Covid-19 and the Bible’s Book of Revelation

April 7, 2020


Every day the numbers go up—the sharp rise in confirmed cases of infection with covid-19, deaths due to the virus, and the number of weeks we have to live with social distancing. It’s easy to believe that we are facing the end of the way of life that most Americans have assumed would go on forever. Instead, terrors similar to those portrayed by H. G. Wells in his 1898 book The War of the Worlds and reimagined in later books, films, and TV series threaten to overtake us.

A much older story of the end times is told in the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. Filled with strange visions, portrayals of distress and destruction, and visions of eternal destruction and everlasting bliss, this book (written near the end of the first century of the Common Era) is hard to understand. Because it can terrify and inspire, Revelation seems to be the right book for this year when Palm Sunday and Easter will be marked not with joyful congregations filling churches but with silent buildings echoing in their emptiness.

Revelation’s central theme is suggested in verse three of the first chapter. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and keep what is written in it; for the time is near” (1:3).

Although I have read this series of letters to churches in Asia Minor from time to time, and paid attention to scholarly writings about it, Revelation has neither terrified nor inspired me. Maybe it ministered helpfully to the people to whom it was written, I have thought, laboring as they were under the terrible powers of the Roman Empire and living in what might be considered an age of superstition, but what can it possibly say to people like me and most Americans living in the early years of the twenty-first century?

But the corona virus is doing something to me, and to most of us. That’s all we hear on the news. Posts on social media are preoccupied with descriptions of how we are trying to live normal lives even though we can’t come and go in normal ways—and with feel-good posts, photos of peaceful places, and recipes for what we cooked yesterday for the first time in years. Virtual togetherness, however, and kisses thrown toward screened images are not enough.

Now, for the first time, many of us may be ready to read Revelation’s succession of strange letters and even stranger visions. As we read, we are likely to be mystified by what the book contains—dragons and beasts, wars and rumors of wars, and plagues bringing death and destruction. What does God have to do with all of this, we ask? We hope that the time is coming “soon and very soon” when life will be good for people here and everywhere. Most of us need someone to help us understand what we are reading.

I Will Tell You the Mystery, published in 2019, promises to be the guide that can take readers through the revelation that came to John who was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day.” Its author is my colleague and friend, Ronald J. Allen, Professor of Preaching and Gospels and Letters, Emeritus, at Christian Theological Seminary. In the subtitle he describes the book as “A Commentary for Preaching,“ but for people like most of us who are sitting in the pews rather than preaching from the pulpit, this book can serve as a guide for traveling through a spiritual landscape in which we can easily lose our way.

In the preface Ron writes that the book of Revelation can help preachers (other readers, too) “identify phenomena that are similar to the idolatrous, unjust, exploitative, violent, and self-destroying qualities of the Roman Empire.” Even more, he continues, people in our time can be helped to “discern the presence and coming of a new heaven and a new earth with its love, peace, justice, mutuality and abundance.” And for us, a world in which the pandemics of war and pestilence disappear.

In this column, I have introduced this book. In columns still to come, I plan to summarize some of the leading ideas that the book presents. I Will Tell You the Mystery can be ordered online at this address:

What Do We Pray in Times of Crisis?

March 21, 2020

Home Worship Center

In 1983 a Catholic theologian named David N. Power introduced a new book (Unsearchable Riches: The Symbolic Nature of Liturgy) by stating that we live in a time of crisis. In such a time we have to ask if the prayers we offer in church state a vision of reality that squares with contemporary experience and express hope for the future that responds to the despair of our age.

These questions have new cogency when most of the world is afraid because of the corona-caused pandemic. Life has been turned upside down for an indefinite period of time, and it is hard to develop a hopeful sense of how we will be living later in the year and in time to come.

Churches everywhere continue to draw their communities together, in most places in virtual (electronic) modes rather than physical. We much prefer hugs when we feel the other over hugs that electronic screens help us imagine. In these days of self-isolation, however, even virtual ways  of being together renew live-giving, life-sustaining relationships.

In their sermons, pastors can explore this crisis in ways that help us live courageously and with hope. In their pastoral prayers, they are free to speak clearly, telling God about our bewilderment and fear, urgently asking God to care for those who are suffering, and asking God to work in and through people everywhere as we try to conquer this virulent virus.

In most church traditions the most important prayer is the one spoken at the Communion Table. On the one hand, it is a simple table blessing as we share a ceremonial meal—a tiny piece of bread and a sip of wine or grape juice. Its importance comes from the fact that here we remember the crucial moment when Jesus unforgettably embodied God’s forgiving love. By eating and drinking together, we remember and proclaim that Jesus was willing to give his life for the sake of the world.

This prayer is so important that most church traditions provide recommended texts for church leaders to use. In a few church communities, including my own, appointed leaders of the service develop and speak their own communion prayers. Although I no longer carry this kind of public responsibility, I have been developing a communion prayer to use at home. It is a first draft of the prayer I might offer if I were serving as a leader of Holy Communion with a congregation present. It needs more work to meet even my own criteria, let alone those that David Power would represent, but perhaps it will be a guide for you as you commune with God and one another on these difficult days.

Life-giving God of love, at a time when a pandemic of sickness and fear threatens to overcome people everywhere, we come to you in faith, hope, and love. You promise to be with us in every circumstance, working with us so that the best possible outcomes will be realized.

Gathering at this communion table, in spirit even if not in body, we remember and give thanks for Jesus who by your indwelling presence heals the sick, drives out demons that make us afraid, and promises to be with us no matter what happens in the days ahead.

As we break the bread of life and drink from the cup of blessing, strengthen us with Jesus’s own life, the life that he freely gave on the cross so that all may live. Drive away our fear, dispel our loneliness, and help us as in Christ’s name we minister to people all around us.

Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Christian and a Democrat

February 8, 2020

Reviewing A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, by John F. Woolverton with James D. Bratt (Eerdmans, 2019)

How does the religious faith of American presidents inform their political actions? This is the general question that drives John Woolverton’s religious biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Woolverton taught church history at Virginia Theological Seminary and was editor in chief of Anglican and Episcopal History during a period he describes as “the counter-reformation of the Reagan-Bush years.” He writes that the kind of religious faith that motivated the thirty-second president “has been less in evidence in the present century.”

The reason he gives is that in the present century we are “overshadowed in part by the conservative Christian right” (p. xv). Woolverton was writing prior to 2014; one wonders how he would state his question now given the even more puzzling relationship of faith, politics, personal morality, and social thought during the Trump presidency. As someone who honors both the religious faith and political action of Roosevelt throughout his years of leadership, I can look with genuine appreciation upon the way that this president combined his religious and political roles even though I feel uneasy about the mixing of religion and politics in the nation’s leadership structures.

The irreligion and irregular politics of the forty-fifth president, in office as I write this review, and the doctrinaire Christian leadership with which he is allied, renew my conviction of the continuing importance of maintaining the “wall of separation” between church and state that has been central to our tradition and practice.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt began his presidency, March 4, 1933, I was seventeen months old, and when he died, April 12, 1945, I was in the eighth grade. Our teacher was out of the room when the announcement of his death was broadcast throughout the school. Thinking that something should be done, I asked the class to stand for a minute of silence in respect. This was my first act of public religious leadership.

I have always had a high regard for Roosevelt’s leadership during the Great Depression when my family lived in serious poverty and during World War II when all that the civilized world values was facing destruction. Not until reading this book, however, have I understood how closely connected personal faith and public politics were intertwined in Roosevelt’s life. Woolverton portrays the president as a life-long, serious-minded, active Episcopal layman, with a well-worn Bible and much-used Book of Common Prayer. In his church life, he learned standards for personal life and also standards for public life. Woolverton notes the Episcopal Church’s importance in producing “a disproportionate number of leaders of the Social Gospel” (p. 3).

More important as a central theme throughout the book is the triad of faith, hope, and charity that Paul sets forth in 1 Corinthians 13:1–13. Even if Roosevelt was less aware that he was transforming these religious virtues into social policy than Woolverton wants his readers to understand, this book is persuasive and enlivening. Woolverton quotes extensively from Roosevelt’s speeches. He shows Roosevelt’s reliance upon friends and staff, such as Endicott Peabody and Frances Perkins, in thinking through issues he faced during his presidency. Read more . . . A Christian and a Democrat

When cleaning mental closets, it’s better not to hurry!

November 6, 2019

FCC 1 

A blogger using the name thebeerchaser commented on my recent column “Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind.” Citing his own experience, he encourages me to proceed with due care as I dump boxes full of old records and writings.

Currently, he is sorting his files, discarding many of them, and then reorganizing those that remain. His final sentence makes sense: “Perhaps they will ultimately all be discarded, but one never knows and if they are organized and don’t take a lot of space, keep the ones that are most meaningful to you.”

Some of my old papers do mean a lot to me and I might even use them at some point in the future. Taking his advice, I’ve spent the morning sorting through one stack of folders about seven inches high and will carefully reread “Liberal-Minded Religion in a Downtown Church,” the 200-page, unpublished book manuscript I wrote in 2003 that is based on these files. I need to decide if with a little more work the manuscript can be published (for limited circulation) or simply filed with my papers that are headed to an appropriate archive sometime in the future.

In contrast with the relatively useless files I mentioned in my previous post, these Portland-based folders have materials that other people could use. I have rearranged a few of them and prepared a table of contents. They now are ready to be consulted by me or by someone else. During coming months, I intend to do limited copy editing to the book and find a suitable way for a copy to be given to the church that is described for its archival collection. Conversations with a few friends at the church will help me decide whether to do any more work than that on this project that started nearly two decades old.

Between 1999 and 2003 when I was collecting these materials and drafting the manuscript, I was also doing preliminary research on a second history project related to the churches of downtown Portland. Although I would still love to write the book that was in my mind, there are two reasons why that will not be possible. First, it would require an extended period of time in Portland, which I would enjoy but which is not feasible. Second, and more important, I feel myself lurching into old age.

I remain committed to cleaning out the closets of my mind. According to Martin’s book The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, that’s one of the things that sages do. Some of my closeted ideas and the resulting paper trails are ready to go away right now. Others, like this Portland project, are going to take a little time.

Cleaning Out the Closets of My Mind

November 1, 2019


In a little book entitled The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, William Martin writes that there is no need to cling to the things than no longer identify you. “The closets of your mind can be cleaned of ideas no longer needed” (p. 62). For a retired church historian like me, the mental closets of ideas usually are accompanied with old paper files of research notes and partially written drafts of essays

Today, while purging obsolete tax papers, I stumbled across a folder three inches thick entitled “Notes on 19th Century Revivals.” Most of the material consists of photocopied chapters from books such as And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain Folk Camp Meeting Religion, 1800-1845, by Dickson D. Bruce, Jr (1974), and The Posthumous Work of the Reverend and Pious James McGrady Late Minister of the Gospel in Henderson, Kentucky, Ed. James Smith (1837). A small portion consists of hand-written reading notes taken from similar essays and books.

I was doing this research during the late 1980s and drew upon it for a paper that I presented to a section of the North American Academy of Liturgy. Almost simultaneously, the definitive work on this subject was published, Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period (1989). My paper was later published in Discipliana, the journal of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (Spring 1994, pp. 2-19) with the title “The Sacramental Character of the Camp Meeting.”

What should be done with files like these? The easiest course of action, and on the gray, rainy day when I am writing this note the one that could easily be accomplished, is to dump them into a box of old papers to be recycled. Another possibility is to arrange them more carefully and include them in papers I hope will be kept permanently in my archives somewhere. From my own experience working with the archival papers of others, however, I cannot imagine that researchers in years to come would ever take the time to use these papers for their own research.

Maybe another idea concerning proper disposal will come to mind before I empty this thick file into a box already close to being full. In any case, the topic, 19th century revivals, already has been cleaned out of the closet of my mind. All that remains is to get rid of the paper trail.

A Scholar’s Life in Black and White

December 10, 2018

Ronald E. Osborn’s Papers at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society

Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D. (1917-1998),was a church historian by training who spent most of his adult years as professor or dean in academic institutions related to his communion, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Secure in his ecclesial identity and scholarly attainments, he was able to devote much of his attention to leadership in his church and in ecumenical activities, especially the Consultation on Church Union.

Osborn was in demand as preacher in churches throughout the United States and as lecturer on topics related to his scholarly and ecclesial interests. During his lifetime, he published or edited more than a dozen books. He published a long list of articles on major topics that were related to denominational, ecumenical and broadly cultural activities of churches in which he was engaged during a period of more than half a century.

He developed his scholarly habits long before the electronic age, although he began using computers in later years. He was meticulous in his habits, using cards instead of spreadsheets for some of his records and made paper copies of nearly everything. Two examples are included in a large shipment of papers and other media that have recently been received by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society (DCHS) in Bethany West Virginia.

The first is his personal record of sermons and addresses delivered, baptisms and weddings performed, materials he read throughout his life, and some other activities—approximately 110 hand written pages, both sides. The second is his card index of books that he acquired throughout his life. He had developed his own numerical code as a way of recording pertinent information concerning his library.

Two of the boxes contain correspondence from May/June 1987 through May/June 1998. Another is identified as “Diary” and contains folders of material, beginning with one entitled “Ancestry,” that may have been intended to be the basis for writing his autobiography.

These boxes contain materials for two scholarly projects that could be thought of as the bookends for Osborn’s intended work as church historian. During his student days, he became interested in the life and career of Eli Vaughn Zollars, whom Osborn described as a “pioneer in the Southwest.” While in seminary, Osborn wrote a one thousand-page manuscript about Zollars, portions of which he used for his M. A. and B. D. theses at Phillips University. Two bound volumes of this material are in one of these boxes. Osborn’s first book was a biography of Zollars, published in 1947 when he was thirty years of age.

The bookend for the ending of his life’s work was to be a magisterial history of preaching from ancient times until now.  Many of the folders in these boxes contain materials for this project—lectures and essays by Osborn, papers written by students in his classes, essays on preachers drawn from scholarly journals and sources, and preliminary drafts of what might have become chapters in the three-volume book he hoped to write.

Volume 1, The Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching, was scheduled to be published on September 1, 1998, but printed copies did not arrive until later. Although he did see galley proofs, Osborn died on October 1, 1998, without seeing a copy of this book which was to be the climax to his life as a devout and scholarly Christian. Fearing that he would not live to complete the remaining volumes, Osborn arranged with another Disciples scholar to finish the task, but this did not happen. Unless completed drafts of the two remaining volumes of the projected book are discovered, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to read the continuing story that Osborn wanted to tell.

The Osborn papers provide the source material for research and publication. He spoke and wrote extensively on the historical and theological aspects of actions that were being taken by his own church and by other churches as they sought to find a new unity in worship and work. He was a preacher of unusual depth and passion and prepared manuscripts for a high percentage of these discourses. Convinced that religious leaders needed to be well grounded in literature and the arts, he also lectured and wrote on these matters. Copies of several hundred sermons, lectures, and essays are now available in one place—the Disciples of Christ Historical Society—and now can be accessed by people interested in the liberal Protestantism during the second half of the twentieth century.

I hope that during the next few years a succession of scholars will make use of this unusually rich storehouse of documents by a scholar who loved his church and served it faithfully over a long and fruitful life.

The Great Migration

November 1, 2018

Responding to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2010)

The two cities where I have spent much of my life (Portland, Oregon, and Indianapolis) are alike in two respects: historically, they have been anti-slavery and highly resistant to settlement by African Americans. In parallel but distinctly different ways, both cities were strongholds for the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. One of my current research interests is to learn more about these racist social systems within which I have lived for nearly seventy years. My purpose, in part, is to do what I can to help shape a better future in cities like the two I have known.          

A chance conversation recently called my attention to a book that helps me understand race relations in the century that started around 1915, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. She writes that beginning with World War I and continuing until the early 1970s, “some six million black southerners left the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every other corner of America. The Great Migration would become a turning point in history. It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched. It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system. It grew out of the unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s” (p. 9).

Black southerners left all of the states of the old South—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—along with Kentucky, Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. They traveled to the former Union states—New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, California, Nevada, Oregon, and the District of Columbia, along with the border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri, and Washington, which was admitted to the Union after the Civil War (p. 556). Their numbers overpowered the size of earlier migrations across North America, the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, with 100,000 participants, and the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s with 300,000.

I became aware of the movement of African Americans into Portland, where I grew up, during my pre-teen years when many people, including black southerners, came to the Portland-Vancouver area to work in the shipyards during World War II. During my first three years in high school, I was aware of only one African American in my traditional college-prep school, and he, an upper classman, was one of the more popular students on campus. In 1948, the Vanport flood destroyed the homes of many people who had moved to the city during the war years and many families were relocated. As a result, approximately thirty-five African American students were transferred to my 1,200-student school. Although a tiny minority, they were a conspicuous presence because they stayed together as a group. Those of us already there, most of us white with a scattering of Asian American students, didn’t know how to respond to classmates with a different way of using our mother tongue and with different social mores. We kept to our separate ways. Read More ….Great Migration Wilkerson