Saturday, November 19, 2005


The End of the World


so many of the
spiritual answers sounded to me like empty promises

We were sitting on the beach at Rockaway, circled around a fire, faces glowing, backs to the dark. One of the elders from my church was there. I’d been avoiding him all night. I knew he wanted to talk. Suspected he’d been assigned to the task.

He walked over. “How are you doing, Eric?” he asked. I told him about the new job, my freelance writing, how I felt about our chances in the next day’s competition. “I meant spiritually,” he said.

Suddenly, everything felt eerily familiar. I’d been there before: cornered in a Meridian parking lot, told by my sister that her pastor was asking questions, contacted by an old friend, confronted by my grandmother. At first, I thought it was a conspiracy. I wish it were. That would have been much simpler.

I’d worked for almost 5 years on the staff of a local church. But I felt like a foreigner. I didn’t fit in. So I resigned my position. And then I stopped attending.

That’s when the questions started: was I in conflict with the pastor, was I depressed, did I have some hideous unconfessed sin . . .

Now — looking back — I can see why people asked those questions. They wanted it to be my problem, not theirs. I wish I could have articulated what was happening. But at the time, I only knew that I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know how to fix it.

I wish that I could have told them how frustrated I was with church. I wish that I could have told them that so many of the spiritual answers sounded to me like empty promises, patronizing platitudes. I wish that I could have pointed out that many of the practices of church speak to a culture that no longer exists. I wish that I could have told them that church as we know it and practice it is already dead.

But I couldn’t say any of those things because I didn’t know why I was unhappy.

I was desperate for Truth. I wanted to understand reality and learn to live spiritually. I wanted to know God. I wanted to be fully myself rather than just playing a series of parts. I wanted to integrate faith and vocation with community rather than continuing a kind of compartmentalized existence. And I couldn’t find a way to fit all this stuff into church. The box was far too small.

So I left.

But not completely.

I’m still hanging around, watching and waiting for others to exhibit some of the same symptoms — not just people who hate church but those who desperately want something bigger, something that transcends our limited notion of what it means to have faith.

Why do I care? Because if church really is dead, then there’s got to be something better. And I’m not smart enough to figure it out on my own.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


We talk God to death every Sunday,
but when
is there
time to
experience

his presence with us in corporate worship?

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.

Saturday, October 29, 2005


Why I Left Church


Is there really anything
wrong with the church, or is the problem with me?

As a kid, I loved going to church because it was fun: playing hide and seek in the basement, climbing trees in the front yard, debating with my Sunday school friends over the most effective torture methods, the dessert table at potlucks, singing, hanging out for hours in the library, arguing with my teachers over the interpretation or application of a new idea.

People at church made me feel special. People at church made me feel important. People at church made me think.

But something happened while I was away at college. And when I came back, church just wasn’t fun any more.

People no longer seemed to care about me. They were more interested in the children that filled our vacation Bible school and Sunday school programs.

People no longer praised my work. Instead, they made me feel guilty when the service I offered as a gift didn’t meet their standards or expectations.

People no longer wanted me to think. They were threatened by my questions and sometimes wondered aloud if I were even a Christian.

Of course, these are sweeping generalizations. I did have positive experiences as an adult in the church. But not enough to convince me it was worth my while to stay.

Sometimes, looking back, I wonder, “Is there really anything wrong with the church, or is the problem with me?” I want to believe it’s just me. But I can’t. That would be too easy.

Friday, September 30, 2005


“No one has ever become poor by giving.”

-Anne
Frank

The problem with pleasure is that it’s mostly about taking. We use people and things to find happiness, no matter how short-lived. And the problem with religious people is that they don’t offer anything better. They’ve defined themselves not by what they’re for but by what they’re against. So religious “pleasure” is supposed to come from taking away the taking. We don’t smoke. We don’t drink. We don’t have sex outside of marriage. We don’t get abortions or believe in evolution. We don’t buy stuff on Sundays. And we criticize people who do, trying to take away what little pleasure they have.

It’s a vicious circle that leaves the religious even emptier than the “worldly.”

Of course, my argument is simplistic. Everybody experiences true pleasure at least once in life — huddled around a warm campfire on a cold night, a first kiss, the thrill of accomplishment, a word of praise. But it is rare to find someone who knows the source of true pleasure. It doesn’t come from breaking the rules, and it doesn’t come from following the rules, either. True pleasure comes from discovering what you were created to be and being just that — nothing more, nothing less. True pleasure comes from finding a place of satisfaction, a place of belonging, a place of clear identity, a place that is true. When you find that place where you can just be yourself, then you are finally free to give (instead of just taking). And it is in the act of giving that we find everything we need.

Give away money, and you escape from financial need. Give of your time, and you escape from the rat-race mentality that rules American society. Give up control, and you escape from burdensome responsibilities. Give up on trying to maintain your reputation, and you find freedom to be yourself. Give away love, and the world responds.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


The Emperor’s New Clothes


But in the end, these religious games
are no better than the emperor’s new clothes. Even children can see right through them.

Have you ever been to a school pep assembly or a company sales rally centered on getting people hyped up for the big game or the big sale? Getting everyone on board?

Then you’ve been to church. We are guilty of playing on people’s emotions, of playing God in order to get everyone up on the bandwagon (where they belong). It’s for their own good.

Have you ever met a girl, emotionally dependent on boys, boy bands and imagined friendships — so dependent that she can break into tears when something happens to her idols, even if those people or groups have never been active in her life?

Then you’ve met your share of believers — people who claim a loving, intimate relationship with Jesus and live as if they’ve never met him.

Have you witnessed a hypnotist, helping someone to think and act like a chicken?

Then you’ve seen the way we use scripture and the promises of prayer, pretending that our “spiritual work” relieves us of the need to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those who are sick or in prison. “Don’t you fret,” we say to those in need. “God will take care of you.”

Have you played a sport, been told that winning comes to those that really want it?

Then you’ve heard the Christian message. You know that you just need faith, just have to really believe, just haven’t been praying hard enough.

Is faith a mind game? Is it all in your head? Have we created religion to give us a sense of direction, a purpose in life, a source of forgiveness?

No. God is real. We live in a world that is filled with evidence of his creative power and awesome presence. So let’s stop playing make-believe. Games may be safe and comfortable. But in the end, these religious games are no better than the emperor’s new clothes. Even children can see right through them.

Thanks to Trent Cutler for providing the idea (and much of the material) for this post.

Monday, September 19, 2005


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

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Words Have Real Power


If it is true that words have
meanings, why don’t we throw out the words and keep the meanings?

What are words? Nothing more than symbols, metaphors, pointers.

Words aren’t real. But they restrict your experience of reality. Words can’t see. But they limit your vision. Words have no more power than that which you give them, which is just enough power to bind you. You are trapped by your words, hemmed in — even in your ability to perceive and think — by the words you have at your disposal.

Take, for instance, the common claim that Jesus died on a cross. What does it mean to die? I asked a few of my students, and they offered the following possibilities: 1) a ceasing of existence, 2) the end of life, 3) total absence of a previously existent living thing.

So what do you mean when you say that Jesus died? Fully God and fully man, did he cease to exist? Can God, omnipresent God, stop being present?

It’s just an issue of semantics, you may argue. But that’s not true. If words are what you know, then it can’t be “just” semantics (as if such issues of vocabulary are beneath you). Your entire theology — a collection of words — is at stake.

How do you escape this tyranny of words? Words were meant to serve, not rule. Throw out the dusty slogans, the tired metaphors, the lazy platitudes, the claims of convenience. Think about what you really mean, about what you believe. Try on some new words. But don’t be too quick to purchase what others are wearing, don’t settle for a single outfit and don’t be afraid to go without for awhile.

Friday, August 26, 2005


If we could read the secret history
of our enemies, we would find sorrow and
suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

George Bush visited our town this week. He spoke to more than 9,000 people, crowded into the local rodeo grounds. They waved flags and sang patriotic songs, shouted slogans and laughed in all the right places. They gave the President more than 14 standing ovations.

Please don’t misunderstand. These are not na├»ve people. They’re just hopeful.

Many have seen their sons and daughters and husbands and wives leave home for extended tours of duty in a far-away and dangerous place. They need to know that their loved ones will come home safe. They want to believe that this war in Iraq is serving a purpose. They’re invested.

Just like our president.

It’s too late to go back and start over. People are dying every single day, trying to clean up a disaster that’s of our own doing. Not just “our people” either. Plenty of innocents have been lost, and most of them probably weren’t Americans.

I only hope our nation is learning the truth that “violence as a way of achieving justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.

“It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.

“Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, August 15, 2005


Sundays Are Too Full


Words that do not carry
the light of Christ only increase the darkness.

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

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Quenching desire with
material gain is like seeking to extinguish
a burning fire with butter.

Lightening our load of possessions brings a lightness of spirit, even freedom.

A friend of mine left for California on an early morning this spring. He’s working there for the summer. He was supposed to have everything packed up and ready to go by
6:30 that morning. Of course, he put it off until the last minute. Of course, his
alarm clock didn’t go off. And he wasn’t able to finish his laundry. And he didn’t have room for even half the stuff he wanted to take.

I noticed something interesting as he rushed around, trying to get out the door. His priorities had changed (or finally come to light). Many of his prized possessions — television, computer, books, new clothes — had to be sacrificed because they wouldn’t fit (and the journey was of primary importance). He couldn’t afford to take anything that would hold him back.

Maybe this is how we should view our own lives in the world: as a journey. What are we spending time on — career, possessions, responsibilities, relationships — that we don’t have time for? What people, things or activities are holding us back from fully experiencing this journey to which God has called us? And of all the things that we desire, how many of them do we actually need? Are they good for us?

A Hindu master once said, “Quenching our desires with material gain is like seeking to extinguish a burning fire with butter.”

I hope to travel a different road.

Saturday, May 21, 2005


Metaphors for Church


...the sheer vulgarity, reducing the raison d’etre of church to a glib commercial slogan...

A small group I’m part of has been working to redefine what it means to be Church. The process has been challenging, particularly our recent conversation on the metaphors that American believers are living out in worship (often unconsciously). Here are a few examples:

  • School — a place to learn, where attendance is generally compulsory;

  • Restaurant — where you go when you’re hungry or want to impress someone like a business associate or a date;

  • Gas station — an opportunity to get fuel, purchase a quick snack and hit the restrooms before getting back on the road;

  • Family — related people, who gather for special occasions and sometimes live together;

  • Competition — show off your holiness (and don’t forget the registration fee);

  • Hospital — complete with comfortable rooms, a competent staff of medical professionals and lots of needy patients;

  • Judicial system — interpreting the law of the land and recommending consequences for rule-breakers.


  • But a large part of our conversation centered on the metaphor of business or corporation. And today, I stumbled across this quotation from James Cochrane in Between You and I — A Little Book of Bad English (thanks to Chris Erdman for the reference):

    “No public body these days, it seems, feels it has done its duty until it has produced what it will probably call a ‘mission statement’ in the form of a participial phrase: ‘Providing jobs and services’ (typical town council), ‘Working to make London safer’ (the Metropolitan Police), and so forth. Two noticed recently are: ‘Making knowledge work’ (the University of Bradford) and ‘Connecting people with God’ (St. Mary’s Church of England, Islington, London.)

    “What is it about these phrases that is so irritating? In the case of St. Mary’s, Islington, perhaps it is the sheer vulgarity of reducing the raison d’etre of the church to a glib commercial slogan, no doubt in the name of ‘accessibility,’ ‘relevance,’ or ‘youth appeal.’ More generally it may be a sense of the essential dishonesty of ‘statements’ which, like the verbless sentences of Prime Minister Tony Blair, are not really statements at all but merely vague aspirations for which no one can properly be held to account.”

    I hope some of you, who are reading, will join in the discussion as well. I’m interested to see where it will lead.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2005

    Humble giants seem to
    slumber
    on the outskirts of town,
    form a soft-humped backdrop for the night-starred sky.

    In winter, they disappear
    beneath snowy-white blankets.

    Summer finds them
    flickering
    in and out of sight,
    floating
    in a dirty, particulate sea —
    the accumulated exhalations
    of factories and forest fires.

    Only the rain,
    sliding
    down the sky,
    can wash away falsehood
    and bring the giants

    back to life.

    There was a
    tree,

    wind-twisted,
    bearing the sun’s
    harsh glare,

    tempted in the desert.
    And then there was
    rain.


    Casting words,
    I hooked a nerve,
    and now I see

    the storm clouds —
    blood red —
    brewing
    behind her eyebrows.

    Rain drops cling
    precariously
    to the corners

    of her eyes.


    Pond’s corrugated surface
    reflects

    windswept waves of grass,
    sideways leaves,
    ripples in the cool gray sky —
    storm’s portent.

    Seedy tufts jump ship
    from slender dandelion stems,
    drift away
    in the wind.

    They won’t get far.
    The rain is near.

    Friday, May 13, 2005


    The Perfect Match


    I’m not sure we can
    completely trust anyone who is making money off his own advice.

    The Internet is full of advertising. I just saw a banner for eharmony.com, which claims to have more marriages per match than any other dating service. But I’m skeptical. The entire site, which describes itself as a Christian ministry to singles, was started by Neil Clark Warren, who also wrote the book Date . . . or Soul Mate: How to Know if Someone is Worth Pursuing in Two Dates or Less. And he’s made it clear in his many books and public appearances that he believes dating is a waste of everybody’s time.

    On the average, Warren says, a single person will go on 100 dates before he or she marries. Statistics show that only one in four marriages are happy. Therefore, he concludes that 400 dates will produce four marriages, and only one of those marriages will be happy.

    “This society has such a hard time getting marriage right,” he says. “Seventy percent of us have experienced a broken home, either from our parents’ or our own failed marriages. If only we could get society to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you find somebody matched with you, you can have a perfect marriage.”

    Here’s my issue with Warren: He promises something that might not be good for us — efficient and compatible matches. But successful relationships aren’t about compatibility. (Anyone can be compatible. It’s a skill, not a trait.) Relationships are about commitment, respect, sacrifice, patience, self-control, mercy.

    Besides all that, I’m not sure we can completely trust anyone who is making money off his own advice. That’s called conflict of interest. And all too often, that kind of guru turns out to be a huckster.

    Monday, May 02, 2005


    I try to jump off the page

    to fly

    but I
    have
    no wings.

    It seems my life is full of lists: groceries, meetings, projects, goals. I plot the points on a plane, hoping someday to transcend this two-dimensional existence. I dream and plan and strategize the use of time and money. I try to jump off the page — to fly — but I have no wings. What is it like to lead an unstuck life? Will I ever know? And yet I push, let go of possessions, chase away old friends, throw overboard the ballast of grounded living.

    I have many admirers.

    If they only knew.

    My so-called courage is little more than desperation to escape the stifling expectations of a 9-to-5 world.

    From whence comes freedom? I do not know. This journey I’ve set upon seems little more than random rambling, shuffling steps in the dark, feeling along the walls, stubbing toe on bookcases and nightstands. I’m searching for an exit. I have faith it can be found, refuse to consider

    that it might not exist.

    Sunday, May 01, 2005

    5 +ways
    Church
    TO THINK ABOUT


    Here are some articles on American church that have inspired me this week:

    1 First up is Bob Hyatt on why he got out of a staff role in a mega-church:

    It was working in a mega church that opened my eyes to the fact that in many ways, the church in America had pursued a model that created consumers of church primarily and community only incidentally.

    The church was big — there were programs happening around the clock, all day, every day. And do not get me wrong — good things happened there. But one day I had a conversation with one of the pastors that helped me understand the problem . . . . He was asking me what I wanted to do in the future and I told him I wanted to be a teaching pastor who studied and taught but also spent a good amount of time sitting with people, listening, counseling . . .

    I’ll never forget this. He looked at me and said, “Wow! I used to do a lot of counseling, but I had to stop. In fact, I tell my staff now, ‘If you sit with someone more than three times, it’s too much. We’re paying you to run a ministry, not be with people.’”

    And at that moment, I knew I had to get out; out of that system, out of that mentality.

    2 Thinking about how many people came to church this morning? Adam Ellis offers a new perspective:

    I’ve been thinking about church growth and numeric (attendance) goals recently. To be totally honest (que hostile responses) I think such goals may be sinful. I base that on the account of David’s sin of taking a census of Israel and things Jesus said about the man who built bigger barns. On top of that, I have a real problem when we commodify people and reduce them to numbers. It seems like we are only interested in getting more butts in our pews for the glory/continuing existence of each individual congregation. It seems to me that if we instead focused on making/being disciples (apprentices) of the Way of Jesus and focused on transforming our churches into communities of faith that motivate by inclusion (rather than exclusion), we would see true growth stemming not from programs, but as a natural product of who we are.

    3 Inagrace T. Dietterich considers new shapes of being church:

    The church is an intentionally formed social entity engaged in particular practices to accomplish certain goals. As such, the shape of the church will always be influenced by the assumptions, commitments, and demands of the culture within which it engages in ministry. Yet as a people empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church must always seek the organizational form that is “worthy of its calling” (Eph. 4:1). As the missional church organizes its common life and shared ministry within a context of radical plurality and ambiguity, it must say “goodbye” to old and outdated structures and say “hello” to the social energy and imagination that will enable it to take the risk to experiment with alternative ways to shape the church.

    4 Then Spencer Burke talks about leaving the pastorate so that he could become a pastor:

    For years, I’ve tried to put my finger on it — the reasons why I left the professional pastorate. And you know, more than anything, I think it’s this: I lost my first love.

    The reality is that much of what we call ministry today is really administration. It’s about adding things — programs and strategies and rules. In my 22 years as a pastor, I often administered more than I ministered, if that makes sense. I’ve come to see that I was an add-minister more than a minister.

    Even worse, I now recognize much of what I did in those years was actually about me — what I needed to do to feel safe and secure. It was about my needs more than the needs of the community.

    Nevertheless, it seems I’m a pastor again. My friend Matt, and his wife, Krista are pastors as well. And so is my wife and my five-year-old son, Alden. Yup, we’re all pastors at Church.

    No, really. That’s what it’s called: Church. Not First Presbyterian. Not Solomon’s Porch or Scum of the Earth or some other cool postmodern name. It’s just called Church—and it meets well, whenever and wherever we decide to meet. Last week it was the park; next week, it might be the beach.

    It’s pretty wild, isn’t it? I mean, who would have thought I’d be starting a church with just one other couple and no budget? Who does that? Who says, “Hey, wanna start a church on Thursday?” and believes God could be in it?

    5 Finally, Brian Turner comments on one of the ways in which we misuse church:

    In his book, “An Unstoppable Force,” Erwin Raphael McManus presents the following question for local Churches, “Is our Church a refuge for the world or from the world?” It has been my experience that many local congregations have become safe havens for their members. While they proclaim to be a light to the world, they are in practice places of refuge for people who want to hide from the realities of their culture. Many Christians view their places of worship as a medieval castle they can flee to and once safely inside they can raise the drawbridge to keep out their perceived enemy known as “The World.”


    Saturday, April 30, 2005


    We have taken the world’s criteria
    for success and applied it to our faith communities. We will
    be held accountable.

    Most American faith communities waste time on issues of maintenance. And that’s the paradox of institutional church: organizational constraints make it difficult to be purpose-driven or mission-minded, to do what we were created to do, to be authentic communities. Churches own property, have staff, make commitments. These system parts require a budget. So program maintenance takes over, leaving us little leeway for anything of true depth or importance. Maintenance replaces mission. But maintenance and survival of the institution are not reasons for having church. And when these things co-opt our ability to worship in Spirit and in truth, then we enter into sin by ensuring their continuance. Shouldn’t we sell our property rather than let it steal our attentions from God and each other? If our wealth leads us into sin, wouldn’t we be better to cut it off than to risk judgment? What use is an endowment if it fails to feed the poor or see to the needs of the helpless in our communities: widows, migrant laborers, children, seniors?

    We have taken the world’s criteria for success and applied it to our faith communities. We will be held accountable.

    Wednesday, April 27, 2005


    Any Individuals Out There?


    Most people dress
    like a Gap ad or self-consciously dress anti-Gap.

    We live in a society that celebrates the individual. But have you actually met one? David Batstone writes that members of our society all fit into the same pot: “Most of the people I meet dress like a Gap ad — or self-consciously dress anti-Gap — aspire to own an IPod, and have made it a personal goal to travel to Australia in the next five years.”

    I think he’s right. People tend to accept the system or fight the system. But what about creating a new system (or throwing out all systems)? Why do we insist on defining ourselves in relation to what exists? Why not dream of something new, something different, something that fits (instead of something that’s accepted or convenient)?

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but my plan is to start right here with Dirt Window. A total of six American companies control 90 percent of the country’s newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies. But they don’t own this blog, and they can’t mandate how I think. So from here on out, I’m going to live and write like an individual.

    I hope you’ll do the same.

    Thursday, April 21, 2005


    The problem with literal
    interpretation of scripture is that it is almost always done for the sake of finding loopholes.

    Sola Scriptura. It’s a popular phrase with evangelical Christians, claiming that there’s nothing more important than the Bible. It’s a comforting kind of blasphemy. And that’s the problem: This concept turns our worship into a farce. Can any thinking person justify putting scripture on a pedestal above God and his ability to speak directly to his people? God didn’t write the Bible. People wrote it. People like Moses and David and Peter and Paul. People with problems. And these people had a specific audience in mind. They weren’t writing letters and histories and poetry to us. Some of it was written for the Israelites. Some of it was written as personal reflection or as prayer. Some of it was written to a band of Christians in Corinth or in Rome or in Ephesus. None of those people are us.

    I believe that what was written about God was, is and always will be absolutely true. But the truth presented in scripture is limited by the author’s perspective (experience of truth), and it is limited by the intended audience (the particular truth that the author felt that group needed to hear).

    Paul told the Corinthians that women shouldn’t speak in church. But he told the Galatians that men and women are equal in the eyes of God (implying that they should also be equal in the eyes of believers). Moses told the Israelites to abstain from pork. But Luke records in Acts that Peter had a dream in which a voice from heaven gave him permission to take and eat the other white meat.

    Most Christians take this and say, “Oh, that’s because the new covenant replaces the old covenant.” But Jesus disagreed. He made it clear that not one stroke of the pen would be removed from the Law. He never replaced anything. Instead, Jesus asked us to rethink our concept of what is true and what isn’t. He asked us to consider God’s intent rather than trying to literally follow every regulation. He pointed out that the problem with literal interpretation of scripture is that it is almost always done for the sake of finding loopholes, not because we want to know God.

    Sola scriptura is a farce. We would do well to put scripture in its place and get back to worshiping the one true God.

    Thursday, April 14, 2005


    Where Is the Threat?


    If we believe that God
    gave us minds, then why wouldn’t we expect people to use them?

    A friend of mine is struggling to figure out what is truth and what is trash in popular belief. But his efforts to wrestle with real issues have won him few friends among his Christian peers.

    “I guess what bothers me about religion and a lot of people in religions is that they completely block out what I have to say just because I have different views, and they refuse to listen to my logic.”

    People simply try to argue him out of his way of thinking rather than seriously considering whether he has anything worthwhile to offer.

    That kind of Christianity has always seemed foreign to me (and a little bit hypocritical). After all, if we believe that God gave us minds, then why wouldn’t we expect or allow people to use them? How come that’s such a threat to our faith (unless there isn’t really any substance to the stuff that we claim to believe)?

    But while I was thinking about my friend’s struggle, I realized something about my own relationships: People, who aren’t religious, are just as close-minded (set in their beliefs about politics and success and how to act in public). I wonder if that kind of thinking — where every question has a right answer that must be defended — is part of our culture more than it is a religious idea or problem.

    If this is a purely cultural phenomenon, then it is possible to be religious or not religious without a defensive mindset. It is possible to go against the grain without losing your religion. In the same sense, it is possible to resist culture without getting converted.

    Maybe we need to go back to the basics, question the foundation on which we’ve built belief. The structure might not be as sound as we imagine. And a rigid system will never serve us well for long because it can’t account for future experience. Because our present foundation is built on what we know, it can’t lead us to the places where we haven’t yet been.

    So let’s drop our defenses. Let’s open our minds. Let’s watch and listen for the workings of God in this world. Let’s treat our friends and neighbors as equals, created in the image of God. They have much to teach us.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2005


    When people leave our
    community, we can fill their roles,
    but we can’t replace them.

    I quit my job two weeks ago, determined that I had no passion for the work, that this position didn’t fit within the scope of God’s call on my life. And I felt incredible relief when I resigned.

    A week later, however, I received a call from the owner. The company could refill my position. But it couldn’t replace me. He asked what I’d like to do. And how much. And when.

    Isn’t this how the Church ought to operate? When people leave our community, we can find new workers to fill their roles (like parts in a well-oiled machine). But we can’t replace them.

    Our culture values self-reliance, independence, professional distance within relationship. The Church should be different.

    We don’t have everything figured out. We make mistakes. We secretly hurt (and not-so-secretly hurt each other). And this is precisely why we need community. We’d never make it on our own (no matter how self-sufficient we appear). So let’s be honest and admit our need.

    The world doesn’t know how to admit its dependence. And it’s dying for lack of a good example.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2005


    Hypocrisy or Apathy?


    We claim a mandate to change
    the world ... but it has proven easier to change ourselves.

    The problem is well-documented.

    We talk about the importance of giving back to God. But only 3 percent of Christian households tithe. We preach against the evils of the broken home. But divorce rates among “born-again” Christians (33 percent) are almost identical to those among non-Christians (34 percent). We speak of the importance of ministry to the poor. But it seems that they may not be welcome to worship with us. Only 25 percent of churched households earn less than $30,000 each year as compared to 29 percent of the general population.

    We claim a mandate to change the world by our example. But it has proven easier to change ourselves, conforming to a commercial culture.

    And here is the central issue. People live by what they believe. They can’t help it. If I believe in the power of gravity, I will be cautious of cliffs. If I believe in the irresistibility of mass and momentum, I will refrain from taking walks along the interstate. And I won’t be sticking my head in front of a gun.

    So here is my question: do we really believe? Because the only other option is that we have decided not to care.

    Statistics are taken from studies performed by The Barna Group.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Monday, April 11, 2005


    continued health depends
    on our ability to take advice
    from subversives and crap-detectors

    More and more of my friends have expressed in recent years their disenchantment with the church. They struggle with a deep desire for authentic intimacy within a faith community. They long for simplicity. They literally feel as if life is not worth living without an experience of God’s presence within community. They are willing to sacrifice anything. But instead of these things, they find Christians, who seem to have become wedded to American culture and its promise of riches and relaxation for those who work hard and live well. And relationships, where they exist, seem shallow.

    Please don’t get me wrong. These Christian communities are full of men and women, who have spent their lives, serving Christ and growing in Him. Many of them faced similar struggles in their youth. But that was then. Life is much more comfortable now. And safe. Besides, it won’t be very long before most of my critical friends will have found their own places of safety and security within the institution. The rest will simply drift away.

    Unless . . . we finally make a change.

    We live in a world where change is ubiquitous — an everpresent constant. Because of this, the Church must also change, always adapting to the changing needs by which it is surrounded.

    But change is a threat.

    For some of us, change might mean the loss of status or power. The Pharisees could not condone Jesus’ claim to divinity because it threatened their very existence as keepers of the law and teachers of truth. Yet Jesus had the gall to mock them as blind men leading the blind.

    For others, financial or political interests are intertwined with the way we practice church. The rich young ruler went away sad because he had many possessions. And Jesus shared with his disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

    Still others have so identified themselves with certain ideas or the institution itself that any change at all becomes a form of suicide.

    Yet we must change.

    I pray that God will give us courage.

    I pray that God will strip us of unnecessary baggage, so we might freely enter that land he has prepared for us.

    I pray that God will teach us to value our critics, help us to recognize that our continued health depends on our willingness to take advice from subversives and crap-detectors.

    I pray that we will let God do all these things.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Sunday, April 10, 2005


    In Search of Holiness


    We strip ourselves of everything that isn’t us.

    A friend and I discussed last night the tendency of evangelical Christianity to preach the inherent sinfulness of man, to make the claim that people, who experience grace, will be changed into something new. But the prospective pitfall of such belief is the realization that perfection (a worthy goal) is always just beyond our reach. So we become a people, impatient with seemingly impossible standards, who stop looking forward, start looking back, comparing ourselves to those who lag behind.

    We define ourselves by what we’re not. And in the process, we become judgmental, self-satisfied with how much closer we are to perfection than the world’s sinners. We cultivate an attitude of intolerance, which makes us intolerable.

    During this talk, there came to light another possible perspective. If we were created in God’s image, doesn’t it make sense that we are, at heart, perfect? That sinful nature — rather than a central problem — is nothing more than a veil we wear? If this is true, there remains no need for comparison to the world’s sinners. Instead of looking out, we must seek within, focus on the perfection with which we have already been gifted, the perfection that is masked (but never diminished) by our sin.

    The path to holiness, then, becomes a letting go of petty possessions, dreams and desires. We strip ourselves of everything that isn’t us. And in this, we finally find the fullness of perfection to which we have been called and for which we were created.

    This is freedom.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Thursday, April 07, 2005


    For this is the path of
    innocence. And every other
    route results in destruction.

    I stumbled across these words awhile ago:

    If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find, in each person’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

    And I wonder if Longfellow had it right. Do we dare to tell our stories? Can we be a people, who listen to a neighbor’s tale of fear, hardship and spiritual poverty?

    Such a work requires foolish courage. Foolishness, because we must drop our weapons in order to listen. Courage, because it is easier for enemies to exploit than to trust.

    But we must trust. We must be defenseless. For this is the path of innocence. And every other route results in destruction.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Wednesday, April 06, 2005


    Seeking the Integrated Life


    I see all my faults in the people
    around me and choose to judge them rather than admit my own need.

    I have often longed for a different kind of life, imagining joy in the simplicity of communal work, worship and service. But is close-knit community the key to an integrated existence? What if my longing for meaningful connection is a symptom of internal rather than external division? If I have learned anything about myself, it is that I too often seek the easy way out of uncomfortable questions.

    Sometimes, I choose not to use the gifts God has given because I’m too busy, don’t have the time, don’t need the hassle.

    Sometimes, I commit to a cause for which I have no passion or calling.

    Sometimes, I sit in silence rather than speak up for what is right. Rocking the boat gets everyone wet, makes the voyage unpleasant.

    Sometimes, I ignore my own convictions (especially when they’re inconvenient).

    Sometimes, I see all my faults in the people around me and choose to judge them rather than admit my own need.

    These are real problems, not just symptoms. And they point the way out of my disconnectedness, the way back to who God created me to be. But I’m going to need help. The integrated life isn’t about being perfect. Instead, I have to be honest: about my weakness, about my failings, about my need.

    This then is the kind of community I’m searching for: a collection of people, who can love me in spite of my weakness; and people who, because of their problems, need me.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Tuesday, April 05, 2005


    Jesus didn’t harm
    anything more than our
    sense of decorum.

    There are times when I’m struck by what I read in scripture, forced to stop and think about where I’m going, about whether my life is consistent with what I claim to believe. Take this passage, for instance, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person.”

    Jesus establishes here the centerpiece of Christian peacemaking. But I’ve taken a different path, standing up for my rights, demanding justice when I know I’ve been wronged. And Christian culture applauds. Why is that?

    Maybe it’s because turning the other cheek, walking an extra mile or sacrificing the shirt off our backs is too high a moral demand. These things only make the problem worse. After all, such actions reward evildoers. We must destroy those who are evil before they destroy us.

    This is the argument we used for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, for ousting Saddam Hussein, for looking into Iran’s nuclear power program. We fear death because we do not have faith in Jesus’ promise of eternal life.

    What about our neighbors? Even if we can’t defend ourselves, shouldn’t we stand up for the weak and powerless? When Peter answered this question with the slice of an ear, Jesus rebuked him and healed the wound. And Jesus didn’t fight for the sake of his children. What about the woman caught in adultery? Jesus invited the crowd to throw rocks. And that incident in the temple courts? Jesus didn’t harm anything more than our sense of decorum.

    In spite of all this, our arguments continue. We delve into semantic issues, claiming that “Thou shalt not kill” really means “Thou shalt not murder.” Everyone knows that military intervention is different from the actions of a serial killer. For one thing, it’s more efficient.

    So what do we do when our arguments fail? We ignore the issue and go on with our lives. Let someone else take care of it.

    That’s what I’ve done.

    I don’t think God is pleased.

    Read the full article and others like it at Barclay Press.

    Monday, April 04, 2005


    The Problem with Our Protest


    we have unconsciously revealed where our true faith lies: not in God but in ourselves

    I have watched with interest the continuing debate in my community over Ten Commandments displays. The most recent incident involved removal of a yellow placard from public land at a local airport. Angry letters flooded the newspaper opinion pages. And in further protest, a group of pilots ordered 150 copies of the sign for the sides of their privately-owned hangars.

    I watch and wonder how much of the shouting and fist-shaking really qualifies as righteous indignation and how much might be chalked up to plain, old fear. After all, we’ve been hearing for years of America’s slow decline into the secular. In just such an environment, a call to arms — over abortion or gay marriage or little yellow signs — only makes sense.

    Or does it?

    Are we defenders of God’s law? Does divine order need a human defense?

    If the answer is yes, we admit God’s weakness. We imply that God’s law can’t stand on its own. We accept that the secular might be more powerful than the divine. And we try to fix the problem by elevating ourselves above God, by trying to do for God what he is unable or unwilling to do for himself.

    If this is the case, we have unconsciously revealed where our true faith lies: not in God but in ourselves. We have committed the very sin we fought to fix.

    Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

    Saturday, April 02, 2005


    America is religious, but nearly one-third of U.S. citizens doesn’t
    attend religious services.

    The results of a recent Barna study show that just about every American is religious. Only about 6 percent of the population identifies itself as atheist. But nearly one-third of U.S. citizens doesn’t attend religious services.

    People value their faith, but church attendance is not similarly valued. I know that church attendance can’t take the place of belief, but it has always seemed a natural consequence of a real and vibrant faith. So what’s happening here? What does it mean?

    Is there something wrong with the Church or the ways in which we meet together for worship? Has the practice of meeting together somehow become an obstacle to the practice of authentic belief? Are there societal or cultural issues at work?

    I’d like to know.

    Tuesday, March 29, 2005


    Formulaic Christianity Doesn’t Work


    It isn’t Jesus’ death
    that concerns us. It is our own.

    Every evangelical Christian knows the salvation formula, preached each year at Easter. All have sinned. Sin results in death. Jesus died to save us from our sin.

    One plus one equals two. Can the definition really be so simple? Or is this just the result of simplistic thinking?

    The problem with this formula may be its insistence that a transaction has occurred. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all. But if this is true, then whom did Jesus pay?

    Did God pay God in order to capitalize on a loophole in the Law? This fits with our idea of a merciful God. It also claims, however, that God is inconsistent and unjust. And it suggests that God is shortsighted, having failed to foresee just such a situation that would force his hand. Besides, if God paid himself, is the payment valid? In such a case, God loses nothing.

    If God didn’t pay himself, then did he pay Satan in order to set us free from the Devil’s power? It is blasphemous to suggest that God might somehow be indebted to his own creation. This question also points out God’s lack of power, suggesting as it does that God had no other way out, that he was trapped into choosing to sacrifice his son or do nothing at all.

    But the real problem with this formula is its focus on the death of Jesus. His power is made manifest in life, not death. And it isn’t Jesus’ death that concerns us. It is our own.

    What if Jesus’ death — as his life — is an example rather than a transaction? Jesus did not die to make us comfortable. Instead, his death and resurrection point to the path that we, too, must take. If we are willing to let go of what we have, obedient even to death, we will finally discover true life.

    This is no simple addition problem: one plus one equals two. Jesus didn’t do that kind of math. He revealed a truth that the language of numbers is ill-equipped to express: that by letting go — by subtracting from what we have — we discover the only path to meaningful increase.

    Jesus’ sacrifice makes a mockery of our systems and solutions. But we have succeeded in killing this miracle. We have hidden its shocking power inside the most meaningless of formulas.

    Clearing the conscience has never been easier.

    Monday, March 28, 2005


    We’re governed by public relations. Very little information gets to the people.

    Gore Vidal was never one of my favorite novelists. But I respect his ability to see to the heart of a problem and to tell the truth about what he sees. So I’m disturbed by the results of a recent exchange he had with journalist Steve Perry:

    “The institutions that we thought were eternal proved not to be. And that goes for the three departments of government, and it also goes for the Bill of Rights. So we’re in uncharted territory. We’re governed by public relations. Very little information gets to the people, thanks to the corruption and/or ineptitude of the media. Just look at this bankruptcy thing that went through--everybody in debt to credit cards, which is apparently 90 percent of the country, is in deep trouble. So the people are uninformed about what’s being done in their name.

    And that’s really why we are in Iraq. Iraq is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a symptom of the passion we have for oil, which is a declining resource in the world. Alternatives can be found, but they will not be found as long as there’s one drop of oil or natural gas to be extracted from other nations, preferably by force by the current junta in charge of our affairs. Iraq will end with our defeat.”

    Read the full interview, and then answer me this: What is the measure of our own guilt in this? Can we fix it?

    Friday, March 25, 2005


    Evangelical Image Problem


    Do Christians really care
    about Terri or is this just a maneuvering of public sympathy?

    Thousands have reached out in support of Terri Schindler-Schiavo’s parents. They’re fighting to save a woman, who can’t speak for herself: the perfect corollary (it seems) to anti-abortion arguments. And the vast majority of Terri’s supporters appear to be evangelical Christian, pro-life advocates. But American evangelicals have an image problem. Terri’s case can only make it worse.

    Don’t get me wrong. When Terri’s feeding tube was removed, she began a slow, terrible path to death by dehydration and starvation. And in spite of medical opinion, we have no way of really knowing what Terri is going through. But the Religious Right comes across as self-serving on this issue. Do Christians really care about Terri as a person, or is the groundswell of support for this Florida woman just another maneuvering of public sympathy, meant to give momentum to America’s sanctity-of-life movement?

    If not, then why is Terri so important in a world where more than 35,000 people starve to death every single day? Is it because she has money (more than $1.2 million from an out-of-court malpractice settlement)? Is it because she is white and American? Is it because she entertains us with the spectacle sideshow of parents and husband battling it out in the courts?

    I can’t answer these questions and don’t want to consider what they imply about me and about the people I see in church every Sunday. So here’s my confession:

    I don’t know Terri. I can’t empathize with her family or her situation. And I haven’t tried to save a single person from starvation today. Or yesterday. Or the day before. I want to do better.

    Sunday, March 20, 2005


    In our attempts to make worship
    holy and inspiring, we have had
    to people-proof the thing.

    Christians for too long have founded their faith on a belief in sin. We recognize our feeble-minded, weak-willed, fault-filled selves. And we spend too much effort, hiding — from ourselves and from each other. We’ve tried to change. But less sin is still sin. So, having found only failure, we live in fear of God and in loathing of our neighbors. No wonder church is such a lifeless place. In our attempts to make worship holy and inspiring, we have had to people-proof the thing. But God is not looking to join us in a sterile, Sunday laboratory. He wants to indwell our very lives. After all, He made us perfect (even beautiful), and He desires to revel in relationship with His creation.

    Wednesday, March 16, 2005


    Waiting for the Train


    messages to a world
    that doesn’t notice and might not care if it did

    Sitting in front of the tracks, waiting for the train to go by while the cars pile up on Happy Valley Road isn't a bad way to spend part of an afternoon.

    There’s the graffiti, rushing from right to left — background a dull Pacific Union gray — like a slow-motion text animation. With pink swirls. And huge, goopy letters. A splash on steel. Love notes. Death threats. Somebody’s name. Anonymous messages to a world that doesn’t notice and might not care if it did.

    I push down the parking brake, shift out of gear and don’t read a thing. Just let it all blur together. And I think how lucky I am to have no place to go, no need to rush. Except, I might just come out here tomorrow afternoon to watch another train. And maybe the next day. And the next.

    Sunday, March 13, 2005

    5 +ways
    Church
    TO SPEND TIME AT


    I always carry a journal to church. It helps me process what I’m thinking about the weird things that happen there. But when I opened it up to this week’s spot, I got distracted.

    I thought about chocolate. I considered the message of a chorus everyone was singing. (It seemed to be claiming that my passion for God is up to God, and if He isn’t willing to deliver, He can kiss my passion goodbye.) I didn’t sing that one. I tried explaining what I was thinking to the person on my left without being a distraction. That didn't work. I wrote up a list of all the changes I made to my blogs last night. And then it came to me — something to write about. So I did.

    Here’s the thought I had: If the Church is Jesus’ body, and Jesus underwent temptation, doesn’t it make sense that we would be tempted in the same ways?

    Turn these stones to bread! We have. By trying to grow the church and make converts, we co-opt God’s working in our midst. We use Natural Church Development and Purpose-Driven tools to turn the heathen into believers. Is this what we were called to be?

    Throw yourself down from here! How many times have we tested God’s grace and mercy by acting foolishly or by taking unnecessary risks? We know He will save us. How often has a church building program manipulated people into pledging larger amounts by questioning their faith? Too many times to count.

    Bow down, and worship me, and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours! We’ve adopted the corporate model because it works. We’re convinced we can beat the world at it’s own game, but we weren’t called to play games. And numerical growth isn’t how God measures His own success. So why do we?


    Wednesday, March 09, 2005


    Living Like a Celebrity


    Getting my picture
    in the paper every day does’nt pay the bills.

    Every once in awhile, I get an e-mail from a local journalism student, who wants to be a writer — four so far this month.
    They want to know what my workday looks like, how I spend my time, what it takes to make money in print.
    Sometimes, they ask for an opportunity to do a job shadow.
    Here’s the problem: getting my picture in the paper every day doesn’t pay the bills. Not even close. I moonlight as a schoolbus driver, so I can afford little things like rent and groceries and car insurance. But I answer their questions anyway, all the while feeling like a fraud, hoping that, someday, one of these kids will really make it as a writer and fill me in on how it works.

    Wednesday, March 02, 2005


    This project will make
    me a full-time writer
    for the next nine months.

    It’s official. The Quaker Hill Board of Directors approved for me to write a history of the conference center. I’ll edit the existing book and add another 30 years or so, bringing it up to date in time for next spring’s 75th anniversary celebration. It’s due by November. I met last week with the author of the original text. He handed over a box of files and wished me luck. Good news: This project, along with daily column and assorted articles will make me a full-time writer for the next nine months. Bad news: The full-time work will be coming with part-time pay — about two hours’ worth each week. If you read this and want to help, feel free to send a check in the mail. (I have no pride.)

    Friday, February 25, 2005

    Following the Words


    You wield it,
    and it digs a path you follow.

    I’ve been gone most of the week, reading about writing and trying to follow through. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about where I’m going, why I write. Because it all seems so aimless. Annie Dillard offered the encouragement I needed to hear in The Writing Life:

    "When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year."

    So I’ve decided to follow the words, to let them lead the way, to give up my need for control and to recognize, in humility, that I don't really know where I’m going.

    Monday, February 14, 2005


    No matter how much data
    we collect, we’re going
    to discover what we already know.

    Ivolunteered just over a month ago to help the local school district revamp its writing curriculum. They needed a community member and originally asked the editor of the daily newspaper. She couldn’t do it but recommended me. I didn’t have anyone to recommend, so I said yes.

    At today’s meeting, the discussion circled around the topic of data collection for close to 30 minutes. How do we find out what teachers are teaching? How do we find out what kids know and don’t know? How do we find out what schools need? It could have gone on forever.

    A wise teacher pinned down the problem and brought the conversation back to earth with this insight: “No matter how much data we collect, we’re going to discover what we already know: The elementary schools don’t give teachers enough time to teach writing, and instruction at the secondary schools aims too low.”

    We should have applauded the lady for getting us out of that mess of a conversation. Instead, we quietly agreed and moved on to the next topic.

    Sunday, February 13, 2005

    Audience?


    I write for myself: to calm down,
    to clarify elusive thought, to analyze my anger, to dream.
    Iused 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?

    Saturday, February 12, 2005

    It's worked this way each week for almost a month. Deadline's on Monday. I get to Saturday and realize the piece isn't done. Not even started. And I won't have time tomorrow. So here I am, posting to the blog, finding another reason to put off what should already be complete. Could be a late night.

    Friday, February 11, 2005

    Satisfied To Wait


    In pursuing the dream of supporting myself as a writer, I've unwittingly become a kind of hero to some. No one's actually come up and asked for an autograph, but the frequency with which questions about my success occur makes it feel as if my friends are trying to live their own dreams through me. At first, it was flattering. But it seems there's a certain amount of judgment attached to the vicarious life.

    I am sick of this question: "Are you syndicated yet?"

    And this one: "How many newspapers carry your column?"

    People genuinely want to know how I'm doing. But too often, these questions lead to the litany of advice, the list of things I should be doing and am not. And won't.

    I am satisfied to wait, rather than turn even this — the secret pleasure of creation — into a 9-to-5 occupation.

    Thursday, February 10, 2005

    Modern Man


    Eighteenth century writer Thomas Carlyle’s definition of the writer: "Men of letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all men that God is still present in their life. The modern man of letters, differs from his earlier counterpart in that he writes for money." I am one of those "modern men." But I don't get paid much. And most of the work I do is my own (totally uncompensated). The commercialism of publishing does have power to muddle our motives. It creates an artificial demand for production and too often sacrifices the connection between writer and reader — a kind of communion — that inspires much creation in the first place. I would clarify, however, that writing for pay doesn't necessarily cheapen the craft. It only forces us to more carefully weigh why we write and for whom.

    What Do I Do Now?

    The good news is that I've been asked to write a book. And the bad news? I won't get paid a cent.

    Do I look at this as an opportunity to get my name out there or pass for whatever comes along next?

    Wednesday, February 09, 2005

    Historical Society

    I've been commissioned to compose two articles for the city's annual magazine, and each is a local history piece. So I visited the county museum, did my phone interviews, tracked down a couple black-and-white photos. And in the meantime, someone got the idea that I was an expert.

    After all, two whole articles. The history of a missing lake. A 50-mile or so section of the Oregon Trail. Apparently, I am a specialist.

    So they asked me to be on the board.

    There just happens to be an opening on the Canyon County Historical Society and Museum Board of Directors. At Monday's board meeting, it was decided that Eric Muhr was the most qualified person to fill the position.

    I meet with the board president tomorrow.

    Is this what fame feels like?

    Tuesday, February 08, 2005

    Successful Query

    I'm becoming accustomed to the feel of rejection letters. They're short, fairly impersonal and try to get the message across without offending your vanity. I hate them. So when I received the most recent such no-thank-you-missive, something clicked. I couldn't let them have the last word. On a whim, I sent this reply.

    Thanks for getting back to me. You're right. What I've sent you in the past has been interesting (though conventional). Here's an idea that I'm sure you haven't already covered — Web-based Youth Outreach: How to Build Interactive Communities. I captain an international chess team that has spent the last year, experimenting with outreach, discipleship and communion on the Internet. We have more than 30 members from five different countries, and most are high school-age boys. We've struggled with issues of invitation (how to get people to join us), investment (thinking about what it takes to move kids from aligning themselves with the group to actually doing ministry and serving others), retention (considering what is required for helping people to feel that the extra work of community is worth their time and necessary for their own spiritual health). I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    And it worked. Now the editor wants an outline and an opening paragraph. But instead of elation, I feel fear. I've walked this route before, cobbling together my jumbled thoughts and experience, birthing a full-fledged work. But rejection isn't a one-time hurdle. It hides behind each block of text, each step of the way. And if it comes — as it can — at the end of a piece (rather than at the beginning), the hurt is worse.

    Monday, January 31, 2005

    More than Self-Discovery

    "To write is to learn more about oneself." But I would add that writing, itself, is about much more than self-discovery (as valuable and true as that is). For me, writing does help to clarify what I'm thinking and why I'm feeling. Beyond that, however, it provides a means of connecting, of reaching out to others within my community and around the world. It seems that writing, with its capacity for bringing us together (even across boundaries of time), carries within it the seeds of God's Kingdom, a living, breathing creature that transcends physical place and present tense.

    Read the complete conversation.

    Friday, January 28, 2005

    My Pet Addiction

    I work as a schoolbus driver to support my writing habit, an almost-addiction that's been growing within me for more than a decade.

    Some history: I switched schools a lot as a kid, so I've worked on four different school newspapers and two yearbooks. I even wrote for the 1988 Surfside camp newspaper (some spoof about Bruce or something like that). I submitted to tons of poetry contests, starting in junior high, and won what seemed like huge cash prizes at the time ($50 goes a long way when you don't have to pay rent).

    But I wasn't writing to express myself. I planned on being a lawyer or business owner or president or something like that. I viewed writing as a means of practicing, of becoming a Communicator. I'd noticed that people, who could speak and write clearly, were more likely to be listened to with respect, hired for high-powered jobs, and given tons of money.

    Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the process, and my goals changed.

    Read the rest of the story.

    Saturday, January 15, 2005

    Good Test

    Experts predict that a new standardized test could change the way science is taught across the state. And they say that even if educators teach to the test, Idaho’s students will benefit.

    That’s because this multiple-choice exam will focus on the thinking behind science instead of limiting test items to fact-based, content questions.

    The approach is intended to push Idaho’s science education in a new direction.

    Read the full article on Page 2 (PDF).

    Friday, January 14, 2005

    Educator Profiles

    Here are four of my stories, published by the Idaho State Department of Education. Go to the department's winter 2004 newsletter for the full articles. It will open as a PDF.


    Principal earns national award

    Not every educator gets to hire his former students. Randy Jensen, principal at William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, said that’s one of the rewards for sticking it out in a single place.

    “Right up front, I knew I was here for a long time,” Jensen said. “I wanted to live in a small town. I really have a commitment to the success of this school.”
    Jensen, a 20-year veteran at William Thomas, has been principal for 16 years, following four years at the school as a teacher. Now he hires teachers.

    “On my staff right now, I have four that were students,” Jensen said. “They can’t get past calling me Mr. Jensen.”

    His commitment is paying off in other ways as well. Jensen recently was named National Middle School Principal of the Year. He’s Idaho’s first administrator to win the award.

    Read the full article on Page 1.


    Coeur d'Alene's Conley named Teacher of the Year

    Bringing a dog to school started as a student management experiment in Paula Conley’s classroom. But Bentley, the dog, was such a significant help that Conley made the canine her classroom aide for eight years.

    “He did a lot to establish a warm, comfortable feeling in my room,” Conley said. “He had a way of knowing which kids needed a little extra something.”

    Read the full article on Page 3.


    Madison first-grade teacher wins Milken prize

    Peggy Rogers was troubled by the number of students coming into her fourth grade classroom, who couldn’t read. So she asked her principal for a chance to take on a first grade class for one year, hoping she would learn to teach beginning readers. But after one year in first grade, Rogers stayed for another year and then another and then another.

    Now, 13 years later, Rogers is still teaching first grade students how to read at Rexburg’s Burton Elementary, and she may never go back.

    Read the full article on Page 3.


    Meridian third-grade teacher wins Milken prize

    Dawn Nistal doesn’t play favorites. She makes sure all her students get what they need. So when the third grade teacher at Meridian’s Seven Oakes Elementary learned that one of her students couldn’t speak, she knew what she needed to do. Learn sign language. And to help the boy feel included, all her students are learning as well.

    “The kids are excited to help this little boy and learn how they can speak through sign language,” Nistal said. “The kids are learning sign language quicker than I am.”

    Read the full article on Page 3.