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Category: Sunday Morning

His Hands

I grew up in a church that had a tiny chapel just off the entrance: south-facing stained-glass windows, folding chairs and a stage. On the wall was an image of Jesus, the Sallman Head, a 1940 portrait painting in which a brown-eyed Jesus looks up and to the right (stage left). He has no hands.

We children gathered in the chapel for “junior church,” and the sun in the windows shone upon our Savior as we sang our love for him. It tinted his face red – a blushing Jesus. I suspected it was because of our singing.

We were loud.

One of our teachers reminded us, “There’s a difference between shouting and singing.”

She never raised her voice. She always seemed angry.

Every theology is both sexual and political.

A Jesus-head with no hands is intellectual and safely compartmentalized. In a frame. On a wall. Beautiful in the mid-morning light. This Jesus who only receives. This Jesus who never speaks. This Jesus, chin tilted up, eyes open, always looking above. He is transcendent. He is not present.

We sang to him.

We stomped our feet and clapped our hands.

But Jesus never joined us. Never even seemed to care. He had other, more interesting things to occupy his mind. That big, beautiful brain behind a high forehead. We could not wake him.

It made me suspicious. What good is God in a frame?

After all, there is no such thing as a neutral theology.

But I’d been given an immutable God: insensitive to the presence of children – calm in the face of our shouting, indifferent to our praise. And I began to doubt.

My church had set aside children, shunted us off from the sanctuary to sing our songs in a tiny chapel far removed from the meeting for worship. They were unable to see in children the theological partners they needed. There in junior church, we were invisible – entrusted to the care of a two-dimensional Jesus.

But we were the image of Jesus. Joyful. Exuberant. Chaotic. Creative. Loud. We kept forgetting, “There’s a difference between shouting and singing.”

Meanwhile, our parents sat silently in meeting, chins tilted up, eyes closed, waiting. Moved by the rhythm of our distant shouting, they struggled to still their hands.

On Hunger

Sexuality is theology. My desire to know and be known is physical. My need revolves on questions of vulnerability, of openness, of intimacy, of nakedness. Both mystical union and communion are full-bodied experiences – the bread and the wine and the ecstasy. Why, then, is sexuality so tightly bounded by our weekly Sunday morning discourses? Are we attempting to protect God? To control God? Are we afraid?

I’ve heard the stories of a sterile, effeminate Jesus – pierced but never impregnated. “Who touched me?” God asks. And I look around confused, not because there is a crowd here and everyone has come into contact with Jesus, but because We. Do. Not. Touch.

Except we do (at least in secret), and I am ashamed. Ashamed to admit the truth of my desire. Ashamed to let others see who I am.

In worship I’ve learned to cover myself with fig leaves and hide in the bushes. God enters our meetings, calls my name and yours, but I’m hiding. “Who told you that you were naked?”

I close my eyes, feign meditation, and hope he’ll just go away.

But Jesus stays, determined to undress my oppression: economic, political, theological.

Jesus upends decency.

“How can you ask me for a drink?” she asks.

“He would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is,” he thinks.

But they had forgotten that even David entered the house of God, took the consecrated bread, and ate.

I, too, am hungry.



Ministry is mundane.

I plan and prepare an event. I write about the event. I talk about the event. People come. We spend time together.

Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we play. Sometimes we drive to Idaho. Or build a house in Mexico. Or walk along the beach. There is singing and scripture study. A check-in question. Games. Prayer. And stories. There are always stories to tell.

When everyone’s gone home, I vacuum. Wash the dishes. Turn down the heat. Turn off the lights. Sometimes, someone else puts away the tables and chairs. Sometimes we’re setting up chairs. Or putting pictures on a bulletin board. Making a collage. Sending a card. Reading. Talking. Questioning. Arguing. Laughing.

Every once in a while, there are chocolate cupcakes. Chips. Cherry tomatoes. Doughnuts and good, strong coffee.

Sometimes, when people show up, they are barely awake. Or a little bit sick. Or WAY TOO LOUD for Sunday morning. Sometimes, they are hungry. Heart-sick.

Sometimes, people don’t come. Sometimes we wonder why. Sometimes we know. Sometimes we take time to pray. Or send a text. Or save a doughnut in a Ziploc bag (to be delivered). Sometimes we get busy. Distracted, we forget to follow up. We find the stale doughnut on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Sometimes we eat it.

Sometimes it seems like everyone’s come. It’s noisy. Joyful. Chaotic. Sometimes it’s only me. Or just a few of us. Almost always, it’s enough.

And in the midst of the mundane, we are reminded.

Again and again.

And again.

That God is with us.

Sometimes, people don’t come. Sometimes we wonder why. Sometimes we know.



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.



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?

New Problem?


Social researcher George Barna spent several years searching for evidence that attendance and involvement in a local church makes a difference in a person’s life:

“While we certainly found some wonderful examples,” he writes, “I was stunned and deeply disappointed at how relatively rare such instances were.”

Reading this prompts further questions for me:

1) What is spiritual transformation? What does it look like? How does it feel? Why does it matter?

2) If the church supposedly provides a moral foundation for society, then what does it mean that this institution is failing? Isn’t even making a difference?

3) Is this really a new problem?

I’d like to know.

Is this really a new problem?

Efficiency Thinking


Just a few years ago, my sister and I decided to unhook our dishwasher. It was a kind of quiet protest.

We’d noticed that tools of convenience actually tend to make life less convenient. For instance, modern appliances save time. But the saved time comes with a need for more space (to house the appliances) and a larger income (to pay for them and the energy they use). Besides that, I tend to take advantage of the time-savings by adding more stuff to my schedule. I decided that living efficiently would no longer be my standard of success.

But it wasn’t until after we’d made this decision that I started to notice how efficiency thinking had invaded not just our homes but also our businesses and social institutions. Take church, for instance, which has become — in so many cases — a kind of one-stop spiritual shop. Every human need has a program (with more being created all the time). We’re becoming busier and busier, struggling to keep up with committee meetings, service projects, Sunday school commitments, home Bible studies, potlucks, small groups.

People need relationship. We’ve made them pay for it with time and responsibility. And now they don’t have time for what they need, for what’s important. No wonder, then, that so many of my friends are disconnected from church. It’s become so efficient that it no longer functions.

It’s become so efficient that it no longer functions.



Looking around on a Sunday morning, I wonder how many people have felt lonely in church. Even surrounded by others, isolation is possible.

So many of my fellow worshipers are people I only see on Sunday. We don’t live in the same neighborhood. We can’t all work in the same town or for the same company. How many have the opportunity to minister to or with others in this group?

What I desire is for each to experience integrated living, a chance to know and be known: to work with, live with and minister alongside a spiritually-connected people.

Even surrounded by others, isolation is possible.



Back in 2002, I was thinking about leaving my home church, a decision I eventually made (though it ended up being temporary). I struggled with the fact that so much of my identity was intertwined with church. I volunteered with the youth, drove the bus, worked on committees, changed the sign board, cooked for potlucks, showed up at business meetings, represented the local church at denominational events.

Who would I be if I left?

What, if anything, would be left of me?

Looking back, I wonder if people realize how difficult it can be for people to leave. I’m convinced we must take such decisions much more seriously than we do.

Who would I be if I left?



This week, I’ve been mulling a series of conversations I had with friends a few years back, regarding what the church could be. I remember one Sunday afternoon in particular:

A woman spoke of her desire to be part of a place where people seriously struggle with what it means to believe instead of simply showing up for the social connections or from a sense of duty or in order to get some Sunday morning entertainment. Another shared his vision of creating a place that was open all the time — a kind of community center — a place where people gather to seek counsel, to come together with friends, to discuss and take action on issues of social justice. A third talked about an increasing individualism in society that competes with our desire to be known. We long for community but struggle with commitment.

And there was lots of homemade peanut brittle.

What about you? What do you long for in a faith community? I’m still not sure I know.

a place where people seriously struggle with what it means to believe



Seems to me that denominations have largely served as regulators, means of identifying who’s in and who’s out. The kind of us/them mentality that fuels such boundaries is alive and well in America today, but it’s not p/c: a big problem for churches that want to “reach out” (code for getting bigger).

Denominations may never succeed in ridding themselves of the kind of on-or-off theology that’s guided the Church since Augustine (and Western culture since Socrates). But sometimes I wish people would learn to acknowledge this failing rather than simply covering it over with words.

People see right through that kind of crap (unless, of course, they’re the ones making it in the first place).

People see right through that kind of crap

If I Believe

I’ve adapted these statements from those made by an essayist I admire:

If I believe that all people are created in God’s image and that we are charged with loving our neighbors, then I will treat with respect and kindness every person I meet, without regard to color, gender, belief, lifestyle, or legal status. I will not laugh at their expense, will not avoid their gaze, and will not believe they are of bad character before I know them.

If I believe in integrity, I will not try to take advantage of someone’s error, ignorance, or misplaced generosity. I will not seek favor by offering special favors, nor will I charge others more because I do not like them.

If I believe that God is the Prince of Peace, I will not accept that any effort to wage war on others is anything but sinful. God may have, at times, commanded people to go to war. But short of that direct order, I am to be a bringer of peace.

If I believe that God’s kingdom is not made by human hands, then I will be careful to examine the kingdom that has been made by human hands rather than assuming that it must be just as good as God’s kingdom. I will not believe any earthly kingdom is God’s kingdom simply on the word of others who might say so, even if they do it frequently and with picnics.

If I believe that God is Truth, then I will tell the truth. Always. No exceptions. It is possible to live and work without deceiving others, and if I cannot do this where I live and work, I need to live and work elsewhere, or differently. I will not lie even if it is expected, if everyone else does it, and if it causes me embarrassment or hassle or costs me dearly to tell the truth.

If I have promised to obey God no matter what, I will not also promise to always obey any other power. I will not say that I will, sing that I will, or sign a document that says I will. God is the only one with absolute call on my life and my allegiance.

If I believe that God loves me and that God is everywhere, then I will not suggest that I need to go somewhere special or do any sort of ceremony in order to meet God. There is nothing especially spiritual about a life with God; he’s simply there, wherever I am, no matter what I’m doing.

I will not believe any earthly kingdom is God’s kingdom simply on the word of others who might say so, even if they do it frequently and with picnics.

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.

Why Church?


I got sick, this morning, thinking about going to church. I suddenly felt dizzy and tired. Incredibly tired. I sat down on the couch (with a plate of brownies for sustenance).

What’s going on? Church has been my life. I volunteer for hours every week, attend services at several different denominations, read just about anything I can find, regarding what it means to live a God-centered life, what it means to know God. But I had to face the fact that I don’t like church. It feels like a waste of my time. I resent having to go.

Is there anything wrong with church? Anything I can put my finger on? I believe in an active, living, present God, and we spend a lot of time talking about God. Maybe that’s the problem. We talk God to death every Sunday. But when is there time to experience his presence with us in corporate worship?

What about all the good that churches do? We sent money, supplies and volunteers to help with Hurricane Katrina. We provide food baskets and Christmas gifts for impoverished children in town. We hold an annual appreciation dinner for local public school teachers. We offer free counseling to couples in crisis. But do we know our neighbors? Do we love them? Is our giving truly generous or a burden that we carry (because that’s what good people care about)?

I asked my students, last week, where church originated? Where do we get the idea of church? Nobody seemed to know for sure. It’s just always been, some claimed, while others thought that God had founded the institution.

But that can’t be true. Jesus didn’t go to church.

He invited people to enter a new way of life. It seems, however, that we’ve watered down his message, replaced the Kingdom of God with a social institution.

What’s that mean for me? What’s next? What can I do? Should I do anything?

I don’t know.

Looks like I’m going to need another batch of brownies.

We offer free counseling to couples in crisis. But do we know our neighbors? Do we love them?

Get Your War On


I noticed a stack of brochures on the entry table at church, yesterday morning. They were for a seminar coming up, titled Answers in Genesis. The first page has a bunch of intriguing questions: “Dinosaurs and evolution? Gay ‘marriage?’ (sic) Evolution in schools? Abortion and evolution? Racism and evolution?” The questions are followed by this statement: “Get answers from the Bible that connect to the real world.”

Why should I believe that all the important answers come from a single book in the Bible? If I can discover everything I need to know in Genesis, then I don’t need the rest of scripture, and God is irrelevant.

Bigger issue — who said these are the important questions? Is my faith really based on the truth or falsehood of evolution? And how did gay marriage and abortion get tied into this talk? I know the creation vs. evolution debates have gotten a bit worn since the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” but is this what we have to do to sell tickets?

“How to Defend the Christian Faith in Today’s World”

Apparently, my faith is so small that it needs defending. Get your war on.

Apparently, my faith is so small that it needs defending.

Sunday Space


Sunday morning services serve as space-less places. We fill them up with songs and sermons and passings of the offering plate (with background music, of course). What we really need is silence — space to listen. Why are we afraid?

Maybe it is because the openness of unprogrammed worship — in paring away the outside noise — leaves us no choice but to face the noise within: hypocrisy, phoniness, the false self we project (a fragile image).

Maybe it is because such silence seems a waste of time. We cannot exploit the silence: use it to turn a profit, make a product or persuade.

Maybe it is because we are a shallow people. It is harder to be in silence than to not be in noise. Frantic streams of words cover our spiritual nakedness. Music soothes, puts to sleep the beasts of doubt and discouragement.

“It is necessary that we find God, and he cannot be found in noise and unpeace. The more we receive through quiet prayer, the more we can give in the activity of our daily lives. In essence, it is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us. All our words are useless if they do not come from within. Words that do not carry the light of Christ only increase the darkness.” – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

It is harder to be in silence than to not be in noise.


CYI Memorial Park (

I used to write for an audience, and I still consider — usually — the weight and effect of each word. But more often than not, I write for myself: to calm down, to remember, to clarify elusive thought, to analyze my anger, to dream.

I write an essay during church, using the scripture or song as composition prompt. I scribble notes on a pad while cooking, while reading, when I wake in the middle of the night. (One sheet of yellow paper on the floor beneath my bed holds a single line, describing the work of a medical researcher, pulling away a layer of skin, trying to find the face of God. I don’t know where it came from or when. But I recognize the handwriting as my own.)

Even now, as I type, I look at the clock and realize I’ve been at this for close to an hour.

And I wonder, will anybody read this?

Does it matter?

pulling away a layer of skin, trying to find the face of God

Parallel Play

Acrostic (

In worship, Sunday morning, I realized that I like these people, but we don’t have much in common. We stumble through each song. We have trouble getting along so much of the time. There are so many negative feelings that I associate with this group. But washing over it all, I feel love. Inexplicably, I do love them.

In this love, however, I continue to experience frustration as well. 1) It seems we are more interested in programs than people. 2) There is so little opportunity for communion with each other as a part of our worship. 3) Physically, all our attention is on the platform. We are so separated.

It seems we are more interested in programs than people.

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