During Lent 2024, these Texas Christians commit to being “cross yielding rather than cross wielding”

Central window in the sanctuary of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Spring, Texas. (Photos of the church provided by Ann Worley.)

Hearing George A. Mason’s call for a different way of seeing our world

Contributing Columnist

I was surprised last week as I showed up to lead a new series of discussions in my congregation, Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Spring, Texas. We already had set up chairs—but so many people arrived that volunteers had to fetch more seating!

Such enthusiasm was an inspiring sign for all of us as we started Lent, the annual season of reflection before Christians reach Easter each year. I thought this series of Sunday-morning discussions might be a challenge, because the series’ focus is the work and wisdom of a famous Baptist preacher, George A. Mason, the author of the new book, The Word Made Fresh

I wondered: Would Episcopalians coming for worship spend even more time on a Sunday morning considering what a Baptist has to say about our world?

As it turns out, indeed, they would!

After a “tour” of the book, I posed a question. “We can all think of examples of people being ‘cross wielding,’ beating others over the head with their beliefs. What would it mean for us to be cross-yielding instead?”

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In 2001, George introduced that turn of phrase in a 50th-anniversary sermon for the church where he served as senior pastor for many years: Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. He declared, “Jesus says if we are to be his followers, we must take up our cross, not as a weapon of war but as a promise of peace.”

We must be “cross-yielding” rather than “cross-wielding,” he concluded.

Earlier in my career, I served on George’s Wilshire staff. In recent years, I helped some of George’s friends at Wilshire pull together this particular collection of his sermons into The Word Made Fresh as a special gift for George for his decades of service. As we collectively edited this volume, we agreed that this particular sermon should be the first one readers would see.

What are we as Christians “yielding” in this world? It’s a question millions are asking in 2024.

Some “give up” in Lent; we are “adding to” our theology of welcome

During Lent each year, millions of Christians “give up” something they typically enjoy, or conversely, devote extra time to spiritual practices as a way of identifying more closely with Jesus.

With all of the division and polarization that dominates our news cycles, The Word Made Fresh is a timely read, offering a theology of welcome and inclusion that can reinvigorate our faith and provide a clear path forward. Reading and reflecting on this book of sermons—either on one’s own or with a group like we are reading the book—can be a spiritual affirmation of hope and a commitment to making our world a better place.

Through all the years he served Wilshire, George kept challenging Christians to look carefully at what our faith is yielding each day, each week and each year.

After introducing this idea in the first sermon in this book, George returns to the question of our “yield” much later in his book in a sermon titled, “Cross-Eyed.” It’s one of the most powerful sermons in this entire collection.

He preached this particular Sunday message during another especially troubled Lent—in the year 2019 after a white-supremacist who claimed to be defending Christian civilization had shot up two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The terrorist killed 51 people, wounded another 40, and was heading toward a third mosque, when police stopped him. Although that tragedy unfolded half a world away, George was thinking about his traumatized Muslim friends and neighbors in Dallas, who were reeling from the news.

George was angered by the killer’s twisted idea that Christianity called for such violence. As George preached that morning, he also condemned other similar hate crimes. That sermon still stands as a powerful condemnation of any form of religiously inspired violence—and an affirmation of what the cross of Christ should yield.

Just a few excerpts of what George said that morning:

“Our theme this Lent is the grace of seeing. Paul wants us to see the cross in such a way that we live through it. … Paul wants us to see the world through the corrective lenses of the cross. … The cross symbolizes the love of God. Period. It forever stands as a powerful warning against using the name of God to do violence. … Every and any use of the cross as an excuse to oppress, suppress, or repress any human being is a disgrace to our religion. … This is what it means to view the world cross-eyed: Our witness to the way of Christ is powerful when the grace of seeing through the eyes of the cross yields tears of love in solidarity with those for whom Christ died, whatever their religion, wherever they come from, however they look.”

You can read the entire sermon in this new book—and you can even see the 2019 video of George preaching that sermon (via a link provided in the book). That sermon is a good example of the dozens that are so memorable today that they’re worth the price of a copy of George’s book.

“George Mason is an ecumenical thinker,” I told my Episcopal friends at Holy Comforter. “His later sermons in particular speak to social justice, equity, and interfaith relations, all driven by the gospel.”

I encouraged people not to miss a single page, even though this is a big book, “because George leaves little nuggets of gold everywhere.”


Care to learn more?

Ann Bell Worley is a Houston-based writer and editor with a background in theological education and ministry. She is the author of two children’s books with additional publications in religion and parenting and a broad range of editing credits. Much of her recent writing focuses on the challenges of raising a medically complex child. You can find more of Ann’s work and her family’s story on her website: www.graycoloredglasses.com.

Ann tells us this week: “I set out at the beginning of the year to tell our story in chronological order, starting with The Very Beginning and followed that with “Not Knowing” and “Still Not Knowing.” Soon, I’m planning to post the next installment.”

Give a gift of George Mason’s ‘The Word Made Fresh’ and encourage the spread of this good news

The Rev. Dr. George A. Mason begins the process of signing 500 copies of his new book, “The Word Made Fresh,” for members of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, at an hours-long reception before and after services on Sunday June 4. (Photo used with permission.)

Consider what these early readers are saying about this remarkable book—

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Give a copy of this book to your congregation.

Give a copy of this book to your pastor.

That’s the advice of our Marketing Director Susan Stitt who is doing that in her own Catholic congregation in Georgia.

That’s also what members of the Rev. George A. Mason’s Wilshire Baptist Church are doing. This week, they are collectively giving more than 500 copies of this book to each family within Wilshire’s 2,500-member congregation.

And, while George’s church is Baptist, we already are seeing the interest in this book among readers from a wide range of religious traditions—because good preaching is still one of the most admired forms of media across America. In this book, readers find not only the text of 80 of George’s best sermons from several decades as one of the nation’s most-admired preachers—but also videos of George delivering half of those messages. Those videos are easy to see by clicking a smartphone at QR codes that appear with 40 of the sermons. In addition, other noted authors and scholars add prefaces to the various themed sections of the book to provide thought-provoking context for these messages.

The book does not even officially launch on Amazon until June 27, 2023, but early copies already are circulating among leading Christian writers and preachers.

We’ve been putting Susan’s advice—that it’s a good deed to give a copy of this book to someone—to practice by making sure a handful of influential pastors and writers see this book even before the official June 27 launch date.

And we’ve seen thankful replies come back from readers around the world.

The Rev. Tom Eggebeen is a nationally influential Presbyterian Church USA pastor and preacher, whose sermons also have an online following. Tom emailed us the day after his copy of The Word Made Fresh arrived: “Started reading immediately. I had never heard of Mason, and that’s my loss, because these sermons are seriously impressive and the preface for each section a little tour de force in theology and practice. I will move through this book with care, and learning—I’ve already grabbed a few ideas and phrases I want to use. Glad that this publishing effort will bring to a larger audience his skillful and faithful sermons.”

Best-selling Christian author the Rev. Greg Garrett, an Episcopal priest and canon theologian for the American Cathedral in Paris wrote one of those tour de force prefaces for George’s new book, writing in part: “My friend George Mason is one of the Christian world’s most accomplished preachers and pastors. A writer, teacher, activist and media figure, during 30-plus years as senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, he modeled a Christian love of and advocacy for the marginalized, the disdained, the set aside, that feels absolutely like the Jesus I know, love and serve.”

Greg even gave George an international boost by including him in a worldwide Zoom from Paris in late May! And, stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit, because next week we’ll tell the rest of that story of Greg’s current work in Paris.

We’re not only hearing from Protestants and Anglicans. The best-selling Catholic author Chris Stepien opened his copy and immediately emailed us with very high praise, indeed: “Loving the book! Mason is a Baptist Fulton Sheen with a loving heart for the interfaith community!”

The Day1 radio network’s Peter Wallace didn’t want to be left out of this early litany of praise. “I love George Mason! Love the new book. I want to get George back on Day1 again.” For his part, George says he’d like to make a reappearance on Day1, so visit Day1’s website and sign up for updates there.

So, are you ready to jump over and order your copy—and a copy to give to your congregation or your pastor? Well, Amazon offers both hardcover and paperback editions for gift giving that will ship on June 27.

Not yet convinced? Well, just wait a moment: There’s more wisdom below in this ReadTheSpirit cover story from George about why good preaching matters today.

What Is the Goal of Good Preaching?

Because this book contains—by the consensus of early reviewers nationwide—some of the best progressive Christian preaching in America, the first question I asked George in our interview, this week, was:

“Can you tell us how you define good preaching?” I explained my question this way: “Preaching styles vary widely, but there is a core to preaching that you illustrate so well in this book. With each sermon, you’re welcoming people into a much larger community of faith—the timeless calling of Christianity to love God and to love our neighbors. There’s a much larger connection you’re calling people to make, each Sunday morning—right? How do you explain the goal of good preaching?”

George paused, collected his thoughts, and then said:

“Probably the main concern I have is that the big story we are trying to share with the world gets lost in preaching sometimes. The overall theme of redemption, the arc of the biblical story, is not evident in the sermon sometimes. The Gospel itself, the narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world, doesn’t come through in a given sermon that is thematically more narrow.

“As you and I have discussed, David, as we have worked on preparing this book—I think that every sermon has to offer some hope in it, some sense of grace, some vision of the New Creation, some sense of God’s presence that transforms us. Sometimes, there’s a teaching focus in sermons that is too narrow on a particular text and the proclamation is lost in the didactic nature of that specific explanation of a text. So, in a sermon like that, we may come away with a better understanding maybe of a particular slice of a biblical passage—but we may miss the sense that we are caught up in the grand drama of what God is doing in the world.

“This is such an important thing for preachers to recognize: We all are living some kind of story and it’s our job to get the story straight about what the Gospel is and to remind people that they were baptized into this Gospel story. It’s very easy to slip into more of an American story, say, or more of a family story, say, or more of a business story, perhaps—and lose the sense of what your particular place is in this great narrative of what God is up to in our world.

“Related to that is a need for preaching to help shape our souls and our characters in a way that allows us to resist those alternative stories—first to recognize them and then second to resist them and third to be able to be a witness to an alternative way.

“We have to remember what our job is when we’re standing up to preach. Too often we sense that we’re there to entertain because we want people to keep coming back. So, yes, we’re trying to tell good stories. But the stories we need to tell in good preaching are not just the stories that will capture people’s attention. The question is: Why do we tell these stories? What is the point of the stories we choose to tell? How do the stories we tell link to the bigger narrative of God in our world? How does it connect with the stream of God flowing through our world?

“We sometimes are too tempted to entertain or even to pander to the congregation in terms of what would delight them or make them know that we are on their side. In fact, out of love for the Gospel, love for God, love for our calling, sometimes we are called to challenge people—sometimes we need to actually make them uncomfortable. That requires of preachers a tremendous amount of personal spiritual fortitude because the pushback you’re going to get will be real if you are making people feel uncomfortable. You have to have the sense that you are sustained by a greater power. You need that strength, that fortitude, so that you don’t lose your identity when sometimes you are criticized for what you have been preaching.”

Challenges Clergy Face

Click on this photo to learn more about the pastoral residency program that George Mason and his predecessor, Bruce McIverhas, conceived for Wilshire Baptist Church.

Whatever your faith may be, the world’s great religious traditions are united in calling people toward building healthy communities, caring for the needy among us and promoting peaceful solutions in the world.

Currently, there are more than 444,000 clergy in the U.S. and those numbers are growing each year, according to the DATA:USA report on clergy compiled by Deloitte, Datawheel and Cesar Hidalgo, Professor at the MIT Media Lab.

As I looked at that DATA:USA clergy report with George, one conclusion we drew was: These folks certainly didn’t choose this field for the money. Clergy earn an average of slightly more than $47,000 a year. K-12 school teachers average more than $56,000; registered nurses earn nearly $68,000; police officers earn more than $72,000; pharmacists earn $107,000.

“One thing that really concerns me about these data is that we should be alarmed by how low clergy salaries are. That’s a national average and that means many clergy families are trying to exist on what’s less than a living wage today. That’s especially true for students leaving seminary today with more debt than ever—debt they’ll be paying off for years,” George said.

“The other thing that surprises me here, in this report, is the projected growth of the numbers of clergy,” he said. “I know that enrollment is down in seminaries all across the country and it’s increasingly difficult for many of these schools to stay open—especially to get master of divinity students. There are many students now looking for one- or two-year master degrees but not the longer program that qualifies you traditionally for ordination.

“And beyond the basic financial challenges that we see here for clergy, there are so many other challenges clergy face and so much more we need to know to be prepared for ordained ministry today,” George said.

Diving deeper into the DATA:USA report, the many facets of clergy education today become clear, including: studies in business, social sciences, psychology, public health, administration, computer technology and legal issues.

Even though George recently retired from Wilshire and switched to an ongoing emeritus status with his congregation—his calling to help prepare new pastors continues.

I asked George to describe some of the ways he has been working on that vocation. “Specifically, since this new book is about preaching, can you tell us how you’ve worked on improving the quality of preaching?” I asked.

“Over the past 20 years, the main way I’ve tried to work on improving preaching nationally is through our pastoral residency program at Wilshire Baptist Church, which started in 2002,” George said. “Soon after Wilshire’s program began, we became one of the first congregations in America to receive a major grant from the Lilly Endowment for its Transitions to Ministry program.

“Through that program, we really focused a lot on preaching. We now have 40 graduates of that program who are out in other congregations now and a lot of the work we’ve done is helping them to find their voice, learn how to exegete context as well as biblical texts, talk to them about the setting of where they are preaching, who they are preaching to, what the cultural context is and how to match their voice to the ears of a congregation. So, that’s been a good part of my effort nationally.

“Plus, we’ve supported Day1, which is a longstanding broadcast effort to improve preaching, and I’ve been on Day1 a few times with Peter Wallace’s team.”

And, as we have said above, stay tuned to Day1, because you may hear George again later this year.

Ways We All Can Help Spread Good News

First, order your copy of this book—and another copy to give to your congregation or your pastor. Amazon offers both hardcover and paperback editions for gift giving. If you email us at [email protected] and tell us about your order, we can even arrange for some of those first emailers to receive a signed bookplate from George that you could affix to the front of your copy. We really would like to hear what you think—because we know that more and more readers will be inspired by meeting George in the pages of this multimedia book.

(And because our cover stories remain online for years, we will add this qualifier: We can’t continue the bookplate offer forever, but we would welcome hearing from some of you who are becoming early readers!)

Connect with George yourself via his brand-new author’s page on Facebook—www.facebook.com/revgeorgemason

And visit George’s similarly brand-new websitewww.GeorgeAMason.com—which is a gateway both to his new book and to all of George’s ongoing work now that he has moved to emeritus status with Wilshire. When you first visit, sign up for his free email updates. (It’s easy to cancel anytime, but we doubt you’ll want to cancel.) Then, the website also makes it easy to Contact George, if you’re interested in an invitation to speak or have other questions.

Care to learn more?

This week in our Front Edge Publishing column, we have a special “thank you” from the head of the Wilshire Baptist Church publishing team, Gail Brookshire, who writes about how her team was able to create and launch this book project within one year—a remarkable feat in publishing.




The Rev. Dr. John Harnish, author of ’30 Days with E. Stanley Jones,’ is honored with a global award in Christian outreach

“At the beginning of my ministry,” says the Rev. Dr. John E. Harnish, “I never intended to be connected with colleges, seminaries and campus ministry, but looking back over 50 years, I realize what an important part it has played in my life.”

Education has played a large part in the work of the Methodist Church around the world as well. Methodism had its birth when John Wesley was a student at Oxford and his “Holy Club” was mockingly called “Methodists” because they were so methodical in their disciplined life. When Frances Asbury came to the American colonies as the first Methodist Bishop, he said he believed there should a school beside every church. Wherever Methodists have gone in the world they have established schools and colleges as well as churches.

Annually, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to the church’s program of higher education and campus ministry with the “Frances Asbury Award.”

In 2022, the Michigan recipient is author Rev. Dr. John E. Harnish, who has just published 30 Days with E. Stanley Jones—Global Preacher, Social Justice Prophet. Jones himself counted education as one of his own primary goals in global evangelism.

How did Harnish find himself focusing on education? He says, “It started in my early years in ministry when my District Superintendent made it possible for me as a young preacher to serve on the conference Board of Ordained Ministry.”  That led to his connection with the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry where he eventually serving for seven years as the Associate General Secretary.

Two events during his time with the General Board book-end United Methodism’s commitment to education—the grand opening of Africa University and the 250th Anniversary of Kingswood College. His first international trip on behalf of the board took him to the new university in Zimbabwe and on a trip to England he shared in the anniversary of Kingswood, John Wesley’s first school. Today there are 107 United Methodist colleges, universities and seminaries in the USA and over 1,000 Methodist-related institutions across the globe.

Dr. Harnish is a graduate of Asbury University and Asbury Theological Seminary and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has served on the Boards of Trustees for the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary in Estonia, Methodist Theological School in Ohio and Adrian College in Michigan. As the pastor of Ann Arbor First United Methodist Church, he worked with the Wesley Foundation at the University of Michigan and when he pastored First United Methodist Church of Birmingham, MI, the church was linked with four seminaries–Garrett-Evangelical, Duke, Costa Rica and Estonia.

Harnish says, “I am grateful for the Frances Asbury Award and I give thanks for the opportunities to be involved in this facet of the global work of United Methodism.”

Charles Wesley wrote a hymn for Kingswood College which includes the line: “Unite the pair so long dis-joined–knowledge and vital piety. 

Over the centuries,” Harnish says, “that has been the commitment of Methodism, and looking back, I am glad I’ve been able to share in it.”


The ancient hero David is a doorway for timely interfaith dialogues on the values of leadership

David’s name is everywhere in the Holy Land. This photo shows a portion of the stone walls in Jerusalem’s Old City looking toward what today is known as the Tower of David. (Wikimedia Commons photo shared by Pudelek.)


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“There is so much we share as Muslims, Jews and Christians—if we could only remember that God intended us to live peacefully as brothers and sisters,” said Victor Begg, author of Our Muslim Neighbors. He was one of many authors who called or Zoomed with the home office of our publishing house over the past two weeks and talked about the urgency of maintaining peaceful dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths.

“Most Christians and Jews don’t realize that Moses, or Musa as we call him, is the single most frequently mentioned individual name in the Quran,” Victor said. “There are even more references to Isa, our name for Jesus, in the Quran. These are just two of the major sacred figures we all share—like the great Prophet Dawud, as we call David—who we regard as a righteous messenger of God.

“Go into any Muslim community, and you’ll meet people named after these great figures. I know a number of Musas, Isas and Dawuds,” Victor said. “God truly made us brothers and sisters. For the future of our families, I continue to devote myself to telling anyone who will listen: We must find ways to peacefully live together.”

David as a Prophetic Doorway to Discussing Leadership

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

At Victor’s mention of David to me—as Editor of ReadTheSpirit and also a bearer of David’s name for 65 years—I realized that I also should reach out to our resident expert on David: Larry Buxton, author of 30 Days with King David—on Leadership. I scheduled a Zoom with Larry and his colleague Ibrahim Anli, executive director of the Rumi Forum, a nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue from its home base in Washington D.C.

This summer, thousands of Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy nationwide (those who plan their preaching around the Revised Common Lectionary) are scheduled to read about and preach about the life of David for 10 weeks. That means millions of us will have an opportunity to recall the inspiring life of this ancient hero.

That’s also why Larry Buxton has just posted online a 10-week series of short videos that we invite men and women to use individually—or with their small groups—during this summer of David.

In the opening pages of Larry’s book, Ibrahim Anli has written an endorsement of Larry’s work on David that begins:

We are navigating through a period that calls for exceptional leadership. This book is a fascinating guide that brings King David’s story to the help of contemporary individuals trying to achieve a virtuous life rewarded with success. Larry Buxton seamlessly connects landmark scenes from the King’s life with challenges that test the contemporary individual’s leadership qualities. This is a timely journey in the footsteps of King David, particularly for those in search for renewed determination to face their own Goliaths, whatever they might be.

Ibrahim could have written that same endorsement—about “a period that calls for exceptional leadership”—as recently as the past two weeks.


Where would a dialogue with Muslims about the life of David begin? What similarities and differences could that conversation explore?

Both Christians and Muslims agree that God chose David as a divine representative—and that David’s Psalms are sacred hymns. Where Christians and Muslims disagree is that Christians tend to talk about David’s passionate desire to remain close to his divine calling, despite temptations and some epic failures. In Islamic tradition, where great prophets are viewed as sinless, accounts of David’s life omit any stories of sinful behavior.

“He is one of our major figures in Islam,” Ibrahim said. “But as we begin to talk in interfaith conversations about him, the big difference for Muslims is that we do not associate our prophets with anything that might be considered disrespectful.

“In Islam, we focus on a different view of David’s role—as a great leader both in the day as a commander and field marshal defending the realm of monotheism and also at night when he was deep in prayer asking for God’s guidance. David is an example of a leader who is constantly tempted by the desires that may come with worldly success—and yet he also is constantly in prayer that his military career not lead him to these temptations.”

“That’s what makes David such a good example of the tensions of leadership,” Larry said. “What Ibrahim is describing is discussed in my book. The life of David is very rich in insights as we wrestle with what it means to be wise and faithful leaders today.”

Care to Read More?

Larry is correct about directing readers, next, to the actual book about David. If this column is intriguing to you, then please order a copy of his book.

Because of the 10-week focus on David in thousands of congregations, this summer, Larry is freely sharing 10 videos. Visit www.LarryBuxton.com/Preaching-David to find all of the videos.

Please help with this peacemaking effort. Share that link with friends. Encourage your pastor, lector, small group leader or Sunday School teacher to check out these videos. They’re easy to share—and easy to show to friends as a brief “video clip” to spark discussion in your congregation or small group.

And, YES, for those of you who pay careful attention to intellectual property: You do have our permission to stream these clips in your community.

AN EASY REMINDER: If you want to make the videos’ location even easier to remember, just go to www.LarryBuxton.com and you’ll find a link to the Preaching David video series right there on the opening page.

Interested in placing a group order of books for your class or circle of friends? Amazon ordering is quick and easy for most of us. If you are interested in 10 or more copies, email us at [email protected] 

Care to have Larry or Victor visit your group?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Are you interested in scheduling a time when either of these authors could virtually visit your group this summer or autumn?

FOR LARRY BUXTONVisit the Contact page on Larry’swebsite. Depending on schedules, Larry welcomes such invitations and may be able to arrange something.

FOR VICTOR BEGG—The same is true of Victor Begg. His Contact page is on the website he maintains for his bookOur Muslim Neighbors: A Muslim Immigrant’s Memoir of Pursuing the American Dream and Serving Our Communities in Turbulent Times.

AND, PLEASE, encourage the peacemaking work of these authors by sharing news of this story with friends and members of your congregation, class or Sunday School group.

Retired bishop John Spong on rediscovering Matthew’s Jewish roots

Editor of readthespirit.com

Spring is the perfect season to explore John Shelby Spong’s new book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. First, look past the book’s title—those words are a publisher’s way of reminding readers of the controversy retired Bishop “Jack” Spong has sparked throughout most of his career. Yes, this new book is a provocative re-interpretation of gospel stories and some Christians will disagree with Spong, as usual.

But, there’s so much more than mere “controversy” in this book!

What’s so fresh and fascinating about this book is its in-depth look at the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel of Matthew. That’s perfectly timed reading for the season that includes Easter (Western Christians have celebrated; Eastern Orthodox will soon) as well as Passover. This is a time, each year, when interfaith relationships blossom. Most Jewish communities nationwide offer some kind of friendly outreach to Christians who want to understand the Passover seder from a Jewish perspective. Most Christians, after all, traditionally say that Jesus’s Last Supper was a seder meal.

“Book titles are funny things,” Spong said with a chuckle as he discussed this new book in a recent interview. “I guess I fight about book titles with my publisher more than we fight about anything. What I’m really working on in these books is ‘The Gospels as Midrash,’ but Harper doesn’t want anything to do with that kind of title.”

I asked Spong, “How many non-Jewish Americans know that term midrash? I’m not sure as a journalist that I’d be able to explain it fully in a sentence. I’d probably say: Midrash is a traditional Jewish process for interpreting scripture by exploring tangents and connections with the basic text. And that’s what you do with Matthew in this new book—it’s one of your best books, I think. But putting ‘Midrash’ in a title for general readers? As a publisher myself, I wouldn’t recommend that.”

And he chuckled again. “Yes, you’re probably right. And Harper was right. But we go round and round about titles sometimes. I am glad you understand what this book is about. I have written about this general subject before, but this time I really look at Matthew in a new way.”

If readers look beyond the front cover, they will find that the book has a second and more descriptive subtitle: “A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.” That gets closer to the unique look at Matthew Spong offers in these 400 pages, but not entirely.

This book really is a midrash on Matthew, connecting Christian readers with Jesus’s Jewish world in a new way. Spong ultimately draws a new kind of Christian message at the end of the book. But, he also draws on a number of notable Jewish scholars in his research and it’s likely some Jewish readers will be intrigued by the many connections Spong makes.

If you’re wondering whether such an ambitious idea makes sense—writing a book that might interest both Christian and Jewish readers—we can say: Spong knows knows something about his audience.

In fact, this particular book was born after Spong was invited in 2014 to present five days of lectures at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. How many people showed up? Ten thousand!

By his estimate, about a quarter of those men and women who attended his lectures were Jewish. It was truly a five-day interfaith gathering. His subject that year was the Jewish context of the gospel of John. And the enthusiasm for his lectures led him to dig deeper into the other three gospels. The result is this book that walks readers through Matthew from a perspective most Christians have never considered.

Spong argues that nearly 2,000 years ago the gospel known as Matthew was written for early Christian churches to read and remember the key events in Jesus’s life—as organized in a pattern following the annual calendar of Jewish festivals. Spong credits the late British Bible scholar Michael Goulder with writing about this notion in a persuasive way—convincing enough to lead Spong to devote years of study to expanding on Goulder’s ideas.

“I’ve included ‘Michael Goulder (1927-2010)’ in my dedication of this new book,” Spong says. “Most Americans haven’t heard his name, but among Bible scholars, he was so important. I discovered his work back in the 1990s when I was doing research on the gospel birth narratives at Cambridge. I remember buying this massive book Goulder had published and it really was tough sledding going through his work. But one of his big contributions was this idea that the gospels were organized around themes in the Jewish year.”

What does that mean? Regular Bible readers know that there are many references to Jewish customs and festivals in the New Testament. What Goulder theorized and Spong now unfolds in detail for general readers is the idea that the actual order of the stories from Jesus’s life in Matthew are sequenced to be read against the backdrop of a Jewish calendar.

This new book is about 400 pages, describing how this connection between the faith traditions could help modern readers rediscover fresh inspiration from scripture. Some early Christians were gentiles, non-Jews who converted to the new faith and had no background in Judaism. But many early Christians were experienced in both religious realms. Imagine how much deeper some of Matthew’s stories would unfold if read against traditional Jewish reflections on the seasons and religious festivals.


Here’s one small example: Christians reading about Jesus’s arguments with critics in the 12th chapter of Matthew are likely to read right over the scene in which Jesus tells his critics that they don’t fully understand the story of Jonah. Gentiles unfamiliar with Judaism probably recall Jonah as the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a big fish. Christians who regularly study the Bible may remember more about Jonah and his mission to make the wayward people of the town of Nineveh repent of their sins.

“But I’m sure most Christians reading that passage—or hearing it read—are thinking: What’s this sudden reference to Jonah? Why is Jesus talking about Jonah?” Spong says. “If we don’t understand the structure of Matthew, it’s just something we read and forget about, isn’t it?”

But in the middle of Spong’s book, readers will discover why that reference to Jonah is such a poignant moment in Matthew—and how that passage of Matthew must have sparked deep spiritual reflection in early Christian congregations with Jewish roots.

Jewish readers will know that the text of Jonah is read, each year, on Yom Kippur. In fact, it’s a common topic for Jewish inspirational writing and teaching each year. Here’s one example of a column from ReformJudaism.org, offered as inspirational reading in the High Holidays.

“When people read my book, they’ll learn that just before Matthew 12, where Jesus talks about Jonah and we get this connection with Yom Kippur—just before that in my book, I look at the ways Matthew 11 relates to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that leads to Yom Kippur,” Spong says. “And after that section of my book, then I write about how Matthew 13 relates to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. These are connections that I think most Christians have never considered while they’re reading Matthew.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to Spong’s argument in this book, which takes all 400 pages to unfold. Step by step, his argument leads to his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death—once again placing his theology in contrast to preaching about Jesus’s crucifixion that is more typical in evangelical churches. For many years, Spong has called for a rethinking of these basic Christian teachings.


Some critics charge that Spong himself is a heretic—and no longer is a Christian. He rejects that charge and, in books like his latest, says that it is preachers who take the Bible literally who have abandoned their Christian roots.

“I simply want to help people see the truly transformative power of Christ’s message,” Spong says. “And, in this book, I point out that it’s right there in Matthew, if only we know how to read Matthew.

“The early followers of Jesus had to use words to describe and explain what really is beyond words,” he continues. “It’s our error today if we take those words, which can tell us so much, and force a literal reading that really imprisons Christ in a way that was never intended.”

And, in those words, Spong is echoing the final pages of his new book, where he writes in part:

The gospel of Matthew is about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world.

In Spong’s new book, Christian and Jewish readers likely will find fascinating, fresh interpretations of these ancient gospel stories. Agree or disagree with Spong’s larger theological arguments, he says that nevertheless, “After you consider what I’m describing in this book, I don’t think you’ll be able to read Matthew in the same way, again.”

Want a new culture war? Remember ‘The Exiled Generations’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

This spring, countless congregations across America are choosing up sides over the emerging inclusion of LGBT men and women in public life. (See Third Way Newsletter or Changing Our Mind for more on that.)

As the Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, I have received many questions from church members wondering how to welcome openly gay men and women—in the midst of this turbulent year of cultural, political and legal conflict.

On Sunday (April 11, 2015), The New York Times published a front-page story reporting that the nation’s top law firms are refusing to defend bans on gay marriage. Why? Top lawyers nationwide understand that with the likes of Walmart and the nation’s 100-plus top tech leaders on the side of inclusion—well, we’re reaching a point where there is no other respectable “side” on this issue.

Times reporter Adam Liptak wrote on Sunday: “In dozens of interviews, lawyers and law professors said the imbalance in legal firepower in the same-sex marriage cases resulted from a conviction among many lawyers that opposition to such unions is bigotry akin to racism.”

So, are we actually going to avoid cultural conflict with this major societal change? Hardly!

Do you know who will fight this issue of inclusion tooth and nail? Church people. The conflicts will be most ferocious in the classrooms and hallways and kitchens and social media of churches that are, overall, inclined to be welcoming. That’s because not all members will be welcoming. Some men and women will gird for battle. Casualty reports to come.


This is a good moment to order a copy of the real-life cautionary tale, The Exiled Generations: Legacies of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy Wars. The book is a bit pricey, listed at the moment at $32 from the University of Tennessee Press, but buy a copy and pass it around among friends.

At the heart of this book are 18 real-life stories, written by casualties in the Southern Baptist Convention’s quest for fundamentalist purity. While reading this new book—you’re likely to shed a tear, perhaps shake a fist and, most importantly, you may make a promise never to encourage culture wars in your own community.

That’s the bottom line when you close this book: There’s hope, if we free ourselves from the temptation to engage in this kind of religious conflict.

A leading journalist, Martin Davis, writes the final chapter of the book, telling his own story of exile. Martin has reported on ways to improve congregational communication for us, here at ReadTheSpirit, and at the website for the Day1 radio network.

Like the others in this book, Martin explains how being cast out of such an evangelical church can be a life-shattering trauma. These exiles from Southern Baptist churches once enjoyed life at the core of intensely religious communities where “everyone” seemed to share identical beliefs. When some powerful members rose up and decided to purge the Southern Baptist Convention of those they considered less than correct about Christianity—they drove away countless families. These men, women and young people not only lost their churches, they lost friends and they lost their certainty about life’s purpose.


As a journalist who went through this journey, Martin is perhaps better equipped to weather this blast than other men and women. Today, Martin is a senior editor in the division of U.S. News & World Report covering autos. He’s almost beyond the realm of the church’s potential to keep wounding him.

And here is where the final pages of this new book, written by Martin, connect with this week’s cover story we are publishing about the best-selling Christian writer Frederick Buechner and his love for The Wizard of Oz.

Martin calls his chapter “A Wandering Aramean,” referring to the translation of an ancient Hebrew phrase in  Deuteronomy 6:1-11 that appears in Christian Bibles. Most Christians, and Jews as well, would say that the “Aramean” in this famous verse was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Abraham.

In the new book, Martin writes that this phrase resonates with him, because …

… every age has known its wanderers. The wanderer is a central figure in many folktales and stories. They are good and evil, righteous and troubled. They are, like all of us, human. They’ve simply been called to a wandering existence.

Our souls are not troubled; they are inquisitive pieces of us locked in the flow of eternity. We have the privilege of falling into the current for a brief time; we explore and gather and learn and share; and like everyone else, we eventually leave.

That is the story that I will share with my children. It is a fortunate trip I have been blessed with. It was born of pain, but then, most things worth discovering are birthed from pain. For years, I disliked the source of my pain; I fought against it, and I allowed it to cloud my view of many great spiritual experiences in this society.

Today, I enjoy the journey. I relish the diversity of religious life, the conversations I have with people across the spectrum of the American landscape as they share their stories with me.

My younger son and I will turn back to this conversation of why we don’t go to church. This time, I will take the high road. Yes, I had some very bad experiences early in my faith walk; yes, I was deeply hurt by people I trusted. But there are few people in this world who have not experienced something like this. It can be your undoing, or it can be your door to a better shelter for you.

In my case, it opened another door—a door that few are privileged to walk through. Why don’t we attend a church? I’ll tell my son that we may answer honestly and with joy: a Wandering Aramean was my father.”


Every Passover, which just concluded on Saturday for Jewish families around the world, the passage from Deuteronomy 26 is included in the Haggadah readings over seder meals. Jewish families are encouraged to discuss this passage, in particular. Sometimes, in forming questions for discussion around the seder table, someone may ask:

“Who is the Aramean?” If you’ve never experienced a full-scale seder—believe me, that kind of question can touch off a very spirited discussion.

This spring, take the advice of Martin Davis and this book’s general editor Carl L. Kell and avoid culture wars that are destined to create thousands of new wounded wanderers. That’s one good lesson from their book.

There is another lesson, too, that Martin Davis stresses in his final chapter: Perhaps such wandering is simply unavoidable—perhaps it is the spiritual quest of our age. Millions of Americans, a significant minority of the population, now answer polling questions about their religious affiliation with the option: “None.”

The Nones aren’t anti-religious; most are spiritually wandering. Frederick Buechner says that he loves the Oz stories because they are part of the great American myth that all of us must wander in hope of finding a home.

Who is the Aramean?

Millions of Americans, including Martin Davis, know the answer: We’ve met the Aramean. And, he is—us.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

The Rachel Held Evans Interview on ‘Searching for Sunday’

FEELING a bit battered and blue after Easter? Every year, Easter is the single biggest day in churches coast to coast, a celebration of resurrection and new life.

Overall, however, attendance is down in the U.S., fueled by an exodus of younger adults. Yes, “Christians” are on the front pages of newspapers coast to coast, these days, but the news isn’t about inspiring growth. News reporters are covering “Christians” who are playing political hardball to try to maintain traditional bias against LGBT men and women in places like Indiana and Arkansas.

This isn’t shaping up like a hopeful springtime celebration of Christian renewal.

If this describes your attitude today, you should immediately order an antidote to these spiritual blues: Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book releases on April 14, 2015, but Amazon is taking orders now for delivery next week.

In her book, Rachel uses her considerable talent as one of the nation’s best spiritual storytellers to explore the great treasures people still can discover within the church. At their best, congregations can draw on the ancient tap roots of Christianity: love, compassion and hope for the world. If that doesn’t sound like your version of “church,” at the moment, then give Rachel a chance. You’ll get hooked on her real-life stories from the trenches of congregational life. In some cases, you’ll find yourself smiling broadly—maybe because you recognize your own story in Rachel’s stories.

By the end of the book, if you have given up on “church” until now, you’re likely to nod your head and say: “Hey, I’m going to give it another shot. There are a lot of treasures in this tradition.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …


DAVID: Rachel, you have so many talents—writer, speaker, teacher and you even appear in videos, as well—so, how do you introduce yourself to groups?

RACHEL: Yes, I’m a writer, a blogger, a speaker. But, when I introduce myself, I usually begin by saying that I grew up in the Bible belt and that as a young adult I grew up in a nondenominational evangelical church. Then, as a young adult, I had questions about what I believed. I went through–and I’m still going through–a lot of doubts.

I tell people: You’re not alone if you have doubts and questions. I do, too.

Oh, and I usually say I’m married—and a huge Alabama Crimson Tide fan.

DAVID: That’s a great introduction to this book, which begins with your baptism by full immersion at the age of 12. Readers who grew up in an evangelical church will think of their own early experiences; readers who’ve never stepped into the doors of such a church will be fascinated by the scene you paint. And—the Crimson Tide? You describe, in your home church, the “red-and-white hair bows, neck ties, sports jackets, and blouses—the sacred accouterments of Alabama’s second region.” That was, at the time of your baptism, the University of Alabama football team under Gene Stallings.

And then, toward the end of that chapter, you mention the real doubts that can pop up even in the midst of a perfect moment like your own baptism. After the ritual,  you write: “I remember wondering why I didn’t feel cleaner, why I didn’t feel holier or lighter or closer to God when I’d just been born again.”

Honesty—even about your doubts—is a hallmark of your writing.

RACHEL: My writing seems to attract people who are in some sort of religious transition. They may be going from one kind of Christianity to another kind of Christianity–or they’re moving from Christianity to some other faith entirely or to no faith at all. I seem to attract readers who are on a journey–reflecting on what they once believed and trying to figure out what they now believe.


DAVID: One of the best passages in your book appears right away in the prologue “Dawn.” I think you should ask a graphic designer to blow this up into poster size with the cover of your book—and offer it as a free download for people to print out and hang on a wall. I bet a lot of people would want to hang this poster.

I”m talking about the passage where you summarize the entire book. It goes like this:

“The church tells us we are beloved (baptism).
The church tells us we are broken (confession).
The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders).
The church feeds us (communion).
The church welcomes us (confirmation).
The church anoints us (anointing of the sick).
The church unites us (marriage).”

This new book really is about reminding us of that core power within our religious traditions and communities, right?

RACHEL: I’m glad you like the way I wrote that introduction. Yeah, you’re right. Those lines are a summary of the book. What I’m trying to say about this whole list—who some readers will recognize as a list of sacraments, depending on their Christian tradition—is that you actually don’t have to use sacramental language to describe those seven things. Millions of Christians don’t use the word “sacrament” to describe all of those things. At an evangelical church, for example, people might not acknowledge anointing of the sick as a “sacrament,” but we do see people caring for the sick and praying with the sick every day. The behavior is there even if it’s not described as “sacrament.”

This is important for me to communicate to readers in this book: I’m not saying we all have to use the same language to describe these things we do in the church—but these seven behaviors are there.

Then, I arranged the book around seven sections that correspond to these things: baptism, communion, marriage and so on. When I first decided that I wanted to write a book about “church,” and about my own experiences—experiences that a lot of other people have had as well—I wasn’t sure how to organize the book. Then, I came up with the idea of arranging my thoughts around the sacraments. So, as you’ve said, I start with baptism.

And, as I tell my stories, I also write about the questions we have about these things. So, I was baptized—but what does that mean about my identity now? A lot of people are asking that kind of question, including a lot of people who have left church entirely.


DAVID: Here’s one reason I love your book: You fully recognize all of the problems church leaders have caused and all of the mistakes they’ve made. But, nevertheless, you flat-out love the church. And if I had to explain one of the central appeals of this book, I only have to look at prime-time TV this spring.

I often meet with community leaders, including religious leaders and media professionals. Among media professionals, everybody’s talking about the explosion of these big-budget biblical-themed productions on TV this spring: “Killing Jesus,” “The Dovekeepers,” “A.D.—The Bible Continues.” In fact, the debut of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus” just set new viewership records for the National Geographic Channel. Secular media professionals are buzzing about how we haven’t seen this many swords-and-sandals epics since the 1950s.

But Christian leaders? They’re still down in the dumps about all the Americans who are turning away from organized religion. Before Easter, when I did meet Christian clergy, I told them: “On Easter morning, just stand up in the pulpit and say: ‘You’re seeing the story on TV every night. Now, you’ve come to the place where we live by those stories you love so much. Welcome home!’ ” Now, that’s one way to preach the Easter message.

I was thinking about your chapter “Wind” in which you talk about the powerful, timeless flowing of the Spirit. And you describe Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus. This is the story where Nicodemus seems confused by what Jesus is preaching and Jesus finally gets fed up with the older man’s stubbornness in refusing to believe what Jesus is saying. As you retell the story, you put Jesus’s response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re supposed to be the expert! Don’t you know this already?”

I feel as though that exchange, deep in your book, is really a strong message to readers who have forgotten the true spiritual power of the church to foster love and compassion and hope and healing in the world. “You’re the experts! Don’t you know this already?”

RACHEL: Yeah, you’re right. Now, I also have to say: Yes, I get people’s discouragement. I get that numbers are down and people aren’t going to church like they used to. But you know what? We follow this God who knows a thing or two about transforming the layout of the grave—and God’s not ready to give up. So, we shouldn’t be ready to give up.

The truth is: People will always be interested in Jesus. Just stop for a moment and think. These days, we fret so much about what clothes we wear in church and what music we use on Sunday mornings and—well, we fret about so many things that distract us from what we need to remember: Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name. We know that Jesus is present in communion in some way—and I know that the words we use to describe communion are different, depending on our Christian tradition—but we know that Jesus is present in it.

In the church, we are supposed to be the people who know how to introduce people to Jesus—and you know what? Millions of people want to meet Jesus. Yeah, Christianity may be losing some of its influence over the culture, but that may be a good thing.

Now, we have to ask ourselves: What does it truly mean to be influential? Does it mean having political battles go our way? I think we need to look back to what’s most important. And I think the most important signs are the fruits of the spirit.


DAVID: And the truth is that church life—in fact, congregational life whatever your faith might be—is hard! Americans are among the most religious—and also the most outspoken—people in the world, according to the World Values Survey. So, it’s natural that congregations are hotbeds of both wonderfully compassionate spiritual growth—and sometimes big, emotional fights, right?

RACHEL: So many of us have experienced church burnout, and you’re right: It’s not just among evangelicals. If you’re invested in a congregation, then I’m certain that you’ll be disappointed big time at some point. It’s a part of being in a community–people will let you down. I reached a point a while ago when I got burned out because of the culture wars in which so many Christians are invested. This came to a head for me when the World Vision story broke—Christians refusing to give money to World Vision because the non-profit was going to allow people in same-sex marriages to work in its U.S. offices.

DAVID: You recently wrote a column for CNN about that turning point, headlined: “Are Culture War ‘Victories’ Worth the Casualties?” You really poured out your fury in that column, asking how Christians could celebrate a loss in donations to World Vision that cost thousands of children and their families the food, health care and other services they so desperately need. When you saw so-called Christian activists proclaiming victory, you describe your reaction this way: “Never in my life had I been so angry at my own faith tradition.”

RACHEL: I got so burned out at that. Christians battling a culture war were willing to let thousands of children go hungry because they wanted to punish World Vision over welcoming gay and lesbian men and women. It’s hard for me to even understand how people can think like that! Not only were children victims, but so were all the LGBT Christians who got caught in the middle of this culture war.

DAVID: You were angry—and yet you couldn’t abandon Christianity.

RACHEL: Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the church game.

DAVID: I want to stress to readers that your viewpoint on LGBT inclusion isn’t shocking. You’re not even in a prophetic minority on this issue. In fact, most Americans are moving in this direction. You’ve only got to read the latest column by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker to see the dramatic shift in public opinion. In Dr. Baker’s words: “I’ve been following and reporting these trends for quite a while.”

RACHEL: You’re right. Study after study is showing this to be the case. Barna has done research on this, too. For young adults this is a huge reason that they’ve abandoned church. I have beat that drum so many times. It’s so frustrating to go to an evangelical conference and tell pastors straight-up: This is really driving people away from your churches.

And they say, “No, that’s not the problem. We’ll just bring in a better class of band to perform better worship music.”

And I go: “Ohhhhh, yeah. Like that’s going to make a difference.”

DAVID: I am amazed at how many seminaries and universities and other groups are welcoming Dr. David P. Gushee to talk about his book Changing Our Mind. Gushee also is shouldering a backlash from conservatives for his new stance on welcoming LGBT Christians. But, to borrow the headline from the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, Gushee’s on “The Right Side of History.”

RACHEL: What Gushee is doing is such a huge deal. I know so many gay friends who were just thrilled when he spoke out and published that book.


DAVID: At the end of author interviews, I usually ask a “walking away” question. As an author, envision readers walking away from having read your book. What do you hope they carry with them?

RACHEL: Every author I know has this hope—that their work helps people pay attention to the world around them in new ways. We need to pay better attention to God working in the world and in the church.

I hope that people make new connections. I hope this book changes how we see our neighbors. I hope that I can help readers pay more attention to the Spirit moving in our world.

I hope that readers will see themselves in my stories. I hope they’ll realize: Oh, somebody else has experienced these questions, and these doubts, I’ve experienced. I especially hope that when people finish reading my book, they will feel less alone.

Care to read more?

BUY THE BOOK—Click on the cover photo with this interview to visit the book’s Amazon page. Here’s her Amazon author page.

VISIT RACHEL ONLINE—She’s everywhere. Visit her main website, which is the mother ship for everything Rachel is doing from publications and public appearances to her latest blog posts. You’ll also find her on Twitter, where you can join her more than 60,000 followers, and on Facebook, too.

GET THE VIDEO—Rachel also appears in the very creative Animate Bible-study series. In her portion of that series, Rachel talks about “how the Old Testament and the New Testament relate to each other for Christians.”

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)