Rituals at the time of death: Introducing a new series

September 2, 2014
Flowers at a Fresh Grave

Flowers at a Fresh Grave

No part of Christian liturgical practice in the United States has changed as radically as rituals when people die. As pastor, seminary professor, and family member I have given careful attention to this topic, gradually coming to significant changes of mind.

The death of my wife, Billie Lee Caton Watkins, on August 12, 2014, after 62 years of marriage and eight years with metastatic breast cancer, made it necessary to cut through conflicting ideas and practices in order to solemnize and celebrate her life in this world and to proclaim our faith that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

As summer draws to a close, I intend to resume regular postings on my blog with a series of columns in which I explore the changing patterns concerning funerals in ecumenical Protestant churches, outline the conclusions that I am reaching, raise questions for discussion, and suggest ideas for pastoral practice among liberal Christians in our time.

The first step in this process will be to repost previous blogs on this topic. In this way, I will refresh my own remembrance of what I have been thinking in the past two or three years. I will continue my reading of current literature that bears upon this subject and report on this material.

I welcome contributions to this ongoing series from readers of this blog. By reflecting upon our personal and pastoral experience, theological reflection, and liturgical practice, we can help our churches and their members come to renewed and healthful practices at the time that death comes.


An engaging primer on the Christian life

July 3, 2014

Sharon FrontSharon Watkins is the first woman to lead an American mainline denomination, having served for nine years as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She also was the first woman to preach at the National Prayer Service, delivering the sermon on the day after President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

Early in her administration as her church’s presiding minister, a visioning team developed an identity statement that expresses the central character of this church as it understands itself in this tumultuous era of history.

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the Body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

In a new book, Watkins interprets this statement in a highly personal way. The book, writes Robert Welsh, “begins and ends with personal stories and vignettes centered upon the key concepts that give us [Disciples] our identity as a faith community.”

Although I have read the book, both in earlier drafts and in its published version, I do not plan to review the book. As father of the author, I would not be able to offer a sufficiently “objective” evaluation. Instead, I am transmitting statements that are published as part of the front matter of this slender volume.

“Sharon Watkins is one of America’s great reconcilers. In my time in the White House, I saw firsthand how Sharon’s witness for Christ in the wider world knit both her own denomination and the country closer together, and helped us focus on the issues that matter most. Now with Whole, we have a powerful blueprint for unity that each of us can apply in our own areas of influence. This book is a gift; it will change organizations, and lives.” —Joshua DuBois, Author of The President’s Devotional, and former head of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“There are leaders within the church that everyone should be listening to and engaging. Sharon Watkins…is always near the top of my list. Her deep passion for helping Christians live out their faith in ways large and small, the great wisdom she offers from decades of ministry, and the powerful vision she paints of what it means to be one of Christ’s disciples in the kind of world we live in—whether or not you belong to her denomination—makes this book a must read. Watkins brings people together, articulates a direction we need, and is one of the best voices we have for bringing faith into public life.”—Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners.

“Come and feast at the banquet prepared for you from the beginning of the world. ‘You’ means everyone, no exceptions. Turn in here and join the feast, and bring your neighbor with you. Sharon Watkins has prepared a veritable banquet—come and taste—and a tender invitation to come and feast.”—Katherine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church.

The book is published by Chalice Press and is also is available in electronic versions.

The Twisting Flow of Water

May 28, 2014

Reviewing Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (HarperCollins, 2010)

Solomon - WaterMy interest in issues related to water has developed during my retirement years. In part, this was because we lived for a time in the desert southwest where golf courses and lush agricultural fields luxuriated despite the aridity of the climate and where archaeological remains testified to the fragility of previous hydrological societies.

My interest in water also developed as a corollary to my activities as an open road cyclist, taking long tours through river systems drained by the Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande in the West and the Potomac and Ohio in the East. The writing on water that I have done has been primarily as a secondary theme within travel narratives based on cycling expeditions.

One of the reasons for giving more sustained attention to water related issues is the growing evidence that climate change has become a serious issue now rather than one that is waiting to happen in another generation. The hydrological systems of the earth are behaving in ways that are outside of our experience. Deluges, droughts, and intense fires are more common and more extreme than they used to be, and they take place simultaneously. Climatic patterns that our civilizations have relied upon are becoming undependable.

A second reason is my interest in reflecting upon the meaning of these changes from a theological and ethical point of view. Current literature tends to focus on factual descriptions: where water is found, how contemporary societies are using it, and changes that are taking place in the availability and use of water. As long as we focus on description, it is possible to reach broad agreement on water in the current global economy and political scene.

A more difficult challenge is to agree on evaluations of how well the hydrological systems are working and prospects for both the near and longer term futures. More difficult still are the challenges of agreeing on the causes of the hydrological challenges now confronting the people of the world and determining courses of action that we ought to be taking.

The first step in moving the discussion forward is to recognize the varied roles that water has played in the development of human civilization—water for drinking and cleansing, water as a means of exercising power and developing wealth, water as the enabling agent for urban society and also the source of some of the most urgent problems facing these societies, water as the substance upon which everything else seems to depend.

This is where Steven Solomon’s 500-page book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization is the very thing we need. In a remarkably comprehensive, concise, and compelling manner, this journalist, who publishes in major American media, describes “the twisting flow of water” (quoting from a statement by Daniel Yergin on the book jacket).

In his prologue, Solomon summarizes the major themes of the book: (1) Control and manipulation of water has been a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history. (2) Preeminent societies have invariably exploited their water resources in ways that were more productive and unleashed larger supplies than in slower adapting societies. (3) Water challenges on an epic scale are unfolding today. (4) The societies that find the most innovative responses to these crises will most likely come out as winners, while the others will fade behind. (5) Civilization also will be shaped by water’s inextricable and deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change.

The book is filled with factual information, but the facts are presented in a strong narrative manner rather than in a technical manner. Solomon depends more upon historians than geologists as the sources of information and insight. Read more. . . . Twisting Flow of Water


Straight talk about gay marriage

May 12, 2014

A review of God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage, by Gene Robinson (New York: Knopf, 2012)


Paperback Edition

The thesis of this book is succinctly stated in the final paragraph: “I believe in marriage. I believe it is the crucible in which we come to know most deeply about love. It is in marriage that God’s will for me to love all humankind gets focused in one person. It is impossible to love humankind if I can’t love one person. That opportunity to love one person and to have that love sanctioned and supported by the culture in which we live is a right denied gay and lesbian people for countless centuries. It’s time to open that opportunity to all of us. Because in the end, God believes in love” (196).

In the rest of the book—all 195 pages—Gene Robinson, who at the time he wrote it was the Episcopal Church’s bishop of New Hampshire, develops the theological meaning of married love, summarizes the history of marriage in western society, explains the separation of Religion and State in the American constitutional system, and states the case for same-sex marriage as an authentic manifestation of the love in which God believes.

The author’s life experience provides the context for this book and contributes to its emotional impact: born to tobacco sharecroppers in rural Kentucky; “massively injured in childbirth” and not expected to live; nurtured as a Christian in a small congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); confessed his faith and was baptized into Christ at age twelve. His “greatest desire was to live like Christ.”

By the time he graduated from the University of the South, discerned a call to ordained ministry (in the Episcopal Church), and enrolled in seminary, he knew that he was attracted to men, didn’t like it, and loathed himself for it. After two years of therapy, he believed that he was ready to be married. From the beginning of his relationship with the woman he married, he told her of his history of attraction to men. She responded that their love was strong enough to deal with whatever might happen.

When Robinson was thirty-nine and their two daughters were still in elementary school, the marriage was dissolved before a judge and in a poignant ceremony at a church. Robinson continued his ministry, fell in love with a man, and they established a home. They established a civil union and later were married. Despite opposition from many people in world-wide Anglicanism, Robinson was elected to the office of bishop. Since the book was published, Robinson has retired and on May 4, 2014 announced that he and his husband plan to divorce.

Most of the book consists of Robinson’s answers to ten questions most often asked him over the years: Why gay marriage now? Why should you care about gay marriage if you’re straight? What’s wrong with civil unions? Doesn’t the Bible condemn homosexuality? What would Jesus do? Doesn’t gay marriage change the definition of marriage that’s been in place for thousands of years? Doesn’t gay marriage undermine marriage? What if my religion doesn’t believe in gay marriage? Don’t children need a mother and a father? Is this about civil rights or getting approval for questionable behavior?

Robinson’s answers are written in clear, straightforward, serious but non-technical language. Some of the contributions he makes are these:

  1. He provides a theologically coherent support for same-sex marriage despite the long tradition of vigorous opposition by culture and religious communities.
  2. He outlines the radically varied patterns of marriage in western society, thus undercutting the assumption that current discussions are contrary to ages-old systems.
  3. He explains the fact that in the United States marriage has always been a civil institution that is clearly distinct from the religious blessing of the union of two persons in a relationship of love.
  4. He positions the recognition of gay marriage with other movements to overcome discrimination and grant full civil rights to minorities whom majoritarian systems oppress.
  5. He draws upon a substantial body of factual data to answer questions such as the effect upon children when they grow up in homes with same-sex parents. Read more. . . . Straight talk about gay marriage


Riding around the fire mountains (all covered with snow)

May 6, 2014
Pahto—Mt. Adams

One of the Fire Mountains

People keep asking me about the bike trips I intend to take this summer. I’ve come up with an answer and actually hope that I can take the rides described below. I’m following the example of the Perimeter Bicycling Association of American (PBAA), a Tucson-based bike club that encourages people to ride around things.

The fire mountains are three volcanic peaks that are part of the skyline of my home in the Portland-Vancouver community. Two of them are frequently seen from almost anywhere in this metropolitan area. The third rarely appears at this distance, but belongs to the mythic story of this part of the Pacific Northwest.

These three circumnavigations are arranged in ascending order, starting with the shortest. My intention is to take my time for each trip rather than rushing to cover the distance in the shortest time possible. The itineraries will be the shortest routes that can be done on paved roads with motel accommodations at reasonable intervals.

These three peaks belong togtether. According to Native American stories, the Great Spirit had two sons, Wy’east and Pahto, who fought over a beautiful maiden named Loowit. Because their battle scorched the earth, their infuriated father turned all three into volcanic peaks: Loowit is Mount Saint Helens, Pahto is Mount Adams, and Wy’east is Mount Hood. Each of these peaks will be the center of a ride.

The Wy’east (Mt. Hood) perimeter ride will begin and end in Troutdale, Oregon. On day 1, I will ride south to U.S. 26 at Sandy, Oregon, and then continue up the mountain’s slope to Welches or Government Camp. On day 2, I will continue to Barlow Pass and then turn north on SR 35, to Hood River. On day 3, I will continue through the Columbia River Gorge—using the historic highway for most of the way—back to Troutdale. I hope to do this ride no later than early June.

The Loowit (Mt. St. Helens) perimeter ride will begin and end in Woodland, Washington. Although it is longer than the Wy’east ride, I hope to do it in three days, too. On day I, I’ll travel north on old roads that parallel I-5 to Castlerock. On day 2, I’ll take the Jackson Highway to its junction with U.S. 12 and continue on to Randle. My plan for day 3 is to travel south on Forest Service Road 25 and SR 503 back to Woodland. By traveling in early July, I’ll be able to rendezvous with a research team supervised by a grandson that will be stationing earthquake monitoring devises along the eastern edges of the mountain.

The Pahto (Mt. Adams) perimeter ride will begin and end in Stevenson, Washington. On day 1, I’ll travel eastward on SR 14 and SR 142 to Goldendale on US 97. On day 2, I’ll ride north into the Yakama Indian Reservation, stopping for the night either in Toppenish or Yakima. On day 3, I’ll take US 12 over White Pass (elevation 4,500 ft.) to Packwood or Randle. On day 4, I’ll go south on Forest Service 25, 51, and 30 back to Stevenson. The timing of this trip may be determined by an event in Packwood in mid September or an event in Yakima in early October.

Although PBAA has established guidelines for designating perimeter routes and recording record time, I do not plan to do so. The mountains are there. The routes are challenging and exciting. Riding around the fire mountains will be a great way to make the summer memorable.

If I feel unusually adventuresome, one more circumnavigation could bring them all together in one grand trip: Troutdale to Hood River to Goldendale and Yakima; then on to Randle and Castlerock, Woodland and Troutdale. How many miles? I have no idea, but it would really be a grand trip.

Anyone interested in doing it with me?

Civil religion: what it is and why we need it

April 28, 2014

“From Holy Week to Spring Break” is the title of a presentation that I gave to the Kiwanis Club of Portland during Holy Week this year. The president of the club and two other members are friends at First Christian Church in Portland. In my blog on April 1, 2014, I posted a précis of the talk. Here is the full text of the presentation.

During my childhood and early adult years, two religious observances were widely held in communities all across America. Easter vacation was a four-day event, beginning with Good Friday and concluding on the following Monday. Schools were closed on those two days, and business and many retail establishments were closed on that Friday afternoon. This meant that families could count on a four-day holiday. Since going to their own church on Easter Sunday was still a major practice, most families ended up staying close to home despite the relaxation of their school and business schedules.

Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding with Easter, was also widely recognized. Many churches used these days as times of special religious activities, which frequently included services of worship at noon or evening that were widely attended by people despite the fact that they were at work on those days.

During the years of my active adulthood, however, these religiously defined rituals of public life have been replaced. Holy Week and the Easter Vacation have morphed into Spring Break. It was easy enough for this change to occur because Holy Week-Easter vacation and spring break-spring fling have two things in common: In our part of the world they happen during the riotous rebirth of the natural world; and they provide a strongly anticipated break from the pattern of ordinary life.

One reason for the change from the religion-based festival to the nature-based celebration is technical. Schools need consistency in scheduling and they try to plan breaks to come at times in the year that are beneficial to the patterns of academic activity. Because the dating of Easter is based on the lunar calendar and the vernal equinox, it fluctuates from year to year, falling anytime from March 22 to April 25.

With that kind of variation, it is difficult to plan academic calendars. This was true even in the Christian seminary where I taught for much of my career, and we were sympathetic to the religious events that these holy days commemorated. Read more. . .From Holy Week to Spring Break


Missoula to St. Louis in 1897

April 22, 2014

Sorensen-Iron RidersOn June 14, 1897, the bicycle corps of the Twenty-fifth Infantry, U.S.A., left Fort Missoula, Montana, headed for St. Louis, Missouri. They completed their journey, 1,900 miles in length, on July 24. On the 34 days they bicycled, they averaged 6.3 mph and 55.9 miles per day.

The contingent consisted of 20 enlisted men, all black soldiers who were often referred to as buffalo soldiers. Two white men were also members of the contingent: Lieutenant James Moss, who commanded the unit, and Assistant Surgeon J. M. Kennedy.

The cyclists were self-contained. Each man travelled with a knapsack, bedroll, and tent half strapped to his handlebars. Food supplies were carried in a narrow canvas luggage case suspended in the main triangle of the bike. Each man carried a rifle strapped to his back. The riders averaged 148.5 pounds per cyclist and the weight of the parked bicycles ranged from 67 to 86 pounds.

The purpose of the trip was to demonstrate the suitability of bicycles for military use. Lieutenant Moss and others who supported the trip were convinced that travel by bicycle was faster than walking and better than traveling as mounted cavalry.

This historic cycling enterprise is the featured article in Adventure Cyclist for May 2011, an issue that focuses attention upon “bicycling’s grand past,” to use a phrase in editor Michael Deme’s column. It was written by Dan D’Ambrosio and includes several photographs taken during the journey and a beautifully rendered map.

The first part of D’Ambrosio’s article describes a redoing of the historic ride in 1974 under the auspices of the African-American studies program at the University of Montana in Missoula. When this program was established in 1968 by Professor Ulysses Doss, it was one of only three in the nation. Among the riders on this renewal of the grand trip were students Marian Martin and Pferron Doss. D’Ambrosio recounts what these two student cyclists have done in later years.

He also tells of the strong interest of Mike Higgins, a middle-school teacher in Deaver, Wyoming, north of Cody. After spending five years researching the 1897 ride and route, Higgins decided to ride it himself. He made his first effort in 2009, a solo venture, but encountered snow and other trials of the road, including times when he was “practically hypothermic.” In Livingston, he abandoned the ride.

The next summer, with his 74-year-old mother driving his truck to provide support, he tried a second time, and was successful, completing the ride in 28 days. He was also able, with the truck, to take side trips in order to do further research on the ride.

In order to publish the materials he is discovering about this episode in cycling history, Higgins maintains a blog, www.bicyclecorps.blogspot.com. Although I have accessed the blog, I have not yet read the extensive body of material that he has gleaned from his studies.

My main source of information is a book by George Niels Sorensen entitled Iron Riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps (Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2000). I bought my copy at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum on my recent trip through Fort Huachuca during PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2014. D’Ambrosio also draws upon this book for the latter part of his article in Adventure Cyclist. Several aspects of the story are especially interesting to me.

First, the zeal with which Lieutenant Moss and a few others in the military approached this matter of using bicycles for military purposes. Along with this attitude was their determination to replicate military discipline even though soldiers were on bicycles trying to ride in primitive conditions.

Second, the imaginative way that they carried their gear. As one who has always valued traveling with minimal gear and equipment, I am very much impressed by the compactness of these bicycle travelers. Much of the credit goes to Lieutenant Moss who was meticulous in his planning and disciplined in his command of the unit.

He explained to a reporter how they carried the food. “The bacon was cut into small chunks and wrapped in cloth. The coffee, sugar, and flour was carried in rubber cloth bags, about 18 inches by 5 inches. All the rations, together with the knife, fork, spoon, and tin plate were carried in the frame cases. The tin cup was fastened either under the seat of the saddle, or on top the blanket roll.”

Third, the seriousness of the soldiers’ engagement in this arduous, dangerous, previously untried mode of travel.

Fourth, the durability of their bicycles despite the loads they carried, the primitive condition of the roads and trails on which they traveled, and the early stages of development of their elegant machines. I am astounded by the fact that that tires, as primitive as they were at that time, were as serviceable as they were.

Virtual Ride # 1: One of my daydreams is to ride this route myself. Realism leads me to doubt that the occasion will arise, which means that I’m registering the Buffalo Soldiers Route in my book of Virtual Rides—bike rides I can do in my imagination even if I never get them done in real time. Read the rest of this entry »


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