Nurturing Faith with Harry Emerson Fosdick

Faith As A Personal Adventure

“Religion at its source is personal adventure on a way of living. A new idea of life’s spiritual meaning, incarnate in a leader, summons men, and they cut loose from old entanglements and try the challenging venture.” [i]

Adventurous Religion, Harry Emerson Fosdick

“This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.”

John 15:12 (Common English Bible)

Fosdick wrote of a letter he received from a man who never united with a church. The author of the letter shared with Fosdick that there is a teaching of the church, a church doctrine, which he simply cannot embrace. Fosdick identified the man as one who is reverent, spiritually-minded, and essentially religious but thinks he must stay outside of the church. That conviction was inextricably bound to his understanding that the church demanded belief in this one teaching where he was unable to believe. Fosdick continues that Jesus never mentions the one teaching that presented such difficulties for the man—that the teaching developed in the church centuries after Jesus lived. This is the peril, argues Fosdick, with which the church must now wrestle.

My ministry once presented a similar difficulty—a difficulty that a church member had with a particular teaching of the apostle Paul. That teaching, “At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way, there is equality. As it is written, ‘The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little'” (2 Corinthians 8:14, 15). In my office, the man instructed me that this particular teaching was socialism and shouldn’t be read again. Taking a leadership lesson from William Willimon, I told him that my baptismal burden, as his pastor, is to teach the Bible – the whole Bible. His baptismal burden was to work out with God what he would do with the Bible’s claim upon him.

From my perspective, neither the man who wrote Fosdick nor the man who spoke to me in my office has paid much attention to Jesus. Perhaps Fosdick and I are to blame. Perhaps preaching, in general, has veered off from teaching as Jesus taught. Jesus neither espoused religious doctrine or political ideology. Jesus simply asked that we love one another. Perhaps the fault is much larger. Our nation has become snared in debate, politically and doctrinally, over what an American and a Christian look like. There is little humility and less civility. Returning to Willimon, our baptismal burden is freeing ourselves from political and doctrinal entanglements to really listen to Jesus and seek the wisdom to live as Jesus lived. The great adventure of the Christian faith has been reduced to unpleasant rhetoric.

Fosdick argues that “faith” has acquired a meaning far removed from the day of Jesus. It has ceased being primarily a daring thing—a mountain-mover, as Jesus understood faith, or a victory that overcomes the world, as John called it. Increasingly, in Fosdick’s day, and continuing in the present day, “faith” is stereotyped and organized until it means acceptance of creedal and political positions. What remains is unquestioned acceptance from the faithful. Sadly, it seems, the climate has changed from the day of the New Testament. Who would imagine Jesus facing such rhetoric and debate? Except, a closer examination of the New Testament discloses that, in fact, Jesus faced the same each day. Jesus’ response was to demonstrate what love looked like. Perhaps, that is where we need to return.


[i] Fosdick, Harry Emerson, Adventurous Religion and Other Essays. New York: Blue Ribbon, 1926, 1, 2.


A Radiant Life

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

John 3:1,2 (Common English Bible)

I never knew my maternal grandfather, George Alexander. He died from a brain tumor before I was born. In his last days, a patient in the hospital, he tossed back and forth in pain and discomfort. The end of life was near. He knew it. His family knew it. The physicians and staff who cared for him knew it. The day before he died, he asked for the doctor. His wife, my grandmother, gently took his hand and told him that there was nothing more the doctor could do. His eyes growing wide, he looked intently at his wife and offered this clarity, “Not that doctor. The doctor with the Book!” My grandfather was asking for his pastor, the Dr. Vernon S. Broyles. In his own feeble manner, what he was saying is that he wanted God.

A Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, comes to Jesus at night. This observation is nuanced intentionally to stir curiosity. First, the Pharisees were a lay party of Jewish leaders many of whom were aligned against Jesus. Second, Nicodemus’ identification as a “Jewish leader” is not a redundant observation given that he was already identified as a Pharisee. No, Nicodemus is a Pharisee of considerable standing among the Jewish people, an “E. F. Hutton” of his generation. His words, his behavior, and his actions were closely observed. Nicodemus’ identity is wrapped up in his position. Finally, that he approached Jesus “at night” demonstrates caution – Nicodemus fears that he will be seen.

Nicodemus is here seeking God, giving himself the opportunity to hear the voice of God. Many of his Pharisee colleagues were confident that they occupied the corner of all truth, all wisdom. They had God all figured out. Pharisees were driven by one impulse, to demonstrate and teach the truth about God to everyone else. They had nothing more to learn. Such a position results in the easy judgment of any position that lay outside their understanding. Personal inquiry to a deeper knowledge of God is suffocated by self-assurance. Yet, Nicodemus’ heart has been taken possession by a haunting sense that there is more to know of God, a yearning for a richer experience of God. Nicodemus came to Jesus – though “at night.”

It matters little whether we seek God as my grandfather did, by asking a loved one for the pastor or, as Nicodemus did, quietly and out of notice of watchful eyes. In the last analysis, what matters is that we pay attention to the timeless urge that tugs at the human heart – the longing to know God. We think we need many things. We work hard and strive to check off one more item on that list. But, in moments of stillness, silence, and honesty, we are aware that the heart seeks one thing – a deep and increasing desire to know God. Many have pursued costly pleasures, but few have arrived at contentment. The radiant life begins when the one thing neglected is neglected no longer – the hunger for God.



Tears in a Bottle

“You yourself have kept track of my misery. Put my tears into your bottle – aren’t they on your scroll already?” 

Psalm 56:8 (Common English Bible)


Many of us have a bucket list – a list of experiences we would cherish before death. They require no explanation to others, no defense. They are deeply personal. Further, an explanation may reduce the depth, color, and richness of personal meaning. Most people recognize that what is experienced deeply can rarely be expressed with words. Words are useful for the communication of thought. They are less useful for conveying deeply held emotions, feelings, and convictions. A strong writer can approach this depth of meaning better than most. But always, words have a reducing effect. Permit me to simply state that high on my bucket list are three experiences I would value: a cameo appearance in a stage production of the musical RENT, a balloon handler in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and sharing a cappuccino with David Hyde Pierce.

Some will remember that David Hyde Pierce played the character of Niles Crane on the popular television series, Frasier.  On three occasions I have enjoyed David Hyde Pierce on a Broadway stage: Spamalot, Curtains, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. If I were to have an occasion to have a private conversation with Pierce over coffee my first question to him would be, “What makes you cry?” An answer to that question often points to deeply held convictions; points to those values, and struggles, and principles that grip our hearts. Again, words are limiting. But they can point another in the right direction. An answer to the question, “What makes you cry?” provides a window into the depths of another’s soul.

Naturally, tears come in a rich variety. A powerful conviction of truth draws tears to my eyes every time. I simply cannot read in Luke’s Gospel the story of Simeon taking the infant Jesus in his arms without my chest becoming heavy and tears forming in my eyes. Here, Simeon recognizes this child as God’s salvation. This is a story that reaches beyond the descriptive; it is evocative. In faith, Simeon sees God’s decisive hand in the unfolding drama of human history. Grief is another variety of tears. Old Testament teacher, Walter Brueggemann helps us with understanding this passage from the Psalms. Here is a confidence that God has kept, treasured, and preserved “my tears”; that is, all the pain and suffering that the psalmist has experienced. “God is the great rememberer who treasures pain so that the psalmist is free to move beyond that pain.”[i] 

There is an ancient Jewish practice that provides care in times of misery and grief. A small bottle is provided to collect the tears of anguish and loss. The top of the bottle has a small hole in it that would allow those tears to evaporate over time. When the bottle is completely dry, the time for grieving is over. The Psalmist wants us to know that God has a bottle with our name on it. When tears of grief flow, God collects them in that bottle. This is how seriously God takes our grief; how God honors and shares in our loss. But there is a small hole in the top of that bottle. Over time the tears will evaporate. When the bottle is dry, and our eyes are clear, we see that God remains. And God redirects our eyes to tomorrow.





[i]Walter Brueggemann, William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 254.




Prayer and Responsibility

“Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord. Then Isaiah said, ‘Prepare a bandage made of figs.’ They did so and put it on the swelling, at which point Hezekiah started getting better.”

2 Kings 20:2, 7 (Common English Bible)

Theodore Roosevelt, our nation’s 26th president, was born a frail, sickly child with debilitating asthma. At seventeen, Roosevelt was as tall as he would grow, five feet eight inches, and was just shy of 125 pounds. His health, a continual concern of his parents, prompted Theodore Senior to decide that the time had come to “present a major challenge to his son.”i At the age of twelve, Theodore – nicknamed, Teedie – was told by his father that he had a great mind, but not the body. Without the help of the body, the mind could not go as far as it should. “You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”ii Teedie made the commitment to his father that he would do so. The promise was adhered to with bulldog tenacity. The young Theodore Roosevelt took personal responsibility for his physical health and development.

Hezekiah, king of Judah, became a very sick man during his leadership. He had a wound that had become so serious that his spiritual counselor, a prophet named Isaiah, informed him that he should put his affairs in order because he was dying. That diagnosis came like a bolt of lightning to Hezekiah. In desperation, Hezekiah “turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord.” He pled with the Lord to reward his faithfulness as a man of God and to spare his life. Then, the scriptures tell us, Hezekiah cried and cried. Before Isaiah had left the courtyard of the king’s residence, God sent him back to Hezekiah with another and more hopeful message: “I have heard your prayers and have seen your tears. So now I’m going to heal you. I will add fifteen years to your life.”iii Then follows something that is most curious: Isaiah orders a bandage made of figs be placed on the swelling. Hezekiah prayed and Isaiah prepared a bandage: prayer and responsibility.

With powerful clarity, this passage of scripture teaches us that two things were responsible for Hezekiah’s rapid recovery: prayer and a bandage, faith and personal responsibility. If the king was to recover his health, both were required. The Bible refuses to indicate which of the two was the more important. We cannot know which was the most effectual. The message is that without either of them Hezekiah would have died in the prime of his life and at a time when his country most needed his leadership. The power of the Assyrian king, and his armies, threaten the peace Judah. The death of Hezekiah would have made Judah most vulnerable to their enemies. With his health restored, Hezekiah was able to defend his nation from the Assyrian threat. This story provides an important lesson for God’s people: While prayer is essential it must never be made a substitute for personal responsibility.

There are people who make the mistake of choosing between the two, prayer and responsibility. We have seen in the news recently where parents of a particular Christian sect refused medical treatment for their young son because they chose the avenue of prayer alone. A choice between faith and medicine is simply not supported by this Bible lesson. Each is a gift of God and each has its own power. Faith and medicine are both means of healing. They belong together. Both are agents of a compassionate God. Prayer and personal responsibility cooperate closely in effecting the highest well-being of those who struggle with illness. This story from 2 Kings reminds us not to neglect either. The second century French physician, Paré, reminds us of this truth when he wrote, “I dressed the wound and God healed it.”



i Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 1979), 32.

ii Morris, 32.

iii Portions of 2 Kings 20:5,6.