Monday, December 03, 2012



I don’t understand the emotions I traveled on the day of the accident, let alone what I’m feeling right now. But I needed someone to know.
I was in an accident the Saturday before last. And it was bad.

A flash of water over the road, and we were spinning backwards and sideways. Crossed two lanes of traffic. Jumped the ditch. Plowed up a steep bank of grass, gravel, and dirt. The back end caught, whipping us back toward the interstate, where we flattened two aluminum reflectors before slowly settling to a rest on the road’s shoulder.

My sister and I – both wearing seatbelts – were rattled but healthy and whole. Her Kindle was under my feet. My camera was in her lap.

She let go of the door, handed me my camera and took back the proffered e-reader.

“Mom would have been mad if you’d let anything happen to me.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help feeling elated.

The engine was still running. The gauges looked good. I jumped out and checked the tires. A family in a Ford Explorer had stopped on the side of the road up ahead. A man ran toward us. Wanted to know if we were OK. Seemed surprised. No blood. No bruises. No broken glass. I shook his hand. Thanked him for his concern. Promised to stop at the next exit and take a look underneath. Then I climbed back in the car.

And I wanted to shout, “We’re alive!” But I used my inside voice.

We both could have died. But we didn’t. And I was overcome with gratitude. With relief. With adrenaline. With joy. We survived!

Then, almost two hours later, after dropping off my sister, I realized that I’d been going through all the what-ifs and that I couldn’t remember exactly how long I’d been stuck in that loop. Or when I’d started crying.

I was sad. Ashamed. Afraid. Angry. Exhausted. Tense. And I still wasn’t home because I was driving so slow.

On Monday. Roughly 48 hours after the accident. Some high school kids gathered at my house to read a chapter in Psalms and to pray for each other. I had lunch over at Friendsview with Charles and Jean Hanson, and Jean’s brother, Clynton. That night, Geraldine Willcuts invited me to speak to Friends Women about our upcoming mission to Mexico. And I wrote this essay.

I don’t understand the emotions I traveled on the day of the accident, let alone what I’m feeling right now. But I needed someone to know. And I trust you. And I hope – more than anything – that we can figure out each day how to face whatever happens together. Because it’s just too much for anyone to go through alone.

Monday, November 26, 2012



If church were a place where
I was allowed to ask questions,
I'd probably still be there.
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.

Monday, November 19, 2012



I think I'd just want to know her name.
I saw my first pornographic image before I was in kindergarten.

We were on the way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. We’d stopped for gas, and while Dad checked the oil, Mom sent me to use the bathroom.

There was a picture. Torn from a magazine. Taped to the wall. The photo – a woman with hair down to her knees – seemed sad and alone. Silent. Staring out into the space of that darkened stall, the ragged yellow edges of her world.

I washed my hands.

Outside, I told my parents I’d seen something bad. And as we drove away, I wanted to know why. Where were her clothes? Why did someone take that picture? What did it mean? What was her name?

Although most of that conversation has been lost to time, I remember one point that my parents made: the woman in the picture had done what she ought not to have done. She’d taken off her clothes. For attention. For money. To make others think she cared.

That woman was a liar.

I wasn’t old enough to argue. Didn’t know how to put into words what I felt was true. But I did know this: I’d seen the picture. And that woman’s eyes – staring into mine – weren’t full of pride or desire.

They were afraid.

Now, more than 30 years later, I can still see that picture. I carry it around in my head. From time to time, I think about that image – the things we do, the things we do to each other. And the truth is, my parents might have been right. That woman might have been a liar. She may have been greedy, selfish, and shameless. She might not have cared for anybody but herself.

And she might not have really been afraid.

People, after all, are complex.

But if I could go back in time to my five-year-old self, I think I know what I’d ask my parents in the car, on the road to my grandparents’ house: Who took that photo? Who paid the woman? Who printed the picture? Who tore it out and taped it to the wall?

How do you know she’s a liar?

And if my five-year-old self had met the woman instead of her picture.

I think I’d just want to know her name.

Monday, November 12, 2012



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

Monday, November 05, 2012

Gospel Conflict

Gospel Conflict

The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.
The nature of gospel conflict – Jesus and the Sanhedrin, Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus settling a dispute among his disciples – suggests that prophetic witness is generally meant not for the secular, but for the sectarian.

After all, it’s the teachers of the law who accuse Jesus of blasphemy. It’s the Pharisees who accuse Jesus of eating with tax collectors and sinners. It’s John’s disciples who wonder why Jesus’ disciples do not fast. It’s Jesus’ disciples who tell him to send the crowds away. It’s the Sadducees who ask Jesus for a sign from heaven.

It’s the circumcised believers who criticize Peter, and it’s certain men from James who oppose Paul.

But conflict, for the Christian, doesn’t always come from within.

In 1933, at the behest of the Nazi government, the Evangelical Church in Germany adopted the Aryan Clause, effectively removing all pastors of Jewish descent from service. In “The Church and the Jewish Question,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers three tactics that the Church might use against the state:
  1. Ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character.
  2. Aid the victims of state action.
  3. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.
And I wonder, in light of gospel conflict, whether these tactics might be tried within the Church.

Last year, some folks wrote a public letter addressed, in part, to my alma mater and to my church. In the letter, they suggested that it was time to reconsider our position on gay marriage.

More than 400 people have publicly signed the letter in support. Of these, some attend my church. Some work with me. Some have sat next to me in seminary classes. Some were in my youth group or on a youth leadership team I directed or in a class that I taught. Five or six were mentors to me. One was my counselor. One was my professor. One was my roommate my sophomore year in college.

I haven’t signed the letter.

But just over a week ago, in a meeting, I heard that two organizations connected to my church are considering new policies that would prohibit those who have signed the letter from participating in any of these organizations’ programs.

I used to serve on the board of one of these organizations. I presently serve on the board of the other. This new policy would affect at least one current board member and nearly a dozen volunteer staff.

And I still haven’t signed the letter.

But I think it’s time to ask a question: Is this proposed board action legitimate?

And another: Who are the victims, and how might I help?

And maybe one more: Anyone have a spoke I can jam in this wheel?

Monday, October 29, 2012



Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.
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.

Monday, October 22, 2012



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.
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.

Monday, October 15, 2012



The nature of a question, for instance, is to dig up the ground where we’re standing.
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.

Monday, October 08, 2012



Underground Railroad looked to many like
a form of religious extremism.
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.

Monday, October 01, 2012



We don't hear our words. Or feel them. And
it is possible to become enslaved by old ideas
enshrined in contemporary clichés.
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.