Word of God,” since they all were written before even the basic shape of the Bible was established by the churches formed by these scriptures.

The concept of “the Word of God” does, however, shape the Scriptures. God creates by a “Word” in Genesis 1. The prophets frequently speak of hearing and proclaiming “the Word of YHWH (“the Lord”) as they receive their calling and prophecies. It is in the Johannine writings that this creative and prophetic Word is seen to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The “Word of God” is the dynamic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. It is this reality, known through the Holy Spirit informing the church, that God’s “Word” is present.

What we have in the Biblical writings, from a Christian perspective, is a series of documents in which people give witness to the work of God in their history. The Scriptures lay out the faith and history of the people among whom Jesus lived, ministered, taught, died and was known in resurrection by his followers. They speak out of deep inspiration and ecstatic experience, but their words only point to the mystery of God’s work that Christians see in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. They are not the work and word of God themselves.

Christian preachers and witnesses hope that their words will open up this saving work of God to others, but neither their words nor those of the Scriptures are “the Word of God” themselves. The reading of Scripture can draw us into a greater experience and understanding of this incarnate Word, but Scripture itself is not this Word. Moreover, the capacity of these words to draw us into God’s revelation depends on the Holy Spirit that continually seeks to guide the church assembly in its work of discernment. Reading the words does not automatically open us up to “the Word” that is Christ. That is the work of the Spirit guiding the community of listeners.

In moving from the view that the Bible is the “Word of God” to one that holds that Christ is the “Word of God,” we move to opening ourselves up to this deeply personal, mysterious, and self-transcending reality of a life, a living presence, that is transforming us toward the love, goodness, and beauty of the Creator of All. It is in the Spirit of this reconciling work that we are to approach the vexing ethical and spiritual challenges of our world.

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