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Category: Language

What’s Wrong with Our Story?

Can I be honest?

I am learning to know myself, and I’ve been finding blind spots. Gaps. There is a gap, for instance, between my identity and my awareness. Sexuality resides in that gap.

Stick with me for a moment.

Sexuality includes interest and attraction; feelings of love, trust and care; social context; a sense of connection (spirituality) that goes beyond what can be known or observed. Sexuality is not a set of behaviors. It is more like a force of nature. Ingrained. Invisible.

Like hunger. Or longing.

Sexuality undergirds our economic and political systems. It’s a foundation on which we have built our theologies – our understandings of who God is and how we might be guided into both mystical union and communion.

Theology legitimates sexuality. Sexuality supports theology.

“Let us make humankind in our image.”

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

I’ve been exploring these gaps. My experience of God, for instance, occurs in the space between my identity and my awareness – felt but not seen. My understanding of God is interwoven with my sexuality. Two parts of who I am in struggle.

They’ve been coming undone.

Things fall apart.

Have you considered the grand narrative? The details of our culture were drawn on a blank slate – a world wiped clean by the genocide of indigenous peoples. It was built with slave labor. The New World was undressed and brutalized by the pure and virile masculinity of educated European minds and bodies. All our stories reflect this reality. Might makes right, and winner takes all.

Like it or leave it, we live in a patriarchy.

We say there are two sides to every story. But that’s not quite right. If there are two sides, it is because there is the inside. And the outside.

As Americans, then, we are male. Or we are not male. We are white. Or we are not white. We are normal. Or we are not normal. We are inside the story. Or we are excluded.

Why don’t we notice? Even our awareness is constricted by binary constructions of language. We have a sexuality of domination. We have a theology of control. Our authoritarian God cannot abide doubt, dissent, or disobedience. He cannot stomach difference.

Our theology is heterosexual, and heterosexuality is not neutral.

The very existence of sexuality that is not heterosexuality calls into question our understandings of the nature and authority of God. Even worse, if we are men, it calls into question our own authority. We perceive, then, that any sexuality that is not heterosexuality is a perversion and must be silenced. It is an offense against God. It is anathema.

This might be why people left out of the story love Jesus.

Jesus took instructions from his mother (John 2). Jesus saved the life of a widow (Luke 7). Jesus called women to follow him (Matthew 10). Jesus blessed children (Mark 10). Jesus “overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Matthew 21).

Jesus did not come to power through domination or by control. Jesus undid the powers. Jesus disrupted the dominant. Jesus introduced chaos into systems of control. And his followers didn’t fit the grand narrative. They were outsiders.

Up on that cross, Jesus breathed his last. All his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee –

– they stood at a distance.

I am learning to know myself, and I’ve been finding gaps between my identity and my awareness. And it dawns on me that these blank spaces hold everything I need to know of God.

Something drawing me toward love, trust, and care – a sense of connection that goes beyond what can be known or observed. Like a force of nature. Ingrained. Invisible.

Like hunger. Or longing.



I went to my 20-year high school reunion this summer. And it was weird. How little had changed from what I remember.

Except my memories.

They’re almost all wrong.

At dinner, for instance, we watched a video Bryce’s dad took at our graduation ceremony.

There was prayer. The reading of scripture. Two sermons. A Christian pop song.

It was religious.

I’ve shared stories about what it was like. The awards. The people. The pranks. But the commencement on that video wasn’t much like the ceremony I remember.

I was sitting next to Rachel at the end of our row. I had a red plastic squirt gun I surreptitiously utilized every time anyone went up to or came down from the stage. Lots of wet spots on black robes.

So it was the real thing.

But it felt fake.

I just hadn’t remembered how Christian my class once was.

Then, as the video played, I did a mental survey of the room. Many of those who’d been active in church no longer are. I wondered why.

One said this: “If church were a place where I was allowed to ask questions, I’d probably still be there.”

Another wrote that he was disillusioned by the mismatch between what faith shouldn’t do but does and what it should do but doesn’t: “Religion, church, spirituality, whatever you want to call it often has a way of turning people into us and them. I would hope that something so great would turn us into we.”

Yet another, watching his younger self on film, just shook his head. I didn’t get to ask what he was thinking.

Since that night, I’ve wondered why I’m still at church (other than for the paycheck). I’ve come up with a few things so far:

I want to normalize doubt for those who might otherwise feel abandoned by God and by their community. I want to encourage serious questions that challenge our thinking and open up opportunities for growth. I want to be part of a community that uses faith as a tool for transformation (never as a weapon).

And I hope.

That 20 years from now.

Some former student.

Watching graduation reruns.

Might ask herself why she’s still at church.

And think of people who weren’t afraid of her questions, people who loved her because of (not in spite of), people who inspired and encouraged and modeled for and listened to and learned from …

That she would think of so many people.

And that one of them might be me.

I want to be part of a community that uses faith as a tool for transformation (never as a weapon).



My friends generally fall into two categories of thinking when it comes to questions of human nature:

1) People are basically good; 2) People are basically bad.

My Christian friends mostly fall into the latter category. They use a phrase – total depravity – as though it’s a kind of non-negotiable fact of life.

Or, sometimes, they talk about how everything they do is “like filthy rags.” I can’t help but think that filthy rags generally weren’t born that way. They get filthy from making other things clean. Which, I’ve come to learn, isn’t considered a helpful response.

We’re all evil on the inside.

Dark. Desperate. Depraved.

What a way to live.

Once, in a course on philosophy, the professor asked us if we thought human nature was good or evil. I raised my hand. I said it was good. The instructor, a Christian, asked how I reconciled my answer with scripture. I quoted Genesis 1:27. The easiest way to argue with that verse is to lay the blame for evil on the nature of God. Said instructor didn’t take the bait. He smiled. And he called on someone else.

Later, in a Sunday school class, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked participants to write down one way in which they look like Jesus on the inside. I gave them five minutes of thinking time. To come up with just one thing. Lots of blank sheets of paper. And blank stares. I got an email from one class member. She suggested that Christians aren’t used to “thinking of something positive to say about themselves.”

Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust.

And we’re starving.

Because total depravity isn’t sustainable. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and share from our gifts. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and accept others’ gifts. It’s killing the work and witness of the Church. It’s killing the Church.

It’s killing us.

A friend asked me what happened. “Church used to be fun,” she said. And we didn’t get a chance to finish the conversation, but when we do, I think I know what to say.

Filthy rags can be overwhelmed by shame, paralyzed by questions of how and why and what if I’d only. But filthy rags – used to do what rags are made to do – get good things done. Which is good.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust. And we’re starving.



Back when I taught introductory high school courses in literature, every year started with a lesson in myth. American literature classes read Columbus’s 1493 Letter to King Ferdinand of Spain Describing the First Voyage. World literature classes considered the Yoruba story of The Golden Chain. In freshman classes, we looked at the first two chapters of Genesis.

I taught at a Christian school. And by their junior year, most students had been through this unit two or three times. They knew in a general way where I was headed. But in my other classes, things didn’t go so well.

I persisted.

In the first weeks of school, students still have good intentions, so for the most part they listen with intent. As I ran through the initial outline, smiles would inevitably spread as it became clear that I was probably going to hell. (There’s nothing like a teaching train wreck to lighten the day of your average high school student, and every kid knows a certifiably crazy teacher will ruin the year for some and provide limitless conversational fodder for the rest.) But by the end of the first few minutes, those smiles would be fading. Fast.

That’s when I could count on some volume.

Interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. Students shouting. Students covering their ears. There were always tears.

I persisted.

Myth, I proposed, is any story of origin. If it’s a story – and if it tells of a beginning – it’s a myth. Myths answer questions of identity, purpose and morality. Myths are how a culture – all cultures – encode the answers to life’s most important questions for the shaping of future generations. A culture’s best literature, then, is always built on myth.

Other literature may be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

But good literature – the stuff that lasts, the stuff that gets passed from generation to generation, the stuff that we’re expected to have read and to know – it all contains myth or is built on myth or is myth. Together, that body of literature contributes to a culture’s mythos, its best answers to life’s big questions.

Romeo & Juliet is built on myth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenges myth. The Bible contains myth. It also comments on myth, questions myth, compares myths, challenges some competing myths and provides space for the acceptance of others. Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, are separate myths, and in some important ways, they disagree. Theologians would probably argue that they’re not so much in competition as they are in conversation. Which seems – considering that the two accounts have been placed side by side at the start of the Bible, not to mention the fact that they both lay a foundation for the same culture – a pretty strong point.

I recognize that for some readers, this conversation might be covering new ground. Or creating a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Yet I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

It’s a culture that thinks Genesis is an incomplete history. It’s a culture that thinks Exodus is an unfinished travelogue. It’s a culture that thinks Leviticus is an obsolete legal code. It’s a culture that thinks Numbers is a sloppy census. It’s a culture that thinks Deuteronomy is an abbreviated repetition of all those other Bible bits. It’s a culture that reads all the gospels as a conflated Jesus story – one with wise men and shepherds; Anna, Simeon, and the Egyptians; 8-day-old Jesus, 12-year-old Jesus, a metaphysical Word-and-Light show, and the real Jesus.

It’s a culture that fervently wants for the Bible to be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

And this, too, is my culture. I was raised in it. I live and work in it. More times than I can count, I’ve felt suffocated in it. Frustrated by it. Angry with it.

But I persist.

And I find that my people mostly know that the Bible – if it’s going to mean anything at all – must be something more than a commercial. It must be something more than a primer. It must be something more than a medium of truth exchange. It must be more than a collection of basic instructions before leaving earth.

And I find that my people – especially those that are spiritual but not religious – need the kind of mythos the Bible already offers.

And I find my people wondering whether the myths in other cultures might teach us something about our own.

In the meantime, I expect the volume to rise. I expect shouted interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. And tears.

In my life as a teacher, discomfort almost always led to growth.

So I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).



In the early 19th century, to be a Quaker was to be opposed to slavery. But how to live out this opposition? To work against slavery was to live in tension with Quaker testimonies to both integrity and peace. Helping an escaped slave, for instance, sometimes created pressure to bear false witness. Or to bear arms. As it turns out, balance is difficult. And there was disagreement between what historian Errol T. Elliott has called the activists and the gradualists. Some Friends gave up their membership. Some Friends lost their membership. Meetings were split.

American Friends at North Carolina’s Rich Square Monthly Meeting minuted in 1843 that they did not “allow their members to hold slaves,” but neither did they allow interference “with the system of slavery further than by petitions, reason, and remonstrance in a peaceable manner.” The larger yearly meeting minuted its condemnation in that same year of “those Friends who had given ‘shelter improperly’ to slaves.” That, too, was the year that Indiana Yearly Meeting would split over the issue of slavery. Hundreds of Indiana Quakers would leave their yearly meeting and start a new one, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.

Of course, they would argue they’d been kicked out.

At issue was the Underground Railroad. With active Quaker supporters in both North Carolina and Indiana, its existence created a problem for Friends everywhere. Support for the Underground Railroad looked to many like a form of religious extremism.

Initially, Friends had worked together to support the education of African-American children, as well as to fight the “Black Laws.” These laws, first enacted in Ohio and later in neighboring states, required that any free person of African descent obtain and carry certain court documents for employment and residency. These laws also fined those who helped fugitive slaves. But Levi Coffin called Quakers to a greater cause. An Indiana Quaker with North Carolina roots, Coffin had personally witnessed the separation of a slave woman from her child, resulting in his resolution “to labor in this cause until the end of my days.” For 30 years, he served as an unofficial president of the Underground Railroad.

Many Friends joined him.

Their activism resulted in an 1841 minute by Indiana Yearly Meeting: “As the subject of slavery is producing great excitement in our land, we again tenderly advise our dear friends not to join in associations.” The following year, an enforcing minute was approved, excluding from service on committees, any who identified themselves as abolitionists. Coffin and hundreds of others, having been removed from their leadership positions, simply started a new yearly meeting.

There was reconciliation, with the two yearly meetings effectively recombined by 1857. But old wounds heal slowly. There are still those who call us to orthodoxy. There are others who argue that faith without works is dead.

Quakers today have the privilege of looking back on our history with pride for what was accomplished. What we forget are the compromises that were made, the internal rancor that often boiled up into battles for control over meetinghouses and yearly meetings, battles that frequently led to schism. We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us. There are still battles. There are still wounds. There is still hope for reconciliation.

We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us.



I like words. Words are miniature symbols – portable, transferrable, memorable – freighted with meaning. Take a word like “fired,” for instance, as in “He was fired from his job.”

He lost his job.

But it was a trial by fire.

Like being burned at the stake. Or sacrificed in a pagan ritual.

The kind of crisis that changes a life. Or ends it.

I like words a lot.

I also believe that words should be egalitarian and democratic. Words are the currency of social exchange. We all have them. We all use them. We teach one another, and we learn from one another – which words go where, which words work best – as we stretch every little symbol (sometimes far past its breaking point) in our attempts to know and be known. There is give and take, intent and effect, stimulus and response.

Words shape our connections. Words also shape our culture. And our world.

If you want to know a people, it pays to pay attention to their words.

But we are mostly desensitized to the language we use. We don’t hear our words. Or feel them. And it is possible to become enslaved by old ideas enshrined in contemporary clichés.

At a recent gathering of evangelical Christians, we sang a song in which one verse focused on God’s desire that we be broken. I say, “We sang,” but I didn’t sing that line. It didn’t make sense. Doesn’t make sense. Why would God want me to be broken?

Am I broken? The lyricist probably intended something like humility. But broken goes farther than that. It’s not just the wrong metaphor. It’s also harmful. It suggests that there’s something wrong with the human condition. And by association, it suggests that there’s something wrong with God. An illustration:

I’ve never broken a bone in my body. I’ve crashed bicycles, tumbled down a set of stairs, fallen from a roof. One time, driving too fast on a mountain road, I couldn’t make a corner and slid right off a cliff’s edge. I landed in a tree. It was embarrassing and frightening, but I walked away whole.

Nothing broken.

And I was grateful.

Words matter. And this particular word – broken – at least the way we use it, suggests that God is 1) a bumbling fool, 2) malicious, 3) or weak.

Here’s what I mean: a God who desires that creation be broken is 1) a God who didn’t make things right. 2) Unless God did it on purpose. 3) Or didn’t have a choice.

If my arm’s perfectly good, breaking it doesn’t make it better. People created in the image of God don’t get more godly by being broken down.

What’s it mean that people need to be broken? It means there’s something wrong with the work God did the first time around. Sure. God gives second chances. But why would God need one?

God made me in God’s image. God made me whole.

The truth is that sometimes, I slander others. Sometimes, I play politics to improve my position. Sometimes, I undercount Monopoly spaces and land on Free Parking instead of Kentucky Avenue. Sometimes, I tumble down a set of stairs or fall off a roof, or drive too fast on a mountain road.

If I’m broken, then, it’s not because I’m missing something important that God forgot to give me. It’s because I think that what I have or who I am just isn’t enough.

Broken’s not the word for that. At least it’s not God’s word. A sense of brokenness is what motivates us to seek out bigger and better and more. God’s desire for us isn’t that we would be broken. Instead, God wants us to open our eyes and see that all our bones are still there. We’re still alive and breathing. We may be stuck in a tree on the side of a mountain. But we’re going to be all right.

There’s a light breeze. Tree branches brush up against the window. The sky’s on fire.

And the view is breathtaking.

There’s a light breeze. Tree branches brush up against the window. The sky’s on fire. And the view is breathtaking.



Sometimes, what we’re talking about isn’t what we’re really talking about.

A high school graduate called to ask if he could meet with me. Just to talk. So we met. And we talked. About his family. About his decision to take a year off from school. About his job. About the work of discerning – during that year – what he might study when he went back to school. After our talk, the student gave me a letter.

In that letter, he wrote of his feelings for a friend, a friend of the same gender.

Sometimes, what we want to talk about isn’t what we get to talk about.

That student and I talked again. For years, we talked. At church. At coffee shops. In my home. In his. I told him to trust his family. I told him to stay as connected as he could to his church. He told me he was convinced that acting on his feelings would harm his friendship and go against scripture. He told me about temptation and the boundaries he’d set in order to avoid it.

I had to reconcile my image of a God who is Love with the reality of a God who doesn’t always play fair. I couldn’t do it. We didn’t talk about that.

It’s been nearly seven years now since the student and I started talking. Celibate all those years, that student has remained active in our denomination. That student is respected. But I wonder what would happen if that student shared his story with his home church. Or with mine.

If he stood on a Sunday morning and shared a story of sexual purity, a story of victory in Jesus, a story of perseverance and of sacrifice, a compelling story – how might the telling of that story affect his future among us?
Would he be allowed to volunteer in the church nursery?
Would he be asked to lead a small group for young men?
Would he be nominated to serve as an elder?
Would we send him to our annual conference as a representative of the local church?
I’d like to think the answer to at least one of those questions might be yes. But I’m not so sure.

I’ve heard the talk.

I wonder what would happen if that student shared his story with his home church. Or with mine.



I’m embarrassed about a lot of the things I did in high school. And no, I’m not talking about the time I convinced my 4-year-old brother to climb into the clothes dryer. Or the time I turned on said clothes dryer. Or the hundreds of times I repeated the story – of how I’d convinced him, of my mother’s screams, of the thrill – over the following year.

In public.

With volume.

Granted, that incident – and quite a few like it – is one that probably should cause shame. But even now, as I’m typing, I’m also smiling. At the memory. Of how stupid I was. And I’m thinking about who hasn’t already heard that story because I’d kind of like to tell it again.

That’s part of the problem. People hear stories of the things I did –

an under-the-radar, pay-day loan service I ran during the lunch hour;
a series of letters to the Oregonian, urging editors to fire a certain columnist I didn’t like;
a faked disorder in which I semi-secretly and pseudo-obsessively consumed paper products for attention (for two years)

– and conclude that there couldn’t possibly be more.

But there is. Few people know, for instance, that I once took part in a public protest.

I was on the news.

I was standing on a street in Portland.

I was holding a sign: Abortion Kills Children.

My friends at church (assuming they read my blog) are probably starting to wonder where I’m headed with this. My other friends are probably wondering how they didn’t know I was THAT kind of Christian. Some of you just want me to get on with it already.

So there I was. At my first public protest. And I was being POLITICAL. I was making a STATEMENT. I was standing up for the TRUTH. And something funny happened.

This car came around the corner. It was moving slow. A woman leaned out the window, and as the car passed, she looked at me and asked, “Why don’t you just keep your penis in your pants?”

For some reason, I thought that maybe my fly was down. I put down the sign and checked. Nope. All good. When I looked up, the car was gone. And it dawned on me why she didn’t stick around for my reply. It was already on my sign.

I hadn’t taken any communications theory at that point. And I wasn’t skilled in cultural exchange analysis. But I knew that sign had a message. And as messages tend to be, it was aimed at someone.

Abortion Kills Children.

Sometimes my brain doesn’t work as fast as I’d like, but I realized, looking up, reading the sign, standing on that street in Portland on a Sunday afternoon, that my sign was aimed at women. What women were most likely to physically feel the sign’s message? Women who’d had an abortion. Women stuck between one bad choice and another. Women who were doing the best they knew how in a world that didn’t love them. And certainly didn’t understand.

I was holding up a sign that was intended to shame people.

Poor people.

Powerless people.

The abused.

The assaulted.

The already-ashamed.

For more than half my life now, I haven’t really thought about that time in Portland. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need to. Even now, writing about the incident, I feel a mixture of shame (I was once one of THEM) and relief (but I’ve CHANGED). The shame is real. But the relief is not. Because I’m still one of THEM. And even though I don’t take part in that kind of protest, I also fail to protest the protest (if you know what I mean). This little blog post is my relatively weak attempt to change that. By telling the moral that I learned that day:

There is no such thing as an issue. There are only people. Jesus loved people. Even people who could have killed their brothers by sticking them in clothes dryers.

I want to love people, too.

There is no such thing as an issue. There are only people. Jesus loved people.

Spiritual Mystic


Mysticism is a process. Spirituality is a sensitivity.

Mysticism is movement. Spirituality is an awareness of the reality in which mysticism moves.

Mysticism is life. Spirituality is our ability to recognize that life we seek, the bits of life we’ve found and are finding.

Mysticism is something we do. Spirituality is our growing inner and outer vision, a guide for this doing.

Mysticism is a state of being. Spirituality is our sense of that state.

Mysticism is a place. Spirituality is the intuitive knowledge of that place we seek, that place we’ve found, that place in which we abide.

Mysticism is our continued journey toward full identification with God. Spirituality is a kind of knowing of the world behind the world in which we live, an awareness of the real world that undergirds and envelops the physical world, the tangible world, the visible world. That awareness of the world behind the world gives us the space we need to grow toward one-ness, toward consummation, into identification.

Mysticism is “living union with” God. Spirituality may be a partly-intellectual realization of the delights we seek. Spirituality may be “acute emotional longings.” Spirituality may be informed by the psychological, the conscious, the intuitive. Spirituality may be physical, a kind of ecstasy in the presence of God. But spirituality is not the thing we seek. It is the tool or ability or sense with which we seek.

Mysticism is not a kind of awareness or higher being. It is, according to Evelyn Underhill, actual union: “the true goal of the mystic quest.”

Hannah More pushes her readers toward something similar in her description of Christianity as a transformation “into the image of God . . . being like-minded with Christ.”

Phoebe Worral Palmer never seems to have experienced this kind of unity. Or if she did, she lacked language to express it, for the closest she comes to an expression of union is the claim that she has learned to present and keep “all upon the hallowed altar,” a phrase that suggest she has put herself both beneath and before God (but no closer).

Walter Rauschenbusch seeks unity with “the mind of Jesus.” And he suggests that close study of the Lord’s prayer is the key to knowing that mind. Living out the Lord’s prayer, then, is to experience a kind of unity of purpose with God.

Mysticism is movement. Spirituality is an awareness of the reality in which mysticism moves.



I’ve spent my life in the Church. Almost 38 years of worship and service. For the past 20 years, I’ve had a variety of teaching ministries. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve studied the Bible. I’ve talked and written and debated about the Bible. But about two years ago, I started taking seminary classes, and something really important happened: I discovered that for all these years, I’ve known next to nothing about the Bible.

I’m still a long way from earning any kind of degree, but I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of seminary can be on a person, what it’s like to learn about the story behind the story behind the story, how it feels to have information that, previously, I didn’t even know existed.

First, there’s exhilaration at having access to important new information, all of it – so much! incredible! mind-blowing! – suddenly available to me. Second, almost as fast as that first feeling, is a sense of lost-ness, of foolishness for having studied, written, talked over and debated what the Bible says, what other people say the Bible says, without having known this information even existed. Even worse, many of the people I debated – in public, even – knew that I didn’t know. In particular, I feel silly for having written what I have in front of people who knew what I didn’t, especially knowing that they were patient with me, that in some important ways, they protected me in my ignorance.

But the feeling of foolishness doesn’t last long. Once I started learning, it became nearly impossible to remember that there ever was a time when I didn’t know what I now know. Instead, I’m mostly aware of the fact that I know what most others don’t. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how big the task is of helping others to see what I see, knowing that it’s far more likely that they will resist rather than welcome what I share (mainly because it challenges and sometimes contradicts so much of what they believe).

In addition, I have this fear that not too long from now I’ll become aware of the limitations of what I’ve learned. There’s so much to know, and my ability to take in, comprehend and remember is limited. And there’s so much we don’t yet know. There’s so much yet to be learned. There are inaccuracies that may not be corrected for hundreds of years. There are things that remain invisible, that we don’t even know we don’t know. That we don’t see. Can’t see. Might never see.

But that takes a while to learn.

Admitting it doesn’t mean that I’ve learned it.

In the meantime, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to learn from people who don’t know what I know. Even as I listen to what they say, I find myself thinking: “How would this argument change if they knew what I know?” Sometimes it just seems sad that they hold on to the untenable. I have become more judgmental. Just thinking about my thinking as I’m thinking has become such a difficult mental exercise that I almost just want to give up and stop listening.

But I can’t.

Because I know that once I stop listening, I will begin to treat others as objects, entering every theological conversation as a kind of game in which my only goal is to say what I must in order to get the other to believe what I want him to believe, to have him go away with the impression I have created. I will have become manipulative. A liar.

Tragically, I also will have become a kind of moron, incapable of listening, incapable of being challenged, incapable of learning from others whose personal experience of God differs from and potentially transcends my own.

May God protect me.

Just thinking about my thinking as I’m thinking has become such a difficult mental exercise that I almost just want to give up and stop listening.



Left unchecked, an evangelical focus on Christ’s sacrificial death could be the death of the Church. It’s skewed our theology, messed up many of our relationships, and created a culture that thrives on guilt and judgment. But it’s not Jesus’ fault. He tried to warn us.

Here’s the deal: Jesus lived his message, and it was a message of love. But the present-day Christian addiction to the Calvary cross has replaced Jesus’ entire ministry — both before his death and after his resurrection — with a single act of sacrifice, making that willingness to die for a belief and a people the proof of Jesus’ love.

It doesn’t work that way. Sacrifice — of anything for anyone — is powerful because of its selflessness. But sacrifice has some problems as well.

1) Sacrifice, to be effective, requires the misfortune of others. I cannot save someone unless he needs saving, hence the Church’s reputation for passing judgment. 2) If the act of sacrificial death teaches us the value of someone we previously took for granted, it remains powerless to heal that relationship. There is no reconciliation without life. 3) The pursuit of sacrifice in the form of hoped-for martyrdom is to give up living altogether. What is the value of a life that was never lived? 4) Sacrifice, as we understand it, involves a completely selfless giving without any hope of receiving in return. It is not a contract. This makes death the end of all sacrifice. Except for one thing — Christians have the hope of resurrection. Unbelievers have no such hope. Logically, this would make the sacrificial death of an atheist more powerful (and more ethical) than the death of a believer.

I could go on.

But I’ll end with this, instead. When Jesus preached that “The Kingdom of Heaven is here” or that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice,” when he offered rest for our souls and spoke of a banquet to which all those found along the highways were invited, when he healed the lame and the blind and the bleeding, he was pointing to a wedding, not a funeral. And the wedding is here. Now.

It’s time to change our focus.

And our tone.

He was pointing to a wedding, not a funeral. And the wedding is here.



I have a box in the basement utility room. It’s next to the washing machine, and it’s the place for stuff I just don’t need any more. When I checked the box this weekend, there were shoes, old gloves, a shirt, three books, a toy car, a ping-pong paddle, an insulated coffee cup. When the box gets full – about once every three weeks or so – I take it to a thrift store down the street. Add it up, and I’m giving away 16 or 17 boxes of stuff. Enough to fill up a minivan floor to ceiling. Every single year. And I’m not keeping up. At least twice a year, I do a major cleaning – move out old pieces of furniture, a rug, a pile of books, dead plants, broken tools, a television or a microwave.

I’ve been challenged to consider the temptation of the material, a temptation to collect and store and value, a temptation to have and to hold that can keep me from growing closer to Christ. Augustine likens these passions for the material to a serpent we must destroy. Teresa claims that our soul – having experienced spiritual reality – is no longer able to find pleasure in anything of the earth. De Caussade says that to delight in God, “we must strip ourselves naked, renounce all desire for created things.”

And I know that they’re right. But I fear they go too far, suggesting as they do that there is something wrong with the material, that there is something wrong with human passion for created things.

I have too much. In order to live a life with room for God, I must intentionally cast off what otherwise obstructs. But the truth is that there is also much value in the material: food for the stomach, a roof for the rain, a window, a cup of hot coffee, a book, a fire, a friend. For this reason, I’m grateful to C.S. Lewis’s noticing that “the attempt is not to escape . . . . It is more modest: to reawake . . . awareness.”

I fear they go too far, suggesting as they do that there is something wrong with the material

Image of God


Do I worship God, the giver of all good things? Or am I beholden to an idea, an image, a concept? How might I know which it is? How might I study my own actions and thoughts, my comings and goings and doings? How might I discern whether my worship is real?

In “Unsaying the Word ‘God,’” David James Duncan suggests that the way in which I use the name of God reflects on my relationship with God. Do I love God’s name? Or simply use it as an object of power (threatening power)? Duncan further suggests that my attitude toward the name of God reveals the integrity of my relationship with God. Am I in awe? Am I humble? Or do I simply seek to humble others? Finally, Duncan claims that my experience of Creation reflects my experience of God. Do I bask in the warm sun? Or am I prone to spend my energies calling others from a sunny spot, futilely striving to get them inside my own circle of sunlight? Do I truly enjoy what God has made? Or do I set aside enjoyment in order to advertise what I’ve yet failed to appreciate?

And what is the source of this enjoyment (of my very being)? Olivier Clement insists in “God, Hidden and Universal,” that God is love. That God is life and light and breath. That God has always been and always will be. That God is mystery.

Am I beholden to an idea, an image, a concept?



Genesis 1:27 makes clear the equality of men and women as imaged after God’s own self. What then are we to do with the second creation account, the one where Eve comes from a rib, lives as a helpmate, falls for the forbidden fruit, and ultimately gets kicked out – with Adam, it must be admitted – of the garden?

What we could do is think about not what the story says to us, but what it might have meant to its first hearers. And why. Because this second account is not a happy story. It includes wrong decisions, deception, secrecy, shame, and ultimately, punishment. And the story has long been used as instructive. But cultural deconstruction – a critical literary process that requires the reader to reverse her cultural expectations – reveals a few interesting ideas:

1) Adam and Eve live as nomads, freely partaking in the riches of God’s garden. When they leave God’s garden, they are cursed with the responsibility of making their own garden, of becoming agrarian, a cultural system that requires specialization of tasks, a system rife with all kinds of inequality.

2) The curse is echoed in the murder of Abel, a shepherd, by his brother, Cain, a farmer. Cain is physically marked with his curse. And he builds a city, further covering over (exploiting?) God’s garden with his own constructions.

3) The people who passed down this creation account, generation after generation, were a nomadic people. They had sheep. And goats. They traveled (except for when they were slaves). Continued conflict with their agrarian, sometimes urban, neighbors led them to build cities of their own, to request a king, to collect wealth. To stop living as nomads.

What, then, if this creation account – the one that seems to cause us so many problems around sin, around male-female relationships, around identity – were a story of what went wrong with “those” people rather than a story of how “we” were created? What if this account is an explanation early Israelites gave to their children in order to make sense of their crazy, sinful, and out-of-balance-with-God’s-world neighbors?

What then are we to do with the second creation account



There’s a phone booth that used to stand in the Mojave Desert, 8 miles from the nearest paved road, 15 miles from the nearest numbered highway, miles and miles from any buildings. It’s telephone number was (714) 733-9969. The booth was eventually removed, but there had been a time in the 1990s in which a man, who claimed direction from the Holy Spirit, camped at the booth for more than a month, answering the calls that came in each day (more than 500 in all).

A movie was made, Mojave Phone Booth, one of the most tragically comic films I’ve ever seen. I sat for a screening at the Boise International Film Festival, a screening punctuated with loud laughter as audience members connected with the painfully funny moments of space-alien paranoia, a botched suicide, an out-of-work administrative assistant sucked into a lucrative ménage-a-trois, a desperate man who breaks into his girlfriend’s car and steals her stereo system (four times) in an attempt to convince her that she’ll be safer living with him.

It’s not that people in Boise, Idaho, are weird enough to have shared similar experiences. Instead, these impossibly strange scenarios perfectly illustrated the common American phenomenon in which we long for intimacy while resisting commitment. The phone booth in the desert – a kind of secular confessional – gave many of these characters their only meaningful (and vulnerable) human connection.

In the movie, there was a woman on the other end – an older, English-accented lady with a fondness for Canada – who several times a day placed calls to the booth and spoke with whoever answered. She listened to them. She asked questions. Sometimes she offered advice. In the movie, she had started calling the booth seven years earlier, seeking to connect with someone, anyone. Instead, she discovered a calling in listening to the problems of those on the other end.

While watching this film, I was overcome by the work of God reflected in the care offered by this woman, her continued calls, her endless patience with and for the pain of others, her love for a people stranded in the desert, looking for direction.

her love for a people stranded in the desert, looking for direction



The long, dark nights of winter make the early morning a time of almost – almost light, almost new – and I find in these early-morning, liminal moments, the perfect threshold for prayer. It is still quiet. But the morning quiet is a quiet of anticipation, not the evening’s tired silence. It is still dark. But the morning’s black sky, edges changing to silvery gray, makes a promise of warm light to come. It is still, the perfect setting for contemplative prayer. For waiting.

So I wait.

And each morning, as I wait, I feel peace, at ease. I feel that yesterday’s concerns don’t apply today, that everything hard’s been set aside, that it can wait.

And each morning, as I wait



I asked my dad at Christmas once why other children believed in Santa? The very idea made no sense. The need. After all, it seemed so obvious that no one could love me more than my parents. Why would anyone want a Santa?

My dad tried explaining Santa as a kind of bureaucrat, delegating responsibility to individual parents the same way our heavenly Father gives us earthly fathers (as if I needed to know how gift-giving worked). It was a mistake. But my dad realized it too late. I, in my 4-year-old wisdom, had already countered with a new line of thought. If God was like Santa, then who needed God? What’s the use of a heavenly Father if I already have a real, live, loving and touchable Dad, someone whose lap is always ready, whose hugs are never withheld, whose goodness is apparent even when expressed as discipline?

I remember my parents being concerned. And quiet.

Then my mom told me a story about her dad, a story I hadn’t heard before. The man I knew as Grandpa was her step-dad. Her real father, her “daddy,” had died when she was only 10 years old. I don’t remember why it made sense at the time because it didn’t really answer my question, but my Mom simply said, “Not everyone can have a daddy like yours.”

This, then, is what I learned (or at least what I remember): why God gives as he does and how he does and when may not make sense. Why others try to quantify or control God often doesn’t make sense either. Not everyone can have a daddy like mine. And sometimes, even for me, it’s hard to recognize or understand that, at heart, God is a giver.

at heart, God is a giver

Breath Prayer


On a Sunday night in October, the regular worship leaders for high school youth group both had other plans, so I took advantage of the opportunity created by their absence to try something new. I asked students to choose one of about 60 different “breath prayers” I’d created by taking short phrases from Psalm 119. Students worked for 45 minutes on collages of photos, words, colors, and other images cut from magazines while focused on the breath prayers they had selected. My plan was for the collages to give us something to do with our hands in order to cut down on distractions during the time of worship, but many of the finished pieces were complex and beautiful representations of the prayers themselves.

During the exercise, I encouraged students to experience the time of prayer as a time of freedom; so even though I wanted them to have an experience akin to what Alonius called “only myself and God,” I made it clear that getting up for a snack, answering the door for trick-or-treaters, conversation, laughter, simply being together were all completely appropriate activities during our worship experience. Even so, our time together was a time of almost complete silence. Students were completely absorbed in their prayers and their creations. In fact, as parents arrived to pick up their children, many students had trouble finding a clear stopping point. They wanted to continue, longed for completion. Most left in silence.

The next afternoon, I had coffee with one of the students who’d been part of our worship experiment. We discussed homework and parents, music and poetry, philosophy and the Church, all of the usual topics. But we also touched on the proximity of God, the experience of Christ, the power of a phrase both breathed and lived, an experiment with prayer that had changed us both.

the power of a phrase both breathed and lived, an experiment with prayer that had changed us both



It can be awkward to enter a religious community that’s not your own. Especially when the people do things that you don’t do at home.

At my first Catholic mass, for instance, I didn’t know how to “pass the peace,” and I couldn’t figure out the patterns of posture – when to stand, when to kneel, when to sit. On my first visit to a Russian Orthodox church, an old woman had to push me out of the way of the priest and censer. My first experience in a Presbyterian service involved communion, and I’d never previously heard it described as a service of reconciliation. In my first Nazarene service, there was a corporate reading of scripture. What I remember most is that the people sounded like zombies.

A piece I recently read on prayer in the Greco-Roman world explores an ancient influence on prayer in the church. And I recognize in the discussion of prayer in “fictional literary contexts” an echo of my own experiences with prayer in literature, experiences that account for my reflection that the Nazarenes “sounded like zombies.” I think of the witches in Macbeth: “double, double, toil and trouble.” I also think of the Harry Potter series, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Odyssey (and others).

What I hadn’t previously realized is that if art imitates life (as well as the reverse) then these chants, spells, and prayers reveal something of both how we pray and why. It’s a revelation that’s somewhat painful. Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator? My motives aren’t pure: after all, there is this idea within me that I bring something to God with an expectation that God might give me something in return. Even when the only things I bring are an attitude of humility and a contrite heart, I expect – and sometimes demand – that God answer.

Richard Foster challenges my expectations with a section in his book on prayer, “The Most Complete Prayer.” He implies that the heart of Christian prayer is nothing more nor less than an experience of the flesh and blood of Jesus, an experience of what it means to be one in Christ, an experience of one-ness. This word from Foster helps me to know that there’s no harm in spoken, corporate prayer (and probably lots of good). But I still think we sound like zombies.

Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator?



During a week-long prayer practice with Psalm 94, I found that the hardest part was the noise.

On Monday afternoon, I prayed in a hotel room; I was attending a conference. I read, “Great is the Lord,” as a vacuum bumped against the wall in the room next door. As I pondered God’s steadfast love, I could hear the television in the room on the other side.

On Tuesday evening, I prayed in my room again but at a later time. And it was quiet. But the lack of noise made it hard for me to read the psalm aloud. I was concerned with what others might hear (and think). The most difficult line of the psalm was the one I whispered: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth.”

On Wednesday afternoon, I prayed while walking. It was raining lightly, and a nearby park was deserted. Still, I found Psalm 94 one that was difficult to speak aloud with its cries for vengeance on the wicked.

On Thursday morning, I found shelter from the rain in a coffee shop. And I read the psalm to myself, taking a sip of coffee and a bite of coffee cake before and after each reading as a symbolic step forward and back.

Then, when I was done, I wondered at why such a simple practice had seemed so hard. I wondered at my need for a kind of quiet that goes beyond silence. Because I found a quiet room on Tuesday and an empty space on Wednesday. But I could not pray as though it were just me and God. I could not stop thinking about others and what they might think if they saw, if they heard.

I could not quiet my mind, and I did not have a quiet heart. There was too much noise.

I could not quiet my mind, and I did not have a quiet heart. There was too much noise.



Being made in the image of God connects us to God as well as to our neighbor (someone I’m more likely to think of as other). Prayer, then, is a discipline of connection, of noticing, of focusing, of attending to these connections, staying God-directed, God-centered.

What of the “passions”? Maybe they are simply those desires that lead me away from God and from community. The virtues? Signs of God’s character, stamped on my life, leading me into the quality of service and relationship God intended from the beginning. And temptation – though natural – also holds within it, if I allow it, the potential for distraction from relationship and disruption of service.

Recently, I’ve been challenged to confront those passions that live at my center, to let prayer “cut to the heart” that I might find freedom in being the person God created me to be.

So simple. And not.

Created in the image of God, I also carry within me desires that distort, that fragment that image. It’s as though the image of God within is little more than shards of broken glass in the dusty rubble of real life.

I want to trust that it’s as simple as prayer, that it’s as simple as letting go, that it’s as simple as Jesus. And I’m trying.

shards of broken glass in the dusty rubble of real life

Success in Prayer


Nearly a dozen years ago, I made a serious mistake in my position as a youth pastor in a small Idaho church. In spite of my carelessness (and stupidity), I had not been fired; but I faced painful truths about my character, questions about my place in the community, confusion about my future calling. I took a week away from work and drove to Oregon for a spiritual retreat at a primitive cabin near a private lake in the Willamette Valley.

And I prayed.

Or at least I tried to pray. One morning, I read Psalm 119 over more than a dozen times. Then I waited in silence. I wrote out a question for God. And another. And another. But each time, as I waited in silence, I had no peace, no sense of God’s presence. I went for a walk. I climbed a tree. I ate. I slept. On the next morning, I tried again. And the next morning. And the next.

At the end of the week, I felt just as confused as at the start. But I was convinced that God had been present, that God was waiting for me to work through the problem I’d been given, that God trusted me to learn and grow from the struggle.

In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster recounts a similar situation from his own life: his attempt to solve a long-standing problem at the university where he taught. And I recognize my experience in his claim that “we often pray in struggling, halting ways. . . . We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.”

Roberta Bondi builds on this truth in To Pray and to Love with the story of a friend who discovered that “‘Success’ in prayer finally has nothing to do with how we feel, not even whether we feel the presence of God.”

That week I spent in prayer was the beginning of a journey that led me out of ministry (I resigned my position a year later) out of church (I stopped attending another year after resigning) and then back. And even though the journey was painful and lonely, it was a process that led to both perspective and maturity. It was a journey that brought me closer to God through hardship, heart-ache, and humility.

We do not know what to pray. We do not know how to pray.

Names for God


Each of us has an image of God. In our lives and in our communities, we have created God in our image. And we continually recreate that God as a reflection of both our experience and of our need.

We have many names for God – gracious Father, Father God, Abba, Daddy, precious Savior, Jesus Son of Mary, Redeemer, Comforter, Emmanuel, Adonai, Lord – but our words for God represent nothing more than “our conceptions of the divine nature” (Gregory of Nyssa). They do “not convey the meaning of that nature.” Our names for God are human constructions, even if they are revealed in scripture.

Why, then, do we name God?

The issue of naming is an issue of control. Consider the formula “to pray in Jesus’ name,” a formula that simply gets it wrong. To pray in Jesus name must always be a prayer of humility, must never be a prayer of control.

What, then, is spiritual maturity?

It is a willingness to let God be God.

Our names for God are human constructions

Simple Prayer


When I was five years old, my dad bought me a Dalmatian puppy and named her “Candy.” For her sweet disposition. But Candy was not a nice dog. She barked. And she bit ankles.

I asked my dad to get rid of Candy. He laughed. So I prayed. I knew that God answered prayer. I asked God to kill Candy and take her to heaven to live with him.

It was a selfish prayer. But two weeks later, Candy got sick. And she died.

I remember that last day of Candy’s life. I was sitting with her in the back yard. It was a beautiful day. Quiet. Candy lay in the grass. I slowly stroked her ears. And I wondered about this thing called prayer. I knew I had asked God for a cruelty. And God answered. The all-powerful creator of the universe had opened up access to power for me, a child.

This last week, reading Richard Foster on “simple prayer,” I recognized in Foster’s description the request for help, the question, the complaint, the cry. Foster describes the experience of a boy, afraid of a dog, who foolishly thinks he knows how to fix a broken world. What Foster doesn’t discuss is power or the idea that we can manipulate God by praying the right words in the right place at the right time in the right way. He doesn’t mention any of the things I tend to attribute to prayer, such as its effects or how to make it more effective.

I might not have killed Candy. God might not have killed Candy. All these years later, I may be unnecessarily carrying guilt for a dog’s death — guilt that’s not mine to carry. I had an idea that prayer’s purpose was to get things done. But as far as Foster is concerned, prayer is a commitment, a discipline, a practice. And the purposes of prayer are faith, hope, perseverance, relationship, personal and communal transformation that naturally flows from our increasing sensitivity to God’s presence and God’s character.

Simple prayer — being honest about who I am before God, being present with God — is a beginning. And 31 years ago, a five-year-old boy who hated a dog made that beginning in the only way he knew how: simply.

I had asked God for a cruelty. And God answered.



In much of the Church, there’s a cultural divide, a kind of gap between adults and adolescents. Psychologists suggest that adolescents are undergoing a process of identity formation — figuring out who they are and what they’ll stand for — that causes them to question their parents, their friends, themselves. Sociologists suggest that these questions — something we often label “doubt” — make us uncomfortable, that they can create conflict.

Here’s the issue; doubt is dangerous. First, because it’s disconcerting. The right question in the wrong place can throw everything and everyone off rhythm. Second, it’s deviant. People who challenge the status quo identify themselves as not fitting in. They’re outsiders. They’re weird. They don’t belong.

But these questions — these doubts — reveal something important about the young among us. Many of them simply want a first-hand experience of Christ. Their faith isn’t going to be (can’t be) based on someone else’s beliefs.

What, then, might happen if church were a different kind of place, a place where questions could be asked openly, a place shaped by freedom not fear, a place with plenty of room for doubt?

My sense is that God has been shaping us into just that kind of community for a long time now. My sense is that it’s not just the young who have questions. My sense is that we’re in this together.

People who challenge the status quo identify themselves as not fitting in.

Creating a Golem


A friend recommended that I read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and it is amazing. Toward the end of the story, Joe Kavalier, a Czech emigre, is considering his life’s work as a comic book artist and compares it to the Jewish tradition of creating a golem — a living creature that has no soul and acts for the protection of its people. I found the following an inspiration:

“The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation.”

And I wondered at my own golems, the words I’ve ordered on the page, the creations (some ill-conceived) of which I’ve been a part.

And I wondered at my own golems

Conversion Danger


Faith is fused with identity. I am what I believe. As a result, the discovery of a truth opens new worlds and changes my character.

What, then, is the danger of conversion, trying to bring others into truth? It is this. To convert is not to open up new worlds. Instead, its aim is to destroy old ones, leaving the converted in a land not their own and dependent on us, their human saviors.

Do you see that proselytizing is patronizing? That it is a way for us to lord over the less-enlightened? That it objectifies?

Too often, we seek to convince people that they must exchange their boxes for ours. This is sin. Our aim, instead, must be to help them tear holes in their boxes, to see the light of day, to enter this new world as free men and women.

But first, we must work on tearing down the walls of our own boxes. After all, the beam must be removed from your eye before you can take the speck of dust from your brother’s.

we seek to convince people that they must exchange their boxes for ours



Aristotle claimed that happiness is the only thing that humans desire for its own sake. We seek riches, he argued, not because we desire wealth but because we believe money will make us happy. We seek fame, not for the sake of being famous but because we believe celebrity status is a means for achieving happiness.

Yet so many people are unhappy. In fact, clinical depression is the leading cause of disability in North America and is predicted by the World Health Organization to become the second leading cause of disability worldwide (after heart disease) by 2020.

Mother culture holds up an ideal for reaching happiness, claiming that any goal can be accomplished through hard work and determination. We call it the American dream. But it doesn’t seem to be working, and millions of people are coming to their senses, waking up and realizing that there’s something wrong with the way we’ve been living.

Unfortunately, we’ve learned to quiet the questions that bother us by removing silence from our lives. So we know something’s wrong, but we can’t or don’t take time to think about it.

Listen to the voice:

When it asks, “Who am I?” turn off the noise.

When it asks, “Why am I here?” stop what you’re doing.

When it asks, “What is the meaning of life?” listen.

“What’s it gonna take
to slow us down
to let the silence spin us around?” — Switchfoot

“And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.” — Ezra Pound

We call it the American dream. But it doesn’t seem to be working.

When Words Fail


Often, while speaking of God, I will talk in one direction, stop, turn, and stop again, only to find that I’ve run out of words without completing my thought.

At the beginning, the issue seems clear enough. I’m moving along under a full head of steam, when I suddenly spot a break in the track up ahead. I jump to another line, engine shuddering, as I try to maintain speed. But just around the corner, there’s that same break. Except for now, it’s a chasm. So I stop, try another metaphor, pull out a different analogy, hoping that this time I’ll jump the divide. But there it is again, looming ever larger.

And I wonder at this gift of words that is also a curse. After all, language gives us freedom to relate, to connect and create. What is the Church? It’s just a word. But the collection of our shared understandings, of our hopes, of our fears, of our deepest needs has made this word into a physical place of refuge for some, a family for others.

This same language, however, also confines. We are imprisoned in a society held up by words that are not our own, and we are isolated from those we love by a failure to communicate what we really mean, what we truly need.

What then can I do when my experience of God — of the very source of love, truth and life — transcends language? What dare I try when words fail me?

What dare I try when words fail me?

Moral Law


If there are pre-existing laws of morality and truth, then they should apply to all species (the same way gravity applies to both humans and sea slugs). If that’s the case, couldn’t we study the way life works for the rest of the planet, and, in doing so, start to rediscover, uncover, or just finally notice the rules that we’ve been flaunting?

Here’s an example: studies of several different kinds of apes find that they do have a form of morality, and that this form is generally based on two rules:

1) Choose to help.
2) Choose not to hurt.

If these rules are true, if they are laws, then following them should actually aid a species’ survival.

As far as religion is concerned, it’s basic function might be to encode and enforce rules of morality. Unfortunately, if it’s true that man has exempted himself from these rules, then it would also be true that man has coopted religion, using it to justify rather than to correct his wrong actions.

This new religion, then, no longer serves as a source of truth, but instead has become a means of control and even suppression.

But what if, in spite of this change, there still remains in religion the seeds of truth? Where would we find them? I’m pretty sure we would find them in the first story and in messages from the prophets — those nagging calls to righteousness that keep interrupting society’s comfortable seeking after security and prosperity.

What if, in spite of this change, there still remains in religion the seeds of truth?

Are Humans Evil?


A friend writes that “we are all essentially evil at the core.” And I’ve heard this statement shared so many times in Sunday sermons, in the arguments used for a “just war” or in explanations as to why nobody can ever live a truly “holy” life.

But I disagree. If we’re created by God and in God’s image, then the core of our very being must be good. Even someone who doesn’t know God (or believe in God’s existence) has the ability to recognize truth, to give and receive love.

Sin (or evil) must be more like an artificial covering, something we like to wear because of the false feelings of protection and power that it provides. The problem is that in trying to protect our interests, we selfishly cause harm to others (or short-sightedly cause harm to ourselves). And in trying to gain control over our destinies, we too often decide that someone else’s dreams don’t matter, giving ourselves permission to do whatever is necessary to “win.”

we too often decide that someone else’s dreams don’t matter

More Words


Language follows its own law of relativity. Words prop up words and are, in turn, supported by other words. Take a tour through the dictionary — or any reference work — and you’ll find that words define words (and not always definitively).

A single word cannot stand alone in the cosmos. It speeds through the space of consciousness, revolving around some words, pulling others to itself, exerting and being exerted upon.

So what is it that holds language together? How was this cosmic balance achieved? What keeps these various words from spinning out of control, crashing down, breaking apart? What is it that allows these combinations of symbols and sound to rise above animal grunts or the crash of water on rock?

What gives a word its meaning?

A single word cannot stand alone in the cosmos.

Excrement in Heaven


I recently stumbled upon a series of old theological treatises. One that caught my attention discussed whether two angels could occupy the same physical space. Another questioned whether excrement could exist in heaven.

At first, these issues strike me as superficial, even silly. And I’m amazed at the extent of human curiosity (as well as the sources of our conflict).

But I think the question of excrement in heaven could point to a deeper issue. For instance, are natural body functions — eating, defecating, flatulence, perspiration or having sex — unclean? Will we somehow lose the physical aspects of our existence when we enter eternity? The implications are huge.

I’m amazed at the extent of human curiosity



Logic fails to explain anything beyond the technical, physical, visible. For instance, conscience. Science has no reasonable, logical, or even sensible explanation for human consciousness. Some claim it’s just like parallel programming in computers, but that pales in comparison to actually being sentient and having the ability to interact, care for, have conflict with, or befriend other sentient beings.

I’ve been interested to find that in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, there is an emphasis on paradox (dynamic conflict). In fact, some of the mystics claim that there is no truth outside of paradox. So here’s where I’m left:

Science can’t prove God’s existence or lack of existence. But neither can it explain morality, emotion, desire, consciousness.

Art, on the other hand, can’t tell you much about a rocket’s trajectory, the volume of the universe, or the energy contained in an atom. But what other language exists for exploring the soul? For expressing passion and pain? For finding God?

Maybe the real problem isn’t with God. Maybe the problem is with the tools, the words, the kind of thinking we use to understand who or what God is.

But what other language exists for exploring the soul?

Backwards Bible


So I’m sitting next to Matt. Kind of halfway listening to the sermon, halfway thinking about whether I should have said anything during open worship. Flipping pages in the Bible, pretending to follow along. Gregg says something about Job’s questions and God’s showing up at the end of the book. And it hits me. What if it’s all wrong? What if we’ve been reading it upside down and backwards? What if everything we think the Bible says isn’t what it actually says?

An example: Most of my life, I’ve heard the reasoning about why Jesus had to die on the cross, why it works, how I’m supposed to respond, what that will do for my life.

In one ear.

Out the other.

Something about the language never felt right. Like Jesus, who is fully God, had to die in order to satisfy his own wrath. He did it because he loved us so much that he wanted to be with us. But he couldn’t be with us because God can’t tolerate sin, so he came to be with us in order to die so the debt would be paid so he could finally be with us.


I’ll try again.

See, God, who is omnipotent (that means all powerful) gave us the power to give Satan power over us, and in order to regain that power – the power he needed to save us from Satan who had the power that was meant for us – God had to trick Satan into trying to take even more power. When Satan fell for the trick, he forfeited what little power he had, and God got back all the power so he could give us enough of that power to make the right choice this time. Amen.

That’s more like Saturday morning cartoons than real life, and as you can see, it doesn’t work very well.

For a long time now, we’ve been reading the Bible through C.S. Lewis’s view of Wesley’s view of Luther’s view of Augustine’s view of Paul’s view of Jesus. Or, if we’re open-minded, postmodern and emergent, we’ve been reading the Bible with Jesus as the end result that makes the mess of the Old Testament make sense. Here’s the hang-up. Both views fail to offer an answer to the central question of human experience: suffering.

Don’t get me wrong. We have lots of answers. God is testing us to make us stronger. We suffer the consequences of poor choices. God is in control.

But how well do any of these answers actually work? If my best friend is dying of cancer, do I tell him that it’s part of God’s plan? that it’s punishment for secret sin? that there’s no need to worry because God is in control?

Friends don’t do that.

So I’m sitting next to Matt. And I realize that the story of Job is the oldest book in the Bible. I wonder if maybe this story might be THE story, if what comes after is commentary – a working through and a working out of the themes introduced in the first story, the story of Job. And what exactly is the story of Job? It’s a story of suffering.

Unexpected. Undeserved. Unexplained.

I ask myself some questions.

What is Satan’s role? He’s implicated as the cause of suffering, but he plays a bit part. Satan doesn’t even show up after the end of the second chapter. In a book with 42 chapters, Satan accomplishes little more than a setting of the scene. If the book of Job were one of Shakespeare’s plays, Satan would be the clown. He helps to transition us from one scene to the next, but he has no real role in the greater story. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then Satan isn’t really that important.

Why is there suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? The book of Job actually takes up quite a bit of space discussing the problem. Each of the friends introduces an idea as to the source of suffering and how we should respond. Job argues. The friends argue back. If the book of Job were a short story, the issue of suffering would offer the central conflict. The arguments for and against constitute the rising action. But it seems that suffering is not the moral, only the motivator. Without suffering, Job – a stand-in for humanity – might have no reason to consider his reason for being. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then suffering is and always will be the central problem.

What, then, is humanity’s purpose? Why do we exist? What is it that we are designed to do? Job’s call for vindication implies that we have a need to know God, to see God, to speak to God. When God shows up to speak with Job, he doesn’t answer Job’s questions. But in the end, Job is satisfied. The book implies that it is God’s presence, God’s willingness to show up, that is important. If the oldest book of the Bible gives us a frame for reading and understanding the rest of scripture, then humanity’s central need is not an end to suffering (although that is our goal) but an experience of the presence of God.

And then.




The answer.

“Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”

We read the Bible as a series of answers to our questions. Who am I? A child of God. Why am I here? To be in relationship with man and with God. How ought I to live? As Christ.

It’s kind of a cute concept. And it sure does make me feel better. Mostly.

But the Bible isn’t a series of answers. It’s not a map or a constitution, a list, a handbook, or an instruction manual. And Jesus didn’t announce the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven as a solution to our problems (both spiritual and physical). The Bible is a set of questions. And God exists to challenge.

Job asks why, and God responds, “I ask the questions here.”

Who told you that you were naked?
Why are you angry?
Where is your brother?
Is anything too hard for the Lord?
How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?
But what about you? Who do you say I am?
Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?
Friends, haven’t you any fish?

May we fully experience and grow in the power of God’s presence. May we rise to God’s challenge. May we be ready for and sensitive to God’s questions. That’s the point of the Bible, after all. When we read for questions instead of looking for answers, then we come to realize an important truth about scripture:

The story isn’t over yet.

The Bible is a set of questions. And God exists to challenge.



Sometimes I find myself inwardly resisting ideas shared in conversation, and I try to pay attention to the emotional tug. It often reveals new insights — thoughts I didn’t know I was thinking.

I was in a meeting where folks were discussing issues of structural change. I didn’t like one man’s view of doctrine. I disagreed with another man’s concept of authority in the church. When a third shared his view of our shared history, I disagreed; and the fourth man’s corporate metaphors made me uncomfortable. I wondered whether my discomfort was coming from the content of the discussion or the concept itself, so I decided to spend a few moments, consciously sorting through my feelings.

I took up the word “structure” since that was the issue under discussion and immediately sensed a feeling of futility (even despair). After all, formal structures tend to support the status quo. As I was processing, someone in the meeting described oversight as a form of “machinery” that would guarantee consistency and quality.

The church?

A machine?


formal structures tend to support the status quo



Frequently, in ministry-related planning sessions, someone will say something like the following: “We’re not going to compromise the message.”

It’s a statement that catches my attention because it reveals the speaker’s opinion of others in the group: they can’t be trusted.

Is it possible that some of what we ascribe to the “message” is not, in fact, central to what we believe?

Is it possible that we sometimes confuse cultural values with moral values?

Is it possible to think before we speak?

we sometimes confuse cultural values with moral values

Culture of Nice


Church work is mired in a culture of nice, and that culture keeps bad programs and unnecessary efforts from being eliminated; it also uses up resources that could be and should be used to help good work work better. We’re just too nice to call a bad project a bad project. If we criticize, we do so in abstractions or through back channels (gossip). No one has any problem identifying bad products as bad – the Yugo for example. (If you don’t remember the Yugo, there’s a reason for that; it was bad, and now it’s gone.) Maybe the problem is that in the church, we’re addicted to nice.

It boils down to human decency. When good people are making a good faith effort to do work that matters, you feel like the worst kind of jerk calling them out for waste or incompetence. And every program benefits one or two people. Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people weren’t worth the effort.

But there are a couple of people who liked Yugos, too. Artist Kevin O’Callaghan, for instance, saw something of beauty in the car that the public rejected. He bought 39 rusty Yugos and asked his students to make objects of functional art from them. That doesn’t keep the rest of us from being able to explain exactly what’s wrong with the car. A Time Magazine review judged the vehicle — constructed in Soviet-bloc Yugoslavia — as feeling like something “assembled at gunpoint.” The car had “carpet” listed as a standard feature, and several former owners admitted that the rear-window defrost was a nice touch as it kept your hands warm while you pushed it.

Another problem in identifying and eliminating bad programs is social self-interest. Every program and project is initiated and managed by people I like, people I work with, people with whom I worship, people who own the house in which I live, people who are responsible for contributing toward my monthly paycheck. I’m not about to criticize a friend, let alone an employer (at least not directly). But if we all shut up, then sinkholes of mismanagement and despair keep swallowing up our limited resources.

I don’t really know how to fix this. And I’m not ready to tell you exactly which programs suck. (I like my job.)

Still, it’s worth thinking about.

Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people weren’t worth the effort.

Theological Models


A trip ’round the table in a recent discussion of church change reveals an interesting assortment of personalities:

1) Inerrancy of scripture, necessity of a moral compass, impatience with any trespass of perceived boundaries, repeated emphasis of evangelism’s importance as the center of whatever we do.

2) Historical perspective — this is how we got here (without stressing one current viewpoint), offerer of information, sometimes seeming to use perspective as a means of discouraging certain lines of discussion.

3) Pragmatist — it’s good if it works, and if it doesn’t work, it’s not good. Impatient with “time-wasting” historical and logistical discussion. Seems eager to preserve the status quo (because it’s easier).

4) Champion of the business model, continually bringing forward examples from corporate experience. Treats much of the discussion with a seemingly hands-off-listening approach, recognizing that much of our discourse ranges over topics with which he’s unfamiliar.

5) Two accommodators, willing to share personally but generally unwilling to contest points that have been made other than to ask clarifying questions.

It’s interesting to note what conversational bottlenecks can reveal about what the group members really think as well as what it suggests about where people are unwilling to go.

It’s interesting to note what conversational bottlenecks can reveal about what the group members really think

Natural Laws

What if truth (the way we ought to live) were a set of natural laws (just like gravity and thermodynamics and motion and stuff like that)?

What if the only reason humans have trouble knowing what is true and what isn’t is because we’ve decided that we aren’t subject to these laws? What if humans have relegated all discussion of truth to religion because, as far as they are concerned, truth can only be found in the supernatural, not in the natural? What if all this time, humans have been dead wrong?

humans have trouble knowing what is true and what isn’t

Writing a Poem

When writing a poem, I often begin by looking for an image, a starting point.

Black sandals on the floor.
A Bible stacked atop a Book of Mormon.
So many books.
Three piles and a stand with lamp.
A glass of water half full.
A blue ballpoint pen.
Leather shoelaces in plastic, purchased at WinCo at least a year ago.

The neighbor dog barks in the night as the crickets at my window hold their breath, stop singing, wait. I wonder if it’s raining. The crickets return to rubbing a stuttering tune, squeaky at the start of summer as if they’ve yet to find a voice.

Still, it could be worse. I stop listening as a moth flutters up from beneath my bed, blunders into a bookcase, slowly circles, searching for the light.

She’ll burn soon enough.
I’m betting dead by morning.

The fan in the kitchen window blusters its importance, pushes against the heat, escorts night-cooled breezes through darkened rooms.

As we sleep.
The cricket weeps,
“Sleep sleep sleep sleep
sleep sleep.”

While the moth bounces against the bare bulb, drowning in the light.

The neighbor dog barks in the night as the crickets at my window hold their breath, stop singing, wait. I wonder if it’s raining.

What’s a Pacifist?


Growing up Quaker, I’ve always thought of myself as a pacifist. But a question posed fairly recently by a friend of mine made me consider what this actually means.

The question: “On a scale of 1-10, how pacifist are you?”

Many of the respondents answered as if pacifism is actually a form of passivism or simple conflict avoidance, considering only how much they support or don’t support forms of violence (as if religious faith is little more than sacred consumerism in which we can boycott ideas we don’t like and lavish attention or money on those that we do).

But I’m convinced that pacifism is really about taking action, putting an end to violence or, even better, working to replace violence as an option with creative and constructive solutions (both socially and politically, privately and publicly, personally and culturally, locally and globally).

Considering my definition of true pacifism, I had to admit that I don’t rate much better than a 5 in spite of what I claim to believe. After all, action (or, as is more often the case, inaction) speaks for itself.

Truthfully, it’s hard to care about anything that isn’t a clear and present danger. I’m ashamed to admit that huge but subtle problems (like global warming) or faraway conflicts (like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) fly right under the radar of my daily life.

After all, action (or, as is more often the case, inaction) speaks for itself.

What Literature Does


People often ask why anyone (I think they mean me) would teach English. They imply that nothing could be less useful in the real world. I disagree.

Here’s my philosophy of literature:

Literature is not practical. It doesn’t tell you how to repair a computer, build a bookcase, or change a tire. What it does do, however, is far more powerful. Literature takes you out of yourself, provides transcendent experiences that give a taste of what might be. And it takes you into yourself, helps you to process the events of your own life, to produce your own narratives.

I believe in the notion that literature — our attempts to make sense of the world through story — is a form of truth-seeking and truth-telling that draws us ever closer to relationship with each other, with creation, with our Creator. We find in story — all stories — attempts to answer these questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How ought we to live? And we find in each story reflections of the STORY: relationship, rejection, redemption, and reunion.

Who are we? Why are we here? How ought we to live?


Language follows its own law of relativity. Words prop up words and are, in turn, supported by other words. Take a tour through the dictionary – or any reference work – and you’ll find that words define words (and not always definitively).

A single word cannot stand alone in the cosmos. It speeds through the space of consciousness, revolving around some words, pulling others to itself, exerting and being exerted upon.

So what is it that holds language together? How was this cosmic balance achieved? What keeps these various words from spinning out of control, crashing down, breaking apart? What is it that allows these combinations of symbols and sound to rise above animal grunts or the crash of water on rock?

What gives a word its meaning?

A single word cannot stand alone in the cosmos. It speeds through the space of consciousness

Pure Poetry


I think I’ve finally figured it out. Found the answer. Placed the puzzle’s last piece.

All this bad religion out there, it’s a mistake of genre.

Doing-oriented American culture tends to think of scripture in terms of prose (especially technical prose). We like to have a resource for easy answers, quick fixes, little pick-me-ups.

But scripture is poetry.

Poetry doesn’t give up its answers so easily. It has to be digested bite by bite. Slowly. Repeatedly.

And then there’s the silence. Lots of silence. Poetry takes time to unfold, and silence — serious meditation — is required if we intend to unravel meaning, find the source of our searching.

People don’t have time for this kind of thing. No patience. So they settle for the Sparknotes version. Never take a minute to think (let alone listen).

Enough of that. I probably need to offer an example. What about this one? What if God doesn’t really exist?



Pull your fingers away from the keyboard.

Hold off on the hate mail.


For just a minute.

And consider that God is not a thing. How could the Creator be as small as creation? How dare we try to objectify, classify, quantify that which is beyond, that which transcends existence?

But we dare to do just that every single Sunday because we live in little worlds. That’s what prose does. It offers answers, entertains, informs. There’s no challenge beyond the superficial.

But poetry!

Poetry couches each truth in a conundrum, in conflict, in the paradox. In poetry, the challenge is impossible (at least initially) because it pushes past human understanding, asks that we conceive of conflicting ideas working together to create…

something deeper,

something more meaningful,

something beautiful, which otherwise, we might never conceive.

Poetry takes time to unfold, and silence — serious meditation — is required if we intend to unravel meaning, find the source of our searching.

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