A Little Shameless Self-Promotion

I am pleased to announce the publication of my book The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue by Wipf & Stock.

The book is the culmination of a lot of writing and reflection on the topic of uncertainty and doubt, including a number of sermons preached on the topic.

The book is written in response to the fact that the world is full of people who are very certain—in politics, in religion, in all manner of things. In addition, political, religious, and social organizations are marketing certainty as a cure all to all life’s problems. But is such certainty possible? Or even good?

Cover art for The Certainty of Uncertainty

The Certainty of Uncertainty explores the question of certainty by looking at the reasons human beings crave certainty and the responses we fashion to help meet that need. The book takes an in-depth view of religion, language, our senses, our science, and our world to find the inescapable certainties therein. We come to see that the certainty we crave does not exist.

As we reflect on the unavoidable uncertainties in our world, we come to understand that embracing uncertainty and doubt is not only necessary, it’s beneficial. For, in embracing doubt and uncertainty, we find a more meaningful and courageous religious faith, a deeper encounter with mystery, and a way to build strong relationships across religious and philosophical lines. In The Certainty of Uncertainty, we see that embracing our belief systems with humility and uncertainty can be transformative for our selves and for our world.

For more information about the book, including excerpts and previews, visit the book website: www.certaintyofuncertainty.com

The Certainty of Uncertainty can be purchased immediately from Wipf & Stock or pre-ordered from Amazon.


5 Things to Bear in Mind about that Passage concerning “The Governing Authorities.”

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. —Romans 13:1–7 (NRSV)

These words have been getting a lot of attention over the last couple of days, primarily because Attorney General Jeff Sessions used this passage to justify the separation of children from their asylum seeking parents at the southern U.S. border.

It has been pointed out that this passage was used by slaveholders in the American South to justify the institution of slavery and to demand the obedience of slaves to the slaveholding system. It has been further pointed out that this passage was also used by the Deutsche Christen (the “German Christians”) in Nazi Germany to justify subservience to the Nazi state. Both of those things are true.

But the question for us is, given the apparent clear language of this passage, how do we make sense of what seems to be a straightforward Biblical admonition to submit to governmental authority? To understand this passage and what it means for us today, we have to bear a few things in mind. Continue reading

Read! In the Name of Your Lord

Some years ago, I joined in the Ramadan fast as a gesture of solidarity with a friend. I found the practice incredibly meaningful and have continued doing so since then. For me, the Ramadan fast has simultaneously been a declaration of solidarity with my friends, with my Muslim students, and a source of spiritual discipline and deep meaning for me.

The past two years, however, I decided to add to that spiritual discipline. I decided I was going to try to read the entire Qur’an over the course of the month. I only fully succeeded the first year, making it all the way through. This year, I did read a substantial portion, but fell behind due to travel and never quite caught up. Continue reading

A Prayer for the WCL Class of 2018

The following was delivered as the invocation at the Commencement Ceremony for the American University Washington College of Law.

Blessed are you O Lord, Our God, ruler of the universe,
     who has granted us life, who has sustained us,
          and who has helped us to reach this season
, [1]
     “who executes justice for the oppressed;
          who gives food to the hungry.” [2]

In your grace, you have given us the Law
     and instilled in our hearts a desire for justice
          tempered by mercy.
     In pursuit of the knowledge of law
          these graduates have long labored
               (and perhaps long suffered)
          and come now
          to the end of their studies.

We gather this day to celebrate and give thanks:
     Thanks for this day and the gift of life;
     Thanks for the friends and family who have come
          from near and far
     Thanks for this University,
          for the faculty and staff
               for their instruction
                    their mentoring and guidance
                    their example and testimony;
And most of all, we give thanks for these graduates:
     for the gifts with which you have blessed them;
     for the blessing they will be to a world in need.

Help them—
     Indeed help all of us who have taken on the calling of the Law
     To remember the purposes
          for which the Law has been put forth,
          the task to which we have been summoned

On this Festival of Shavuot,
Let us hear the words spoken to us in your Torah:
     “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” [3]
and hear the words proclaimed by your prophets:
     to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the
          orphan, plead for the widow.” [4]

On this Pentecost Sunday,
Let us hear the words of One who reminded us
     not to neglect “the weightier matters of the law:
     justice and mercy and faith.” [5]

On this Fifth Day of Ramadan
Let us hear the words brought by your Messenger:
     “Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves.” [6]

And so, Author of all Righteousness,
     that in a world of injustice
          our graduates might be agents of justice;
     that in a world of division,
          they might be agents of reconciliation;
     that in a world of conflict,
          they might be agents of peace;
     that in a world of unfairness,
          they might be agents of equity;
     that in a world where the voices of so many are drowned out
          they might with their advocacy amplify those voices;
     that in a world in which so many are pushed to the margins,
          they might through their work draw all to the center.
     that in a world of rising authoritarianism,
     and in a world of rising chaos and disruption
          they might be agents of that ‘ordered liberty’
          that binds your people into a free and just society.
     that they may work for a world in which
     “justice may roll down like waters
     and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” [7]

And now, O God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, [8]
Send them forth in love and wisdom,
     with the boldness of vision
          and the fearlessness of hope,
     so that in all things they may testify to that hope
          in a world in need of their witness,
          now more than ever.
And let us say: Amen.


[1]Traditional Jewish prayer, the Shehecheyanu.

[2]Ps. 146:7

[3]Deut 16:20

[4]Is 1:17

[5]Matt 23:23

[6]Qur’an 4:135

[7]Amos 5:24

[8]From, the traditional Islamic blessing, the Bismillah.


Holy Ground

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
May 11, 2018—Interfaith Baccalaureate Service
Exodus 3:1–15: Hebrews 10:24-25; Qur’an 2:269, 3:7; 29:43; 96:1-5


So here we are. So close to being done you can almost taste it. Only a day or two more.

Between now and then, of course, there is a fair amount of pomp and circumstance, a number of ceremonies, and a lot of speechmaking that you may not quite have the patience for. (An observation I make with not a little sense of irony.)

But such occasions do merit a pause, an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been together and where we’re going. In this space we pause to invoke sacred tradition, the wisdom of our forebears in rite and word.

We gather to hear blessings, sacred text exhorting us to loving relationships and encouragement, or reminding us of the importance of wisdom and of the God who imparts knowledge and wisdom to humanity.


And we hear the story of Moses and his encounter with God at the Burning Bush. This story has a lot of appeal to read at a time like this.


Image courtesy wordle.net

Now, part of that appeal, to me, is that this passage was the basis for one of the first sermons I ever had occasion to preach to the Class of 2018 when they were freshmen. I won’t check to see if anyone here remembers that sermon, or was even present, or if you were present, if you ever came back after that. (For those of you putting on appearances for your parents, I and the other chaplains will promise to act like we know you in the receiving line after the service.)

But beyond the mere nostalgia factor and the aesthetically pleasing bookending that using this same passage to begin and end a college career can bring, there is something compelling about this particular passage from the Hebrew Scriptures that bears looking at at times like this.

One of the most compelling parts about this story—and there are many—is God’s declaration to Moses that he should remove his sandals because where he is standing is “holy ground.” It’s a beautiful sentiment but it’s worth stopping to ask, what is it that makes this ground holy? Continue reading


Rev. Mark Schaefer
Foundry United Methodist Church
May 6, 2018
2 Samuel 4:5–12; Matthew 11:2–6


Friends, I am here to talk to you about JEE-sus.  The only Son of God, our Lord!  He came to us from heaven, lived among us and DIED for our sins on the cross! Can I get a hallelujah?  But the story did not end there, friends, no, it didn’t. Because he ROSE again.  He came back from the dead so that ALL would know that God has given us a gift of life from the dead, of eternal life through the blood of his precious son, Jesus Christ!  Can I get an amen?

I don’t know how long I can keep that up. That gets kind of exhausting for a Methodist from Upstate New York.

word cloud of sermon text

Image courtesy wordle.net

But I am willing to bet that something close to that kind of religiosity is what many of you think when you hear the word evangelical. Something about loud, emotional preaching. Charismatic religious leaders with huge congregations or tent revival meetings and altar calls, people weeping in the aisles. Lots of jumping up and shouting “Hallelujah!”

Or maybe your mind goes less to the worship style and more to the implicit theology: exclusivist claims to salvation, an emphasis on individual—often sexual—sin rather than systemic sins like poverty and racism, a preoccupation with whether you’re in or you’re out. A lot of asking questions like, “When were you saved?” (My favorite answer to that question is: “2,000 years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem.” Feel free to borrow that one.)

Or maybe it’s the particular set of political beliefs that tend to come with the Evangelical theology: social conservatism, lack of inclusion toward the LGBTQ community, a strong support for law-and-order justice, a strong military, and other traditionally conservative political positions.

However it’s understood, for many Christians who do not so identify, the word evangelical has left something of a bad taste in people’s mouths for a while. In fact, fifty years ago, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form our current denomination, they didn’t choose to be called the sensible combination of their names—the Evangelical Methodist Churchor the Methodist Evangelical Church—they instead dropped the word evangelical and opted to carry over united, instead.

But all of this is to say, that there is a lot of discomfort around the word evangelical.But what does it mean for us, really? Is there a sense of the word that those of us on the other side of the theological aisle can embrace? Despite all of the connotations that we perceive when we hear it, what does the word actually mean? Continue reading

The Russians on The Americans

I love the show The Americans. It’s one of the best shows on television and captivates me every week.  One of the reasons I enjoy it is that I get to practice my Russian, as all of the scenes featuring Russians (the Russians who are not deep-cover spies, that is) are usually in Russian with subtitles.

But I noticed something about the subtitles a while back that fascinated me: they do not exactly translate what the Russians are saying in Russian. They translate the sense, but not the literal meaning.

This means something extraordinary for this show. It means that the Russian dialogue is not a translation of the English dialogue shown in the subtitles. That is, the script writers did not write what they wanted the Russian characters to say and then had it translated into Russian. It appears as if both the English and the Russian were composed in their respective languages as originals. I’d heard rumor that the writers tell Russian-language speakers the gist of what they want said and the conversations are written in Russian.

See, in my day, I was a pretty good speaker of Russian. But if you gave me something to translate into Russian from English, it’d bear the echoes of my native English. Whereas a Russian, expressing the thought in Russian would say it differently from the way that I would’ve come up with. But this is not the Russian on the show. Even though I, or any other competent Russian speaker, could produce grammatical and comprehensible Russian translations of ideas originally expressed in English, the Russian on the show feels more authentic. It feels more… Russian.

This is remarkable attention to detail and authenticity and really does add an air of verisimilitude to the show, even though the overwhelming majority of viewers will have no idea that this has taken place. Continue reading