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. 

A Good Friday Meditation

So, here we are. Good Friday. Honestly, this is a day I’m no fan of Christianity.

First, I find that little is more annoying about this season than bougie white boy preachers in thousand-dollar sneakers talking about Jesus and “revolutionary love.” Church is full of folks who are no friends of the revolution. “Revolutionary?” They ain’t even interested in abolishing prisons or reducing militarized police budgets, much less “revolution.” Their message isn’t revolutionary. It’s marketing.  

Second, Rome shows you what it does to revolutionaries: it crucifies them. “Crucifixion wasn’t just a form of execution; it was advertising,” says Amy-Jill Levine. A cross was a billboard. Crucifixions were staged near roads, so passersby could see clearly who was in charge and what happens to “revolutionaries.” As Max Weber put it: the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Crucifixion displays the state’s monopoly of violence literally: by splaying human limbs.

According to Josephus, after the Jewish revolt in Jerusalem in 70 CE, soldiers crucified so many people that they ran out of wood. They cut down every tree for miles to line the road with crosses, like flags. Today if you visit the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed to “let this cup pass from me,” when the guide says, “Some of these trees are so old that Jesus could have prayed under one of them,” you know it’s just stuff they tell tourists. The orchard where Jesus prayed was razed so Rome could have wood on which to nail revolutionaries.

Third, white Protestant support for torture, measured in 2008, was upwards of sixty percent. Six in ten are just fine with torturing folks. Waterboarding. Whipping. Stripping people naked and humiliating them. All the stuff that happened to Jesus? They’d give the green light for it to happen to any Middle Eastern guy with long hair and a beard.

While I’m talking statistics and cutting trees, only 40% of white Protestants believe in human-made climate change. I’m not just picking on Evangelicals, among whom that statistic is only 28%. I’m talking about mainstream “liberal” Protestants. When Roman soldiers cut down all the trees to make crosses, most church folks would be cheering them on in the name of law, order, and domination of the natural world.

So today, when Christians cry crocodile tears while singing how they would “cling to the old rugged cross,” it leaves me feeling a bit cynical. They may be having a genuine spiritual experience when they close their eyes, raise their hands, and sway gently to a Christian rock anthem, but it bears no relevance to Golgotha or the places Jesus is being crucified right now. It rubs me the wrong way when religious people pretend to care about the most famous victim of state violence ever, but don’t give give two figs for Patrick Lyoya or Sandra Bland. When they would cling to crosses, but disparage tree-huggers.

On days like today, I resonate much more with those who have rejected religion altogether, especially if it’s because they could not reconcile the prepackaged answers with today’s most salient questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow the state to have this monopoly on violence? How did the spiritual power of Jesus of Nazareth get hijacked so thoroughly by Christendom? Where is the “Good News” in the destruction of this world and the oppressed people who love it?  

“Good” Friday. The adjective leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The revolutionary I love and follow is still being executed by the state, which has yet to repent of its role in manufacturing suffering. The state, in collusion with the church, will resurrect in his place an agent of white settler colonialism, one who blesses Rome and the priesthood, who tells battered spouses to stay with their abusers in the name of long-suffering love, who persecutes queer kids and tells gay Christians to remain celibate, that it’s “their cross to bear,” an agent who sanctions bullying, who clear cuts forests and pumps oil from the ground to build sprawling highways so that Christians can park their cars at suburban churches on Easter morning and sing praises to an authoritarian king.

Honestly, the only thing that keeps me Christian is that my faith says, “it is God on that cross.” The only thing that keeps me Christian is that I keep seeing Jesus as an actual revolutionary who cares about the suffering of people at the hands of state power, a Jesus turning over the money tables on Wall Street. Jesus keeps showing up on the steps of churches telling preachers that they are whitewashed tombs whose words are full of death and decay. Jesus keeps standing up for queer kids and defending people whose wombs are treated like the property of the state or their husbands. Jesus keeps calling for actual prisoners in real prisons to be set free, and for the people with clubs and swords to put them away because they only lead to self-destruction. Jesus keeps telling people to observe that the birds and flowers—and humans—don’t have to earn a place in God’s economy, that their existence and life is enough to bring glory to God. The powers that be keep trying to silence God’s anointed and he, she, they keep showing up with all their pronouns and ethnicities and genders and refusing to be quiet or disappear from public view.

When I ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” she—God in human flesh—looks me squarely in the eye, shows me the wounds in her hands and side and answers, as she always does, with a question: “Are you asking me?” Then she gestures at the world as if to invite me to take up a cross and follow.

Where else can I go? She has the words of life.

So

The Universe, by Hildegard of Bingen, from WikiArt

For God so loved the cosmos;
loved the human world and the more-than-human world,
loved the quarks and the nebulae and
the vast stretches of empty space
between the tiniest particles and between the largest galaxies;
loved tree frogs and beetles,
mushrooms and songbirds,
loved you and me and the space between us;
that she poured her divine self out
and looked out on the world through human eyes in human sockets,
and felt the fleshy vulnerability of her creatures.

With the full, enthusiastic consent of Mary,
(and with no need of a man),
she nurtured in the water of a womb
a child;
and gave her beloved child to us,
and named this child “God saves,”
who was also her Very Truest Self;
because God has always been a giver
a lover
and prone to prodigal excess.

Then her Very Truest Self,
lived as one of us,
loved and taught others to love
(as She has always been doing, as She is still doing)
with the same kind of love that pours out
that sees
that inhabits
in such a way that Justice and Peace would become synonyms,
that they would hold hands;
in such a way that forgiveness would set free instead of perpetuate harm,
in such a way that prisons would be abolished,
(as She has always been doing, as She is still doing)
and the poor would be filled with good things
and the powerful would be brought low,
and the low would be lifted up,
because the abundance of the world is and has always been enough.

But the human world loved its dismal sense of deserving
more than light.
It loved its warring madness,
it loved dominating and colonizing and subjugating;
it loved shaming and putting people in their place,
and measuring out who deserves what,
and taking land and lives,
and crucifying anyone who got in its way.
It loved being important and big and worshiped.
It loved defining the world according to itself,
setting up whiteness as a god
and nation as an idol
who demanded child and elder sacrifice
in exchange for guns and gold.
It loved marketshare and mindshare.
It loved creating scarcity out of abundance,
burning oil to create money,
so that it could have more
by making others have less,
so that it could play games
with the life of the planet,
so that it could bleed the world dry
and strip mine the hills
to open a new strip mall.

It was so crafty at manufacturing suffering,
that after it killed Her child,
it mimicked her grief
and mocked her love
and turned the religion of Her Very Truest Self
into another dominance game
another theology of deserving.
It put crosses on steeples
on every street corner,
as a reminder that anyone who did not follow would be crucified.
It created disciples of hate to wound others in the name of Jesus.
It taught people that the world that God so loved
was disposable
and to pray to God about what comes after death
so that by a counterfeit resurrection
many would be led astray
and teach others to do the same.
And, feigning outrage at the death of Her child,
the One it murdered,
it would continue to burn heretics at the stake
along with witches, and queer people, and scientists, and lovers, and artists
and any saint who dared dream of a better world
for this world
instead of the next.
And all the while,
it would tell its followers:
“Do to them before they do to you.”

Any who dared whisper
“God is love”
would be reminded
of love’s cruelty,
of tough love,
of loving at or loving on,
a love that alters where it finds alteration,
of the Great Chain of Being and the Right of Kings
and that a Man’s Home Is His Castle.

This is why John had to tell us
that She loves differently:
So loved.”
Her love looks like a person,
and that person looks like you,
and you are made in the divine image of love.

Standing on Mount Nebo,
looking out over the promised land,
filled with burning forests and dead songbirds,
the corpses of insects and frogs who will never again sing at night,
paved roads full of automobiles with nowhere to go that isn’t just like the place they left,
we searching ones look for the breath of the Holy Spirit,
a purifying wind,
to blow away the polluted air,
to push the carbon dioxide back into the ground,
a wind that will animate the dry bones
and desiccated exoskeletons,
to knit sinew to bone
and muscle to sinew
and to cover all with flesh and feather and tentacle and leaf,
the fleshy vulnerability of all of her creatures,
because all of creation
ALL of it
every last bit of it
has been groaning for ages waiting for humanity to wake up
and be born again
to see with new eyes in new sockets,
to recover their original blessing,
their awe and curiosity;
their gratitude and reverence.

She is still looking
like a shepherd on the hills,
still looking
for those who so love the world
just so.

“Except Through Me”

“No one comes to the Father except through me” is one of the most abused verses in the Bible. A dialogue intended to comfort grieving disciples gets weaponized for exclusion and missionary colonialism.We need to read it in context: In John 14,

Jesus has just told his disciples that he’s about to leave them, and they are heartbroken and confused. Thomas blurts out, “What do you mean we know the way to where you are going? We don’t even know where you are going!” (14:5)

Jesus answers, “You know me, bro, and I AM the way.” He’s telling them this isn’t some gnostic secret. You don’t have to solve a mystery. You don’t have to make this harder than it is. You know me, so you know the way, and, most importantly, **we’ll be together again** (hence, “no one comes to the Father except through me.” Don’t worry about losing me; I’m your path, your way.)

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

It’s important to linger here over the FIRST thing Jesus says in response to Thomas’s question. Thomas doesn’t know that he *already* knows the way. He thinks there’s something special he needs to do, some secret map. Jesus says “You already have the map: it’s me.”

Which opens the door for us to wonder: how many people know without knowing that they know? (Throughout John’s gospel, this is a theme—people respond to JC based on the orientation of their hearts.) Jesus sounds very Buddhist here: You already have what you need.

Listen: the disciples are afraid they will lose Jesus. He is telling them that they will be together. They won’t be *missing* Jesus when they get to the place they are going, because they will be traveling through The Way the whole time.

(Also: John’s community is heartbroken over losing him. These words are for them, too. John’s community thought he would live until Christ’s return (see 21:23). When he dies, they feel abandoned. You can hear their grief in Mary and Martha’s words to Jesus: “If you had been here, our brother would not have died!” (11:32))

Jesus then adds the infamous, “nobody comes to the Father without me,” which, again, is intended to be reassuring to the disciples: “I’ll be with you the whole way.” But it’s also in a context: “If you’ve *really* known me, you’ve already known the Father.” (Which also implies it is also possible to know Jesus without *really* knowing him—a fact especially applicable to religious leaders, which I will say more about below.)

He also says, “From now on, you do know the Father and have seen him.” Phillip is incredulous: “Okay, fine, show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied.” Again, he’s expecting that there’s something more he needs to know or do.

And JC slaps his forehead and says “Seriously? I’ve been with you all this time and you don’t see God?” This is the closest he comes to the exasperated Jesus we see in Mark, who says, “How much longer do I have to deal with you imbeciles?” (my paraphrase) So, far from being an exclusivist claim, “No one comes to the Father except through me” is supposed to be a reassuring claim that the disciples are on the right path, that they already know what they need to know, and that JC’s unity with the Father can & will be theirs.

And if you look at JC’s encounters with various folks in John, you see that the people who *really* know Jesus respond to God authentically and immediately: the man born blind, the woman at the well, etc. The man born blind says, “I don’t know much else, but I can see now” (Jn 9:25).

Meanwhile, religious leaders, who are obsessed with being right, are too hindered (“blinded,” in the language of the story) by their own religious exclusivism to admit room for an unmediated encounter with the divine. They can’t see God’s activity in front of their noses, much like today’s exclusivist Christians.

Jesus’s words do not slam the door on other faiths; they blast it wide open: People can know the way without knowing they know the way. “I have sheep who don’t belong to this fold” (10:16). Also, religious people can think they know and be wrong. As he says to the religious leaders: “Your father is the devil.” (8:44)

As a pastor, I recognize the strongest warnings of the gospel are to me: Do not presume to restrict God’s saving and healing activity. As Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice” (10:14). In John, the people working against healing and saving are religious leaders; don’t be like that.

(Caveat: you can use “hidden Christ” language to be a theological imperialist, claiming people of other faiths are simply “secret Christians.” I take JC’s language to be more expansive than that: The Way isn’t subject to human gatekeepers. The Word is loose in the world.)

So if words of Jesus meant for comfort have been weaponized to cause anxiety and exclusion, be suspicious of the religious leaders who wield them that way. Read the whole dialogue. John is dealing with grief & heartbreak. He is not slamming the door on presumed “outsiders.”

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.