Friday, December 30, 2011


All stories follow the same trajectory, touching on issues of relationship, rejection, redemption, and reconciliation. Grace is necessary. And in really good stories, we find it all over the place.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Name

What does it mean to "profess the name"? I've heard an awful lot of professing that didn't have much if anything to do with relationship.

I am convinced it's possible to know Christ, to respond to the inner workings of his spirit in love and obedience, without knowing his name.

Monday, December 26, 2011


October is the busiest month of the year for me. Only July comes close to matching October for office hours, events, and other activities. This year, as I’ve thought about the work I do, the time I spend doing it, I’ve noticed that the work I feel I need to do tends to fill up whatever time I give it. And there’s never quite enough time to get it done the way I want.

I’m learning to recognize that this feeling is a trap. That there’s never enough time. That I have to take control of my schedule and of my life if I want to experience any semblance of freedom.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


People without good boundaries are almost a kind of invasive species -- like cancer. Whether needy or autocratic, they don't know where they begin or end. The result is that they are miserable while also making others miserable.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I continue to be shocked by the level of apparent self-deception -- of victimizers who think of themselves as victims.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety

as long as I’m defining myself
by what I can do for others, I’m failing
to be separate (let alone whole)
Not so many weeks back, I felt overwhelmed by busy-ness. But I also felt the importance of understanding how I got there in order to help protect myself from simply cycling into and out of busy-ness. I want to change.

I gave myself an assignment.

I took most of Saturday as a reading day since reading’s my favorite free-time pastime. And I read a book, Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve. In the book, Friedman makes a connection between Bowen Theory (a family systems theory) and the shadows that we carry with us in ministry.

In one section, Friedman claimed that all emotional systems – families, churches, local and national governments – carry a chronic anxiety load. What matters, however, isn’t so much my activity in the face of that chronic anxiety. The real issue is how I respond to acute anxiety, the sudden changes – both positive and negative – that raise the level of anxiety in the system. Friedman listed four typical responses – fight, flight, freeze, caretake.

I’m a caretaker. My response to anxious systems and situations is to take on extra work, to fix it for others. My problem is one of differentiation, for as long as I’m defining myself by what I can do for others, I’m failing to be separate (let alone whole). I have to learn to separate in order to keep from separating.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


found a
propensity within myself to blur the boundaries.
I have long wished for a place in which I could live what I think of as the integrated life, one in which I can live in, work in, play in, and worship in a single community. My current place of work – a medium-sized church in a medium-sized town – is just this kind of place. I live across the street in the old parsonage. The main floor of my house is where I do much of my programming work with and for youth. I live two blocks from the center of town, so other than for my trips to the seminary on Thursdays, I don’t drive.

The integrated life is good. But I’ve found a propensity within myself to blur the boundaries. Because all is one, I’m thinking and acting as though more and more of my life fits within the boundary of work. And I love my job.

It is not a balanced life.

Not too long ago, I was sick. Sore throat. Earache. Runny nose. Fatigue. I was so tired. That day, thinking about an approaching deadline, I realized that I had to sleep. I had to say no to work. Even if just for a day. But I still went to a lunch meeting. And I still helped with an event that evening. And I spent time in the office, typing this journal entry.

Not working is also work.

Thursday, December 08, 2011



The Loudon County GOP was in the news not so long ago for an email that went out, picturing President Obama as a zombie “with part of his skull missing and a bullet through his head.” People were outraged, and the chairman of the Loudon County Republican Committee issued a formal apology.

“Apparently, some individuals have interpreted an image of Barack Obama that appeared within the e-mail as intending to portray the president as a victim of a violent crime. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we deeply and sincerely apologize to the president and anyone who viewed the image if that was the impression that was left. The LCRC deplores any effort to display, suggest or promote violence against the President or any other political figure.”

Not so many years ago, I might have accepted the apology as written and gone on with my life. But I’ve become convinced through the writings of Henry Cloud that “feelings are on our property.” What was offered above isn’t an apology. It’s an accusation. The LCRC is sorry for my response – “if that was the impression that was left” – not for its actions.

I think this kind of thing happens all the time.

Friday, December 02, 2011


we do not fully know what it means to become human to another
A student called me the other night. He needed help with a paper, but as we talked, it seemed that the task was an excuse, not the real reason, for his call. So I asked a few questions, and we discussed his classes, his family, his friends. Then, abruptly, he asked for advice.

His story is that he made out with his girlfriend’s best friend. She was drunk. He assured me that they did not have sex.

And he is conflicted.

Because of how it felt. Because of what he wants.

He wants to have sex. He also wants to wait until marriage. He wonders if there’s a way around the moral boundaries that up until that night seemed completely reasonable and good.

The nature of desire is multi-layered. And the contemporary struggle for purity involves loneliness and sometimes anguish and sometimes hope. But struggle it is.

For we do not fully know what it means to become human to another.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011



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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Witch Trials

Truth will stand over them, and Friends
will be clear.
The witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, comprise one of the darkest periods in American history. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned under the charge of witchcraft. Of those, 29 were convicted, 19 were hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death under heavy stones when he refused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. But contrary to popular belief, American witch trials were not simply the provenance of Massachusetts Puritans. There were also trials for witchcraft in New York, in Virginia, and among Quakers in Pennsylvania.

The first Pennsylvania trial took place almost a decade before the more-famous trials in Massachusetts and was presided over by William Penn. Two women – Yeshro Hendrickson and Margaret Mattson – stood accused of bewitching “calves, geese, cattle, and a few persons.” Mattson’s daughter testified that her mother was in league with the Devil. Several sources also report an exchange in which Penn asked whether it was true that Mattson was a witch: “Hast thou ridden through the air on a broomstick?” When Mattson answered in the affirmative, Penn responded that he knew of no law against it. Both women were set free.

In 1695, members of the Chichester and Concord Monthly Meeting minuted that two young men, Philip and Robert Roman, had studied astrology, earth divination, palm reading, and necromancy. The brothers agreed that if members of the meeting could convince them of the evils of witchcraft, they would give it up; and it was later reported that both brothers had set aside their studies of the dark arts unless it was found that such arts might be used “to do some great good.”

Instead of letting that be the end of the matter, local authorities commanded a trial. Robert Roman was found guilty of possessing certain questionable books. He was fined, ordered “never to practice the arts,” and released.

Responding to this crisis early in 1696, the quarterly meeting issued a testimony against all forms of magic, divination, and witchcraft as an “abomination to the Lord,” further warning that Friends everywhere must “use their utmost endeavors, in the way and order of the Gospel practiced among us, to bring such person or persons to a sense of their wrong practices . . . and, if any shall refuse to comply with such their wholesome and Christian advice, that then the Friends of said respective Monthly Meetings do give testimony against them; and so Truth will stand over them, and Friends will be clear.”

Thursday, November 03, 2011



He had no need to fear the God who had become for him “a resting place in the day of trouble.”
Civil authorities in 17th-century Antigua weren’t known for their love of the Quakers. They banished some and jailed others. Charges brought against Quakers included speaking out in church, holding meetings in their homes, refusing to bear arms. But when George Fox visited the island in 1671, he found a community of Friends that included most of the island’s landed gentry, including his host, Samuel Winthrop, the owner of a sugar plantation that covered more than 1,000 acres and required the work of more than 60 slaves.

The irony is that Winthrop would befriend a Friend, let alone become one. Winthrop’s father, Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was the first to banish Mary Dyer from the New England colony, the same Mary Dyer who was eventually killed for her defiance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s anti-Quaker law. Winthrop’s brother, Connecticut Gov. John Winthrop (the younger), had Quakers banished, fining and forcibly removing those who entered the colony.

What convinced Samuel to cast his lot with Quakers? Nobody knows for sure, but historians trace the time of Samuel’s convincement to a letter in which he addresses his brother as “thee,” when in all previous correspondence, Samuel had used the formal, plural “you.” The suggestion is that Samuel’s thoughts on the death of his mother had borne in him a rejection of Puritan moralism in favor of what David Hackett Fischer calls the Quaker mode of “fatalistic optimism.” Samuel wrote that death no longer frightened him. He had no need to fear the God who had become for him “a resting place in the day of trouble.”

Winthrop’s convincement to Quakerism gave him peace. But it cost him politically. In 1671, Winthrop lost his post as registrar and as lieutenant governor. In the same year, Winthrop wrote to his brother John: “Be comforted in the Lord, who abideth forever."

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Being a parent has got to be one of the hardest things a person does. And most I know don't think they do it well. Too many broken hearts. Words that might better have been left unsaid. Misunderstandings. Suspicion. Fear. On the other hand, I don't know many who would give it up. Or admit regret. Hard work. But worth it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Things are things. Not good. Not evil. Amoral. And when kept in perspective -- used and valued as designed -- things can help me to live well and to do well. But when valued for what they represent, those same things easily become objects of worship, obstacles to relationship, obstructions to an experience of the Divine Presence.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Some traditions tend to focus on coming to faith as an event while others present it as a process. I've sometimes wondered whether the experience of "event" or "process" has more to do with my faith personality than with my tradition or my experience of reality.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I've been challenging myself this year to live in the tension between competing desires and expectations. It's so much easier to quiet the stressors in my life by leaning one direction or the other, but I'm learning that the place of tension -- that liminal place of not quite one or the other (but both) -- is the place I need to be, the only place where I can find the balanced maturity that I seek.

Friday, October 21, 2011


I like to think of myself as a realist (rather than optimist or pessimist), but all that means is that I'm less likely to think of the glass half full or half empty than I am to suspect that I can smell the faint odor of chlorine.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I'm often distracted, not because I'm not focusing, but because I'm focusing on something other than the experience of the moment. I struggle with being present.

Monday, October 17, 2011


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

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

So I’m reading the mystics. Because I hope

to learn how to listen better,

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011



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

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

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

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

Monday, October 03, 2011


the practice of mysticism – an awareness of God's reality and presence in all places, times, and situations – is easier to do when I feel like it
The washing machine started in the normal way: filled up with water, moved the clothes back and forth, stopped for the soak cycle. But when it came time to spin, it clicked into place and stopped. There was no revving of the electrical motor, no blurry whir of spinning clothes. And the water wouldn’t drain. Even now, thinking back, I can feel the tension in my stomach. The anger. I don’t have time to deal with this. Not now.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Mystics

The Mystics

I do not know what I know. Nor do I know as much
as I suspect that I know.
Reading through a scattering of Christian mystics this summer, I've been challenged to rethink what I believe, what I do, and why. In that process of re-perceiving and re-acting my faith, I have wondered how much of my learnings should stay with me, informing who I am as a Christian, and which -- if any -- might be good to share with you. Here are just a few:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Spiritual Autism

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

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

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

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

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

For God.

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Trinity

The Trinity Within

We bear in ourselves
a living representation of Father,
Son, and Holy Ghost.

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

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

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

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

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

We were created for communion.

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

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

And it’s not always a joy.

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

But they also play.

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

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

But I do.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


In his advice for men, Miller used the words
seductive or seductress five times. In his advice for women,
Miller used a form of the word slut four times.

Earlier this month, Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz (and quite a few other really good books), wrote a pair of blogs about love. He counseled men to provide safety, security and emotional stability if they want to be attractive. He wrote that women should “stop acting like a victim. If you want a strong man who can protect you and your children, stop trolling for predators by crying all the time.” In his advice for men, Miller used the words seductive or seductress five times. In his advice for women, Miller used a form of the word slut four times. Miller tells men to write “a great love story.” He then says to women that they must “train hard” in order to get included in such a love story, likening it to a marathon and further counseling women that they must suffer in order to win.

Nine days later, Miller announced the deletion of both blog posts, offering a kind of ersatz apology. But he didn’t apologize for denigrating women. He didn’t apologize for blaming women. He certainly didn’t apologize for the sexist content of either blog post. What did Miller apologize for, exactly? Here it is. In his own words:

. . . I write blogs on a whim. . . . I’m thinking out loud. What I never expected was to incur the amount of traffic the blog received. And for that matter, the feedback both negative and positive.

Miller apologized, first, for the negative comments his blog received. He was only thinking out loud. He had no idea this many people were reading. He stresses that there was also positive feedback.

To be honest, I wrote the blogs and never reread them, even after all the traffic. I’m writing books at the moment and didn’t feel the need to go back.

Miller apologized, second, for not actually caring enough about the subject to pay any attention to it. He’s writing books, after all.

I write blogs, misspellings and all, as a way of journaling through ideas. That said, after receiving critical feedback from people I greatly respect (along with support from people I greatly respect) I feared a backlash. Not a personal backlash, mind you, but a backlash against the actual ideas the blog presented. That is, I feared many would say “who are you to tell me how to live or how to love, I’m going to do anything I want.”

Miller apologized, third, for people who don’t understand or agree with his argument. He also indirectly labels such people sexual libertines. Reading through the comments on Miller’s original posts makes it clear that many of these people are women.

I’ve seen this sort of backlash before in other arenas. I’m convinced a number of preachers drive as many people away from Jesus as they invite toward Jesus through the harshness of their rhetoric. I’m not interested, then, in driving people away from a good love story simply because I used language and presented ideas they found offensive. Especially when the ideas were generated in no more than half an hour . . . .

Miller repeats his out that he’s too busy for this kind of thing.

But he’s not.

Yesterday, Miller posted a new blog, asking, “Ladies, Why Do You Hook Up?” Maybe Miller’s just curious “why some girls give up sex easily.” Maybe Miller really does believe that women “use sex for some kind of social power.” Maybe Miller doesn’t know that the Getty Images photo he posted with his blog is the same photo used by Time Magazine in its online post Monday regarding the top 10 most promiscuous cities.

When one of Miller’s readers asks why Miller isn’t “asking the same questions to men,” it might just be that Miller’s right in saying, “All questions can’t be asked at the same time to all groups of people. While I appreciate your consideration, it really isn’t helpful. Honestly.”

Then again, maybe not.

Friday, July 22, 2011


To Be Human

we live in a
culture that can't talk
about sex

I read an essay not so long ago, written by a woman who received a Facebook friend request from a man who 13 years earlier had raped her. Although she never accepted the request, she did call him. Opened her woundedness. Asked him to talk about what he did and why. She writes that this “hour-long phone conversation with the man who raped me . . . was more helpful than 1,000 hours of therapy.”

It was a compelling piece of writing, and the author handled her subject both honestly and carefully. It was refreshing because – frankly – we live in a culture that can’t talk about sex. Not without a sneer, a snide comment, a joke, or some kind of sotto voce complicity (as though the discussion itself is suspect).

That’s what I find so refreshing in the Bible’s Song of Solomon. There is no shame. Instead, there is honesty, vulnerability, passion – even the passion that will continue to pursue in spite of cultural boundaries (implied by the beating received at the hands of those “sentinels of the walls” who “took away my mantle”).

And that’s what I find so frustrating in some of the early church fathers, such as Origen, who seems convinced of the evil of “fleshly desires.” He writes that only those “free of the vexations of flesh and blood . . . withdrawn from the desire for corporeal nature” may read this Old Testament book. And that’s what I find so frustrating in Bernard of Clairvaux’s insistence, likewise, that perceiving the message of the Song with “any shadow of corporeal substances” is nothing more than an “evil suggestion[s] . . . forced upon us by the bad angels.”

If Jesus was fully human, then we should be free to be the same, opening our woundedness and our longings, discussing with honesty and passion what it is to want.

At Barclay Press.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


As to how we make community happen, I often feel like I'm stumbling in the dark, not even sure what it means (let alone how to get there). What I do know is that I have a longing for shared living. I have a longing for being known, being understood. I have a longing to know and understand. I have a longing for relationship. I believe these are universal longings, and this is why I argue that the “love” part of Christ’s crucifixion isn’t so much the sacrifice as it is the opening for reconciliation, the opportunity for celebration, the invitation to community.

Thursday, June 30, 2011


if we aren't willing to
let our perspectives be shaken, we'll never
really learn to see

The two creation accounts in Genesis have largely been read as separate stories; but the fact that they are next to each other demonstrates that someone thought they should go together. Rather than arguing over the differences, we would do well to consider why they have been treated as they have, what this paradox of placement reveals about how the texts are meant to be read and experienced.

What if the first story is vertical, emphasizing the relationship between God and the cosmos? The second story, then, is lateral, focusing on human existence in God’s creation. Notice how the two stories hinge on Sabbath, a point at which the first story of “the heavens and the earth” is flipped and projected into a future story of “the earth and the heavens.” The ending, then, of God’s creation – Sabbath – offers a transition into a new beginning, a new creation, a time in which human work and God’s plan coincide to start the long-term work of cooperatively creating.

The problem with this reading – as seductive as it is – is that the texts don’t present a unified view of humanity. In Genesis 2, the relationship between man and woman is unequal, a major difference from Genesis 1 in which God creates both man and woman in God’s image. In Genesis 2, inequality of the genders is demonstrated in the order of creation (man first, woman second), the quality of creation (woman derived from a man-part) and the purpose of creation (woman created as “a helper”).

The two texts were put together. But why? Maybe there’s a question left un-answered in the first, a problem that has to be solved. Maybe it’s a question we can’t see because of the cultural expectations (and assumptions) we bring to both texts. We do have a key, however, and that key is the work of P. A. Bird, work that makes clear the terms used for male and female in Genesis 1:27 are “biological, not sociological.”

What if, instead of reading these stories as poetry or historical narrative, we try the genre of mythos? What if these two accounts are meant to be read as potentially fantastical stories that answer questions of identity, purpose and morality? The fantastical part, according to Jennifer Wright Knust, the part we miss, is the possibility that “male and female” is referring to one, not two. If she’s right, then like the Native American story about how the chipmunk got its stripe, the second creation account answers, among other questions, why we are no longer androgynous.

Crazy? Only in that it controverts the way we're used to reading the stories. And if we aren't willing to let our perspectives be shaken, we'll never really learn to see.

Monday, June 20, 2011


I think of playful creativity as one of humanity's greatest gifts, so it makes sense to me to consider that gift a reflection of our Creator. But I've taken it for granted. I haven't considered whether it's true. Or what it might mean.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I find that much of my work as a youth pastor involves helping students to live in rather than evade the tension of authentic living. Within my own denomination, for example, there are emphases on both simplicity and stewardship. Should I carefully steward what I have for the future? Or give away everything, taking a vow of poverty in order to live simply?

It's human to want to resolve the tension, to want to move in one direction or the other. But that kind of resolution almost always ends in an extreme (making me an extremist). It's much harder to live in the tension, to daily struggle with balance, with paradox, with the between-ness of never quite getting it right and never giving in or giving up.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

On Hell

What if there were no punishment and destruction outside of what we call "natural" consequences? What if our conception of hell is just a concept? Is it useful? Does it work? What if the purpose of God's "barking" against sin is to draw me away from danger, to draw me into relationship and community? Does that bark need a bite?

Friday, June 03, 2011


The Image of God

my attitude toward the
name of God reveals the integrity
of my relationship with God

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

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

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

Sunday, May 29, 2011


There are so many who are invisible. I want to be like Christ: to see the blind man, to stop for the bleeding woman, to love even Samaritans.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

In the Beginning

What we could do is think about not
what the story says to us, but what it might
have meant to its first hearers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


When God intervenes in human affairs, what is the nature of that intervention? For instance, I believe God can and often does correct our misunderstandings. But I mean that as directional, not terminal. I think -- and I'm just trying this out here -- that God's corrections are like soft side barriers that keep us from veering too far off course. I don't think God's corrections leave us with a definitive understanding of the nature of God. God gets us back on track without ending our journey of discovery.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Eighth Day

The story of Christ is a creation account, an account in which Jesus' resurrection serves as the eighth day of creation, a new beginning for an old world. It's a story in which our response to Jesus' invitation plays a part in what the world becomes. To those who say it is finished, I argue it's just begun. After all, there's lots of work yet to be done and plenty that needs undone as well.

Thursday, May 05, 2011


I'm convinced that most streams of Christianity come across as anti-world, no matter what their claimed intentions. Conservatives want to take over the world, so they can fix it. Liberals strive for relevance to the needs of the world, so they can transform it. Many of the rest of us simply avoid the world, defining ourselves by what we're against.

But what if we joined with the world rather than criticizing or fighting? What if we learned to see God reflected by and active in? What if we learned to love?

Monday, May 02, 2011


On Feminist Theology

What if the story we’ve believed – about
hierarchy, about power, about apostolic succession
- is really just a story of what we’ve become

What if Mary were “the disciple Jesus loved”? What if Esther were a woman “after God’s own heart”? What if Junia were the primary writer of the New Testament epistles? What if God created them – both female and male – in the image of the divine? What if the story we’ve believed – about hierarchy, about power, about apostolic succession – is really just a story of what we’ve become, not the story of what we were or what we were meant to be? What if the story of freedom is the real story?

If it’s not true, then the Church is a tool of oppression.

If it’s true, then the Church as organic, egalitarian community has succumbed to a masculine culture.

That’s what’s called a lose-lose proposition. And the only way to deal with it is straight on. We have to face what we really are. We have to deal with the mess we’ve made. We have to admit that doing so will take both time and work. Hard work. And a lot of time.

We start by re-imagining what it means to be the Church, and starting with an inversion of gender shows us one possible beginning. What if “womankind” stood for all humanity? What if “Jesus came to save all women”? What if we only spoke of the “motherhood of God”?

When we laugh aloud (or privately scoff) at such a suggestion, we reveal the truth of the argument. Whatever it is that makes us uncomfortable deserves further inspection.

I'm not arguing for the feminization of theology or of the Church. Instead, I'm arguing for freedom and for a freedom that extends to all. My hope is that the Church might become truly counter-cultural, truly transformational, truly revolutionary, that the Church might become Christ’s body, offering saving grace and liberation to a culture in chains.

At Barclay Press

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Other

A friend -- during a recent visit to South Africa -- had a discussion about Apartheid with a man born in 1977. This man had lived in both the old and new South Africa and had reason -- my friend believed -- to have a unique insight from the inside. But this man was puzzled by her interest. He admitted that he hadn't really noticed Apartheid until it was officially repealed. Life had seemed normal to him. The separation and subjugation of indigenous peoples had been completely invisible.

I wonder how much of our own treatment (and mistreatment) of others is similarly invisible. I wonder how our progressive but infrequent stands "for the other and marginalized" look to those who are genuinely "other and marginalized." And I wonder if it's possible for those of us on the inside to work for change.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


It seems we often choose to do what's right not because it's right but because we have no other option.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


We do a disservice to the faithful (and to the scriptures) when we insist that they read in a certain way and from a certain perspective. It's fun to explore, to imagine, to re-think, to challenge. It's creative. What if we could learn to encounter both God and scripture in the way we often encounter those closest to us -- with a sense of play?

Friday, April 15, 2011


How do we overcome the American belief in unlimited resources and unlimited opportunity – a belief that makes us less likely to share with the needy, more likely to see their poverty as the result of poor choices?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Not Knowing

The recognition that I don't really know -- that I'm not in control -- helps me be humble. But I don't settle into the complacence of I'm-not-God-but-He-knows-what-He's-doing thinking. Instead, I choose to live in the tension of not knowing, a tension created by the sense that these questions matter and that the search for an answer may not result in definite conclusions, but it certainly will get me closer to a kind of understanding, to a kind of sensing, to discernment.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


The phone booth in the desert – a kind of secular
confessional – gave many of these characters their only
meaningful (and vulnerable) human connection.

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

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

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

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

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

At Barclay Press

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I sometimes think that contemporary worship has the effect of encapsulating Jesus's body, making it a product of our past. We have replaced God with Jesus-as-historic figure, making the object of our worship something other than the divine, something much more like a memory.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Living in Tension

It's much harder to
live in the tension, to daily
struggle with balance

I find that much of my work as a youth pastor involves helping students to live in rather than evade the tension of authentic living. Within my own denomination, for example, there are dueling emphases on both simplicity and stewardship.

Should I carefully steward what I have for the future? Or give away everything, taking a vow of poverty in order to live simply?

It's human to want to resolve the tension, to want to move in one direction or the other. But that kind of resolution almost always ends in an extreme (making me an extremist). It's much harder to live in the tension, to daily struggle with balance, with paradox, with the between-ness of never quite getting it right and never giving in or giving up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011


concerns don't apply

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

So I wait.

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

Thursday, February 17, 2011


God as Giver

My dad tried explaining
Santa as a kind of

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

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

I remember my parents being concerned. And quiet.

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

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

For Barclay Press.

Monday, February 14, 2011


we also touched on the proximity
of God, the experience of Christ, the power of
a phrase both breathed and lived

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

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

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

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Immanence & Transcendence

Immanence & Transcendence

watching as one last
leaf describes a curve in the
slant of afternoon light

Nearly 400 Friends convened in Colorado Springs at the end of December for Summit 2010, the first national gathering of evangelical Quaker youth and young adults. We spoke of missions, of community, of our identity as Quaker followers of Christ. There were discussions on women in ministry, on the importance of theological education, of the tension between pacifism and patriotism, of spiritual formation, sexual purity, immigration, and incarnation. And underlying every conversation were differing conceptions of the very nature of God. Close and personal, the inner Light? Or distant and powerful, the Creator of the universe?

What if God is both?

A meditation:

I live in God. God created me. God also created the boundaries of my life, the places where I touch others – where our boundaries bump (or overlap) – the crossroads of our lives, the space in which I stop to find myself.

I can’t get away from God. For God is here. And there. Now. And then. And when. If not for God, naught I’d be. Not now. Not ever.

Yet I am nothing. A grasshopper. The nation in which I live is a drop in the bucket, a speck of dust, a mote. To what could I compare God? With whom? A potter? A goldsmith? A counselor? They all fall down. Fall short. Fail completely to encompass the God who, in Isaiah, “stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.”

Even so, it is God who holds me together. It is God who has reconciled me to himself. It is God who has invited me in, made me part of his body, the Church. And as I find myself a part of God’s body, I also recognize – though painfully – that I am unworthy (and unable). How am I to know God’s ways? God’s thoughts? God’s very word?

God is far away. But close. God fills both heaven and earth. And God is here. As I type. As I think. Looking out the window, watching as one last leaf describes a curve in the slant of afternoon light, I know that God has made this moment. Is making. God draws my attention to the beauty of his work, to him.

Father in heaven, You are holy, wholly beyond my understanding. Give me what I need. Let me forgive. Forgive me. Protect me. Above me. Beside me. Within me (and yet separate). I don’t understand. But I am thankful. You know my needs.

I know, God, that you are present as “the inner Light.” You inform, inspire and guide. But I also know that you are separate – so much bigger – from my selfish, suffering, sin-sick existence.

For Barclay Press.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


I realized, that each day as
I’d prayed for God’s blessings for others,
I'd also been praying for me.

Every Monday morning, I meet with an 8th grade, home-schooled student for a writing session. Afterward, as I walked to the post office this week, I prayed that he would feel good about the work that he’s done, that God would help him to think clearly and to organize his thoughts as he works to become a more effective communicator.

Early on Tuesday, I watched from my office window as high school students rushed to school, filling up the parking lot across the street. I prayed that God would ease their anxieties, help them to slow down and enjoy being in community no matter what the work for the day might entail.

On Wednesday morning, I was scheduled to meet with another youth pastor for coffee. He texted me two minutes before our meeting to say he was sick and unable to come. Instead of walking back to the office, I sat in the coffee shop and prayed that God would give him comfort, relieve him of the stress he feels as a young minister, carrying parent and community expectations, wondering if he’s doing decent work.

On Thursday, I took the back road past Champoeg State Park on my way to the seminary, both praying for and experiencing God’s blessing in the mist, in a stand of trees back-lit by early sun, in an open field, in the sky.

And I realized, that each day as I’d prayed for God’s blessings for others, I’d also been praying for me.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Starting Over

In order to grow spiritually, we often have to bury the “Jesus” we once knew.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Moving to the Center

Moving to the Center

I have trouble remembering why
it was such a hard choice, why it
felt like I had so much to lose.

The metaphor I've found most useful in thinking of prayer is a circle with God at the center and people (me included) at the edge. In prayer, with heart directed toward God, I work out my salvation in a life of prayer that draws me ever closer to the center and ever closer to others.

During my junior year in high school, I found that the more time I spent in prayer, the more sensitive I became to the needs of others: alcoholism, neglect, loneliness, depression, desperation. And even though I was overwhelmed by the need, it was a measure of need that previously had been invisible to me. Prayer was creating in me a measure of empathy.

That summer, during a trip to my grandparents’ home, I felt God challenging me to reconsider my path: would I continue to seek a future in the public eye (politics) or would I be willing to set aside what I wanted (wealth and influence) in order to serve others? It felt like a calling. I struggled – in prayer – over what kind of a life I should lead, over what kind of a person God was creating me to be.

During that process, many others joined me in praying for clarity (and for strength to choose well). Today, nearly two decades later, I have trouble remembering why it was such a hard choice, why it felt like I had so much to lose. In this process of prayer – in this daily practice of moving closer and closer to the center – I’ve found both clarity and community. And I can’t even begin to imagine going back.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


My grandpa didn’t get
better, but for a long time, he
didn’t get worse either.

When I first heard – a few years ago – that my grandfather had terminal cancer and only three weeks to live, I asked for help. I asked God to heal my grandpa. And then I took it back. Apologized to God for being selfish. Told him how much I loved my grandpa. Thought for awhile on some of my favorite memories: Grandpa teaching me to bottle-feed a calf, helping him move sheep, walking through an old barn together, his laughter on the phone as he told about teaching Grandma to use an ATM, his pride in a perfectly-browned turkey, his whistle. I asked for a chance to say goodbye.

I believed then – and still do – that God was present in my remembering, that he helped me to know what to pray for, how to ask. My grandpa didn’t get better, but for a long time, he didn’t get worse either. And we visited. And he laughed and I laughed, and we both told stories. And then, about five months later, my grandpa fell asleep. And stopped breathing.

When I heard the news, I remembered: on the phone, a few days before, we’d said goodbye.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


We Sound Like Zombies

these chants, spells,
and prayers reveal something of both
how we pray and why

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

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

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

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

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

At Barclay Press