Saying Goodbye to Color

Mayberry Church Road on the 1st of November

My eyes have feasted on a beautiful colored landscape for the past month. Slowly the trees turned color. But with last week’s heavy frost, the trees are now mostly brown or their leaves have fallen to the earth, to rot into the soil and nourish another season.

I thought I would share some of my favorite photos from this color season, along with two poems. One I wrote on Sunday evening, having done my 4 1/2 mile hike to Laurel Fork and back. Once I climbed my way up out of the hollow and the forest gave way to the hayfields, I was treated to a perfect ecliptic in the sky with four heavenly bodies (a crescent moon, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter) visible. The other poem was written while taking Amtrak’s Crescent (formerly Southern Railroads “Southern Crescent”) from Danville, VA to Atlanta.

Mayberry Church Road in late afternoon

Ecliptic 

The young moon, just above the horizon,
flirts with Venus as darkness descends.
The red of sunset has faded 
except a thin line just above the trees to the west, 
as Saturn and Jupiter, the only other objects visible
look on with approval.

Venus and the new moon. Saturn and Jupiter would be to the left, behind the oak still clinging to its leaves. Photo taken with an iPhone, handheld.
Laurel Fork early in October, with just a hint of color.

Bear Creek Road in late October

Nursery Road in late afternoon

Asleep on the Southern Crescent

Maturing moon high overhead
fills my compartment with light 
as the blowing whistle up front
announces our fleeting presence,
followed by clanging bells 
and the flashing red lights 
of the crossing guards.

The train snakes into the Carolinas,
with stops, I’m told, in Greensboro, 
High Point, Salisbury, Charlotte, Gastonia,
Spartanburg, Greenville, and Clemson.
But I sleep soundly and wake up in Toccoa, Georgia.

At breakfast, I’ve learned we lost a bit of time
in Charlotte, as they worked on a toilet,
but I never knew anything had happened.

My compartment at daybreak, on my return trip from Atlanta.

Mia, my frequent hiking companion (for short hikes)
The leaves may be gone, but there is still beauty to observe. Early November, behind Nester’s Cemetery.

Trains and Karl Barth

The group

I spent last week at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia with a group organized by the Foundation for Reformed Theology. We gather once a year to discuss agreed upon reading of serious theology. We had last meet in early March 2021 in Austin, Texas. That was the last time I’ve been on a plane. When we departed from home that year, the airport appeared to be dying. We knew our world was in a midst of change. It was good to be back together, even though the world hasn’t completely returned to normal.  

Discussing Barth

This year, our major reading was from Karl Barth’s Christology section in his massive work, Church Dogmatics. In seminary, almost 35 years ago, we had to read some selections of Barth’s writings. Since then, I have only read his revised commentary on Romans, where Barth moved away from 19th liberal theology in the years after the First World War. This summer, in addition to reading the Dogmatics, I also read Christiane Tietz’s new biography of Barth which I reviewed a few months ago.

At best, I have a love/hate relationship with Barth. A brilliant man, it feels as if he wrote down every word that came into his brain. But amidst all the thoughts and ideas, there are often real jewels of ideas. I imagine reading Barth is a bit like mining diamonds.  This time around, I came to appreciate Barth’s footnotes, where he defends his ideas with brilliant exegesis of scripture. 

Traditionally, theologians develop their Christology after outlining the inability of humanity to save itself. Barth flips this idea on its head, first writing about the God who journeyed “into the far country.” Barth wants us to realize that grace always comes before sin. We experience this through Jesus Christ, who Barth also goes into depth to show was God. And God comes and lives among us. When they Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, they were acknowledging the radicalness of this God who comes to us. Barth builds his theology around Jesus Christ. We must take our focus off our selves (and our pride) and find ourselves connected to a God who comes in a small and insignificant manner. Barth’s ideas continue as he discusses judgment, sin, pride, and the fall. This is a brief explanation of 30-some hours of discussion!

These were seen on my walks around town

Every afternoon, after spending hours talking about Barth, I would take a walk, From the yard signs, you can tell that Decatur is breaking Georgia’s image. Everywhere were signs in support of BLM and civil rights. Even yards that were decorated for Halloween had a message! I also learned that the first ever Waffle House was in the community of Avondale. Now we know who to blame…

Midnight Train to Georgia

Having just driven to Hilton Head, Savannah, then Wilmington, I decided to travel differently. I took the train from Danville, Virginia to Atlanta. This is a section of the route known as the Southern Crescent, which starts in New York and continues to New Orleans. Traveling in a roomette, I boarded the train at 11:20 PM. A waxing moon seemed to hang just outside my window. I fell asleep to the gentle rocking, the faint sound of the engine whistling, and the beeping and flashing lights on the lower guards as we raced through crossings. I woke as the train stopped and looked out the window. We were in Toccoa, Georgia. I had slept through the Carolinas. 

Sadly, however, I learned this train no longer has a dining car. It seems that most of the dining cars on the eastern trains have been removed because they were beyond repair. Breakfast was a microwave affair, and like other affairs, was unsatisfying.

Once arriving in Atlanta, I walked almost a mile, over to the midtown Marta Station. I had packed everything into a backpack, so I was able to easily navigate around the streets (which were all closed for a citywide race). At Marta, the Atlanta area light rail, I took the train to Five Points, where I caught the east line out to Avondale. While I could have taken a bus to the seminary, I again walked.  I was late for church at Columbia Presbyterian, so I spent much of the afternoon walking around the community.  

Eating in the Big City

Piedmont Park

During my week at Columbia, all my big meals of the day were ethnic: Thai (2x), Indian, Korean, Alsace (French), and Vietnamese. On Friday, I met Mike, a friend from Savannah, who was in Atlanta. We spent the afternoon cursing the traffic, walking around Piedmont Park, and eating dinner (Thai), before he dropped me off at the station and headed back south, to home. 

Homeward Bound

Danville, VA

Coming back, the train was late. I was exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. But there was a problem with my printed ticket. As they were rushing to load the train, the conductor finally told me to get aboard and go to the lounge car (which was empty at 1 AM). It turned out, the conductor when I came down never scanned my ticket (I assumed he had). Then, the system had cancelled my trip. Thankfully, there was a roomette (but the attendant had to remake the room as it had just become available).  But by the time the train arrived in Gainesville, our first stop after Atlanta, I was snuggled up in bed. 

I arrived back to the mountains in time to see the leaves at their peak. 

A Walk in the Rain

The Day before the Equinox 

Despite the threat of rain on the last day of summer
I take an evening walk down Laurel Fork Road
noticing the seasonal changes.
along the edge of the hayfield
where the staghorn sumac and dogwoods have turned red. 

The green leaves of the maples and oaks in the forest beyond
have already lost their luster,
while golden rods brighten the ditch banks 
next to Queen Anne, who has rolled her lace into a ball 
ready to stow in the drawer for winter. 

At the cemetery by the Primitive Baptist Church
an eight-point buck stops in the middle of the road,
looking at me for the longest time
as if wondering what I am doing out in this mess
 before jumping off the road and over the gravestones.

The drizzle becomes a rain shortly after passing the church,
but as I leave the payment for gravel, 
the hayfields for the dense woods,
the rain is not as noticeable until a breeze shakes the trees
shedding its accumulated moisture on me.

I continue, zipping up my rain jacket, 
but return earlier than I’d like, in the fading gray,
for there will be no full harvest moon to guide me tonight
as tears now pour from the sky,
each drop pinging off my jacket and into my ears.

Yet, I’m delighted when I get close enough to my lane,
with water running down my bare legs,
 to be greeted by cheerful Halloween faces
painted on the sides of three round haybales
in front of my neighbor’s field. 

My neighbor’s “jack-o-lanterns” taken today in the rain

A Day (and part of a night) on the Fox River

The story below comes from 2007 and appeared in a slightly less edited version in a previous blog. In 2007, I spent a week paddling and fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When living in Michigan, I was up in the UP almost every summer. This was before I switched to digital cameras and, sadly, have no photos. The photo below is of me paddling on the Two-Hearted River, the year before.

On the Two-Hearted River, 2006

Reaching out into the dark waters with his paddle, drawing it toward the boat, Joe pulls the bow out into the river. For a moment, I hold the stern fast against the bank, allowing the current to catch the bow and spin us around and into the fast-flowing stream. It’s almost noon. And hot, Too hot for being this far north. At first, we don’t fish much and make good time, crossing under the highway bridge at Seney. A few minutes later we paddle under the rusty trestle of the Soo Lines. In 1919, when Hemingway visited this river, the line from the ferry at St Ignace on the northern side of the Mackinaw Straits ran all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. Today, the rusty rails of light iron have been severely amputated and stretch only from the main line at Trout Lake to Munising. There’s not much rail traffic left, mostly logs and shipments to and from a paper mill.

Continuing to paddle, we enter “The Spreads” about a mile below the tracks. Trees disappear and like an artery leaving the heart for the body, the river splits into smaller branches, cutting numerous deep channels cutting through tall grass. The channels are lined with shrubs, mostly tag elders, providing shade over the deep holes. We dig out the rods. At one of the bends, Joe, being in the front, pulls a small brook trout out of a hole. I continue to navigate the canoe, getting an occasional chance to fish, but with no luck. After a mile or so, the river comes back together, and the banks rise higher. We’re making good time. Tammarks, hemlocks and jack pines first appear. But as the stream draws us deeper into the northwoods, maples dominate the shoreline standing as sentries at guard. Others have fallen prey to the forces of water, creating log dams along the river providing us with both an obstacle to navigate and an opportunity for good fishing.

This is the country Hemingway describes in his short story, “The Big Two-hearted River.” High wooded ridges overlook a river filled with log dams under which deep holes are carved out. Trout hid in these holes. At first, instead of cursing the obstacles, we seize the opportunity. Approaching a jam, we beach the boat upstream in order not to spook the fish, jump out and fish the holes before portaging the boat over the logs and continuing downstream. This works well and by mid-afternoon, we’re approaching our limit of Brook Trout, a small but tasty native fish.

It’s still hot at six o’clock. Joe and I have caught our limit and, being good friends, offer to help the other two catch theirs. They’ve spent most of the day behind us, often forgoing fishing for swimming. However, we are also beginning to realize that these log dams are slowing our progress. They are now at most every bind. We begin to pass up some good holes to make up time.

At seven, we stop fishing. We’re still pulling over log dams. We haven’t reached the confluence with the East Branch. The deerflies are nasty, swarming around our heads. I zip the legs onto my pants and pull on a long sleeve shirt. A few minutes later, I pull the mosquito netting down over my face. It makes it difficult to see, especially obstacles right below the water line, but the netting provides relief from these deer flies that seem to have an immunity to DEET. Only my hands are exposed and for the next hour, I chum the river with dead deer flies, on one occasion killing four gnawing flies on one hand with a single slap. We’re making good time, having perfected the art of portaging over the log dam. But the East Branch remains elusive. We know we’ll have a good four or five mile paddling from the confluences. 


In the summer, this far north and west in the time zone, the sun sets at 9:30 P.M. I begin to wonder at what point it will be prudent to pull over and make camp for the evening. I decide not to bring the subject up until after the sun is down, knowing that we’d still have a good half hour to gather firewood, clean fish for dinner, and to make as comfortable of a camp as possible. If we camp then, we’d only have six or seven hours of night, and we could get back on the river at first light. We finally pass the East Branch right around sunset and the water level rises and pace quickens. Yet, we still have a lot of river to cover before we reach Germfask, where we’ve dropped a vehicle. I pitch the idea of camping overnight on the bank, informing everyone that I do have some extra food and a lighter stashed away, but no one wants to quit. I’m concerned that in the dark it will be easy to tip a canoe and although I don’t think we have to worry about drowning, I worry about losing equipment, maybe even boats, in the dark.

A half mile past the East Branch, we join up with the Manistique. The river widens and there are fewer obstacles. We paddle furiously. The canoe guidebook suggested this should have be a five or six hour trip, with the author bragging that he made it in 4 ½. I wouldn’t buy a used car from the guy. As the light fades, we continue to paddle, but drop our speed to be extra careful. Right before dark, Joe and I split a energy bar. We haven’t eaten since lunch, nearly seven hours earlier, and I’m still not hungry, but need the energy. A few stars begin to appear. We keep close to one another, staying mostly in the middle of the channel. When my paddle hits the bottom of the river, I realize that it has changed from sand to rock. Occasionally we shoot across a rock garden with small waves splashing on the boat. I spot the pinchers of the constellation Scorpios just above the trees on the southern horizon.

At a little after eleven, we spot a fire up on the bank. It’s surrounded by a group of campers. We hail them and they’re surprised. Someone shines a flashlight at a spot where we can easily get the boats to shore. After pulling the boats on shore, we walk over to their campfire and ask if one of them would be willing to drive us to the car. “I’d love to, man,” one of them said, “but we’re all shit-faced, we’ve been drinking all day.” Looking around, it’s evident he’s telling the truth. Only a few of them are awake, several more are asleep, or more likely passed out, lying next to the fire. Since B’s vehicle is at the bridge, I suggest he and I hike back to get the car. “Maybe we’ll get a ride,” I suggest. We start walking up to the highway and through the town of Germfask. Only two cars pass us, but no one stops. Coming back, we clock it at 1.7 miles from the bridge to the campground. We quickly load the boats onto B’s trailer and drive back into Seney. It’s now midnight.

Not feeling up to cooking up fish, we head to the Seney Bar, the only place open in town. A few patrons sit at the bar, another couple are shooting a game of pool. We asked the bartender if we could get something to eat as we’d just come off the river. He confides that the cook left at 10 but offers to bake us some frozen pizzas. We ordered a couple and some beers. Hearing that we’d just gotten off the river, everyone in the joint begins to ask us about our trip while Joe hustles a few games of pool. One guy suggests he’d allow at least 12 hours for paddling the stretch we did. Someone else digs out a fishing guidebook, whose author suggested to allow 11 hours for just paddling and that if one wanted to fish, to make it a two-day trip. We agreed with that estimation and long to ring the neck of the author of the canoeing guidebook. Now that we’re safe, we laugh and enjoy another beer.

About 1 AM, we head back to the campground north of town. The others sleep in their vehicles. I quickly throw up my bivy tent, crawl in and crash. Five hours later, at 6 AM, I wake to the crash of close lightning. The wind is howling, breaking off limbs, and the clouds open, sending a deluge of rain. I debate making a run for my truck but decided to stay. I was warm and if a bolt hit the tree under which I was sleeping, I’d never know it. I watch the spectacular lightning show for a few moments, then fall back asleep thinking that it was good we didn’t spend the night on the river. 

Reflections on my time away

Detour Reef Light

It was great to get away and it’s good now to be back home. Most of my time away was spent reading and relaxing. Daily, I would take long walks, enjoy coffee on the porch with a book and an eye out for freighters. In the evening, after returning from a walk I would do the same with a bourbon.  The air remained mostly cool and even the days of rain felt good. I preached twice at the Union Presbyterian Church in Detour Village. 

Reading while away

My stack of books (I didn’t get to them all)

My reading varied greatly. I spent a lot of time with the Bible and a couple commentaries on Daniel in preparation for preaching on the book this fall. I finished reading a wonderful book on reading and writing poetry (Gregory Orr’s, A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry). This book had many exercises, some of which I did, leaving notes in my journal such as the poem I printed below. 

I also enjoyed Casey Tygrett’s As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories in Our Spiritual Life. Like Orr’s book on poetry, this book had many exercises, of which I did most as a way to ponder memories. Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, was eye opening. Thurman was a classmate and friend of Martin Luther King Jr’s father and this short book written in the 1940s captures the meaning of the gospel for those who lived in a segregated world with many opportunities denied. Another book that I just finished yesterday is Christiane Tiez’s  Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict (Victoria Burnett translator) Barth, probably the most influential 20th Century theologian, best known for his opposition to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, provides an insight into how the church should behave when oppressed. This reading fed into my thoughts that arose from my study of Daniel. 

I also read some poetry along with the first half of Richard Lischer’s memoir, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery. 

Sandhill cranes dropped in for a visit as I read under a tree in the yard

Traveling to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and around the area gave me plenty of time to listen to books on Audible. I began with Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, John Ketchmer, Sailing a Serious Ocean; Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea, and Carl Hiassen, Tourist Season. Having read many of Larson’s books, Isaac’s Storm lived up to my expectation as he captured both the event of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 along with providing insight into those involved in the storm and into how such storms are created. Ketchmer’s book is a first. I enjoyed it and it provided me with a refresher before sailing.  Hiassen is another favorite author. I have read or listened to eight of his books. This was his first novel and while not as funny as some of his later ones (Skinny Dip remains my favorite), it’s still good and has humorous moments. 

Sightseeing and other activities

I spent two days sailing with a friend in Grand Traverse Bay. We left out of Northport harbor on the Leelanau Peninsula. The first day was rough with 20 knot winds. It was scary when I couldn’t get the main reefed quickly as the lines were dry rotted. Finally, I was able to get it secured and we sailed for a bit that afternoon before enjoying a good meal on the town. On the second day, it was lovely with winds in the 10 to 12 knot range. We sailed out passed Mission Point and up the east side of the bay toward Leelanau Point before coming back to the marina. 

While in the UP, I spent one day on Drummond Island.  There, I enjoyed a morning hike in Maxton Plains.  The plains are an “alvar” landscape, which consist of flat limestone pavement with little soil to provide growth for plants. In the cracks are many different species of grass and flowers along with paper birch and spruce trees. Next time I visit here, I need to bring a bicycle so I can explore more of the plains. After lunch and a visit to the island’s museum, I enjoyed a shorter but refreshing walk under the beech trees of Clyde and Martha Williams Nature Preserve.  To reach to Drummond Island, I took the ferry which was just a block from where I was staying. 

Whitefish Point light & fog horn

I also took another trip to Whitefish Point, a place that many know about from Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”  

The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.

          -Gordon Lightfoot

Leaving the UP, I visited friends from Skidaway on Mullet Lake, then old friends in Grand Rapids and Hastings. There’s never enough time to see everyone.

A poem I wrote in the UP

The freighter
rides low in the water
its screws pushing 70,000 tons of ore
southbound toward Gary or Cleveland.

Behind the stern trail
angry ripples of water, 
a turmoil of whirlpools
and danger for small boats that cut behind too close.

There are people like the freighter,
those who churn the air
and leave a path of emotional distraction.
Like the ship,
they’re best given a wide berth. 

A 1000 foot freighter heading south (go here to see a photo of an older style freighter)

A Lighthearted Yet Serious Look at the Lord’s Supper from a Protestant Perspective

In last week’s sermon, I mentioned this blog post, which failed to transition from my old “thepulpitandthepen.com” blog to this one. So I am posting it again.

The communion table set for “World Communion Sunday” on the first Sunday of October.

            The highlight of Christian worship is the Lord’s Supper. We break bread and share wine together, uniting ourselves through a very ordinary act with all the saints who have gone before us and to Christ himself. It’s a mysterious feast, especially for the stomach that often leaves the meal hungry. 

The Bread

            Standing in front of the table, the minister repeats Jesus’ words. “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought over the meaning of these words—whether or not the bread was really Jesus’ body. Protestant Reformers could smugly point out that Jesus also said he was a door and nobody believes he is a literal door, wooden or otherwise. From the small portions used, you would think that all churches believed that it was Jesus’ actual body and they must hoard some for future generations. Of course, Protestants like me do not believe the bread is the literal body of Christ, but a sign to remind us of our unity with Christ in his death and resurrection.

The Wine

            The second part of the service involves drinking wine or, as most Protestants prefer, grape juice. Again, Jesus’ words are spoken: “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In the Middle Ages, only priests were allowed to drink the wine because of a fear the common people might actually spill some. Only Jesus can shed his blood, they reasoned. In some churches, everyone drinks from the same cup, a nice gesture that demonstrate how we all share in Christ. However, the majority of American Protestant Churches understanding that such sharing involves germs; therefore, they use small individual cups about the size of a thimble. Since the women’s movement, most of these churches have begun using disposal plastic cups because no one is volunteering to wash the glass ones.  Ecologically minded Christians are bothered by this waste, but until they sign up for cup washing, the trend toward plastic cups will continue.

Distribution methods

            Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper in a variety of ways. Preferred methods resemble fast food. In most Methodist, Lutheran and Episcopal Churches, everyone goes up to the front of the sanctuary and kneels or stands, awaiting their turn to receive the bread and cup. The most common way in Baptist and Presbyterian churches is the drive-in method. Sitting in a pew, the elements are brought to you. A take-out plan is generally available for those unable to attend services.

            Another method that has become more common is intinction. Each worshipper breaks off a piece of bread and dips it into the cup. This method rapidly facilitates the distribution of the elements, however the Biblical foundation for such a technique is weak. Even the most liberal exegete would have a hard time interpreting Jesus’ words, “take and eat” with “take and dunk.” More problematic for those sharing this method is that the only example we have of a disciple eating dipped bread in this manner at the Last Supper was Judas Iscariot.

Historical methods of celebration

            A hundred or so years ago, it was common for American Protestants to actually sit around a real table and share a feast with others. This method, which had its roots in the Scottish Church, was the formal dining plan. To be allowed a seat at the table, a member produced a communion token. He or she earned these tokens by being good, paying one’s tithe, not breaking the commandments, and attending a preparatory lecture. After the preparatory lecture, they were given a communion token. As the worshipper approached the table, the maître’ d, a role played by an elder, greeted the worshipper. Those without a token to tip the maitre’ d, found themselves escorted to the door by the same elder who was also a bouncer. Once seated, the worshippers were served a hunk of bread and a cup of wine. This was done rapidly in order to accommodate the next seating. Unfortunately, for all its appeal, formal dining has gone the way of fine china and finger bowls. Few churches bother. 

            As Christians, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in order to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do this obediently and solemnly. Nobody talks; everyone bows their head. Most believe they conduct the service in the same manner as Jesus. But they have forgotten that Jesus instituted this sacrament at the Passover meal which consisted of four cups of wine. Unlike the Passover, a modern communion service lasts just a few minutes, after which everyone is still able to drive home.

The Hope

            The celebration of the Lord’s Supper also serves as a foretaste of the kingdom to come. At the heavenly banquet, we will all sit at table with Christ at the head. The Bible doesn’t give us the menu, but considering that four of the disciples were fisherman, maybe it will be a seafood banquet. Or maybe lamb supplied by the good shepherd at the head table. Whatever the menu, the heavenly banquet promises to be livelier than the somber communion services. This is a good thing. Mark Twain noted that if heaven is just sitting around singing hymns, he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go there. Likewise, if the heavenly banquet is only as exciting as its earthly counterpart, no one will RSVP.

The Reality

            After communion, the minister pronounces the benediction. Like the flagman at Indianapolis, it signals the beginning of a race. Some parishioners rush out to a restaurant. In good Christian competition, they attempt to beat those from other churches. Others head home where the television is the first order of business. After finding the game of the week, one family pulls a roast from the oven while another grills burgers out back. Those without ambition order pizza. Such hearty food is served. As long as the right team wins, we laugh and love joyfully. After having fed us at his table, Jesus wonders why he’s not included. 

My thoughts on Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol

I’m in shock over this week’s events at our nation’s Capitol. If you are a praying person, will you join me praying for our country.

We need to open ourselves to God, asking for insight in how what we might do as individuals and in the groups we’re a part of to being healing to our nation. 

There will be a lot said about yesterday’s events in the days and weeks (and months) ahead. I am sure there are those I will agree with and those with whom I will disagree. However, we should remember one of the founding principles of the Presbyterian Church. “There are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ, “our Book of Order states. In these things, it is the “duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” How we relate to those who think and believe differently from us is a telltale sign of the trust we have in God.  

That said, as a follower of Jesus and a pastor, these are some things that weigh heavy on my heart. 

Words matter

First, our political rhetoric has gotten out of hand. It seems people on all sides think that if the government doesn’t do what they want, or if the vote at the ballot box doesn’t go their way, it is a personal affront and they have a right to take things into their own hands. While the right to peacefully protest is a hallmark of our nation, we do not have the right to incite violence or to intimidate others. If this doesn’t stop, we’re going to destroy ourselves and our nation.  

The problem of white privilege

Next, as many of my African American friends have pointed out, if those who attacked our Capitol were people of color, there likely would have been more bloodshed. White privilege is real. You can see this with the supposedly Q-anon leader stomping though the Capitol with bull horns, dressed like Hagar the Horrible. Had he been a person of color, instead of roaming around like a pagan Viking, his blood would likely be flowing across the marble floors. 

The misuse of Jesus’ name

Finally, as I posted on Facebook on Wednesday afternoon, I was offended to see people on the porticoes of the Capitol with signs and flags bearing Jesus’ name. These were not law-abiding protestors. They had already pushed past the barricades set up for those protesting. The above photo I snapped from my TV screen. The sign says, “Jesus Saves.” I doubt such a sign will convince non-believers that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Would the Jesus, whom we know through the Gospel stories, be seen taking part in such a demonstration? 

No, Jesus, the one who had the power to call down angels to save himself, refused to take part in any insurrection. He also stopped his followers from going down such a path, telling Peter to put away his sword. My advice for those who carried such signs and symbols yesterday is to leave Jesus out of whatever devious plans they concoct. If they really believe in Jesus, they should immediately drop to their knees and beg forgiveness. Such signs are a violation of the commandments. It’s blasphemy.  

Let’s pray

We all need to be praying and confessing. We need to confess our failure to live up to our ideals as we seek a better way forward. I offer this simple prayer: 

 Lord, what we witnessed this week was humbling and scary. We are blessed to live in a nation rich with opportunity. We are grateful. Yet, we realize our hands and our hearts are not clean.  Forgive us when we did not speak up for justice, when we did not support those being demonized, and when we didn’t challenge false and dangerous ideas. Show us, Lord, how you might use us to build bridges with others who have also been created in your image. Use us, in the words of Francis of Assisi, to be an instrument in your peace. Lord, what can I do to further your kingdom?  Amen.  

Servants of Satan

Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985). 212 pages including an index, notes, bibliography, and a few woodcut plates. 

We often think of witch hunting as something done in a pre-modern world. However, most of the witch trials and executions took place in a relatively short period of time as Europe was quickly becoming more modern.

The Age of the Witch Hunt

The witch frenzy began in the second half of the 16th Century and petered out in the middle of the 17th Century. This was not the Dark Ages. It was a time of enlightenment. The world was quickly advancing in philosophy and science. Of course, there had been occasional charges of witchcraft earlier in history. What made this period notable were the number of accusations and executions.

Prior to the 1550-1660 era, witchcraft prosecutions were fairly equally divided between men and women. In the late 16thCentury, most of the prosecution was against women (80% or more). While earlier witchcraft charges were against using black magic, witches were now seen as engaging in satanic worship and having sex with Satan.  Klaits, in this academic work, sets out to understand what caused the rise in witchcraft cases and then the sudden departure. 

The witchcraft craze followed the Reformation. Klaits is correct in noting that all churches in Western Europe were reforming during this period. The Protestant Reformation was well on its way, having started earlier in the century. The Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation was just beginning in the mid-16th century. Churches, as well as society in general, were moving from the medieval world. It was a stress-filled enviroment, brought on by religious fervor along with the political and economic changes. Klaits suggests that witch trials provided relief to an unsettled world by giving them someone to blame for the problems. 

Klaits traces the shift in thinking about witchcraft from the medieval era into the 16th and early 17th Century. He explores how women became the focus (most of the women charged were elderly and single or a widow). He looks at the shifted as charges of witchcraft moved from the use of magic for evil, to satanic orgies.

The author explores a number of threads that played into this shift. One theme is how the urban and upper classes looked down on the popular folk magic of the more rural areas. This also played a role in the decline of witchcraft. The trials ended once charges began to be brought against those in the upper classes. Attitudes against women also played a role. Furthermore, the church, which had been the support system for the poor in society, stopped playing such a function after the Reformation. This led to many women living in poverty. 

In a chapter on the politics of torture, Klaits discussed the role torture played. In all criminal investigations, torture was commonly used in this era. The use of torture seems to enflame the situation so that an individual charge led to multiple charges and mass hysteria. The author noted modern examples of how, with torture, stress, and the power of suggestion, people confessed to that which they did not do. In some cases, those were innocent and confessed actually believe they are guilty.

Without torture, witchcraft trials tended to be a singular event. Such was the case in England which prohibited torture in most cases. Torture often led to the victim implicating others. This fueled the hysteria and led to more trials and executions. 

By the time the hysteria abated in the late 17th Century, Klaits maintains it wasn’t that people stopped believing that witchcraft. People were tired of the madness.

Most scholars, until recently, viewed witchcraft trials as a result of superstitions. Yet the trials came about during a time of great learning. Even modern people look for a scapegoat. such was the case in Nazi Germany. When we need someone to blame, we can easily fall prey to the fear of the “other.” I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read this book with our current political climate playing in the background, with groups denigrating those who are different as the problem. This seems to happen against those who act differently, as well as minorities or those on different sides of the political spectrum.

My thoughts:

I found myself questioning some of the assumptions that Klaits made, especially of Calvin and the Swiss Reformation. while he noted that while there were fewer witch trials in Geneva than in Germany, he tends to lump both groups togethera. Having read a significant amount of Luther and Calvin, it is evident that the latter (Calvin) spent very little time focusing on the work of Satan. While Luther often felt under attack of the devil. Calvin, however, doesn’t mention witchcraft in his massive Institutes of the Christian Religion. He only occasionally mentioned Satan or the devil (23 and 9 times in over 1700 pages).

The witchcraft craze actually began after the death of the early Protestant Reformers and close to the death of Calvin. This was the “scholastic era in Protestant history (within Lutheran and Reformed/Calvinistic Churches). I am now curious on what role the scholastic’s more rigid view on theology may played in the witchcraft craze.  

While this is not a book for everyone, I would recommend it on those interested in the history of this era.