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Category: Theology

Where God Fills All Things

I’ve been reading biblical genealogies: Genesis 5, 10, 11, 22, 25, 36, and 46; Numbers 3 and 26; Ruth 4; Matthew 1; Luke 3.

I’ve noticed a pattern.

It’s a line. A man penetrates a woman (usually unnamed), and another man emerges, grows up, and goes on to penetrate another woman. Another man emerges –

Each son is a new man, and in a certain sense, a replacement for the man who came before.

I see a similar pattern in the rise and fall of civilizations, as illustrated in Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

I see a similar pattern in much of white, American Christianity, and I think it is because we do not believe in resurrection.

Christianity without resurrection isn’t just focused on the death of Jesus. Christianity without resurrection requires death. Any religion requiring death brings death.

In order to survive, Christianity without resurrection needs for its “competition” to be utterly annihilated (or erased through conversion and assimilation). Christianity without resurrection seeks the end of the world so that it might escape the world. Christianity without resurrection functions on earth as a system of violation, of oppression, of destruction, and of murder.

This pattern is the pattern of human history, and we find that this is an ancient pattern, present in all our systems, evident even in creation. But this is not the only pattern.

Each morning the sun penetrates our world, breaking into our consciousness as it rises above the eastern horizon. Each evening the sun penetrates the underworld, sinking down through the western horizon, leaving behind – at least for a time – its gentle afterglow. Every day, it is the same sun.

God also rises and sinks, penetrating both what is above as well as what is below.

“Therefore it is said,

“‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.’

“(When it says, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)”

I’ve read that last line several times. If God fills all things, then God doesn’t need to delete anything in order for there to be space enough for God. The very existence of God disrupts our efforts to conquer and vanquish.

God even interrupts human genealogies. God penetrates a woman’s womb. God emerges from the same womb.

This, then, must be why it is that the Roman centurion – a living representative of the empire that has penetrated the Promised Land – is also the eyewitness as darkness comes over the whole land. As the sun’s light fails. As the curtain of the temple is torn in two.

God breaks into the world. God also breaks out. And God returns: in the garden, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, on a beach cooking fish over charcoals.

The line of domination is broken. And we are called, not to destroy hell, but to break in. We are seeds, nurtured in the belly of the earth, growing up into trees large enough that the birds of the air might come and make nests in our branches.

Then, as the morning sun penetrates our world from the eastern horizon and slowly but surely climbs the sky, all people might gather together beneath our branches, where God fills all things.

Not with a Pure Heart

A few years ago, I began an experiment of reading the Bible with a dirty mind. I had been working with middle school students for years as an educator and as a youth minister, and it dawned on me that much of my work to correct their misconceptions about Scripture was based on my own assumptions about how the Bible is supposed to be read.

For instance, I expect time to move from a single point, along a line. Also, for instance, I expect that because the Bible is moral, it must of course reinforce the mores of my own culture. But I know from experience that time is not a line. Our memories are not like signposts along a road – fixed reminders of what happened and where. They are more like goats in a meadow – hungry, sociable, curious, and constantly in motion (part of why they’re so hard to grab hold of). And I know from experience that my cultural mores are not necessarily aligned with those of other cultures.

Not even close.

My expectations about time and morality were blinders, keeping me from seeing what the text has to say. To remove these blinders, I knew I would have to practice seeing what I am not allowed to see, what I’m not supposed to see. I needed to learn to read the Bible, not with a pure heart, but with a dirty mind.

What did I notice? I noticed so many things. Here are a few:

I noticed that it is better, in the Old Testament, to marry a family member than to marry outside the family. This noticing reminded me – as if I didn’t already know – that the Old Testament isn’t inherently Christian. Nor does it belong to Christianity. It is a collection of texts that Christians have adopted and adapted.

I remembered that humanity is created in the image of God, and I recognized that I’d always assumed this as the source of my potential for creativity. But what if it means that God has a body? Is God male or female? What if God is both male and female? What if God is neither male nor female? What if God is more than male and female? What parts does God have? This seemed like a dangerous question to think, so I embraced it. Might that have been the problem of the golden calf? Or of the bull at Bethel? Were they anatomically – correct?

Plato tells how original humans – being male, female and hermaphrodite – were bisected by the gods, and I thought of God making a woman out of Adam’s side. They are cut in two, male and female. But because the Scripture has them coming together as “one flesh” (something new), I wonder what this does to Adam’s maleness. Does a healthy marriage water down a man’s masculinity? Or require him to give it up altogether?

I thought about that problem between Noah and one of his sons (the one with the feet). I considered Jacob’s smooth skin and his skills in the kitchen. I thought about Moses’ relationship with God, especially the parts where the texts suggests that Moses has authority in the relationship (definitely a step beyond Abraham’s efforts to cut a deal at Mamre). I wondered about Potiphar’s lack of children and his relatively tame response to the accusation against his slave, Joseph. I took notes on all the women who remain silent. I tried to count how many don’t even have names.

As it turns out, once I started reading the Bible with a dirty mind, I noticed things. I saw things. I wondered.

And I’m not done yet.

Not even close.

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.

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.

The Problem


I tend to live in my head. I plan. I question. I dream. I replay conversations. I practice presentations. I worry. Sometimes, while composing a response to an urgent email, I’ll suddenly realize I’m in a crosswalk, that there’s a car coming toward me, that the driver doesn’t see me. I stop thinking and react (not necessarily in that order), but then I wonder how I got there. Where did I just come from? Where was I going? And I remember. That email!

Living in my head works for me. I like to observe. I like to dissect. I like to wonder.

But something I’ve learned, observing others – not everyone lives and thinks as I do. Middle school students, for instance, spend a lot more time in their bodies. Which can be a problem.

I envision an engaging theological discussion. They want to run and scream in the gym (preferably while throwing dodge balls at each other and with the lights out).

I plan a time for students to share the truth about what’s hard for them, to listen in silence, to pray for one another. They instinctively understand the sacredness of the moment. But for them, it is difficult to sit and to focus for much more than a moment.

I ask a question about a Bible story. A student raises her hand and quotes a line from a Veggie Tales cartoon version of that Bible story. Half a dozen middle-schoolers begin singing the theme song. Some of them dance.

Something I’ve learned about me. Living in my mind does not necessarily make me a more patient person. And I’m not alone.

Contemporary Christianity has lots of adults like me, but it also has lots and lots of middle school students. Several studies show that we can expect to lose at least two-thirds of these students before they turn 20. Which is a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. Observing. Dissecting. Wondering.

In the 2nd century, a significant number of Christians were influenced by Gnostic thought, a kind of religious philosophy that separated the spiritual (good) from the physical (not good). That’s a simplistic (and short!) overview, but I’ve found my mind returning to Gnosticism again and again and again as I consider this problem. Our problem.

It is a problem that sees someone like me as spiritually mature, as more Christ-like. It is a problem that sees middle-school students as immature and, therefore, not at all like Christ (or not enough like Christ). We demand that they keep their bodies in check: don’t look; don’t taste; don’t touch. But they cannot help themselves. They are overwhelmed by music, hungry for experience, delirious with sunshine and wind in the leaves and open sky.

We want them to sit down. To sit still. To sit quietly. Just for five minutes. Please.

We let them play games. But we sometimes intimate that it is a reward (and a privilege). That it can be taken away. I’m serious. Listen to me. Stop that. Stop. Go sit against the wall. Hand me the dodge ball, please. Hand it to me. Thank you.

I hear myself.

And I recognize, sometimes, that I am part of this problem.

I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagrammed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross. I have imagined that if I leave the body behind, my mind might find a way to float over that deep, dark hole.

I call it freedom.

Middle school students recognize the lie. They would not leave behind their bodies. There is too much fun to be had. Shouting, for instance. Rolling down a hill. Jumping into water. Climbing a tree. Running. Running. Running. Running.

I watch them. Sometimes I join them. And I wonder – as I’m running – whether the problem is the problem. I want them to grow up and be more like me. Quiet. Thoughtful. Polite. They want me to join in the game, to help keep order, to know where the Band-Aids and ice packs can be found.

We are so different. But on a Wednesday night, running through a darkened gym, I get hit in the head with a dodge-ball. And I realize that the real problem – if it exists – is that we do not spend more time together.

I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagrammed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross.



Questions can be destructive. The nature of a question, for instance, is to dig up the ground where we’re standing. It gets mud on my shoes. Forces me to move. And more often than not, those questions reveal thinly-covered canyons. Let the questions get too deep, then, and before we know it, we’re falling.

But sometimes the question moves just enough earth and mud to help us see heretofore hidden springs of fresh water. We drink. We’re renewed. The spring bubbles up and softens the ground. The rain comes down, and before we know it, we’re dancing.

In one case we die. In another we live. In both cases, there’s plenty of digging involved. It’s dirty work, but we need water to live. So we dig.

Over the years, we’ve developed a collection of strategies for the work. Best practices, if you will.

There are those who only pretend to dig. They work over ground that’s been dug before and never dig too deep. Turn over rocks on the surface. Slide their shovels through loose dirt. Stir up dust clouds.

Some are lazy.

Some have lost sight of why the work matters.

Some have lived so long in drought that they’ve forgotten what it feels like to find water. They are already almost dead.

Many are afraid: afraid of what they might find, afraid they might die, their thoughts filled with dark holes and sharp stones.

There are those who don’t dig at all. Maybe they’ve learned that their questions aren’t welcome. Maybe they’re simply standing around, waiting for someone to hand them shovels. Maybe they just don’t know how.

Some are cynical.

Some have been hurt so badly that they just can’t dig.

Some have had their shovels stolen. They are silent. Silenced. They have no voice.

Many have yet to glimpse the source of the water they drink. They have always been provided for, and if the water runs out, they will die without knowing what it is to seek and to find. Which means, as you may have already surmised – no surprise – they don’t dance.

There are those who dig.

Some dig only the ground on which others are standing. Their questions attack. They love finding canyons. For them, digging becomes a kind of addiction, an activity they must own and control; shovels belong to them and them alone. Only they may dig. Some find water, but most self-destruct. They fall into the canyons of their own making. And they take many with them.

Some dig without discernment. They have not learned to see the signs of water. But their enthusiasm can be contagious. And given the freedom to dig, most will find both springs and canyons. They will have many close calls. Occasionally, there is an accident and people are hurt. If gifted with the freedom to dig, however, they will learn; and they will find more water than rock. They will teach us to dance.

I’ve learned, then, that there are two ways to know the people in my community. One is by the fruit of their labor. Those who dig at people rather than dirt – they must be avoided. Those who find water and share, however – those are the people whose questions I can trust, whose digging I can support, even when it feels dangerous, even if I am afraid.

What about fear? Unfortunately, those who are afraid fear both canyons and springs. When I am afraid, I desire safety more than survival. Fear may protect me from canyons, but it leads me into drought. I must be careful of fear (or at least willing to set it aside).

But what if I don’t know? What if there is no record of past work to inform my decision, to help me discern?

There is another way. It is to pay attention to where the shovel goes. If it’s pointed at a person, it cannot unearth anything and should not be trusted. But if it’s pointed at the ground, there may be water.

Many are afraid: afraid of what they might find, afraid they might die, their thoughts filled with dark holes and sharp stones.



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.



A grocery store in town has automatic doors that slide open as shoppers approach. It’s no big deal. Most stores do. But a few weeks ago, as I rushed from the store, the infrared sensor didn’t sense me. The door didn’t open. I ran into the glass. I was both embarrassed and frustrated. Later, it seemed that what I had experienced might have been a bit of a spiritual awakening.

Spirituality, I’ve reasoned, is like a series of openings. If spirituality is a fundamental dimension of my humanity, then it’s a series of openings that are mostly invisible, taken-for-granted, automatic. If I don’t notice these openings – to beauty, to wisdom, to intimacy, to understanding, to truth – if I fail to see (let alone value) those gifts to which I’m granted access, then I simply don’t know that I’m spiritual. If I never embarrass myself by running up against the glass, I may never learn that I’ve been living in two worlds. I may never learn to fully live.

What does it mean to be spiritual? I think it is a kind of awareness of the openings that allow me to transcend the purely physical, the purely literal, the purely logical. An awareness that grows into desire.

Origen of Alexandria (185-251) discusses spirituality in a treatise on Interpreting Scripture. In Rowan Greer’s translation of the text, Origen explains a three-fold method for understanding the Bible. The first of these is to view biblical texts or narratives as a “body, that is a logically coherent narrative meaning.” There are stories that say what they’re about. The second of these is to view biblical texts as a “soul . . . [that] bestow the greatest instruction upon those who hear them.” These are texts that we learn to interpret and explain. The third of these is the spirit, where “spiritual meaning is involved.”

I’ve run up against the glass. Then I realize that, of course, even scripture is an opening; and I want to cross over, to step through, to enter in. I want to be spiritual. And spiritually aware. I want to live.

I want to cross over, to step through, to enter in. I want to be spiritual. And spiritually aware. I want to live.



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.



In liturgical Christian tradition, children enter into the faith through a formal, church-directed process such as catechism or confirmation. Among evangelicals, it is largely understood that one becomes a Christian by making a personal decision to believe in Jesus Christ. Historically, Quakers fit with neither group, relying instead on a process of “socialization” in which children were raised into faith by their families and by the larger community of believers.

Howard Brinton’s survey of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Quaker journals, published in 1972, demonstrates the process by which many young Friends first came to faith: a childhood experience of God’s presence, a period of youthful distraction, an “experience of a divided self,” and sharing publicly in open worship.

Of this first stage, William Penn wrote how it was when he was 12 years old that he first experienced “divine impressions” of the Lord’s presence. Mary Penington wrote that it was at the age of 10 or 11 that she first desired to know the nature of true prayer, later pouring out her soul “to the Lord in a very vehement manner.” John Crook decided at age 11 that he would “serve the Lord God of heaven and earth, whatsoever I suffer.”

But many of these young Quakers set faith aside in favor of “youthful frivolity,” investing their time in music, sports, fashion, friendships, humor – all activities we would deem normal. For these young Quakers, however, it wasn’t the activity itself that was wrong as much as it was the effect these activities had on them personally. They had become divided, tempted, as Margaret Lucas wrote, “to discharge myself of the worship due to God” in order “to attain happiness.” Job Scott wrote that he tried to “persuade (himself) there was no harm” in “frolicking and gaming.” Scott sometimes skipped meetings for worship in order to play cards with his friends. But he could not overcome a feeling that he was missing God’s best for his life, “returning home at night in condemnation, and sometimes sighing and crying.”

The point of change – the evidence of baptism by the Spirit into Christian community – frequently came through vocal ministry. John Yeardley, for instance, recorded that he spent 11 years of his life, resisting God’s nudging, refusing to share in open worship. But he finally came to a place in which he “could not doubt the time was fully come.” John Churchman wrote that it took him eight years to work up the courage to speak in meeting. But he finally stood, expressing “what was on my mind, and therein had peace.” Martha Routh first felt she should speak at age 14. But she did not speak in meeting until she was 29, and even then, she spoke but one sentence: “Be more willing to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.”

Be more willing to hear, than to offer the sacrifice of fools.



As a high school student, I knew where I was going in life. I would graduate at the top of my class, enroll at a top-tier university, work at a large private law firm and eventually find a way into politics. I wanted to be well-known, well-liked and well-off (not necessarily in that order). But along the way, I had an experience that changed the course of my life. On a family trip along the Oregon Coast, I was “impressed” with a question. It was just in my head, but I knew it wasn’t from me: “Would you be willing to give up what you want in order to make a difference?” I suspected that God was the asker, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it might mean. Whatever it meant, however, I knew it was what I really wanted, what I really needed.

Over the years, I’ve had a variety of experiences like that one – times when I’ve had a dream that provided clarity, times when I’ve heard someone say something they didn’t actually say, times when I’ve been “impressed” with a question or an insight or a new perspective, times that I’ve only recently come to recognize as mystical.

So I’m reading the mystics. Because I hope

to learn how to listen better,

to recognize the workings of God in my life and in the lives of those I love,

to better attend to the daily presence of a God who desires for me to experience the communion that brings joy, peace, love and life.

I suspected that God was the asker, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it might mean.



The washing machine started in the normal way: filled up with water, moved the clothes back and forth, stopped for the soak cycle. But when it came time to spin, it clicked into place and stopped. There was no revving of the electrical motor, no blurry whir of spinning clothes. And the water wouldn’t drain. Even now, thinking back, I can feel the tension in my stomach. The anger. I don’t have time to deal with this. Not now.

Of course, it’s not just now. I wouldn’t have time to deal with it tomorrow, either. Or the next day. Or the next. But I had to.

The machine simply wouldn’t continue. Couldn’t continue. So – frustrated though I was – I packed up the car with more than a week’s worth of dirty clothes and drove to the laundromat.

Sitting there, waiting, I thought of Brother Lawrence’s claim that “all our actions . . . [should] be little acts of communion with God.” And I realized that the practice of mysticism – an awareness of God’s reality and presence in all places, times, and situations – is easier to do when I feel like it, when I’m at peace and at rest, when I have room for the silence.

But do I ever have room? To stop? To wait? To listen? To experience?

I named that night’s realization. Called it The Lesson of the Broken Machine. Because if I don’t have time to deal with a pile of dirty clothes, a swamped utility room, and a washer that won’t spin; then I don’t have time for God. Or me. Or the people I love. But that’s OK. Because it seems that Brother Lawrence didn’t really have that time, either. He worked so that others might have that time. The difference between Brother Lawrence and me is that he invited God to be part of his work – washing pots, preparing a meal, picking up the pieces of a broken stack of dropped dishes. May God teach me to do the same. Even in a laundromat.

the practice of mysticism – an awareness of God’s reality and presence in all places, times, and situations – is easier to do when I feel like it

The Mystics


Reading through a scattering of Christian mystics, I’ve been challenged to rethink what I believe, what I do, and why. In that process of re-perceiving and re-acting my faith, I have wondered how much of my learnings should stay with me, informing who I am as a Christian, and which — if any — might be good to share with you. Here are just a few:

1) God is bigger than my imagination. In addition, my experience (and knowledge) of God is limited. I do not know what I know. Nor do I know as much as I suspect that I know.

2) If I really desire to experience the presence of God, I must work on identifying what is and what is not me, letting go of all the stuff I carry around, the stuff that burdens me and blocks me from actually seeing (let alone, knowing) God.

3) From time to time, it’s not a bad idea to let go of all the traditionally pious practices – spiritual mourning, loving prayer, physical suffering, confession, study of the Gospel, simplicity, solitude, child-like adoration and worship – in order to simply express and experience love of God, in God’s presence.

4) Finally, if I cannot find God, it may be that I’m looking in the wrong places. If God’s presence is as simple as a kiss, the breath of another, a challenging conversation, then I might be able to find God – and especially the love of God – by intermingling my life with the lives of my friends.

I do not know what I know. Nor do I know as much as I suspect that I know.



Gifted children often carry extra burdens. For instance, during my years as a facilitator of gifted and talented programming, I found that the most intelligent students at my school were also – in many cases – the most likely to be diagnosed with depression, ADD, autism and a variety of anxiety disorders. I worked to meet the needs of each but found that I had a special ability to relate to the experience of children on the autistic spectrum. I could get “inside their heads” and help them to make important connections. I was frequently asked to meet with such students outside of the classroom. One of these students taught me an important spiritual lesson.

I met with this boy each week. He was intelligent. He was curious. But he was also different from his peers. He struggled to make and maintain eye contact. He missed (or misinterpreted) social cues. He experienced great difficulty discerning the difference between what is intentional and what is unintentional. He had only limited language for his feelings. In fact, this boy’s biggest problem was that his inability to name his feelings made it almost impossible for him to process and resolve them. Instead, he had “meltdowns.” In our meetings, we would explore the events of his day. I asked questions, looking for emotional buttons. I knew I’d found just such a button when this boy refused to answer a question. And I didn’t let up when he shut down. I worked at getting a response – any response – tears, a clenched fist, yelling. Then we would analyze his experience. How did his face feel? His hands? His shoulders? His stomach? Hungry? Tight? Bloated?

“I don’t know,” he would say. “It just hurts.”

“Does it hurt because . . .” I would ask, listing a number of reasons derived from what he’d shared. We negotiated. By the end of our conversation, he had named a new internal experience. On a good day, he had also come up with strategies he could try the next time he had this feeling. I was giving this boy words for his emotional and social experience. I was trying to be a sensitive ear and an honest mouth for him.

Jacob Boehme, a 17th-century shoemaker (and Christian mystic), suggests in one of his books, “Breaking the Chains,” that God can teach us to do this kind of work.

For God.

We can actually, really, physically be God’s body, God’s “eternal hearing, seeing, and speaking.” God can hear and see through us. But this hearing and seeing isn’t a kind of therapy we offer God. Instead, it is a miraculous opening, given to us by God, that we might see and hear what God sees and hears. It is a gift that sets aside our initial and limited physical sensations and that opens us to a supersensual experience of God’s creation, of God’s people, of God’s nature. And when we give ourselves up to God, we let God become a sensitive ear and an honest mouth. We let God open for us the mysteries that we otherwise miss, that otherwise overwhelm us.

It is a gift that sets aside our initial and limited physical sensations and that opens us to a supersensual experience of God’s creation, of God’s people, of God’s nature.

The Trinity Within


Put three children in a room together, and they will play.

Take them to the lake, and they will swim and laugh and explore. They’ll take turns pulling a raft. Or pushing. Swimming in front or behind. Pulling down a corner to fill the raft with water. Then jumping in and helping to bail it all out. They’ll attack from beneath, flipping the raft and its occupants. Then they’ll have a mud fight. Go for a swim. Jump in the raft together and do it all over again.

Take them to a waterfall. They’ll climb rocks: “Look! Up here!” “How’d you get up there?” “There’s a trail. No, over here. It’s easy!” One will find a snake and yell for the other. Or maybe they’ll slide as far as they dare toward the back of a hole behind the falls.

Choose what children you will. It doesn’t matter. Even those labeled “shy” or “loud” or “disagreeable” find a way to fit, to take part, to interact, to play.

One of my new favorite writers – William Law – suggests that we must turn “to the Light and Spirit of God” that is within us. We bear in ourselves, he claims, “a living representation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

We were created for communion.

Children know this, and they are naturals at creating community through play.

I spend most of my days with children and youth. And it is this aspect of my job that gives me so much for which to be thankful. My schedule from just one week this summer: On Sunday, I drove a handful of fourth- and fifth-grade girls to Twin Rocks. On Monday, I took a dozen students to the St. Paul Rodeo. On Tuesday, I hiked to Wahclella Falls with 10 middle school boys. On Wednesday, another youth pastor and I drove 20 students to Hagg Lake. On Thursday, back to Wahclella Falls with another group of boys.

And it’s not always a joy.

They spit paper at each other while I’m driving in Portland traffic. They run ahead of the group and try to lose the girls. They toss their empty water bottles in the creek and complain when I ask them to wade in and retrieve them.

But they also play.

They let Thomas have the front seat even though Noah got to the van first. They lean into one another for a group photo. They offer to stay and clean the van when we get back to the church.

They don’t even have language for their experience. Other than that it is fun.

But I do.

And I am thankful for what I see, thankful for this every-day experience of communion, hoping that I am faithfully reflecting “the Light and Spirit of God,” hoping that I am helping youth to see in themselves, “a living representation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

We were created for communion.

Just War

In the last three days, three different students have approached me with questions about the war in Iraq.

If the war was meant as a swift response to our own loss in 9/11, then why did we attack a country with no known ties to Al-Qaeda? If the war was meant to safeguard the U.S. from future attacks, then why did we invade a country that had no means with which to carry out such attacks (weapons of mass destruction)? If Pat Tillman was a hero, then how do we explain our government’s cover-up of the fact that he was killed by his own trainees (not insurgents)?

I’ve avoided answering questions like these that focus on this specific conflict. The real issue isn’t whether this war is just (or unjust). Instead, Christians must consider whether any war can be justified.

Jesus introduced a new ethic in Matthew 5, when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

For almost 300 years, Christians were so united in their acceptance of Christ’s message that they refused to fight for their country, in rebellion against it, or in their own self-defense. Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 312 changed all that as the Roman ruler made the cross of Christ the banner for Rome’s military conquests.
Before A.D. 173, there was no such thing as a Christian soldier. By A.D. 417, the Roman army only accepted Christians (Christian Attitudes Toward War, 1960).

This acceptance of the “just war” led to the Archbishop of Pisa writing of the crusades that Christians triumphantly proclaimed Christ while riding “in the blood of the Saracens up to the knees of the horses.” Apparently, Muslim infidels and Christian soldiers alike failed to appreciate the irony.

Jesus taught that we should turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, do good to those who hate us, pray for those who mistreat us, love those who have given us reason to hate them. He taught that even hateful anger is evil.

Here are some quotations from early Christian leaders, who believed Jesus knew what he was talking about:

Tertullian (150-225): “Christ in disarming Peter ungirt every soldier . . . . Shall the son of peace, for whom it is unlawful to go to war, be engaged in battle?”

Justin Martyr (c. 165): “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each of us in all the world changed our weapons of war – swords into plows and spears into agricultural instruments. We who formerly murdered one another now not only do not make war upon our enemies but gladly die confessing Christ.”

Clement (c. 200): “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. What then are his laws? ‘Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To him that strikes thee on the one cheek turn also the other.'”

Maximilianus (c. 295): “I cannot serve as a soldier. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian.”

Lactantius (c. 304): “It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war.”

The real issue isn’t whether this war is just (or unjust). Instead, Christians must consider whether any war can be justified.

On Biblicism

Two weeks ago, I came close to losing my job.

I was confronted by a colleague who wanted to know if I believe the Bible is true. I’d earlier made the claim that the Creation story in Genesis is myth. Of course, I explained that the word “myth” in literature refers to any explanation of origin. It’s a question of genre not of truth.

The conversation ended well, and I was encouraged by my colleague’s attempt to understand rather than judge. But the incident reminded me of a concern I have with Christian culture and biblical interpretation.

Many Christians – particularly evangelicals – claim the Bible is completely and literally true, a claim that fails to account for human subjectivity or theological nuance. Take the book of Leviticus, for example. Christians are quick to point out that the book is completely true, especially when quoting 18:22, a verse that is widely interpreted as a prohibition of homosexuality: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.” But these same Christians too often cast off the rest as “cleanliness rules” that no longer apply, especially the bits about mildew and baldness.

There is some reason for this reading. A controversy in the early Church considered how to apply the book of Leviticus to Gentile believers. A special council of elders and apostles was held at Jerusalem (Acts 15), and James recommended that the new followers of the Way be encouraged to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. In one fell swoop, the council erased all of Leviticus except 7:26-27; 17:10-12; 18:6-25; 19:4, 26 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

Later, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul acts without the benefit of the council and further erases all that’s left of Leviticus except for 18:6-25; 19:4 & 29; 20:10-21; and 26:1.

In the first case, the council members didn’t claim certainty or special knowledge. It just “seemed good.” In the second case, Paul appealed to logic in making his argument.

But Christians today widely accept both “reinterpretations” of Leviticus because it’s stated in one case that the Holy Spirit inspired or confirmed the decision, and it’s implied in the other.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

The Jerusalem council didn’t question its ability to hear God and respond in obedience.

Neither should we.

Unfortunately, new “reinterpretations” aren’t allowed in fundamentalist or evangelical circles, and I fear this inability to reconsider is a sign of our weakness, not of our strength.

Stories of Origin

Every culture has its mythos or stories of origin.
The Efik people of Nigeria, for instance, hold that God allowed a human couple to settle on the Earth but forbade them from working or reproducing that they might not grow in wisdom. Mugasa, the sky-god of the Bambuti in eastern Congo, had human children and dwelt among them in a paradise-like land until they angered him, causing him to forsake them. In the Pacific Northwest, a trickster god, named Yehl, created the earth and the sun and the moon before gifting mankind with fire. There’s the Jewish mythos of the God who created a garden paradise in which he took regular walks with a man and wife, enjoying the beauty of his creation. And of course, there’s our own culture’s origin story – a tale that tells of primordial ooze, the cradle of all life.

These stories – true or not – are our attempts to answer questions of purpose and existence. Why are we here? What are we here for? But cultural mythos don’t answer these questions (and can’t). All they tell us is that we’re here.
Right here.
The question that can be answered, however, is one of morality. How ought we to live? And in this, the fact that we’re here is the only answer we need.
Integrity, for instance, means being completely and consistently myself, wherever I am, whenever I’m there.
Simplicity means being satisfied with my situation – nothing less and nothing more.
Humility is being honest about who I am, about where I am. Pride is dangerous, then, because it denies weakness. False humility is destructive because it denies the self.
Finally, there is love. If I know myself – who I am and where I stand – then others provide no threat to my identity, and I am free to accept them as they are.
Whenever I find them. Wherever they are.

Humility is being honest about who I am, about where I am. Pride is dangerous, then, because it denies weakness. False humility is destructive because it denies the self.

In the Garden

It was morning in the garden, and the Master had stopped at the garden’s edge where the blue-green grass grew right up to the place where the earth fell away. The Master looked down into the depths where a river of fire roared through the narrow gorge, and the Master spotted Ahab, blistered and burned, crowded with the others on a narrow shelf of rock above the flaming torrent.

It was true that Ahab deserved his fate. He had murdered some and stolen from others, but the Master remembered a single act of kindness. Ahab, lifting his foot to crush the head of a snake, had stopped, convinced that the snake was harmless. To kill it would be thoughtlessly cruel.

Remembering this, the Master felt compassion. There was a snake at his feet, casting off its skin. With his walking stick, the Master gently lifted the end of the dead skin and laid it over the edge. The snake wriggled and twisted, and its skin slowly descended into the abyss.

Ahab, crushed by the constant shifting of bodies on the rocky ledge, looked up away from the fiery river and saw the snake skin, slowly descending.

“If only it would stretch far enough,” he thought, “I might pull myself to safety.”

As the snake skin came closer, Ahab reached until he touched its tip. He grasped tightly the slippery scales, and in spite of his pain, Ahab climbed, hand over hand, higher and higher. At first, Ahab climbed quickly, but he soon grew tired, and the cliff’s edge seemed so far. As he looked back down to the river, however, Ahab was encouraged by how far he had come. But Ahab saw something else. There was a man beneath him, climbing the same snake skin. And beneath him, another man. And beneath him, another man.

Ahab let out an anguished cry. For how could the dead, slender skin possibly hold the weight of all those eager to escape the flames of the abyss? Ahab felt fear’s sharp sting, and then he was angry.

“Get off! Go back!” he shouted to the men below. “This is my skin!”

With that, the skin broke, and Ahab fell to the rocks and fire below. The Master looked on with sadness. Ahab’s greed had destroyed him (as well as the rest).

The blue-green grass swayed gently in the breeze at the cliff’s edge. It was about noon in the garden.

With his walking stick, the Master gently lifted the end of the dead skin and laid it over the edge. The snake wriggled and twisted, and its skin slowly descended into the abyss.

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.

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