Monday, December 03, 2012



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

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

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

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

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

I laughed. I couldn’t help feeling elated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2012



If church were a place where
I was allowed to ask questions,
I'd probably still be there.
I went to my 20-year high school reunion this summer. And it was weird. How little had changed from what I remember.

Except my memories.

They’re almost all wrong.

At dinner, for instance, we watched a video Bryce’s dad took at our graduation ceremony.

There was prayer. The reading of scripture. Two sermons. A Christian pop song.

It was religious.

I’ve shared stories about what it was like. The awards. The people. The pranks. But the commencement on that video wasn’t much like the ceremony I remember.

I was sitting next to Rachel at the end of our row. I had a red plastic squirt gun I surreptitiously utilized every time anyone went up to or came down from the stage. Lots of wet spots on black robes.

So it was the real thing.

But it felt fake.

I just hadn’t remembered how Christian my class once was.

Then, as the video played, I did a mental survey of the room. Many of those who’d been active in church no longer are. I wondered why.

One said this: “If church were a place where I was allowed to ask questions, I'd probably still be there.”

Another wrote that he was disillusioned by the mismatch between what faith shouldn’t do but does and what it should do but doesn’t: “Religion, church, spirituality, whatever you want to call it often has a way of turning people into us and them. I would hope that something so great would turn us into we.”

Yet another, watching his younger self on film, just shook his head. I didn’t get to ask what he was thinking.

Since that night, I’ve wondered why I’m still at church (other than for the paycheck). I’ve come up with a few things so far:

I want to normalize doubt for those who might otherwise feel abandoned by God and by their community. I want to encourage serious questions that challenge our thinking and open up opportunities for growth. I want to be part of a community that uses faith as a tool for transformation (never as a weapon).

And I hope.

That 20 years from now.

Some former student.

Watching graduation reruns.

Might ask herself why she’s still at church.

And think of people who weren’t afraid of her questions, people who loved her because of (not in spite of), people who inspired and encouraged and modeled for and listened to and learned from …

That she would think of so many people.

And that one of them might be me.

Monday, November 19, 2012



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

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

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

I washed my hands.

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

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

That woman was a liar.

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

They were afraid.

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

And she might not have really been afraid.

People, after all, are complex.

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

How do you know she’s a liar?

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

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

Monday, November 12, 2012



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again and again.

And again.

That God is with us.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Gospel Conflict

Gospel Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I haven’t signed the letter.

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

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

And I still haven’t signed the letter.

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

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

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

Monday, October 29, 2012



Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.
My friends generally fall into two categories of thinking when it comes to questions of human nature:

1) People are basically good; 2) People are basically bad.

My Christian friends mostly fall into the latter category. They use a phrase – total depravity – as though it’s a kind of non-negotiable fact of life.

Or, sometimes, they talk about how everything they do is “like filthy rags.” I can’t help but think that filthy rags generally weren’t born that way. They get filthy from making other things clean. Which, I’ve come to learn, isn’t considered a helpful response.

We’re all evil on the inside.

Dark. Desperate. Depraved.

What a way to live.

Once, in a course on philosophy, the professor asked us if we thought human nature was good or evil. I raised my hand. I said it was good. The instructor, a Christian, asked how I reconciled my answer with scripture. I quoted Genesis 1:27. The easiest way to argue with that verse is to lay the blame for evil on the nature of God. Said instructor didn’t take the bait. He smiled. And he called on someone else.

Later, in a Sunday school class, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked participants to write down one way in which they look like Jesus on the inside. I gave them five minutes of thinking time. To come up with just one thing. Lots of blank sheets of paper. And blank stares. I got an email from one class member. She suggested that Christians aren’t used to “thinking of something positive to say about themselves.”

Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust.

And we’re starving.

Because total depravity isn’t sustainable. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and share from our gifts. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and accept others’ gifts. It’s killing the work and witness of the Church. It’s killing the Church.

It’s killing us.

A friend asked me what happened. “Church used to be fun,” she said. And we didn’t get a chance to finish the conversation, but when we do, I think I know what to say.

Filthy rags can be overwhelmed by shame, paralyzed by questions of how and why and what if I’d only. But filthy rags – used to do what rags are made to do – get good things done. Which is good.

Monday, October 22, 2012



It’s a culture that reads all the gospels as a conflated Jesus story – one with wise men and shepherds; Anna, Simeon, and the Egyptians;
8-day-old Jesus, 12-year-old
Jesus, a metaphysical Word-and-Light show, and the real Jesus.
Back when I taught introductory high school courses in literature, every year started with a lesson in myth. American literature classes read Columbus’s 1493 Letter to King Ferdinand of Spain Describing the First Voyage. World literature classes considered the Yoruba story of The Golden Chain. In freshman classes, we looked at the first two chapters of Genesis.

I taught at a Christian school. And by their junior year, most students had been through this unit two or three times. They knew in a general way where I was headed. But in my other classes, things didn’t go so well.

I persisted.

In the first weeks of school, students still have good intentions, so for the most part they listen with intent. As I ran through the initial outline, smiles would inevitably spread as it became clear that I was probably going to hell. (There’s nothing like a teaching train wreck to lighten the day of your average high school student, and every kid knows a certifiably crazy teacher will ruin the year for some and provide limitless conversational fodder for the rest.) But by the end of the first few minutes, those smiles would be fading. Fast.

That’s when I could count on some volume.

Interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. Students shouting. Students covering their ears. There were always tears.

I persisted.

Myth, I proposed, is any story of origin. If it’s a story – and if it tells of a beginning – it’s a myth. Myths answer questions of identity, purpose and morality. Myths are how a culture – all cultures – encode the answers to life’s most important questions for the shaping of future generations. A culture’s best literature, then, is always built on myth.

Other literature may be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

But good literature – the stuff that lasts, the stuff that gets passed from generation to generation, the stuff that we’re expected to have read and to know – it all contains myth or is built on myth or is myth. Together, that body of literature contributes to a culture’s mythos, its best answers to life’s big questions.

Romeo & Juliet is built on myth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn challenges myth. The Bible contains myth. It also comments on myth, questions myth, compares myths, challenges some competing myths and provides space for the acceptance of others. Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, are separate myths, and in some important ways, they disagree. Theologians would probably argue that they’re not so much in competition as they are in conversation. Which seems – considering that the two accounts have been placed side by side at the start of the Bible, not to mention the fact that they both lay a foundation for the same culture – a pretty strong point.

I recognize that for some readers, this conversation might be covering new ground. Or creating a bit of cognitive dissonance.

Yet I persist.

Here’s the problem: many of my students were raised in a religious culture that is anti-myth. A culture that doesn’t know how to value the Bible (let alone the myths it contains).

It’s a culture that thinks Genesis is an incomplete history. It’s a culture that thinks Exodus is an unfinished travelogue. It’s a culture that thinks Leviticus is an obsolete legal code. It’s a culture that thinks Numbers is a sloppy census. It’s a culture that thinks Deuteronomy is an abbreviated repetition of all those other Bible bits. It’s a culture that reads all the gospels as a conflated Jesus story – one with wise men and shepherds; Anna, Simeon, and the Egyptians; 8-day-old Jesus, 12-year-old Jesus, a metaphysical Word-and-Light show, and the real Jesus.

It’s a culture that fervently wants for the Bible to be commercial or educational or transactional or technical.

And this, too, is my culture. I was raised in it. I live and work in it. More times than I can count, I’ve felt suffocated in it. Frustrated by it. Angry with it.

But I persist.

And I find that my people mostly know that the Bible – if it’s going to mean anything at all – must be something more than a commercial. It must be something more than a primer. It must be something more than a medium of truth exchange. It must be more than a collection of basic instructions before leaving earth.

And I find that my people – especially those that are spiritual but not religious – need the kind of mythos the Bible already offers.

And I find my people wondering whether the myths in other cultures might teach us something about our own.

In the meantime, I expect the volume to rise. I expect shouted interruptions, urgent questions, waves of murmuring. And tears.

In my life as a teacher, discomfort almost always led to growth.

So I persist.

Monday, October 15, 2012



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

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

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

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

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

Some are lazy.

Some have lost sight of why the work matters.

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

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

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

Some are cynical.

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

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

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

There are those who dig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 08, 2012



Underground Railroad looked to many like
a form of religious extremism.
In the early 19th century, to be a Quaker was to be opposed to slavery. But how to live out this opposition? To work against slavery was to live in tension with Quaker testimonies to both integrity and peace. Helping an escaped slave, for instance, sometimes created pressure to bear false witness. Or to bear arms. As it turns out, balance is difficult. And there was disagreement between what historian Errol T. Elliott has called the activists and the gradualists. Some Friends gave up their membership. Some Friends lost their membership. Meetings were split.

American Friends at North Carolina’s Rich Square Monthly Meeting minuted in 1843 that they did not “allow their members to hold slaves,” but neither did they allow interference “with the system of slavery further than by petitions, reason, and remonstrance in a peaceable manner.” The larger yearly meeting minuted its condemnation in that same year of “those Friends who had given ‘shelter improperly’ to slaves.” That, too, was the year that Indiana Yearly Meeting would split over the issue of slavery. Hundreds of Indiana Quakers would leave their yearly meeting and start a new one, the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.

Of course, they would argue they’d been kicked out.

At issue was the Underground Railroad. With active Quaker supporters in both North Carolina and Indiana, its existence created a problem for Friends everywhere. Support for the Underground Railroad looked to many like a form of religious extremism.

Initially, Friends had worked together to support the education of African-American children, as well as to fight the “Black Laws.” These laws, first enacted in Ohio and later in neighboring states, required that any free person of African descent obtain and carry certain court documents for employment and residency. These laws also fined those who helped fugitive slaves. But Levi Coffin called Quakers to a greater cause. An Indiana Quaker with North Carolina roots, Coffin had personally witnessed the separation of a slave woman from her child, resulting in his resolution “to labor in this cause until the end of my days.” For 30 years, he served as an unofficial president of the Underground Railroad.

Many Friends joined him.

Their activism resulted in an 1841 minute by Indiana Yearly Meeting: “As the subject of slavery is producing great excitement in our land, we again tenderly advise our dear friends not to join in associations.” The following year, an enforcing minute was approved, excluding from service on committees, any who identified themselves as abolitionists. Coffin and hundreds of others, having been removed from their leadership positions, simply started a new yearly meeting.

There was reconciliation, with the two yearly meetings effectively recombined by 1857. But old wounds heal slowly. There are still those who call us to orthodoxy. There are others who argue that faith without works is dead.

Quakers today have the privilege of looking back on our history with pride for what was accomplished. What we forget are the compromises that were made, the internal rancor that often boiled up into battles for control over meetinghouses and yearly meetings, battles that frequently led to schism. We forget that the never-ending tension between righteous faith and loving acts is yet to be resolved. There are still activists and gradualists among us. There are still battles. There are still wounds. There is still hope for reconciliation.

Monday, October 01, 2012



We don't hear our words. Or feel them. And
it is possible to become enslaved by old ideas
enshrined in contemporary clichés.
I like words. Words are miniature symbols – portable, transferrable, memorable – freighted with meaning. Take a word like “fired,” for instance, as in “He was fired from his job.”

He lost his job.

But it was a trial by fire.

Like being burned at the stake. Or sacrificed in a pagan ritual.

The kind of crisis that changes a life. Or ends it.

I like words a lot.

I also believe that words should be egalitarian and democratic. Words are the currency of social exchange. We all have them. We all use them. We teach one another, and we learn from one another – which words go where, which words work best – as we stretch every little symbol (sometimes far past its breaking point) in our attempts to know and be known. There is give and take, intent and effect, stimulus and response.

Words shape our connections. Words also shape our culture. And our world.

If you want to know a people, it pays to pay attention to their words.

But we are mostly desensitized to the language we use. We don’t hear our words. Or feel them. And it is possible to become enslaved by old ideas enshrined in contemporary clichés.

At a recent gathering of evangelical Christians, we sang a song in which one verse focused on God’s desire that we be broken. I say, “We sang,” but I didn’t sing that line. It didn’t make sense. Doesn’t make sense. Why would God want me to be broken?

Am I broken? The lyricist probably intended something like humility. But broken goes farther than that. It’s not just the wrong metaphor. It’s also harmful. It suggests that there’s something wrong with the human condition. And by association, it suggests that there’s something wrong with God. An illustration:

I’ve never broken a bone in my body. I’ve crashed bicycles, tumbled down a set of stairs, fallen from a roof. One time, driving too fast on a mountain road, I couldn’t make a corner and slid right off a cliff’s edge. I landed in a tree. It was embarrassing and frightening, but I walked away whole.

Nothing broken.

And I was grateful.

Words matter. And this particular word – broken – at least the way we use it, suggests that God is 1) a bumbling fool, 2) malicious, 3) or weak.

Here’s what I mean: a God who desires that creation be broken is 1) a God who didn’t make things right. 2) Unless God did it on purpose. 3) Or didn’t have a choice.

If my arm’s perfectly good, breaking it doesn’t make it better. People created in the image of God don’t get more godly by being broken down.

What’s it mean that people need to be broken? It means there’s something wrong with the work God did the first time around. Sure. God gives second chances. But why would God need one?

God made me in God’s image. God made me whole.

The truth is that sometimes, I slander others. Sometimes, I play politics to improve my position. Sometimes, I undercount Monopoly spaces and land on Free Parking instead of Kentucky Avenue. Sometimes, I tumble down a set of stairs or fall off a roof, or drive too fast on a mountain road.

If I’m broken, then, it’s not because I’m missing something important that God forgot to give me. It’s because I think that what I have or who I am just isn’t enough.

Broken’s not the word for that. At least it’s not God’s word. A sense of brokenness is what motivates us to seek out bigger and better and more. God’s desire for us isn’t that we would be broken. Instead, God wants us to open our eyes and see that all our bones are still there. We’re still alive and breathing. We may be stuck in a tree on the side of a mountain. But we’re going to be all right.

There’s a light breeze. Tree branches brush up against the window. The sky’s on fire.

And the view is breathtaking.

Monday, September 24, 2012



I had to reconcile my image
of a God who is Love
with the reality of a

God who doesn’t always play fair.
Sometimes, what we’re talking about isn’t what we’re really talking about.

A high school graduate called to ask if he could meet with me. Just to talk. So we met. And we talked. About his family. About his decision to take a year off from school. About his job. About the work of discerning – during that year – what he might study when he went back to school. After our talk, the student gave me a letter.

In that letter, he wrote of his feelings for a friend, a friend of the same gender.

Sometimes, what we want to talk about isn’t what we get to talk about.

That student and I talked again. For years, we talked. At church. At coffee shops. In my home. In his. I told him to trust his family. I told him to stay as connected as he could to his church. He told me he was convinced that acting on his feelings would harm his friendship and go against scripture. He told me about temptation and the boundaries he’d set in order to avoid it.

I had to reconcile my image of a God who is Love with the reality of a God who doesn’t always play fair. I couldn’t do it. We didn’t talk about that.

It’s been nearly seven years now since the student and I started talking. Celibate all those years, that student has remained active in our denomination. That student is respected. But I wonder what would happen if that student shared his story with his home church. Or with mine.

If he stood on a Sunday morning and shared a story of sexual purity, a story of victory in Jesus, a story of perseverance and of sacrifice, a compelling story – how might the telling of that story affect his future among us?
  1. Would he be allowed to volunteer in the church nursery?
  2. Would he be asked to lead a small group for young men?
  3. Would he be nominated to serve as an elder?
  4. Would we send him to our annual conference as a representative of the local church?
I’d like to think the answer to at least one of those questions might be yes. But I’m not so sure.

I’ve heard the talk.

Monday, September 17, 2012

To Wait

To Wait

He was smart enough to know he couldn’t get answers to most of his questions.
Which was part of the problem.
A few years ago, I spoke at this camp on the Oregon Coast. There were lots of kids there whose parents I knew. But most of the kids didn’t really know me. And they had plenty of friends at camp. And I was one of the old people.

Except at the end of the week, one of those kids got left at camp. His parents didn’t show up to take him home. I saw him sitting in the gravel next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

I decided I’d wait there with him. I walked over to where he was sitting. Sat down in the gravel. And we talked. About his best friend at camp. About his cabin. About whether his parents loved him (that was a joke on my part, but he took the statement seriously). About his sisters. And life the way an elementary-school kid thinks about life.

I think I told him that because of who his dad was, he was growing up with a lot of expectations. I think I told him that his ability to be honest was going to be pretty important, especially when he made mistakes. I think I told him that effort mattered more than ability. And that I thought his parents actually did love him. A lot.

He told me a lot of things as well. But I kept trying to read between the lines and didn’t end up hearing much. I got the feeling, though, that he enjoyed talking, maybe even needed to talk. That walking over and sitting down in the gravel was a quality decision.

Later that year, I ended up on a planning team with that kid’s dad. We had meetings in Newberg, and on at least one occasion, I stayed at their house. They put me in what one of their daughters called “The Pimp Room.” The kid was playing percussion. Showed me some things he’d learned. Talked about the school he’d missed (quite a bit of school as it turned out). And whether he’d be at camp the next summer.

For a few years, this was the pattern. We’d run into each other during a week of camp or at Yearly Meeting. Maybe sit down once or twice. Not for long, though. Too much happens at camp. I had responsibilities. He had lots of friends. We’d talk about school. About his family. About a book he’d been reading but hadn’t finished. About a theory he had. About religion. About people’s expectations. About whether I thought he could learn how to be happy. Or how to care about someone (not just for them). Or how to let people care for him.

Every year his questions got a little more serious. He was smart enough to know he couldn’t get answers to most of his questions. Which was part of the problem. He really, really wanted answers.

As far as he could tell, other kids either hadn’t figured out how to ask important questions. Or their answers had shown up. Right on time. At the end of camp. And he was still sitting here in the gravel, next to the Meetinghouse. Looking out at the highway. Waiting.

A few years ago, I moved back to Newberg. The kid had really grown up. He’d developed into a first-rate high school musician. He was a decent athlete. He had a gift for bringing people together, for creating community, for making people feel safe and accepted. He made mistakes, and those were bigger than they’d been when he was in grade school. And we talked more. About music. About poetry. About his dreams. About his questions. About his relationships. About his mistakes. About God.

I told him that he had value. I told him that he was doing good work (in spite of the mistakes). I told him that the questions might be a lot more important than the answers. I told him that it wouldn’t hurt to listen to his parents. Or to catch up on his schoolwork. Or to be patient with people. And I told him that no matter what he did, I’d still want to be his friend. That no matter what he believed, I’d always be up for a cup of coffee and a talk. That no matter what I heard, I knew the truth of who he was and of who he’d always be.

Someone who cared deeply about how. Someone who cared deeply about why. Someone willing to sit down in the gravel when the rest of the world was driving home. Someone who was willing to look out at the highway and wait.

Monday, September 10, 2012



We cannot house every family. We cannot clothe every child.
We cannot feed the hungry.
There’s a place on the south end of town that has no trees. It’s a flat, dusty desert – an island of dirt and sand and sunshine – with a bright city center to the north, and a sea of rolling green fields to the south. The town is San Luis Rio Colorado (Mexico). This place on its south edge is where the town’s newest residents are building a life. Every year, more people come to this place, looking for a chance to start over, and every year, that flat space without trees grows larger.

In the last 10 years, San Luis has added about 30,000 residents. But the Border Economic Cooperation Commission predicts that in the next six years, nearly 200,000 more people will move to this border town.

Last spring, Newberg and North Valley Friends churches sent nine folks on a work trip to San Luis. We visited our friends at Nueva Esperanza, a church we’ve worked with for more than two decades. We built a basketball court, expanded a patio roof. We worshiped together and worked together and ate together. We considered the need – the overwhelming need – in this town that will soon be a metropolis. And we realized that we cannot meet the need. We cannot house every family. We cannot clothe every child. We cannot feed the hungry. There are already so many. And there will always be more.

We also recognized that God didn’t call us to right every wrong in this place. Instead, God simply asks us to try.

Last year, there were nine of us. This year, we plan to take ten times as many.

It won’t be easy.

We’ll raise more than $80,000 for building supplies, insurance, meals, lodging and fuel. We’ll organize meetings for team members. We’ll put together a work day to build trusses, paint siding, load up lumber, organize donations of clothes and curtains and shoes and sewing machines. We’ll sell Christmas trees. We’ll work on the language. We’ll get our passports and our shots. This fall, we’ll send a small team to meet with members of the church, the families we hope to help, and representatives of the new government.

And we won’t be alone.

Current government workers have promised to help us connect with the right people when the new government takes power in September. Members at Nueva Esperanza are already meeting each month with the families we hope to help. These same church members plan to start construction work on several of the projects before we arrive. Some of the families we’ve helped in years past plan to work with us in our efforts to help four new families this year.

With their help, we’ll be able to take on more projects this year than ever before. With their help, the work we do over spring break won’t end when we leave. With their help and God’s grace, our five loaves and two fishes might be enough.

Monday, September 03, 2012



There is no such thing as an issue. There
are only people.
I’m embarrassed about a lot of the things I did in high school. And no, I’m not talking about the time I convinced my 4-year-old brother to climb into the clothes dryer. Or the time I turned on said clothes dryer. Or the hundreds of times I repeated the story – of how I’d convinced him, of my mother’s screams, of the thrill – over the following year.

In public.

With volume.

Granted, that incident – and quite a few like it – is one that probably should cause shame. But even now, as I’m typing, I’m also smiling. At the memory. Of how stupid I was. And I’m thinking about who hasn’t already heard that story because I’d kind of like to tell it again.

That’s part of the problem. People hear stories of the things I did –

  1. an under-the-radar, pay-day loan service I ran during the lunch hour;
  2. a series of letters to the Oregonian, urging editors to fire a certain columnist I didn’t like;
  3. a faked disorder in which I semi-secretly and pseudo-obsessively consumed paper products for attention (for two years)

– and conclude that there couldn’t possibly be more.

But there is. Few people know, for instance, that I once took part in a public protest.

I was on the news.

I was standing on a street in Portland.

I was holding a sign: Abortion Kills Children.

My friends at church (assuming they read my blog) are probably starting to wonder where I’m headed with this. My other friends are probably wondering how they didn’t know I was THAT kind of Christian. Some of you just want me to get on with it already.

So there I was. At my first public protest. And I was being POLITICAL. I was making a STATEMENT. I was standing up for the TRUTH. And something funny happened.

This car came around the corner. It was moving slow. A woman leaned out the window, and as the car passed, she looked at me and asked, “Why don’t you just keep your penis in your pants?”

For some reason, I thought that maybe my fly was down. I put down the sign and checked. Nope. All good. When I looked up, the car was gone. And it dawned on me why she didn’t stick around for my reply. It was already on my sign.

I hadn’t taken any communications theory at that point. And I wasn’t skilled in cultural exchange analysis. But I knew that sign had a message. And as messages tend to be, it was aimed at someone.

Abortion Kills Children.

Sometimes my brain doesn’t work as fast as I’d like, but I realized, looking up, reading the sign, standing on that street in Portland on a Sunday afternoon, that my sign was aimed at women. What women were most likely to physically feel the sign’s message? Women who’d had an abortion. Women stuck between one bad choice and another. Women who were doing the best they knew how in a world that didn’t love them. And certainly didn’t understand.

I was holding up a sign that was intended to shame people.

Poor people.

Powerless people.

The abused.

The assaulted.

The already-ashamed.

For more than half my life now, I haven’t really thought about that time in Portland. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need to. Even now, writing about the incident, I feel a mixture of shame (I was once one of THEM) and relief (but I’ve CHANGED). The shame is real. But the relief is not. Because I’m still one of THEM. And even though I don’t take part in that kind of protest, I also fail to protest the protest (if you know what I mean). This little blog post is my relatively weak attempt to change that. By telling the moral that I learned that day:

There is no such thing as an issue. There are only people. Jesus loved people. Even people who could have killed their brothers by sticking them in clothes dryers.

I want to love people, too.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Negative Attention

Negative Attention

people can only hear you when they are
moving toward you
They called me names. They mocked my appearance. They scoffed at my opinions, disdained my attempts at humor. They sometimes threatened violence. A kick to the face broke my glasses once. They called it an accident.

Considering what I might do, I realized that I could leave. I didn’t have to stick around, and I didn’t have to take it; so I resolved that I would show up one more time, if for no other reason than to announce my intention to quit. Mind made up, I felt good. But that night, I made a discovery that changed the way I see. And instead of leaving, I stayed.

They needed me too much.

It was my freshman year in college. I was volunteering with middle school students at a local church. They were horrible, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.

That was the key to my epiphanous moment: they wouldn’t leave me alone.

Other adults in the room didn’t get punched in the back during worship. Other adults in the room didn’t suffer sotto voce critiques of their facial features. Other adults in the room – as far as student behaviors indicated – weren’t even visible.

It wasn’t fair.

That I’d been given so much power.

Edwin H. Friedman claims that “people can only hear you when they are moving toward you,” and for absolutely no good reason, these students had decided to move toward me. They had given me the power over what they heard and how they heard it.

If what has value is like a radio signal in a sea of static, then these students had decided that I was the signal. Other adults in the room were just noise.

I have to admit that, along with the students, I too suffered serious and prolonged bouts of immaturity. In other words, I recognized the power I’d been given, but I didn’t use it well. And the next year, a new group of volunteers – younger and demonstrably cooler – joined the work, so I had to learn to share attention, to be part of a team.

Fortunately, I mostly grew up over the intervening years without growing too “old” to relate. But that time of my life – that discovery I made on a Wednesday night in October, 20 years ago – pointed to a truth that has opened ministry doors in dozens of contexts.

What, exactly, did I learn? That negative attention is attention. When people are moving toward me, whether from loving acceptance or annoyed engagement, they are also attuned to the signals I send. They choose to hear me.

It’s a truth that has helped me to re-perceive what feel like attacks, to see them as opportunities for relationship, as indicators that I have value.

When a parent sends me an email, questioning my judgment, I can rejoice that this parent trusted me enough to start a conversation, to tell me what she really thinks, to give me the opportunity to respond.

When a retired college professor invites me to coffee, sits across from me, and proceeds to tell me why I’m an idiot, I don’t have to hear the isolated critique. After all, I don’t have to take it personally.

I get to.

He has a Ph.D., national recognition, decades of academic experience, and he’s decided that I’m worth his time.

When an elder at my church questions my character in an embarrassing, semi-public, quasi-accusation, I look up and see that she’s looking into my eyes. That she’s not angry. Just afraid. And that thing she just said might be more about her than about me.

What do I do? It depends.

Mostly, I try to receive the gift of attention as a gift, to truly be thankful for the influence I’ve been given, for the value that’s been communicated. I try to listen and really understand. I try to give back.

I’ll admit, it doesn’t always end in raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But more times than I can count, that parent has volunteered to work in my classroom, that retired professor has shaken my hand and asked if I would be his friend, that elder – in tears – has called to talk about her son and to ask for my forgiveness.

And I pray: God, help me to have the grace to see a world filled with opportunity, a people filled with potential, fields white for harvest. Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Friday, June 15, 2012


We don't believe that the marginalized have anything to give to us. We don't recognize our poverty.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Our character is most revealed when we are given power. What is character? How should we use power? Always for the sake of those without it. Power must benefit the powerless.

Monday, June 11, 2012


The goal is not to become a person of character. The goal is to become a person of character who changes the world. The goal for me is to become the person God wants me to become for the sake of others.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Miracle Story

Kevin, Ben, and Rafaelito look out from the upstairs window of the miracle house.


He had the clothes he was wearing and
a black baseball cap.
Over a lunch of shredded beef, avocado and fresh tortillas, Julio – wearing his signature black baseball cap – was telling me his miracle story. Over a year ago, a fire swept through the home he shared with his extended family. Julio lost clothing, blankets, a bed, his birth certificate – almost everything. When three Americans visited a few days after the fire, Julio was sleeping in his car. Except most nights, Julio said he couldn’t sleep: “It was too cold.” He had the clothes he was wearing and a black baseball cap.

Those Americans decided to build a home for Julio’s family, and that spring, a team from Newberg-area churches worked with Julio’s family and members of a local church – Nueva Esperanza – to build a new home. That’s the first part of the miracle. Julio’s family got a house.

Julio couldn’t get a job. He didn’t have a birth certificate or any other form of identification. The pastor at Nueva Esperanza and several of the American workers took Julio to the city’s social services agency, where a social worker walked Julio through the process of getting new papers. But it would cost money, Julio argued. The Americans found a way to cover the cost. But he would have to get back to the office, Julio said, a distance of several miles. His car didn’t run. He couldn’t afford public transportation. The Americans insisted that Julio find a way. And he did. That’s the second part of the miracle. Julio got his papers.

Last fall, the Americans visited Julio’s family. The family had planted young trees in front of their new house. The family had been attending the church that helped them, Nueva Esperanza. Julio’s young cousins loved to go to Sunday school. But Julio didn’t have a job. One of the Americans talked to Julio, told him that he had skills, that he could be helping his family if he were working, that the Americans would be back in the spring and they expected Julio to have a job when they returned. That’s the third part of the miracle. Julio got a job.

It wasn’t a very good job. Julio was working with his uncle at an auto body shop. Work was slow, and on a good day of work, Julio only earned the equivalent of $5 or $6 a day. But he was learning new skills. And the money did make a difference for his family.

Then, in the spring, the Americans came back. They were doing a series of work projects at the church: a basketball court, a patio roof, metal sheeting for the roof. They asked Julio and his uncle to help. Julio showed up early on Monday morning, and by the time we’d stopped for lunch, he’d poured water, shoveled gravel, and moved dozens of wheelbarrow loads of concrete. A man from the church was helping us work. He admired Julio’s attitude and his effort. That was the fourth part of the miracle. Julio told me over lunch that the man, Ruben, supervised a clean-up team at one of the vegetable packing plants south of town. Ruben had offered Julio a chance to work that night. If all went well, Julio would have a job that paid more than twice as much as his other job. And the work was guaranteed for four months.

So how did the story end, Julio’s miracle story? Julio got the job in the packing plant. But that’s not the end of the story. At least, not yet.

Newberg Friends has been working in the city of San Luis Rio Colorado for more than three decades. For most of the last 20 years, we’ve partnered with North Valley, West Chehalem, and Nueva Esperanza. We’ve named our partnership Equipo, which means “team” in Spanish, because we really are a team. With each other. With the church in San Luis. With the government officials who help us get supplies across the border, who help us identify families in need. With the families. With Julio.

A boy who lost everything now has a home, a job, a church family, friends in a foreign country. And he’s joined our team, working with us to help other families in need. Maybe that’s the real miracle story.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012



Being creative requires
that we collect the ideas we find.
I’ve been reading about creativity, and I can guess at what you might be thinking.

They write books about that?

I used to think the same way. Either you have it. Or you don’t. What’s there to write about?

You might be surprised. Almost 38 years ago, for instance, I was born into this world as a not-creative type. But I’ve changed.

Illustration. In fifth grade, I took an admissions test for a special program that the district was offering for at-risk students. I aced the reading comprehension and numeric memory portions of the test. In fact, I earned a perfect score on the memory part – something that apparently made me kind of special. But on the section that examined creativity, I scored in the bottom quartile. My parents received a letter from the district. Out of 100 possible points, I had earned only three.

Students with low scores on this test often have trouble socializing, they’re less flexible than their peers, they struggle to break projects down into smaller tasks, to problem solve, to prioritize. They are easily overwhelmed by new situations and expectations. They struggle to express their emotions. They are considered a retention risk. At age 10, I had been identified as a potential high school dropout.

Because I wasn’t creative.

Creativity – it turns out – is important.

Fortunately, creativity can also be taught. I made it into that special program, and my teacher (whose last name reminded me of atomic number 27) helped me to do the work of creativity. I learned how to steal someone else’s idea, make a little change, and call that idea mine – a process my teacher called “piggybacking.” I learned how to use sensory prompts and word-association to quickly generate new possibilities – a process my teacher called “ideation.” I learned how to pace myself when coming up with possible solutions in order to keep from getting ahead of my ideas – a skill that my teacher said would lead to “fluency.” And I learned a lot about work.

Creativity – it turns out – is work.

Creativity, which I’ve learned to define as the process of making new connections between old ideas, seems to require the following kinds of work:

Collecting: Old ideas are everywhere. They’re in the things we do, the conversations we have, the systems and processes of our lives, our families, our communities. They’re in books and in programs and in people. Being creative requires that we collect the ideas we find. Even bad ideas.

Observing: People are constantly connecting old ideas; pay attention to what they put together, how they do it, and why.

Imagining or Experimenting: Being creative requires asking a question. What if … ? Why don’t we … ? Could I … ? Or taking a risk.

Whatever you call it, creating or connecting, what it comes down to is putting old things together in order to make new things.

So I’ve been reading about creativity. And thinking back on my childhood. And wondering … what if our community had to take that test? How would we do? And could we change?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012



Every step closer to abolition
of slavery made southern Quakers a nuisance to their neighbors.
When Zachariah Dicks visited Friends in Georgia in 1803, he predicted that the house in which they met – only five years old at the time – would soon stand empty. “O Bush River! Bush River! How hath thy beauty faded away and gloomy darkness eclipsed thy day.” Only five years later, what Dicks foretold had come to pass. Bush River’s member meetings in South Carolina and Georgia had been disbanded. The roughly 500 Quakers of Bush River had moved away, most of them to Ohio.

The issue was slavery.

Many early Quakers in America owned slaves, and when George Fox made his 17th-century visit to American Friends, he urged them to treat their slaves with kindness, to educate them (an open violation of the law) and to “let them go free after a considerable term of years, if they have served . . . faithfully.” William Edmundson offered Friends an additional challenge: “Many of you count it unlawful to make slaves of the Indians, and if so, then why the Negroes?” Eighty years later, traveling minister John Woolman further identified slavery as a kind of moral disease motivated by “the love of ease and gain.”

But effecting change proved difficult.

Southern Quakers argued that purchasing a slave often prevented the separation of man and wife or parent and child. In addition, Friends in North Carolina had learned from painful experience that their former slaves could be seized by their non-Quaker neighbors and once again sold into slavery. In many meetings, then, trustees were appointed to receive transfers of ownership for the slaves, giving freedom while legally binding these “ex-slaves” as property of the entire meeting. Others worked together to get slaves to the North, where they could be free.

Every step closer to abolition of slavery made southern Quakers a nuisance to their neighbors. So when Zachariah Dicks visited Bush River, he found an audience that Errol Elliott describes as “tired and largely hopeless. They had stood firm, but uprisings and violence” in the region had convinced them that war was imminent.

So they left, sold their property and resettled in Ohio, where they helped build up towns like Salem and Springboro – stops on the Underground Railroad.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012



I know that once I stop listening,
I will begin to treat others as objects, entering every theological conversation as a kind of game in which my only goal is to say what I must in order to get the other to believe
what I want him to believe,to have him go away with the impression I have created.
I’ve spent my life in the Church. Almost 38 years of worship and service. For the past 20 years, I’ve had a variety of teaching ministries. I’ve read the Bible. I’ve studied the Bible. I’ve talked and written and debated about the Bible. But about two years ago, I started taking seminary classes, and something really important happened: I discovered that for all these years, I’ve known next to nothing about the Bible.

I’m still a long way from earning any kind of degree, but I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of seminary can be on a person, what it’s like to learn about the story behind the story behind the story, how it feels to have information that, previously, I didn’t even know existed.

First, there’s exhilaration at having access to important new information, all of it – so much! incredible! mind-blowing! – suddenly available to me. Second, almost as fast as that first feeling, is a sense of lost-ness, of foolishness for having studied, written, talked over and debated what the Bible says, what other people say the Bible says, without having known this information even existed. Even worse, many of the people I debated – in public, even – knew that I didn’t know. In particular, I feel silly for having written what I have in front of people who knew what I didn’t, especially knowing that they were patient with me, that in some important ways, they protected me in my ignorance.

But the feeling of foolishness doesn’t last long. Once I started learning, it became nearly impossible to remember that there ever was a time when I didn’t know what I now know. Instead, I’m mostly aware of the fact that I know what most others don’t. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how big the task is of helping others to see what I see, knowing that it’s far more likely that they will resist rather than welcome what I share (mainly because it challenges and sometimes contradicts so much of what they believe).

In addition, I have this fear that not too long from now I’ll become aware of the limitations of what I’ve learned. There’s so much to know, and my ability to take in, comprehend and remember is limited. And there’s so much we don’t yet know. There’s so much yet to be learned. There are inaccuracies that may not be corrected for hundreds of years. There are things that remain invisible, that we don’t even know we don’t know. That we don’t see. Can’t see. Might never see.

But that takes a while to learn.

Admitting it doesn’t mean that I’ve learned it.

In the meantime, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to learn from people who don’t know what I know. Even as I listen to what they say, I find myself thinking: “How would this argument change if they knew what I know?” Sometimes it just seems sad that they hold on to the untenable. I have become more judgmental. Just thinking about my thinking as I’m thinking has become such a difficult mental exercise that I almost just want to give up and stop listening.

But I can’t.

Because I know that once I stop listening, I will begin to treat others as objects, entering every theological conversation as a kind of game in which my only goal is to say what I must in order to get the other to believe what I want him to believe, to have him go away with the impression I have created. I will have become manipulative. A liar.

Tragically, I also will have become a kind of moron, incapable of listening, incapable of being challenged, incapable of learning from others whose personal experience of God differs from and potentially transcends my own.

May God protect me.

At Barclay Press.

Thursday, February 09, 2012


In his 17th-century composition, “Awake My Soul,” Thomas Ken challenges me to “shake off your sleep, and joyful rise to pay your morning sacrifice.” And I am reminded of a time each morning in the silent warmth of early darkness, in the deliciously comfortable lethargy of waiting, that I must choose anew to move forward into the day that awaits.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A Portraiture

A Portraiture of Quakerism

He wrote a book, a book that normalized Quakers in order to give public appeal to a cause that had largely been championed by this marginalized religious sect.
British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson set out in 1806 to tell the story of Quakers, to help the larger English-speaking world understand these foreign-seeming Friends. He titled the work, A Portraiture of Quakerism. Why Quakers? As Clarkson puts it, he had been “thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers” in his work against the slave trade, and he “conceived a desire of writing their moral history.” But Clarkson’s explanation doesn’t quite work. This book – presumably conceived in 1787 – didn’t come to fruition for almost 20 years. If the subject – near to Clarkson’s heart – was as important as he claimed, then why did the inexhaustible writer, speaker, publisher, and organizer keep putting off the project?

Some historians have suggested that the book – published when it was – proved politically expedient.

Clarkson had founded the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He had interviewed 20,000 sailors as part of his research. He had ridden on horseback more than 35,000 miles in his search for artifacts and evidence. He had published essay after essay against the slave trade. He had convinced William Wilberforce to present legislation, year after year, that if passed, would have abolished the slave trade. But in 1794, war with France had largely ended the debate in Parliament, and Clarkson was tired. He retired from the movement, bought a home, married, and had a child. Then, 10 years later, as the war was coming to an end, Clarkson saw an opportunity for victory.

He wrote a book, a book that normalized Quakers in order to give public appeal to a cause that had largely been championed by this marginalized religious sect. And it worked. Within a year of the book’s publication, the Slave Trade Act was passed.

But what about the book? What exactly does Clarkson say about Quakers?

He says that no matter the issue, Quakers will consistently “reason on principle, and not upon consequences.” He says that Quakerism itself is a system that leads “towards purity and perfection.” He says that Quakers “never make a sacrifice of conscience.” He says that Quakers are “anxious for the moral improvement of mankind.” He says that “we seldom see a noisy or irascible Quaker.” He says that although Quakers are just as apt as others to enjoy wine with a meal, “neither drunkenness, nor any situation approaching to drunkenness, is known in the Quaker companies.”

Clarkson says that Quakerism, at heart, is “an attempt at practical Christianity . . . as far as it can be carried.”

Tuesday, January 31, 2012



For me, the difference between relaxing/comforting myself and an addictive behavior comes down to a question of reality. Is my discomfort because of a sense of lack? Or the result of a true lack? Am I missing something -- health, rest, calm, security? Or am I simply missing the thing to which I'm attached?

The answer, I think, is found in my understanding of self. If I know myself separate from the thing to which I'm attracted, then I'm probably not addicted.

If, on the other hand, the thing to which I'm attracted is an integral part of my identity, then I probably am.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012



This very act blurs the line.
If self-disclosure is the door to friendship, then the danger for pastors, teachers, doctors, and counselors is that the very nature of their jobs requires those to whom they minister to open up about the parts of their lives that they would normally choose only to share with a friend. This very act blurs the line.

Do I share because we are friends?

Are we friends because I share?

In many cases, neither is true. But it feels true. So there is an imbalance of power, of influence, of affection. And it is all too easy to misinterpret signals. Or to take advantage.

Thursday, January 19, 2012



the present-day Christian addiction to the Calvary cross has replaced Jesus' entire ministry ... with a single act of sacrifice
Left unchecked, an evangelical focus on Christ’s sacrificial death could be the death of the Church. It’s skewed our theology, messed up many of our relationships, and created a culture that thrives on guilt and judgment. But it’s not Jesus’ fault. He tried to warn us.

Here’s the deal: Jesus lived his message, and it was a message of love. But the present-day Christian addiction to the Calvary cross has replaced Jesus' entire ministry -- both before his death and after his resurrection -- with a single act of sacrifice, making that willingness to die for a belief and a people the proof of Jesus’ love.

It doesn’t work that way. Sacrifice -- of anything for anyone -- is powerful because of its selflessness. But sacrifice has some problems as well.

1) Sacrifice, to be effective, requires the misfortune of others. I cannot save someone unless he needs saving, hence the Church’s reputation for passing judgment. 2) If the act of sacrificial death teaches us the value of someone we previously took for granted, it remains powerless to heal that relationship. There is no reconciliation without life. 3) The pursuit of sacrifice in the form of hoped-for martyrdom is to give up living altogether. What is the value of a life that was never lived? 4) Sacrifice, as we understand it, involves a completely selfless giving without any hope of receiving in return. It is not a contract. This makes death the end of all sacrifice. Except for one thing -- Christians have the hope of resurrection. Unbelievers have no such hope. Logically, this would make the sacrificial death of an atheist more powerful (and more ethical) than the death of a believer.

I could go on.

But I’ll end with this, instead. When Jesus preached that “The Kingdom of Heaven is here” or that God desires “mercy and not sacrifice,” when he offered rest for our souls and spoke of a banquet to which all those found along the highways were invited, when he healed the lame and the blind and the bleeding, he was pointing to a wedding, not a funeral. And the wedding is here. Now.

It’s time to change our focus.

And our tone.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fringe Christians

No wonder the Church is largely considered irrelevant and even destructive.
A student described to me a debate -- hosted by his church -- in which two men attacked each other for almost two hours. The issue? Whether water baptism is required for salvation. This student, exhausted by the speakers’ anger, told me he’d decided it doesn’t really matter.

Another student told me about a Christian teacher -- respected in the community -- who made the claim that figure skaters, female gymnasts, and English teachers are prone to lesbianism. This student wanted to be an English teacher. Now she’s reconsidering.

A chapel speaker had students stand if they’d read any of the Harry Potter books. He told them that they’d opened themselves up to demonic influences and that they were in danger of experiencing the fires of Hell.

No wonder the Church is largely considered irrelevant and even destructive. Fringe Christians like these seem -- more and more -- to be stealing attention away from the majority. They claim that the only issues that matter are the sanctity of life (code for anti-abortion), the institution of marriage (code for anti-gay marriage), and other inviolable pro-family principles (code for anti-yoga, Halloween, public Ten Commandments displays, Supreme Court appointments, and any other politically-expedient social issues).

But these people don’t represent the thousands of pre-Civil War Christians who set their slaves free and hired them back as workers, paying them a fair wage.

They don’t represent the German Christians during World War II, who had to be told by their government -- again and again in official announcements -- to stop giving up their bus seats to Jews.

They don’t represent the community of Amish Christians who shocked the world in 2006, when they publicly forgave a man who had killed their daughters.

And I hope they don’t represent you.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Admitting my actions are rooted in selfishness and also arrogance is in fact the way humility works. Humility, after all, is a kind of truth telling, facing up to who I really am.

Monday, January 09, 2012


Do I trust the members of my community with the secrets that I'm holding? Of course, if I don't trust them, then I'm probably not experiencing community, no matter how much I claim to "love" the people with whom I worship. The hard part for me is balance. What if the members of my community have their own secrets, secrets that make them less able to help me carry my own? What happens if I go first?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Rubber Bands

Rubber Bands

These numbers are generally
in line with downward trends among all mainline protestant denominations.
For hundreds of years, churches have been like rubber bands. Their focus has been on getting as many people as possible inside the circle (of tradition, of polity, of community, of doctrine). The bands only stretch so far, however, making it inevitable that a point will come at which some people will get squeezed out unless the old band is replaced with something newer, larger and less restrictive in each of the senses listed above.

This model isn't working the way it used to. Southern Baptists—the nation's largest protestant denomination—reported in April 2008 that new baptisms were down to the lowest level since 1987 and that membership had dropped by about 40,000 people that year. These numbers are generally in line with downward trends among all mainline protestant denominations.

How should Christians respond? Maybe it's time to reconsider the model. Who says the world should be knocking on our door (let alone sitting in our pews)? After all, Jesus didn't tell his followers to sit in an upstairs room—door locked—counting down the days to His return. He sent them out to be his witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Thursday, January 05, 2012


An important element to longevity in ministry seems to be humility. Not the false humility of claiming I'm not really as good as you think I am. Not the false humility of pretending I'm lower than I really think I am in order to make sure I'm not perceived as arrogant. Not the kind of false humility that is selfish and needy and dependent in its projected selflessness. Real humility, recognizing and admitting who I am -- strengths, weaknesses, lightness, darkness, nuance, simplicity, complexity -- as honestly as I can, especially to myself.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Addiction & Grace

Last week, I had a discussion about whether relationship with Christ is required for the experience of grace. And I understand the tension. It’s been argued by Gerald May that our incompleteness – the hollow parts we try to fill, the addictive efforts of trying to fill – “is the empty side of our longing for God and for love.” The more traditional view might be that I must actively turn toward God in order to experience God’s “flow of grace.”

But I’m not sure that’s true. At least not completely. Why would I need to name the source of grace in order to recognize its power? Why would I need to know the source of grace in order to experience its presence?

Sunday, January 01, 2012


Christ breaks the power
of winter in my soul, inviting
me into celebration.
Activity is addictive. And like any addiction, there are consequences: headaches, depression, loneliness, irritation, shallow relationships. I have experienced them all. I have not taken the time I need for rest. But in order to change, I need to find a new rhythm, recognizing that . . .

  • Christ breaks the power of winter in my soul, inviting me into celebration.
  • Intimacy requires more than monologue. Real prayer is a dialogue.
  • The darkness is broken when I find that ministry helps me to see in the countenance of another, not another number, but the very face of Christ.
  • Sabbath is fundamental to life, to both spiritual and emotional health. It is the day that gives purpose to all my other days.
  • God longs for me to rediscover the rhythm of the life for which I was created.

It’s not a duty. It’s not a space in time waiting to be filled by human activity. It’s a gift.