06 Mar


I don’t think I have a worldview. Moses had one, Martin Luther King, Jr., had one. And Jesus had the most comprehensive one. All three views were clear, forcefully stated, and led to action. Mine is cloudy and diffuse. What I have are the influences on me from those I love and those I loathed. Influences form attitudes, attitudes become habits, habits may become virtues by which we navigate life. One powerful and mysterious influence on me is humility, modeled by others and life-changing when witnessed.

I don’t remember when I first weighed the difference between humility and humiliation. It may have been when I’d reluctantly joined a party game, reluctantly because I am not good at party games of any sort. This game involved thinking of a word that everyone else had to guess. The fun part was that you would give clues that would throw everybody off, and if you could hold them off for a certain length of time, you won. [This paragraph was omitted in error in the printed version. We apologize.]

At least I think that was the point. It was a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten almost everything but the part where I leaped to my feet in triumph and shouted that I’d won.

There was silence as everyone stared at me. Gently, a friend explained a crucial bit of information. It took a moment before I realized that, in fact, I had misunderstood the rules from the beginning. I’d been losing all along. No one had had the heart to tell me. But now it was obvious—even to me—and there was nothing to do but wither up and die.

The conversations resumed. Chips and salsa were passed around. Voices rose over laughter. The world righted itself and sailed on elliptically around the sun. I shot myself into space at an oblique angle that would place me in orbit around Pluto sometime in 2030.

I’m convinced that humility is vital to our survival. C.S. Lewis put it succinctly when he said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” That has the ring of truth, but paradoxically, the humble are more self-aware than the rest of us.

There are many in religion and the religions, who are icons of humility. This is not surprising, since some religions make humility the sine qua non of relationships, both human and divine.

Why was this, I wondered. Was the humble person a convenient patsy for those in power? Does God and the gods require the abject humiliation of humans in order to feel good about themselves? Were humble Christians limp rags, wrung out scraps with no personality, no fight, mere toadies and bootlickers?

In philosophy courses in graduate school, I’d felt the sting of Nietzsche’s scorn for the humble. I remembered my grandfather, a gentle man from Yorkshire, who had raised me. He didn’t seem to fit the bill of Nietzsche’s resentful and craven Christian. He was kind, resolute, stony-lipped when in pain, and uncomplaining. He could also stand his ground on moral matters. He was my exemplar.

I wanted to be humble. I wondered if wanting it was a form of pride. Was it something I should pray for? How would I know if I’d truly become humble?

To examine humility rightly—or perhaps righteously—is to vanish into it past the point of articulation or at least of explanation. The truly humble are those who are pointed out by others. Nobody says, “I do humble right” or even “I am humble.”  To claim it is to refute it in the claiming.

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Humility is not listed among the classic virtues. Aristotle and Plato would have regarded it with suspicion, if not distaste. In a hierarchical society of elites ruling over a vastly larger population of common people, humility is not only unnecessary, but also socially destructive. It suggests weakness, vacillation, an inability to properly assess one’s position in society.

What threatens one, threatens all. To question the inherent rightness of one’s position is to question the social order that supports and legitimizes that position. Little wonder, then, that those in powerful positions rarely show genuine humility.

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Is humility a virtue? It does not appear in most lists of virtues, either classical or contemporary. Neither is it part of the fruits of the Spirit that Christians find in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

The word itself derives from the French, humilité, which can be traced back to Classical Latin and the word humus, or earth, in the sense of soil. This is the origin of the word human, the creature whom God fashioned by hand out of the dirt, the one who is close to the earth.

I find this earthy quality deeply attractive. It grounds us (pun inevitable) in this world in a manner both direct and graceful. We are here at home, growing up out of the soil that roots us, sustains us, and to which we shall return. To walk upon this earth with grace is to recognize what we owe it—a passage that takes only what it needs, replaces what it can, and preserves the rest.

It occurs to me that humility is a form of self-knowledge, the inner eye perceiving oneself from the outside. This measuring, assessing, observing, is the work of the self in dialogue with the Spirit.

It is a sign of moral health to recognize and own up to one’s failings. It is the necessary first step toward metanoia or repentance. Paradoxically, one moves forward in spiritual experience through a reversal, a turning away from plunging over the cliff of despair. Peter found it after betraying the Lord; Judas did not.

Humility acknowledges our limitations. The best we have to offer, said Kant, pales by comparison to the requirements of the moral law. And that is the only comparison we should make, he said. To compare ourselves to others is futile and wrong: we are all equally deserving of respect. We learn humility only when we realize how far short of the moral law we fall.

Humility, then, is a clear-eyed lucidity about ourselves. Far from a weakness, it is a recognition both of our limitations and of the spectrum of our potential—frail, complex, conflicted beings as capable of the sublime as we are of monstrosities.

But Kant’s critique, though right on both counts—that we are deserving of respect, and we inevitably fall short of the law—offers no hint of mercy. And mercy, as the humble well know, is the traveling companion of humility.

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If humility begins with the recognition that we lack something essential, then it would be a general precondition to learning, an awareness sometimes arrived at only in the wake of humiliation.

It took me a while, but in time I came up with the phrase, “epistemological humility,” by which I meant, as I explained much later to my students, that there is no shame in admitting one’s ignorance. It’s only when we try to brazen it out that we get ourselves entangled. And silence, in those situations, is rarely taken for wisdom. Humility as a prerequisite to learning is not passive but open and alert.

If epistemological humility is one of the gateways to learning, where does it lead one in the realm of the spirit? In religions, notoriously, there is a lot of bowing and prostrating.

The Bible is full of references to bowing before God, some of it ritualized and public and some spontaneous and private. The word in the New Testament translated as “worship” means “to bow the knee,” as before royalty. In the context of kings and generals, sovereign power demanded reverence and awe. To bow the knee in worship was a position of vulnerability exposing oneself to blessing—or decapitation—by the king.

A ritual that is better understood is what we Adventists call “The Ordinance of Humility.” This is the ritual washing of the feet of another person, combined later with the Communion Service or Eucharist.

During Jesus’ time, visits to someone’s home would begin with the washing of the visitor’s feet by the host, a ritual that had both practical and symbolic value where most people wore sandals or were barefoot as they trudged up and down the dusty roads. Today’s ritual, where performed, is almost purely symbolic. No one would ever commit the social faux pas of showing up at church barefoot for the Ordinance of Humility.

Our usual practice when I was younger was for the men and boys to gather in one room of the church while the women and girls found another room. You would ask someone if you could wash their feet, or you’d wash the feet of your father or brother.

We were encouraged to participate with visitors or people we did not know. This resulted in a curious intimacy not usually shared with strangers. For me, the act of going down on one knee before someone else and washing their feet—especially someone I did not know well—was not a lowering of status but a breach of a rather starched etiquette. It had the benefit of breaking down barriers and giving one freedom to reach beyond the familiar and the comfortable. It got one’s attention by challenging the bland expectations of the congregant and forcing him or her to think about the relation of humility to the value of others.

In the New Testament stories, the disciple Peter resists the washing of his feet by Jesus. The reversal of roles—the teacher serving the student—horrifies Peter. But Jesus makes it clear that leadership, especially in religion, calls for humility. I am among you as one who serves, he said, with the clear implication they were to do the same.

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If there is an entrance point to a human spirituality in these politically and religiously fraught days, it is through humility. Just realizing that we don’t have to know everything, win at everything, or even pretend to anything, is liberating. It’s more than that, of course. Humility reorients our self-identity away from grasping to accepting. “Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you.” To be humans of the earth, without pretense or pride, simplifies one’s life.

Humility clarifies our limitations without crippling the reach of our imagination. And it is humility which liberates us from envy and jealousy. It is not too proud to accept the gift of hope.

Freely given service through humility renders irrelevant the perks of power, levels hierarchies, and cleanses the spirit for the upsets, the reversals, the unexpected in a life. Perhaps the Ordinance of Humility is a foretaste of that, a reminder of what could be if we are strong enough to bow the knee without fear or guile.

If I am to think my way to a sober estimate of myself, as Paul says, it calls me to regard myself without external comparison. This is me standing naked before God and the world, just as I am. The “measure of faith” that God deals to each of us is ours alone, understood by no one but ourselves. The one thing we can be sure of, if we can believe it, is that God’s estimate of us, unclouded by the past tense, is forever forming and reforming out of the deepest, dearest, image of our potential.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]

21 Dec


Discussions of the meaning of life often suffer from one of two deficiencies. Either they imagine a 360-degree vista, but only give the ticketholder a thin slice of it or they put life under such a granular view that we see the monsters living on our skin.

I can’t guarantee that one or the other won’t creep in here, but I’m going to beat a retreat to the playground in hopes that good exercise in the open air can stimulate a fresh look at the promise and paradox of growing up Adventist.

As I write, the Israeli army crouches like a hawk over the Gaza Strip after one of the most horrific mass slaughters of Jewish people since the Holocaust. Hamas, a terrorist group, has added up all the indignities and outrages Palestinians have suffered for decades and has launched a war in which there will be no winners.

As I write, my neighbor follows her two little dogs through the trees that cluster in the park within the oval of our neighborhood. It is cool in the shade and warm in the sun here in Maryland. Some of the trees are beginning to turn colors and we are now referring to the season with confidence as “autumn.”

It is difficult to imagine the suffering that festers in the world if I only look out at the tranquility of my street, but I need only flip open my iPad to the New York Times or The Washington Post to get a full array of the horrors present in our time.

The relative wealth of circumstances I enjoy, the present peace, the abundance of goods and services, the possibilities for change—all these tangibles and intangibles are things I do not take for granted. Why I grew up where I did not have to become a refugee is not something I understand, but it is something I am grateful for. And as much as I am able, it is also an imperative to ease the burdens of others.

As I write, I am reflecting on a series of minor bodily disruptions that have made me newly aware of how Descartes’ mind/body dualism is profoundly inadequate. During this moment when one friend is learning to walk again after a knee replacement and another is facing surgery for breast cancer and still another is trudging through a second swamp of chemo, my passing worries remind me that I’ve regarded my body for years as a reliable, if somewhat battered vehicle which I can jump into, knowing it will start up on cold mornings and not overheat in the dog days of summer. It is more than that.

My problems are minor, but still persuasive in the fact that we are constellations of mind-body-spirit, each of us carrying our own stamp of identity. I have Adventism’s wholistic view of human beings to thank in situations like these, to remind me that just as problems in one area of the system affect the whole, the flourishing of the whole system is as much a spiritual quest as it is a combination of luck, environment, and heredity.

On the playground at recess, some of us ran to the teeter-totters, straddling the aging oaken planks and gripping the iron handles worn smooth and dark as coffee grounds. It was best to have two partners of approximate weight and height so that the violence of the see-sawing could be balanced. We would push up from the ground with all the spring in our knees we could to make our partner bounce in their seat. Then came the swift descent, blocking the crash to the ground with our legs, and the pattern repeated. Sometimes we could achieve equilibrium, both of us suspended in air, each reliant on the other to keep the illusion of perfect balance.

This strikes me as a good analogy for the relation between the organization and the individual, especially when one employs the other. As individuals, we bring to denominational employment our energy and our commitment. We want to make a difference, to contribute to the cause. At the other end of the teeter-totter is the church or school or hospital or institution, amplifying our efforts with its weight and providing the means for us to keep going.

It’s a pleasurable relationship, almost familial, both of us facing each other, flushed with the joy of exercising our talents and commitments for something greater than either of us. But often there comes a moment—so many of us have seen it and experienced it—when the organization at the other end suddenly hops off, slamming the individual to the ground, stunned. What we thought was family is revealed as business—nothing personal—and the balance that was so fulfilling and invigorating is roughly upended.

The paradox here is that the very elements which drew us to the cause—a sense of purpose, our personal identity, the good use of our talents—are also some of the most vulnerable. To young people dedicating their talents to the church I would caution: remember your gifts are given by the Lord and returned to the Lord in good measure. Don’t think they fully define you nor are they only good for one cause. Create some daylight between you and the organization so that you can maintain some balance in your life. Realize you can be of service in many other places in the world. And, if you’re married, make sure one of you is not reliant on denominational employment.

On the playground, the merry-go-round always drew in the most children. Some of the bigger kids would stand at the circumference, pushing and yanking the wheel as hard as they could. The smaller children clung to the handrails, screaming with delight and fear. To be on that machine after lunch was to risk vertigo, nausea, and possible projectile hurling.

It’s a metaphor for life. The excitement, the spinning, the delicious strain as you lean back against the centrifugal pull. As a child you discovered the only way off was to leap. Or you could drag your feet and risk immediate censure by everyone else.

It’s so easy, even rewarding, to get caught up in that merry-go-round. In fact, it’s expected. None of us building towers using bricks without straw could think of anything else but the whirl and the force. One thing you discover in working for any organization, even the church, is its boundless expectation of your complete dedication and energies. If that is what you’ve set yourself to do and you find satisfaction in it, then it can be fulfilling. But it wears you down and the paradox is that all that energy and dedication can be spun off so easily if you’re not paying attention.

This is what Sabbath is for. Stepping off the whirly-gig for a day to regain your balance and help you see where the stillness at the center truly is. And it’s not just for the Sabbath day itself. Entering the Sabbath gives us a clear-eyed view of priorities. We labor and then we rest. It’s a rest that extends even to animals and to the land. It’s a wholistic vision of how interrelated our lives are with the seasons, the land, its animals, and plants.

There is a still point in the widening gyre. It’s not just a holy day—although it certainly is that—and it’s more than a holiday. It’s the healing balm in the week that rejuvenates us and realigns us to our purposes once again.

Of all the playground equipment, the swings were my favorite. You could pump yourself off the ground and into the air alongside a friend in the next swing. Or you could enjoy it by yourself. An adult could get a little child ticking with pushes that quickly increased the height of the swing.

Older children pumped up to the apogee so they could be upside down for an instant. Or, like a pendulum, you could swing up, down, up, down, until you finally came to a stop.

I’m thankful for all the mentors who gave me that push to get me going. I’m grateful, too, how they stepped back and allowed me to swing to the possible height of my arc. For an introvert who deeply enjoyed friendships but still needed time alone, the playground swing was an ideal metaphor of life in a community.

The paradox here is that it was a solo activity made easier when aided by a friend or mentor. Once you were pumping on your own the friend moved away to watch. Within the bounds of inertia, gravity, and other laws, you could increase your altitude and your motion. Of course, the best thing was to eject at the height of the swing, so for a moment falling with style looked like flying.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]

24 Jul


Sabbath has been a constant in my life from childhood. Everything about it in the beginning was odd until I got used to it and then it was familiar and after that it was like muscle memory—something that happened with little thought and predictable results. It wasn’t until I had some freedom to make decisions about how I would spend my Sabbaths that it became more than simply rote.

I can clearly remember the time and place in which the freedom to walk through the fields on the Sabbath like the disciples and to pluck from the world all that would give me nourishment, first occurred. I was a high-school teenager in Northern California in the summer of 1968. My grandparents had left me home alone for the weekend with the agreement that I’d go to Sabbath School and church as always.

My friend, slightly older than I, suggested we hitchhike after church from PUC, where we lived, out to the coast and back through the Napa Valley. It would be our missionary journey: we would witness about Jesus to anyone who picked us up. I remember the shock of realizing it was my decision to make, the thrill of the unknown, the anticipation of the open road, and the adventures that awaited us. So, we said a quick prayer and set out. We agreed that we’d welcome rides from hippies in VW vans but refuse rides from creeps in Cadillacs and Buicks.

It being the Sixties and the Summer of Love, there was an abundance of VW vans with cheerful young people only a couple of years older than us. They would stop, we would hop in, and the conversations about God, drugs, rock ’n roll, and politics would begin. It was exhilarating being far from home, traveling on tickets punched by the Holy Spirit.


I would like to be authentic.

To be authentic is to be true to oneself, to one’s essence. It is to discover the original version of yourself, since authentikos is Greek for “original.”

Albert Camus, French existentialist, resistance fighter against the Nazis, and Nobel Prize winning author, gave me one example of authenticity. For him, it meant taking responsibility for one’s actions in an absurd universe. We freely choose our actions, and we take responsibility for the consequences. In the absence of God, we make ourselves. We breathe in freedom, and we exhale authenticity.

As I understand it, I must aim to be authentic. However, unlike Camus, I know I can’t achieve it by myself, nor can I readily recognize it in myself. My actions toward others are a measure of my responsibility: authenticity is the echo coming back to me from my relationships.

Unless we are completely self-consumed, we seek the acknowledgement of others. We want to move through life with confidence that we can affect others positively, that in some real sense we belong here. We know we are not self-sufficient; we are not islands unto ourselves. Neither are we pure versions of ourselves. We are, to some extent, the partial product of anyone who has influenced us.

I grew up with the Sabbath, its rhythms and restrictions so deeply embedded in my conscience that my body obediently followed. Sabbath, for many of us growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, was not a celebration. It was a day in which adults did whatever it took to guarantee we didn’t do our own pleasure on the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath was the fourth commandment, the hinge of history, upon which the very reason for the Seventh-day Adventist Church turned. An authentic Adventist observed the Sabbath dutifully, if a little grimly. According to the lore, all those saved who were not Adventists would keep their first Sabbath on the trip to heaven, a baptism through ritual observance.

Authenticity is one of those states of being that needs its opposite. We’re always measuring it against the inauthentic. We begin with what we think is authentic and the corruption of that is inauthentic. In a practical sense, one does not exist without the other. This means we carry around two standards in our heads, one constantly rubbing against the other. Behind the authentic is something difficult to define but recognizable when experienced. To see it, really see it, is to know it. It’s no Olympic torch, it’s more like a flickering flame seen best in the darkness.

The Sabbath and the Second Advent are the connective tissue that joins this global Adventist body together. We are beings who both influence and are influenced, and the crossover between these two complicates and deepens our understanding of who we are and where we fit in our communities.


The sulfur lights in the railway yard burned with a yellow intensity, but the fog softened and dispersed their gleams like smoke. We picked our way over the train tracks toward buildings that fronted a street. My three friends and I had crossed the English Channel on the ferry that December night to disembark at Calais.

It was close to midnight, and we had no place to stay until morning, but a guy we met claimed to have a key to the rail cars. We could sleep in one of them and be out before morning. It was briefly tempting: it was freezing and damp and we were tired. But we said no, partly on the theory that anyone who would break into rail cars isn’t to be trusted, and partly because it just seemed wrong to start our European adventure with a minor crime.

Besides, it was Friday night, the beginning of Sabbath, the 13th Sabbath of the church quarter. Back in the States, our friends on their Adventist campuses would be celebrating with agape feasts. So, we found the one shop still open and bought baguettes and Fanta—an orange soda—and the four of us sat in the stairwell of an apartment building and had our own Communion service.


I praise the Adventist pioneers who first came up with the name “Seventh-day Adventist.” It’s a stroke of genius, a three-word title and description that tells you everything essential about this church whose purpose, however imperfectly, is to live toward the kingdom of God-in-Jesus.

I distinguish “essential” from “fundamental.” I am perplexed how 28 beliefs, most of which we share with other Protestant denominations, can still be characterized as “fundamental.” That’s a lot of fundamentals. I would rather try to live with “essentials,” and the Sabbath and the Second Advent fit that bill perfectly.

They are like magnets whose force fields keep the poles apart. Flip them around and they snap together. We live within the tension between the two, a tension that provides a robust philosophy of life.

The Sabbath roots us to this Earth. It calls us to care for the created order as God’s gift to humanity. The Sabbath is a powerful symbol of liberation from materialism, from slavery to false gods and authorities, and as resistance to the power of evil in this world. It is a time of rest, an analgesic for the soul.

The Second Advent builds on the hope embedded in the Sabbath and assures us that, while all our efforts toward peace and justice are necessary, they are penultimate to God’s ultimate action of cosmic and earthly liberation.

This Earth is our home; being with God is our destiny. The Sabbath is our portable cathedral, as much a place of worship in a stairwell in Calais as it is a feast of connection with others on the roads through Sonoma to Bodega Bay to the Napa Valley. No matter where we are, if we are in the Sabbath, we are home.

I am simplifying my life. For many years now, when asked, I reply that Sabbath and the Second Advent are the shoes I walk in as I try to follow Jesus. The other 26 Fundamentals are givens as far as I’m concerned. What I live with daily are these two essentials, as authentic as you can get for a follower of Jesus of the Adventist variety.

If you feel for any reason pushed out of this church, ask yourself what real-time and eternal consequences it would have in your life. You will still carry the Sabbath with you; it can be your sanctuary. As long as there is time, the Sabbath will be your dwelling place, the tent in which God-in-Jesus is truly God-with-us.

And the Advent of Jesus still to come is the hope that is within us. Not tied to our own achievement or merit, not even unfolding according to a rigid algorithm of biblical calculation, but coming when it is the kairos, the right time. We may live to see it or we may not. It doesn’t matter. We are here now, and the kingdom is within us. This is the grace that blossoms from the essentials.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]

24 Apr


The editor of this magazine sets the bar high for his writers. Every quarter, the dance he’s arranged comes dressed in its most beguiling colors. We writers have only to step onto the floor and take the hand of the lovely dance partner. The invitation is (almost) irresistible, but for me, to whom “graceful” is a distant adjective, this is a real challenge.

The topic, as I understood it, was how the Adventist church might engage the society and culture around it. And, thus, I tripped before even stepping foot on the dance floor.

It’s the “church” bit that throws me. A friend of mine, a former Union president and a keen analyst of the church’s political moves, has convinced me that the greatest contribution the Seventh-day Adventist Church has made to the world is its global network of hospitals. It is there, where people are the most vulnerable, that the institutional message of caring service shines the brightest.

No dispute there. I thought to add the educational system from kindergarten to advanced degrees, but that has an indirect effect on the world because it is, for the most part, a closed system built primarily for members. That’s not to say that Adventists don’t value education. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Adventists have the highest proportion of college-educated members of any Christian denomination. We have “studied to show ourselves approved” by God and humans.

No, what doesn’t work is the notion that the official church body, the public-facing institution of Adventism, has a relative influence on the billions of people in the world. When the pope issues an encyclical or makes a comment about some current issue, it’s newsworthy. When the president of the Southern Baptist Convention speaks out against the ordination of women or the president of Liberty University hosts Donald Trump, it’s newsworthy.

When Adventists make the news it’s often for the wrong reasons: our links to the tragic debacle at Waco, Texas, or a local minister embezzling funds, or a teacher at an Adventist boarding school brought up on sexual assault charges. Granted, the “news” is often bent toward the salacious and the gratuitous, rather than the uplifting or even the commonplace, but my point is that pronouncements from official Adventism have little effect on the world.

I have noticed, over the years, that we Adventists seem to suffer from an inferiority complex. We admire celebrities, especially those who might have some link to Adventism. When I was in college at an agape feast or an informal Bible study, someone would comment that Billy Graham had read all of Ellen G. White’s books. “He’s just waiting for the right moment to come out,” they would assert confidently. The implication was that Graham’s public recognition of the Spirit of Prophecy and his subsequent joining the church would elevate Adventism and bring it into the mainstream of American religious life.

I had known that Little Richard attended Oakwood College during a period of his life when he had withdrawn from rock ‘n roll. Until his death in 2016, I did not know that Prince had been raised with Seventh-day Adventist roots. Adventist Today reported the connection in April 2016, and noted Prince was the kind of person who might embarrass the denomination but conjectured that his creative genius may have sprung in part from his Adventist faith and could have positively affected millions of young fans.

My reaction on reading this was probably typical. I was first surprised, then gratified (he was one of ours!), followed by relief that an Adventist publication thought it possible God could be at work in the life of a superstar rock musician. Then I was amused about my own reaction, sensing an electric thrill that someone famous was part of my religious tribe.

Where did that come from, I wondered. Did I really need that validation, such as it was, to be comfortable in my Adventist skin? Did it mean we Adventists weren’t as weird as we are sometimes portrayed? Or did the association, however tenuous, somehow make me cool?

It occurred to me that in living a life of meaning, subject to both reason and imagination, no question about our relation to others and to God is trivial. If I count myself as part of the Adventist Church, do I have an obligation to answer for how the official church body faces the world? Just as I, as a member of a society, cannot avoid my role in the polis and thus my attitude toward politics, do I have a responsibility toward my denomination to support its stance on public issues or to defend its avoidance of them?

The way in which I thought of these questions as a teenager in my newly awakened faith in Christ was different than how I think about them now, over fifty years later. In that first flush of excitement about my faith in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I saw the church as a slow beast which could be prodded into action, a stubborn donkey which might respond to either a carrot or a stick. I thought of myself as both: generally, a persuader holding a carrot, now and then a youthful agitator wielding the stick of righteous action. A favorite text in those days was from 2nd Timothy where the Living New Testament says, “Do not let anyone look down upon you because of your youth.”

What I could not admit in those days (and did not want to believe) was that the Church, like most institutions, was as much about self-preservation as it was about mission. Change would threaten both, but only the threat to mission would be acknowledged. Self-preservation was embedded so deeply in the structure of the church that it was part of the “peace that passeth understanding.”

Now I see those individuals in church administration, whom I regarded as obstinate donkeys as men (occasionally women) who had played the game long enough to become highly skilled at keeping their positions while in service to the ongoing mission of the church, which was to survive to the end.

I cannot unfairly judge them because, like them, I cannot see the big picture. More to the point, my voluntary association with the church calls me to be on the boundary between “the church and the world.” As an individual, I can engage with the world in ways that an institution cannot. And I would argue that the institution needs individuals who can give a reason for the hope that is within them.

In college, I held the view that the Adventist Church would play a critical role in last-day events, perhaps as the hinge of history, but surely as a doorway to salvation. I still believe in the doorway, but not the hinge of history. There are many ways Christ draws people to himself; the Church, no doubt, is one of them. But it is not the first way, nor will it be the last.

I no longer have an expectation that the Adventist Church will be publicly forthright on pressing political and social issues. It simply doesn’t have the moral authority or the deftness to navigate those troubled waters. But the many individuals guided by the Spirit within the church—that’s where spiritual life can be awakened in the lives of others. I find Jesus’s warning against an ostentatious witness to be compelling.

I was a teacher for many years, both within the church and in secular universities. It was a rewarding vocation, a privileged calling, in which I did what I loved every day and got paid for it.

Now I am retired and have returned to my first love—the arts, specifically, poetry. Now I have time to study it and the pleasure of reading and writing it. I am finding my voice, haltingly, as someone immersed in humanity made in the image of God, with all its blemishes and glories. The challenge of touching others through the poetry of faith is exhilarating.

Everyone reading this has something they do which they love. Anything that is good and true and beautiful can permeate one’s life in such a way as to create openings for the Spirit to live and move and have its being in us.

The metaphors of discipleship which Jesus gave us are many and varied. The ones most moving to me are salt, light, and a little yeast. They create an image of the fellowship of Jesus affecting the world quietly, pervasively, without fanfare, until the day that Christ becomes all in all.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]

31 Jan


I was sitting in a doctor’s office one afternoon in 1978, flipping through Sports Illustrated. One article caught my eye. Sebastian Coe, a British middle-distance runner, was quoted by his interviewer as going out for a leisurely “four-minute mile.”

I sat upright. Something in that image grabbed me. The idea that a world-class runner could hit such a pace on his day off made me think maybe I could find my own leisurely pace. I was a full-time grad student, getting my exercise by riding my bike to classes. I’d run track in high school, won some races, and even set a school record in the 440. But it had been years since I’d run and I wanted to stretch myself.

So, I began. That year I ran my first 10K on a beautiful morning in Long Beach, California, breathing my mantra, “I won’t win, but I’ll always finish.”

In the years that followed, running became a regular part of my life. After teaching my classes, I’d slip out for an easy mile or two. On weekends, I’d go to a local track for wind sprints or run through the county parks nearby. During the summer and early autumn, I’d run six or seven 10K’s. It was a good way to relax, get some exercise, and fantasize about becoming Sebastian Coe. 

And then I got injured—badly enough that I couldn’t run. For a few days, even walking was painful. I’d strained my back carrying weights in each hand, trying to increase my muscle tone and endurance. That was the end of my racing career and eventually the end of running for me.

The weeks that followed my injury introduced me to addictive withdrawal. Because I couldn’t run without further injury, I had to stop cold turkey. Nothing felt right. My daily rhythm was off, I felt sluggish and irritable and my Puritan sense of duty was thwarted. How could something that made me feel so good—even the pain was good—be bad? After all, it was a good addiction.

I was planning to begin this essay by claiming I don’t have any addictions. Then I read Gerald May’s Addiction and Grace and understood how deeply entrenched in addictive behavior I am. 

May was a psychiatrist who devoted himself to the spiritual and psychological treatment of people with addictive behaviors. He describes addiction as “any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human destiny.” 

That got my attention because I rely on habits. At their best, habits are efficient ways to accomplish tasks without the drag of decision-making. At their worst, they are the precursors to addictive behaviors.

Addictions arise out of desires, says May, and when we desire and love, we are vulnerable to suffering. As anyone knows who has experienced unrequited love—or even the garden variety love between two people—love hurts. When it hurts, we repress the passion that fuels our desires (from passio, Latin for “to suffer”). Even our love for God, disguised though it might be, hurts us when God does not always cause us to lie down in green pastures, but appears as a wildfire or mysterious swirling darkness. 

We repress the desires that hurt us, says May, but addictions attach desires. Addictive attachments channel us away from freedom and nail us to addictive behaviors, creating the most powerful enemy of our desire for God.

My desire for God grew during high school. My generation was part of the first fruits of righteousness by faith in the 60s after the famine of legalism and perfectionism. There was a lot of resistance to this by leaders who feared that letting up the pressure to perfectly reflect the character of God would result in anarchy. But it was a liberation and, for many of us, it was the beginning of a spiritual life deeper than religious observance.

We’re all addicts—psychologically, neurologically, and spiritually. We seem predisposed to addiction by the physiological construction of our brains: neurons that communicate through connections called synapses, and synapses that are bound into vast networks that mediate our thoughts and feelings, our sensations and memories, and our actions. Habits create a tolerance that must be upped to maintain balance. The complexity of the brain and its trillions of synaptic connections guarantee that, for all our probing of this mysterious mass, we will never fully understand our motivations and hopes.

When we realize that our addictions are controlling our lives, we tend to choose one of several options. We might deny our addiction, claiming that we’ve chosen these behaviors of our own free will. Or we tell ourselves we can handle it; we can quit anytime. Or we can admit our defeat and trust in God to break our patterns. 

That’s what I thought I was doing when I opened the door to Jesus while giving a talk at a Week of Prayer in high school. I’d been a good kid, a spiritual leader of sorts, but my attitude was merely dutiful. After conversion, I wasn’t demonstrably giddy, but I did experience joy disguised as relief. 

Gerald May notes that we make only three responses to God’s fierce, but loving call. First, we may deny or repress our desire for God. That sometimes works, but just as often Jesus’ call nudges us as Peter painfully discovered. Second, we create an image of our spiritual identity, a new persona to preserve in place of God. Or third, we choose the contemplative way, to be as open to God and reality as we are able. 

My addiction was transactional: I would obey and God would reward me. That hadn’t worked at all. I couldn’t perfectly obey and when I tried, it was for all the wrong reasons. God wants a cheerful lover and I was the petulant and surly sort. After conversion, I fell into a different addiction: the certainty that I was on the winning side and was now a fully-certified evangelist, commissioned to right wrongs and harass people into the truth.

Now, at seventy, I face a new addiction: to distance myself from Christianity and those who have embraced “God, guns, and Trump.” Yet, as Brian McLaren points out in Do I Stay Christian? distancing myself from the fatal weaknesses of Christianity allows me to proclaim my own innocence and to live swollen with spiritual pride.

I am far less certain of almost everything about God except that “nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Trusting in that allows me to admit my distrust and to discover my true self, created in God’s image.

I’ll never be completely free of spiritual addictions, for I am created to long for God, a longing that leads me into temptation as much as it opens me to God’s unfathomable grace. To transcend any idol of addiction is to experience the feast that creates a hunger for the filling of God’s love. Perhaps then we will have an answer, as Jesus asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at: [email protected]

21 Oct


One of my favorite books from graduate school wasn’t even required. I found it by following a footnote to an appendix and a book review, and thence to the full citation and to the card catalog at my graduate school library, and finally to the shelf. This was years before the Internet and the process of tracking down information could be tedious at times, but if you were simply following a whim, the search itself could be a treasure hunt.

The book was Models of the Church, by Avery Dulles, S.J., a survey of historical metaphors for the church and how they have shaped the Church and its practices.

I found it fascinating because it gave me a visually stimulating index card that I could carry in memory. The models functioned as bins that I could toss ideas into, empty out occasionally or transfer questions, skepticisms, and enthusiasms back and forth between them.

Avery Dulles–who became a cardinal between the first and second editions of the book–suggests there are two types of models. Explanatory models synthesize what is known and believed; exploratory models open our thinking to new possibilities. He gives us five historical models that have described and shaped the Church through history: Institution, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, and Servant, and adds his own–Community of Disciples.

Dulles proved to be eclectic in his tastes and ecumenical in his reach. He provided the models to all Christians, not just Catholics, in the hope that they would prompt discussion and practical use by academics, pastors, and laypeople.

Early in life I discovered I could remember ideas and concepts easier if I could put an image to them. I also found that I had an odd propensity (or was it a compulsion?) to associate an image or a person with a recurring and routine activity that I did every day at the same time. Sometimes there was no conscious link that I could see between the persons and the activity, they just popped up on my mental screen.

This still happens to me. When I shave, I hear myself answering the question of my seven-year-old son as to why I lather up. I lean over to turn on the shower tap and an image of a friend from high school comes into view. I water the plants in the garden and hear my grandfather’s tips on watering. I’m on my hands and knees, clearing away volunteers between the established plants and I hear a woman I worked for as a teenager proclaiming, “A plant out of place is a weed.”

I’m a creature of habit, believing that certain tasks can be trained into muscle memory and into the humming little centers of automation in my brain, thus freeing up the vast open spaces there for more imaginative, more interesting things. Now and then, this gets me into trouble when habits become ruts and ruts cause the little mining cars of blind knowledge to overrun some needed action because the operator is asleep at the switch.

One of my earliest models of the Adventist church was abstract until I gave it an image. My grandparents, stalwart Adventists who had both converted as young adults–my grandfather from the Church of England and my grandmother from generic Protestantism on Vancouver Island–often spoke of Adventism as being “the Truth.” This made little sense to me at the time, but it had the advantage of stickiness. Later, I thought of the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as the image most appropriate for this abstraction: self-contained, enigmatic, unbreakable, and conducive to violence in the wrong hands.

Another common phrase was “the [Adventist] Church will go through to the end,” conjuring images of enormous snowplows or battering rams or a ship steady on course carrying hundreds through a gale at sea.

My experience of model-making is not unique. We humans are meaning-makers and metaphor-eaters. We leap from one image to another in conversation as from one ice floe to the next. To change the metaphor slightly, some images are so easily grasped and understood that they become solid bridges over which thousands travel daily. They make communication easier. As symbols they can be molded, shaped, and compressed to contain multiple meanings that can be triggered by the mere mention of the word in the right context.

Clinging to one model to the exclusion of the others leads to distortion, says Dulles, but he notes that when a particular model seems to answer several problems and promises to clarify yet unknown difficulties, it becomes a paradigm, capable of containing whole systems of thought, processes, and actions.

I see the Institutional model as dominant among many administrators in the Adventist Church. It presents a hierarchical structure with the members passively receiving the authoritative decisions of “the ruling class.” To a lesser extent, the church as Herald is also current. This model emphasizes mission and proclamation over against Mystical Communion and the church as Sacrament. The power here resides in the word preached and taught.

Models arise in context, however, and contexts can differ. Friction between them comes from holding historical models that cannot meet current needs or that conflict with other models. The Servant model, one that many progressives in the church seem to hold, sits uneasily with the Institutional and Herald models. It takes a dialogical position with the world, it calls for modeling the church after Jesus’ teachings, and emphasizes justice and mercy over proclamation and mission.

Dulles offers the Discipleship model as the church community set apart from the world and yet deeply in tune with its needs. It incorporates the best of the previous five models and tries to avoid the worst. Disciples are servants who work within a structure that is both a mystical communion and a sacrament. Proclaiming is but one part of its work in the world.

I offer another model complementary to discipleship. It is a via negativa, revealing something important by what it is not. It is not hierarchical nor authoritarian. It emphasizes change, transition, adaptation, and naturalism.

My model of the church is an ice cube on a hot sidewalk. As it melts it slides smoothly along until the bulk of the ice is transformed into liquid. Eventually, the liquid evaporates, completing the cycle from solid to liquid to gas.

I intend by this model that the calcified institutional form of the church should transmute into a flowing community of local churches and their members, and then in due time, be absorbed into the life of the Spirit in the full transfiguration of all things. Innovation begins at the root.

In tandem with the discipleship community, the ice-cube model suggests the church as a hierarchical institution will, of necessity, give way to local churches in fellowship with each other to provide the water of life to their own contextual communities. And when the final day comes, the community of disciples will be drawn up by the Spirit, together with all those whom God has called from every nation, religion, tongue, and people. “And thus, we shall be together with the Lord.”

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at [email protected]

01 Jun


Many of us came of age in a generation taught that the requirements for faithful discipleship with Jesus were daily Bible study, prayer, and witnessing. The first two could be done in private, the last required a foray into the public square.

Personal witnessing was the natural outflow of filling the well of one’s spirit with regular prayer and Bible study. It was also a necessary part of mission outreach. When Adventists gathered in a city for a youth conference, a noted speaker would come to inspire the youth, workshops would be held on techniques of witnessing, and the armies of youth, rightly trained, would take to the streets to apply what they had learned. They would sweep through the malls and parks, often in matching T-shirts, to hand out literature to startled shoppers and pedestrians.

It was urgent to get the information into the hands of the public. The belief in the power of the message to persuade was implicit. Our job was simply to spread the literature “like the leaves of autumn” and trust that the Holy Spirit would take it from there. But we were also taught that if we had the opportunity to witness to someone and didn’t take it, the responsibility for their soul would be on us in the Judgment. The sight of people stuffing the literature into the nearest trash bin was not cause for an adjustment of techniques. It simply meant that they had hardened their hearts against the entreaties of the Spirit.

As a summer youth pastor in California in the ‘70s, I received training in evangelistic outreach methods. These were usually modeled after Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ tactics. Conference youth ministry leaders were constantly refining their methods and creating handouts, brochures, pins, and other materials that could be used in witnessing efforts. I tried my best, gamely going where I had not gone before. But my heart was not in it.

I wasn’t sure why I was so reluctant to witness. After all, I was a religion and journalism double major. I had been involved in religious activities in high school and my year at Newbold College in England working in the Gate, a Christian music and conversation center, had enlivened and confirmed my love for Christ.

My my junior year in college, I knew that being a pastor was not my calling. I hoped to parlay my fascination with religion and its meaning into an academic career, and that my love of writing could somehow be of use in drawing people to Jesus.

In the classroom I found my vocation, my calling. In teaching religion, communications, ethics, and philosophy courses, I was able to speak freely of the spiritual life and, when asked, “give answer to the hope that was within me.” With my students, I got involved with feeding the homeless in Washington, DC, working alongside local activists. Our campus organization also supported students working for Big Brother/Big Sister programs and we often spoke at local churches and academies in the Columbia Union Conference. I found this a solace for my soul because it was personal, direct, and authentic.

I taught a college course on “Persuasion and Propaganda” for many years. It helped me understand why I am crosswise with most public evangelism methods. First, I recognized how powerful crowds can be in swaying individuals to give up their will. The methods that many evangelists use is on the spectrum from persuasion to propaganda, with some tools differing only in degree from coercion. A skilled evangelist can produce ends, no matter the means used.

Second, I was not convinced that television was an effective means of evangelism. I agreed with Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “The medium is the message.” That is, if television is primarily an entertainment medium, then no matter what goes into it, entertainment will come out of it. The medium itself changes the message. Granting that television can draw millions of people world-wide to the same event and unite them momentarily in sympathy or excitement, it does not allow for the natural intimacy when people honestly share face to face about the Spirit’s movement in their hearts.

I am moved by dramas I see on television. When the writing is superb, the actors fully invested in their characters, the direction, cinematography, lighting, and music are inspired, the experience can bring tears of appreciation to my eyes. Likewise, the concerts I’ve attended in which the musicians are not only consummate artists, but they create a communion for thousands of people—those moments are spiritual ones for me. But I am a spectator, deeply involved, but still a person watching, listening, appreciating—at a distance.

I have realized that Jesus calls us to use the talents we have in the ways that are true to who we are. Like many teachers, I am an introvert. I could walk into a classroom with joy, engage every student as I was able, sparkle, be effervescent, draw them into rich discussions, and then gratefully return to my office where I could study, research, and write. Teaching provided opportunities to be a listener in a natural movement of empathy. When appropriate, I prayed with students and, when asked, gave advice—although the longer I was a teacher, the more reluctant I was to tell students what they should do. That too, was witnessing.

I began this essay recalling how prayer, Bible study, and witnessing were set before us young butterflies while yet in our cocoons. I still believe in and practice the first two, realizing that “practice” is the operative word for my stumbling efforts. But my understanding of evangelism and witnessing has necessarily evolved over the years.

In the past two years, and more, of the pandemic, my social ties were loosened in person and strengthened online. I have only been to church once in more than 120 Sabbaths, and that was for the memorial service of a beloved church member who died of COVID. I write poetry and post it online. I Zoom with a friend in England once a week. I keep up a sporadic correspondence with friends around the world. My family and my online Sabbath School class are my confidants. All this witnesses to the lifelines God throws to me daily.

I leave the science and art of persuasion to others. I reach out to read, understand, and experience the ways and means that people up and down the centuries have used to come into the presence of the holy. When I walk every morning before dawn, I witness the beautiful complexity of life in the forest. I breathe in, I breathe out. What I take in gives me a reason to give back to people as I can. What I learn teaches me what I can pass along.

We witness to and we witness for. We are witnesses to the ways God’s presence shimmers in and out of our lives. We are witnesses to God’s absence also. We are witnesses for Jesus when the Spirit calls us, giving us the words to say that will bring healing and hope to others and to ourselves.

Barry Casey has published in Adventist Society for the Arts, Brevity, Faculty Focus, Lighthouse Weekly, Mountain Views, Patheos, Spectrum Magazine, The Dewdrop, and The Purpled Nail. His collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, was published by Wipf and Stock in November 2019. He writes from Burtonsville, Maryland. Email him at [email protected]

28 Mar


By Barry Casey … One of the things that enlivens any gathering of Adventists is the flow of stories about their upbringing. There will be stories about polishing shoes for Sabbath on Friday afternoons or cleaning the house or what could or couldn’t be done on Sabbath afternoon. Some will raise memories of Sabbath School, others of falling asleep to the bedtime stories of Uncle Arthur and of the change from the Youth’s Instructor to Insight.

These are origin stories, something like a personal Genesis of Adventism. We would be incomplete without them, both as individuals and as a community. Were we to do this ritual in any country in the world with fellow Adventists, we would hear continuity and disjunction, common themes as well as all the particularities of place and time, gender, ethnicity, and language? As has been pointed out many times, Adventists are wonderfully diverse.

Diversity within Adventism brings its own tensions: witness the painful struggle to come to terms with our sons and daughters in the LGBTQ+ community. Progress toward equality for women arrives in fits and starts, especially concerning women in leadership, including pastorships and the ordination that should accompany it. Racial inequality continues to shake our foundations, challenging the assumptions of the North American church.

It’s the assumptions that undermine us. Most of the time they are hidden, like foundation stones, and as long as the house stands upright, everything at right angles, they rest unchallenged. But when the house begins to sink and tilt, we dig down around the foundations and hope that it’s not too late for major repairs.

As they relate to diversity of thought within the church, there are two assumptions I have had to examine for myself.

The first is the construct that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is playing a unique and decisive role in history, that it will stand forth as the hinge upon which the whole universe will turn.

This was so much a part of my religious education that I saw no reason to question it until I began to read and study other world faiths and traditions. Then it became clearer that in order to maintain this unique position, it was necessary to believe that other religious traditions were either victims or perpetrators of deception. Our unique role was to save the victims from their deception and refute the deceivers.

The questions I had were about the certainty of our interpretation of the Bible and of prophecy, and whether the Holy Spirit was exclusive to our domain. In time I came to see that our truth claims could be understood from different perspectives, not all of them asserting that we had sole rights to The Truth.

It seemed likely that the emphases on the beauty and creativity of the Sabbath, the assurance of the Second Advent, and the importance of caring for the body, mind, and spirit, were recollections of resistance to a materialistic and despairing world. They offered practical ways to live from a stance of hopefulness. Our remembering and living out of this resistance were our contribution to humanity. These modest truths were among the many ways the Spirit had lifted up truth in the history of Christianity.

These truths that we hold in humility and exercise in grace do not—and should not—keep us from enjoying and benefiting from the rich traditions of other Christian traditions and other faiths. Every religion has something of value to share with us among a long history of practice. We can work alongside them, enjoy their worship, and be in fellowship with them. We may learn through comparison and contrast: the similarities will strengthen us; the differences will cause us to test our own assumptions.

The second assumption I continue to examine is related to the previous one. If the first singled us out from all of humanity, the second assumption, exclusivity, is the result of the first. It’s not something entirely within our control. Paul calls us to live sober lives, to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. Yet, Jesus calls us to be light and salt and yeast in the world, to immerse ourselves in our communities and to be present to others. We are fallible humans attempting to be faithful disciples.

This is one of those fruitful tensions in the Christian life—how to be in the world and not of the world. I think it begins with humility and is sustained through grace. Before we are Christians, we are humans: fallen beings of glorious potential. We are part of the human race, subject to all its failings, horrors, despair, and fallibility. Humility is the proper response to these limitations; grace is the means to live with them.

This does away with triumphalism and the arrogance of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” It calls us to avoid the prosperity gospel in all its forms and its opposite, a martyr complex that results in paranoia. We are here on this earth, and we have been called to God’s kingdom. We live in that tension.

This tension speaks of the most basic and most pernicious assumption, the one we rarely confront: that diversity as a fact within Adventism is an obstacle and a hindrance to uniformity. But that is a discussion for another time.

Practically speaking, living within that tension blurs the line between the so-called “sacred” and “secular.” As Jesus said to the Samaritan women, we will worship neither in Jerusalem nor in Samaria, but in the Spirit—a portable worship within the world. Like Jesus, we do this in order to speak and to listen to those who are unlike ourselves. This is hard. This is something I shrink from, even as I am curious and hungering to know how others think and act. But these metaphors of salt, light, and yeast are the very templates of life in Jesus’ kingdom.

The experiences we live are the currency of human communication. The experiences of others—written, spoken, lived out, viewed—are our textbooks for life. But I should amend that: to call them “textbooks” connotes a fixed curriculum, a grade, and a final result. They are more likely points of contact between people and imply a presence that lingers, overcoming distance, time, and prejudice. It is through this presence, a voice and a spirit, that we grasp by analogy what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth.

If our experiences of God in Christ mean anything, they will come to us as we are immersed in our lives of doing laundry, sitting in traffic, and trying to understand and be understood by others. God is God overall. This continual act of translation between the inward work of the Spirit and our outward life with others invites suppleness and receptivity rather than isolation and exclusiveness.

The most authentic response to the Spirit I can make every day is to recognize the risen Christ in the midst of the buzzing, blooming confusion of life. The work of the Spirit is to lead me into truth, not once for all, but continually, day by day, for life.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

10 Jan


By Barry Casey — These are perplexing times. You and I might be perplexed about different things, but I’m fairly sure that both of us— at least some of the time—are lost in the maze. On the other hand, should you find yourself absolutely certain about any number of things such as reality, the existence and the nature of God, the mystery of evil, and the resurrection of Christ, your spiritual life might appear to be blissfully tranquil. But a word of caution: Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” still reverberates like a gong struck in the night.

We are living in a time of alternative facts, an oxymoron which has achieved a certain likeness to truth, mostly because many people have accepted it at face value. This means that people have assigned value to facts, some having more value than others and some having no value at all because the facts clash with their personal worldview.

This is the tail wagging the dog or the effect producing the cause or any other analogy that puts the cart before the horse. When we try to apply the facts, we are simply trying to arrive at an accurate description of a set of affairs. The accuracy is based on certain natural laws or the logic of syllogisms or on distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless or good from evil.

When we try to determine what is true about the Jesus story, we find ourselves in puzzles from the start. Are the Gospels subject to the methods of verification we are used to in historical accounts? Are they biographies? Or are they the subjective narratives of four individuals who differ, sometimes widely, on the details of Jesus’ life?

Most readers of this essay will have some notions about taking the context of a text into account when reading and studying it. That would be the minimum benefit of an historical and critical approach to the Bible. Biblical scholarship about language, about textual and literary typologies, about sociological, archeological, and ultimately, theological ways to read the Bible have added immensely to our knowledge of Scripture. They help us to realize that our context, the way we read the Scriptures, is part of the long history of Scripture study in the life of the Church.

Recently, I was talking with a friend about where we situate the Bible in our lives and what affects us as we read it. We thought of the visual metaphor of transparent domes within which we ‘live and move and have our being.’ These domes intersect and overlap one another, so that we are able to distinguish one from another while still moving freely within all of them. For us, they are sociology, psychology, physics, neuroscience, art, literature, music, religion, ethics, philosophy, and theology. They all contain valuable resources for life and each of them is part of our search for meaning. Every one of them has an opening to the sky as a means of continuous refreshing of knowledge and understanding.

Our description might be the shared experience of many Christians today, as we understand every facet of life to be open to the search for truth. But we also agreed that the most important dome was at the center of this complex, that it tied all of them together, and that its opening to the sky was both the widest and the freshest. It is the dome of our experience with God through Jesus as channeled by the Spirit.

To bend this metaphor (perhaps to the breaking point), let us say that we are beings whose life force relies on exposure to light and, while every dome is open to the sky, the best place to be for the light is under the dome of the God experience. We are free to wander between all the domes, but we wish to be closest to the experience of God in our lives.

Like all metaphors, this one falls apart when pushed too far. But it expresses right now how I understand the interplay between God-in-Christ and myself with regard to “truth.” For me, truth is that which both fully represents what it means to be a human being and that which opens us to the transcendent—that which goes beyond the human. This includes both Job’s experience and 1 Corinthians 13; the grim reality of the Holocaust and the sublimity of Rilke’s poetry, Bach’s sacred cantatas, and Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.

I will venture to say there is nothing under the sun that is not in some way revelatory of ‘the light that lightens everyone who comes into the world.’ But as anyone knows who has read the Gospels, this is the paradoxical way of life. Jesus’ yoke is easy, but the way is hard. He himself is the Truth, but he is often hidden. The Truth will set us free, but we must see it first—and we’re all naked and blind and lame.

Most of all, this takes humility. Thomas Merton said, “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul.” Humility should also remind us that when we come up against the limits of reason in trying to understand the mysteries of God and God’s action in this world, we can at least admit that we have understood only a cupful of the showers of truth we receive from God.

There’s a certain liberation in realizing that faith acts in order to understand. That in entering the maze of life with the Spirit of Jesus, we are entering into the life of Christ here and now. In fact, we are entering a new reality. As The Unvarnished Gospel puts it from the Gospel of John: “But whoever accepts his testimony has signed his name to the reality of God.”

— Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]

29 Sep


By Barry Casey — I think I have always been fascinated by imagination. When I was a teenager, it seemed to be the element that separated the true artists, musicians, poets, and writers from the rest of us. It was a quality that transcended mere talent and hard work. It was mysterious.

When I listened to the singer/songwriters of my time, like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell, they all seemed to have imagination in abundance. So did the Beatles, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. All of them produced music and lyrics that looked afresh at the universals of love, loss, tragedy, beauty, and the spirit.

I studied them, pulled apart their lyrics and musical structure, looking for keys to their brilliance. What they did seemed effortless, an economy of words and composition that didn’t waste a note or a syllable.

I noticed the same in some of my favorite writers, beginning with Hemingway, a master at creating a scene with as few words as possible. In different ways than Hemingway, but no less imaginative, were Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, John Gardner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, and James Lee Burke.

All of them, writers, and musicians, drew on an inner power that expressed a more spacious vision than I found within myself. I wondered if you had to have lived a respectable number of years to write in that way. But many of these icons were doing some of their best work in their twenties and thirties. Maybe you had to travel the world on a merchant freighter, be a short-order cook, do time in a county jail, start a business, and fail at it, get married and divorced, or give up a law practice to write full time. Well, no, not really. All of that might give you experience to draw from, but it wasn’t necessary. There was something else.

Anne and Barry Ulanov’s book, The Healing Imagination, emphasizes imagination as the creative activity of the psyche and the soul. We work with the images that appear to us, often unbidden. “They just happen,” they write, “They arrive in consciousness from the unconscious, like a wisp of spirit. . . they speak of another life running in us like an underground river-current.”

I’ve come to believe that this creative impulse in all of us originates with the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t recognize it as such. No matter how it plays out and through whom it appears, imagination is critical to our humanity and to our spiritual growth.

The development of imagination, for example, in the act of creative writing, whether it be fiction, essays, drama, sermons, songs, or poetry is an exercise in dropping the barriers to one’s inner life. “Art’s desire,” comments Jane Hirshfield, in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, “is not to convey the already established but to transform the life that takes place within its presence.” The presence of an unexpected newness.

We see this newness in the parables and sayings of Jesus. They are a wellspring of wisdom, never depleted on multiple readings. I believe Jesus discovered how to listen to his unconscious, that depth which is in all of us, and how to open his mind and spirit completely to God. What he offered the disciples was a glimpse of that imaginative power.

Our reflex is to reject these images. The new breaks in upon us often without form, almost unrecognizable at times. Hirshfield comments in Ten Windows that it’s a question of how much of the random, the chaotic, and the mysterious we are willing to admit into our lives, assuming we have a choice.

We can also draw a distinction between hope and imagination. We can think of hope as an extension of present reality, but with the possibility of God breaking in to make something new. Then imagination is the seed from which hope grows. Our difficulty is in perceiving and believing that God can bring a new creation from the chaos of our situation.

Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?

The Ulanovs note that our play as children in imaginatively creating personalities for our stuffed animals and toys, sustains our capacity as adults to enjoy and create images of God from tradition, Scripture, and experience. “Imagination digs the soil,” they write, “and brings the water so that what comes to us grows . . . In this space between our single unconscious life and our shared conscious life with others, imagination plays and heals.”

For poets, artists, and the rest of us, what really matters in life begins with questions: Who are we now? What shall we be? Where will we find healing for our souls? How can we respond to hatred and indifference with love, justice, and mercy?

Since the first thing to go in a crisis is imagination, our subversion of the status quo is plain: we must begin to imagine together the newness of what our worship, our service to our communities, and our spiritual arts could look like in the face of such global shifts as climate change, the displacement of millions, and the presence of COVID in our midst.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, “Wandering, Not Lost,” was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]