The Best Ocean View in the World

Since COVID scuttled our original plans to sail in Greece, our alternative was a sailing school in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. This was a long way from Paul’s journeys in the Mediterranean! But we decided that since sailing was our theme, it was more important to have an understanding of how sailing works than to visit archeological sites. 

We gave ourselves a few days in San Carlos before our sailing school started, in order to get familiar with the restaurants and practice our Spanish. 

Hanging out at the hotel

San Carlos was voted by National Geographic to have the most spectacular ocean views in the world. So after settling into our lovely family-run hotel, we took a taxi to “El Mirador.” There is an observation point that juts out over the ocean, with views on every side. Below, birds wheel and coast in the air currents. At the tip of the point, the wind is so strong that visitors clutch their hats or phones. 

View from El Mirador

The twin peaks of Tetakawi are visible from anywhere nearby. It is striking how these massive rocks seem to change every hour, although they never move. The air, the light, the clouds, all paint the mountain in different colors and shades. It’s like a giant kaleidoscope. I understand why Claude Monet was moved to paint the Rouen Cathedral again and again in different light conditions. We found ourselves pointing and staring at it every day, multiple times a day. It’s like God was painting it over and over again, showing off a divine impressionism. 

The other ocean view we had during our time in San Carlos was up close and personal. Jacques Cousteau said that the Sea of Cortez was “The Aquarium of the World,” filled with marine biodiversity. People come to snorkel and see huge varieties of wildlife. Dolphins would come and swim alongside our boat, attracted by the wake (and the fact that we didn’t have noisy engines). There was one large group of females, and a couple of adorable baby dolphins, who sped along at our side. Various sea birds bobbed on the surface. We also got to see thousands of two-inch wide purple jellyfish: the Portuguese Man-o-war. We kept our distance from their sting. 

Humans throughout history have talked about the ocean in reverential tones. It is massive, powerful, teeming with life. It responds to cosmic forces like gravity and the spin of the earth. I think it is important to experience it from multiple vantage points to cultivate the appropriate respect. It’s alive, and it’s essential for our survival on this planet. 

The city of San Carlos has a large ex-pat population. Many Americans and Canadians move to San Carlos to sail or spend their retirement near the beach. Like many places around the world, there is a large gap between rich — or even the merely comfortable — and the poor.  

Sailing today is largely a hobby of the wealthy and middle-class, not a vital transportation mode for everyone. But this shift in global dynamics is driven by “cheap oil.” Of course, we know that fossil fuels are not really cheap; they are deferred cost which will have to be paid by future generations. I suspect that as wind and solar power become more mainstream, gas-guzzling boats will give way to more sail power. Shipping companies are already going “back to the future” by exploring wind power. Part of my desire to become more proficient at sailing is simply to have a method of travel that doesn’t require airplane or boat fuel.

We were able to get experience on three very different boats: a single-mast 26-foot boat, a vintage two-masted ketch, and a very large catamaran (which our instructor called “a floating condo”). 

Having the skills to sail suddenly opens up a new world of opportunities for travel. Boat captains are often looking for crew to help them make journeys, and there are websites that match teams by personality, skills, and destinations. While I don’t plan on making any trans-Atlantic trips anytime soon, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. There is much more of this amazing planet to see. 

Prayer: God who paints the landscapes, cosmos, and creatures, thank you for filling the universe with such beauty.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

The Boat and the Crew

In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic hit, we were scheduled to take our sailing class the following June in Greece. I was excited to get our curriculum package in the mail! I opened up a large folder full charts, and unwrapped the protractor and the navigation divider. I had seen these in movies, but had never used one.



Image description: Sailing curriculum including a workbook, notebook, clear plastic protractor, and navigation dividers.

But before we got to navigation, we needed to learn the basics. The first section of our curriculum was about the parts of a sailboat. And right here, in the first few pages of our workbook, I found one of my most important lessons. The V-shaped part of the boat above the bow is called the pulpit — the same word that describes the place in a church where a preacher delivers a sermon.

(It’s also the place where, in the movie Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett shout and stretch out their arms into the wind. I’ll talk more about the Titanic and how it fits into “sailing uncharted waters” when I tell you about our time in Belfast, where the Titanic was built).

An illustration of the parts of a sailboat. The pulpit and pushpit are highlighted.

Churches have often used the metaphor of a sailboat to describe their community. At certain early Christian pilgrimage sites, you can often find graffiti of a boat carved into a stone wall or bit of plaster. After the early church stopped meeting in homes and started meeting in dedicated buildings, congregations referred to the main sanctuary as the nave, as in “navy,” because the vaulted ceiling looked like the ribs of a boat. They imagined the pews as seats in a galley, and the congregation as the rowers. The pulpit resembled the bow of a boat. 


An ornate Baroque pulpit is preserved in a modern church in Erfurt, Germany. Erfurt is where Martin Luther was a monk. We visited Erfurt in June, 2022

Above: a panorama of the vaulted ceiling of St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny, Ireland. Though it is distorted, you can clearly see the bit that looks like an upside-down boat above the nave.

But I realized an important church-related truth in this sailboat diagram: you don’t steer a boat from the pulpit. You steer it from the pushpit (or the cockpit), in the rear (or stern) of the boat. The person in front is not necessarily the person who is running the show. 

I think the early church communities understood, even after they began to become more institutionalized, that the clergy were not the only people in charge. See, it takes a lot of coordination to make a sailing vessel move. A boat probably has a captain, but a person on watch stands in the pulpit to see where the boat is going or to take bearings. A pilot stands in the rear to move the wheel or rudder and call out to the crew controlling the sails. A navigator takes measurements to make sure the boat is on course. 

And early church theologians talked about the Holy Spirit, like a wind or the breath of God, being the power that filled the sails and actually moved the church forward. 

When people talk about the church today, they typically talk about it as an institution or a business. I’ve heard people say “the church should be a hospital for sinners instead of a museum for saints,” which is true enough. But I wonder how it would change our perception if our main metaphor for church was not a static building or an institution, but something that actually moved under the power of wind or spirit. I wonder what would change if we traded our binary model of “leader” and “follower” for terms like captain, pilot, watchman, navigator, and crew. 


I snapped this photo in the Royal Observatory in London, England, in July. This is an exhibit about how the museum would curate exhibits in the future, considering England’s history of world colonization and the harm it has caused. I’ll return to this image, and how colonization plays into my sailing metaphor, later in my reflections.
Image description: A line drawing of a sailboat, with diverse crew. Large text reads “Our Guiding Concepts.” Banners on the boat read: habitability, adaptability, adversity, ingenuity, practicality, creativity, community, equality, identity. 

Prayer: Jesus who stills the storms, help us to be your competent crew. 

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

An Interrupted Journey



The Church of Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, featuring a striking boat altar. Personal photo, 2019.

Since we’re in one of these “Five-hundred year rummage sales” where all our old ideas and values are being reevaluated, I thought it would be a good idea to look at past rummage sales. Two thousand years ago (or four rummage sales ago), when a small group of Jesus-followers started spreading his message, the new movement met in peoples’ homes. The early movement called themselves “ecclesia,” or “the called-out ones.” This usually gets translated as “church,” but the old name, ecclesia, implies that this new community would be an alternative to religion as usual. Many of those house church leaders were women, and Paul names them: Chloe, Nyssa, Junia, Lydia, and others. They were explicitly egalitarian and inclusive. Paul wrote “there is no longer Jew or Greek, enslaved or free, male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Paul and his companions sailed around the Mediterranean, networking these new communities and doing what we might today call “community organizing.” He was trying to get several different communities to cooperate as one. 

This history is one reason I chose “sailing uncharted waters” as my proposal theme. The early ecclesia had no idea where the future would take them. There was no chart. They had no idea what hazards lay ahead, or who might try to hijack their movement. They did not know how the currents and tides of history might move their boat off course. 

Boats, of course, were an important symbol in the early church. Jesus preached from a boat, stilled the storm on the Lake of Galilee, and hung out with fishermen. 

My first experience with sailboats was when I was a teenager. My parents bought a single-sail 14-foot dinghy and we learned to sail on Alabama lakes. But in 2019, in order to get a sense of what the leaders of the early church faced, I decided I needed to learn how to sail on the sea. Part of my proposal would include sailing lessons. We made a plan that included sailing on the Mediterranean and visits to Greek archeological sites where Paul met with early church leaders. 

But after my proposal was accepted and I received the grant for my renewal project, the pandemic hit. We had to cancel our plans. I wasn’t just disappointed. I was heartbroken. But I realized that plagues have also been part of the “uncharted waters” that church and society have faced in past centuries. We know that pandemics will occur more regularly in the future as our climate changes. Perhaps it was fitting that my journey began with an interruption. I realized that we really are sailing uncharted waters. 

Prayer: God, our Guardian and Guide, you are with us on the journey, even when we are standing still.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Introduction: Shoeing Horses


At a scenic stop in Ireland in July, we were visited by a friendly (and huge) work horse.

In addition to being a pastor, I have a Ph.D in religion, with an emphasis in homiletics (preaching) and social ethics. But as I watch the many crises affecting churches and academia, sometimes it feels like I did an incredible amount of work to get a degree in shoeing horses. There just aren’t a lot of jobs for farriers these days. It’s a niche occupation. 

I don’t think religion will ever be obsolete. But I do think religious institutions, and the clergy who maintain them (my online friend David Dark refers to clergy as “professional god-talkers”) will become more rare in the coming years. In addition to all the evidence of plummeting church participation, churches are polarized and splitting. There is a well-documented trend of pastors burning out and giving up, especially during COVID. I’ve felt it, too, that sense of hopeless dread. This is a hard season in which to try to build or maintain a religious community. 

As a society, I’d argue that in many ways, we’re becoming more religious. Back in the 1960’s, the General Social Survey reported that only 22% of Americans said they’d had a life-changing spiritual or mystical experience. By 2009, according to a Pew Religion and Public Life survey, it was nearly half of all Americans. Spiritual experience increased even as church participation decreased. 

Some of this may have to do with the growth of a population who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In the sociological research, they are often described as “SBNRs.” Twenty years ago in his book After the Baby Boomers, sociologist Robert Wuthnow described what younger generations did as “spiritual bricolage,” sampling from multiple streams of faith traditions.   

In many ways, I feel like the work I did to earn a Ph.D in religion prepared me to have a ringside seat at this period of the Great Emergence, to observe of this work of spiritual bricolage as an anthropologist might. 

Even though church and academy are struggling, on my good days, I don’t feel that my effort in church or academia has been wasted. I didn’t go into ministry for the career advancement opportunities — I did it because I love God and I love people. And I didn’t go into academia so I could fight to earn a tenure-track position — I did it because I love learning. That’s why I proposed the trip I’m about to share with you: Navigating Uncharted Waters. If you’ve signed up for these devotionals, that probably means you do, too. This moment in history calls for people who love God, love people, and love learning. 

Thanks for joining me on this journey. 

Prayer: God, you who are both hidden and revealed, reveal to us the path toward truth and life. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Navigating Uncharted Waters: Starting Soon


Above image: San Carlos, Sonoma, Mexico. Personal photo.

In The Great Emergence, church historian Phyllis Tickle described how every five centuries, the church goes through a huge rummage sale, where everything we value — and many things we have taken for granted — get put on the table for sorting. Some of these things we, as a church and as a society, will decide to keep, and others we will discard. Our names for these rummage sales often involve the word “Great,” as in Great Schism and Great Reformation

We held the last rummage sale around 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg. His action kicked off The Great Reformation, separating Protestant and Roman Catholic churches and setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Many of the ideas we’ve inherited, the things we value and the things we take for granted, were hashed out in a few centuries. 

You may have noticed that we’re experiencing another rummage sale right now. Many ideas are on the table: ideas about gender, our preference for democracy over authoritarianism, male supremacy, capitalism, and the role of the media are just a few. And the stakes are very high. We are living in the early stages of what may very likely be a mass extinction. 

A few years ago I felt I needed to get some distance to consider all that we are facing. As a pastor and a public theologian, I wanted to see up close our Reformation history, and to consider where we might be going in the next 500 years — not just as a church, but as a species. I applied for  and was awarded a grant to take a sabbatical and to consider these things, and now I want to share with you what I’ve learned. I offer these reflective devotionals not as an expert prognosticator, but as a fellow traveler who is making some educated guesses.

If you’d like to follow along, you can sign up for email devotionals or visit my website here


Prayer: Creator, help us in this season of uncertainty. 

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

How We Got Here

Veil Nebula, by Ken Crawford. From Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes when I start to feel hopeless about the world, about climate change, weaponized ignorance, and interlocking systems of injustice and petty cruelty that create white supremacy, male supremacy, and toxic religion, I have a vision of what happened before I was born.

And I’m not saying I believe this is actually the way God or consciousness works, but I have this image of God giving me—giving all of us—a choice about whether or not to be born in this age, out of all the ages of history. I imagine the sales pitch: “Going into this world will be, in many ways, like running into a house on fire.”

“I’m not asking you to be a hero,” God says. “But to be a human. You will be part of a team. And the whole thing may collapse on you. And you’ll probably fail. Will you love this world? To pour out your life because you love it so? Because that’s what we do, you know. That’s what love does.”

I feel this vision when I get to be in communion with prison abolitionists and local farmers and deconstructing clergy and scientists and therapists and freedom fighters and activists and scholar-reformers. On good days, I feel like maybe we chose this, to be here, doing this work in this house on fire, because it was the time that needed us.

I’m not saying we chose this mess or chose to suffer — I think. But I think for humanity to reach maturity, some of us understand that we have to take responsibility for shit, even if it isn’t our shit.

And on good days when I catch this vision, I also realize that there is so much to love in this house on fire: my amazing family and friends, of course, but also animals and plants and music and beauty. And on good days I feel like the luckiest son of bitch in the world, and I’m glad you chose this time to live, too.

Advent Week 3: Waiting


Saint Joseph, 1475, Tuscany. Personal photo.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion…
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. (Luke 1:24, 56, NRS V)

I have often heard preachers romanticize the tedium of waiting. They say, “Advent is about waiting.” We talk about waiting with hope, about active waiting versus passive waiting. We recall the way kids count down the days until they can open Christmas presents. We talk about the waiting of pregnancy, and about the appropriateness of the metaphor “she’s expecting.”

But it’s all just waiting. Between Mary’s Magnificat, Elizabeth’s prophecy, and the events of Christmas, there’s a lot of waiting. It is notable that the author says nothing about those mundane days. Eight months elapse in two sentences.

We know that the time was not necessarily boring, but it was full of everyday tasks: working, cooking, doing laundry, fixing broken things, weariness, sleeping, travel. The gospel authors, like any good storyteller, skips over these nondescript days in order to advance the story.

That’s one of the reasons I love the carving of Joseph in the photo above. You can see the weariness on his face. This is presumably after the long journey, after Jesus’s birth, perhaps after several sleepless nights of feeding and diaper changing.

It’s also a face full of love, because that’s what makes the waiting and the everyday experiences important. That’s what makes the waiting and the uncertainty and our mortality bearable.


Prayer: Maker of Time and Giver of Life, help us to bear the waiting and the uncertainty with love.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 3: Mary’s Town


Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, 2019. Personal photo.

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-38)

In 2019, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. This was my second trip there, but one of the things that I took away was the picture of Mary’s family growing up in a cave. The setting is a contrast from most of the European art featuring Mary inside of a medieval-looking castle.

In Nazareth, most “starter homes” were caves. The family would have lived in the cave with any animals they owned. As they gained wealth, they would build on to the cave. At this site, you can see the remains of an addition built of stone adjoining the cave (not in the photo). This additional room was called a “kataluma.” A family who had upgraded their house in this way would continue to use the cave as a stable. Their beds were not permanent furniture, but rather mats they would roll out on the floor at night, and roll up out of the way during the day.

When Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem, they can find no room in the “kataluma.” Floor space at night was at a premium even when people were not hosting travelers.

At this archeological site you can see the kind of village environment Mary would have grown up in. You would constantly have heard the neighbors’ business, as the next cave was only a few yards away. There are several caves stretched along the ridge here. The church is built beside and above these caves. The traditional site where the angel visited her is, like many places in Israel and Palestine, now a worshiping space for pilgrims from around the world.

You can read more about the Church of the Annunciation here.


Prayer: God of the sacred and mundane, you sanctify human life by taking our daily experiences of home and work on yourself. Help us find holiness in everyday places.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 3: What is the “Immaculate Conception?”


Martino Altamonte, The Immaculate Conception, 1719, From Wikimedia Commons

Around this time of year, I will often hear a Protestant Christian (or a non-Christian) refer to Jesus’s conception as the “immaculate conception.” This is incorrect. Many folks think that the phrase “immaculate” refers to the miraculous conception of Jesus, but it’s actually a Roman Catholic doctrine about the conception of his mother, Mary. And it didn’t become official doctrine for the Roman Catholic church until 1854.

The idea of immaculate conception was a way to answer a medieval theological problem: in order for Jesus to be sinless, he would need to be free of original sin. And since original sin was passed down through the generations by sexual reproduction (“fleshly union”), from Adam and Eve until the present day, the only way Jesus could be free of original sin was if his mother was also free from sin. It wasn’t enough that he didn’t have an earthly Father; his mother had to be made sinless, too. So, Mary’s original sin was taken away miraculously at the point of her conception, so that she could become the pure vessel for the incarnate God.

Of course, if God could take away original sin simply by willing it, it raises a bigger question about the atonement: why did Jesus have to die to take away sin?

As a Protestant, neither the doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception nor her “perpetual virginity” form any part of my theology. I think they have led to some very unhelpful Christian ideas about both sin and sex. I also reject the theology that says Christianity is primarily about “sin management.”

But I do think these ideas about Mary filled a need for Christians to recognize the feminine side of the divine. In Roman Catholic theology, Jesus is not alone either in his sinlessness or his close relationship with the Father. He is less of a rugged individualist, because his mother paved the way for him, and was the model for his humble obedience. It even makes his grandma (Anne) relevant to the story. It reminds us that Jesus did not fall out of the sky, but had a family who nurtured him in both his physical life and his vocation, and that God was active in their lives, too, before he ever arrived on the scene.

You can read about the history of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception here.


Prayer: Creator God, though you are the same yesterday, today, and forever, your mercies are new every day. Help us to see both the wisdom and folly of our theologies, which can only point to you, but never define.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Advent Week 3: Clowns, John, and the Native Covenant


Hopi Katcinas drawn by native artists (1904) From Wikimedia Commons

Steven Charleston, an Episcopal bishop, writes:

…the funny thing is, even by his own admission, John is the one prophet in the Bible whom we should ignore. Without his message of doom and destruction, we see him in a different light. John becomes a character of pathos. He stands flailing his arms by the banks of the Jordon, wearing his outrageous outfit, making much ado about nothing. In short, John comes off looking a little odd, a little strange, even a little funny. And that is exactly the point. We should remember John, not because he was a very good prophet, which he was not, but because he was a very good clown.

[Charleston, Steven. (2015). The Four Vision Quests of Jesus (p. 56). Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

After this past Sunday’s story of John the Baptist railing about Jesus burning the unrepentant with “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17), I’ve been sitting with Steven Charleston’s interpretation of John as a clown in Native American tradition. John was wrong. Spectacularly so. Yet at the same time, he was preparing people for Jesus’ arrival — if only by setting them up for a contrasting idea of divine fire.

Charleston goes on to talk about how Pueblo koshares and Plains heyokas served to draw attention to the absurdities and contradictions of life. Hebrew prophets were also performance artists—just think of Ezekiel cooking food over a dung fire, or Jeremiah wearing a soiled loincloth.

Advent and Christmas continue to embody these contradictions: we are in a season of frenzied consumption, yet the message is one about simplicity and poverty. The holiday blues and loneliness sit side-by-side with messages of hope and togetherness. At the darkest time of year, we celebrate the light coming into the world. It’s a time when the holy, mundane, and the profane get mixed together. Advent and Christmas are full of contradictions. No wonder our symbol for Christmas waiting is a pregnant virgin.

I think Bishop Charleston is onto something. John prepares the way by embodying these contradictions. He’s the herald for an already-but-not-yet kingdom.


Prayer: Paradoxical God, you defy our descriptions and confound our reasoning. Help us pay attention to the clowns who reveal our world’s absurdities and contradictions.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.