Why I sometimes criticize the church

I was pondering my personal church history this morning. In my 50 years, I’ve lived in four states and seven different communities. In that time, I considered myself a “member” of seven congregations and have been more peripherally involved with others. These churches have been Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, non-denominational, and evangelical. Most of these congregations appeared to be relatively healthy when I attended. Every community has issues, and churches are no exception. Still, during my time in these spaces, I have loved the people and the pastors with whom I was privileged to worship. I may now differ from many in theological or social conviction, but I still consider several of them my friends.

In contrast, one congregation–one denomination–I was involved with was unhealthy at the root and engaged in many harmful practices. While I was a part of it, I developed many unhealthy patterns, irreparably damaging some of my closest friendships. Even this church was not entirely bad. For all the good churches out there, there are bad ones too. Recent series like Shiny Happy PeopleThe Secrets of Hillsong, and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill highlight some of the more visible abuses, but there are far more that occur every day in America. 

I have been critical of several aspects of the American church in recent years. People who have known me over time wonder how someone for whom the church has been a central part of life for decades can now be critical, especially when my personal church experience has been generally positive. A metaphor may help. Imagine you discover that you have cancer in your left foot. On the one hand, you could say, “My right foot works just fine. It helps me walk. I can even kick a ball. And what about my hands? They are amazing! My hands let me build, comfort, and create. They do so many amazing things!” These statements would be factual. On the other hand, your left foot would still have cancer, and without adequately diagnosing and treating it, it will kill you. You say, “But the foot is only a small part of the body. Look at the good the rest of the body does.” All I can say in response is, “The cancer is killing you.”

Reformers have appeared repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity. During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed what love and grace looked like, but he also confronted toxic religious beliefs. Paul confronted Peter. For thousands of years, unpopular prophets have been vocal when religious people lose their way. The same is true today. Many of us deconstructors, ex-vangelicals, post-evangelicals, or spiritually uncertain people who have criticized elements of Christianity in recent years aren’t questioning and attacking the church because we hate Jesus but because what we see happening doesn’t look like Jesus. We see the repeated scandals, hypocrisy, and power-seeking and think this isn’t what we thought the church was supposed to be. Our churches taught us that character matters and that love conquers all. Still, the repeated abuses make us question if our churches ever believed these things. In many cases, I suspect Jesus would agree.

So, for pastors and leaders who are doing the good and humble work of seeking to love widely and deeply, please keep it up. Thank you for being healthy hands and feet. But know this: the cancer isn’t going away by ignoring it and the church will always need those willing to say, “We are sick.”

Semper Reformanda.

returning home

Each of us possesses an inner light
in bodies that have carried us
and cared for us
from the beginning
but rather than letting the soft glow
of that beacon guide us
we live from places
far outside of ourselves
from ideas and doctrines
from impressions and judgments
made by those far removed from our our hearts
and it has made us less human, less whole.
Let us return home
to the kindness and wisdom of ourselves.

What is Facebook for?

Facebook has approximately 3 billion users world wide. That’s a lot of people. Not surprisingly, there are innumerable reasons we come to Facebook. Facebook is used for connection, business, distraction, hatred, and humor. Every one of us likely has a slightly different reason for using Facebook. I’m not certain how long I’ve been on Facebook, but probably about 15 years and I have changed in many ways over that time.

So what are some of the reasons I use Facebook? First, connection. I am grateful that I am able to stay in touch with people who I otherwise wouldn’t hear from regularly including high school and college friends as well as certain family members. I also have developed friendships with people from around the world, which provides a broader cultural perspective. Second, I come for the comedy. Regularly, people will share humorous memes and videos with me, and I will in return. Recently, I look forward to my friend Chris’s “Dad Joke of the Day” videos to bring a smile. Third, I appreciate the encouragement and seek to encourage others. I suspect many people would agree with me in these.

On the other hand, I sometimes share hard things, controversial things, things that may make people squirm a little bit. Usually, when I share posts with some edge to them, it comes out of my own wrestling and desire to grow. I don’t even necessarily agree with these posts. Because I feel some connection with my Facebook “friends,” I am grateful for the dialog, even when people disagree with me. Some of the most beneficial and exhausting posts have been of this sort.

In the mid-90s, I co-authored a paper with a former mentor titled, Imagination, Exploration, and Compulsion: Discovery and the Loss of Self Through the Internet, which was nearly a decade before Facebook or Twitter were on the scene. One thing that Internet communities can lead to is presenting false narratives and, ironically, disconnection. When I share things that are difficult or challenging, they often arise out of my desire to continue to do inner work and to press into who I am and into who I am becoming. I share these things because I know that many other people experience these same questions, desires, and longings. I am grateful for dialog partners, but I also respect those who don’t come here to wrestle.

I guess I want my Facebook page to be a place of humor, but not mockery; of dialog, but not diatribe; of connection, but not divisiveness; of encouragement, and not attack; of questions before answers. Maybe Facebook isn’t a great place for this sort of thing, but I am out here doing the best I can, trying to be as truly “me” as I can be. If you have questions about where I am, please reach out. I don’t promise to have satisfactory answers, but I will gladly share a glimpse of my journey as I hope you will share yours.

we are changed by confrontation

In my own life, I have given hundreds of retreats and thousands of sermons. I know that when I talk, people sometimes get new ideas and they sometimes even get inspired. But they don’t often get converted, they aren’t really changed. It takes more than words to do that. What converts people are real-life situations. What changes people are confrontations, looking at something they don’t want to deal with straight in the face, or looking at life from a new vantage point. Observe your point from an honest perspective. Change your viewpoint every now and then, and stand in another pair of shoes looking back at yourself. How else will you ever get free? It is essential for human empathy. It is necessary, or we remain largely narcissistic and trapped in our own ego and culture. This is probably the core meaning of religious pilgrimage, which requires that you leave home.

Richard Rohr
From Wild Man to Wise Man

Top 10 books-2022

For over a decade, I have put out a list of my favorite books from the year. Nearly every year, I read more than 100 books and it is always a delight to go back and consider what has stirred me most deeply. Reviewing past lists has also been enlightening. It is evident that my reading has diversified over the years. Some may find that concerning; but I believe it has been better for me as a reader and as a person. Scanning this year’s list, storytelling and an appreciation for nature are common themes.

  1. This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us by Cole Arthur Riley
    I only had to read the first page of This Here Flesh to know that it would likely make my top ten. To steal a phrase from author Dave Eggers’ memoir, this is truly a “heartbreaking work of staggering genius.” Riley is a compelling storyteller. She invites the reader into her own narrative in a way that moves deeper still, to lead us into the depth and beauty of our own stories. A friend had recommended the book to me and I have recommended it to others and their responses have been similar. This Here Flesh is absolutely a must read book.
  2. This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
    Earlier in the year, I was looking for fun audiobook titles and Steve Wiens recommended This is Happiness. I had never heard of the book, nor the author. Williams is also a wonderful storyteller. In this novel, he envisions electricity coming to a sleepy Irish town that has not dealt with much change over the generations. It is a welcome touch of humanity and a reminder of what connects us all.
  3. Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman
    Poetry is hard for a lot of people, but 24 year old Gorman–the first national youth poet Laureate and the youngest inaugural poet–makes it easier. Her ability to draw pictures with her words and to move her readers is breathtaking. If you have been reluctant to dive into poetry, her words and wisdom may be a great entry point.
  4. Everything Sad is Untrue: (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri
    In my circles this year, it seemed as though Everything Sad is Untrue was getting a lot of buzz, but I wasn’t sure if it was fiction, non-fiction, or something else. I’m still not sure, and I think that is Nayeri’s brilliance. Daniel Nayeri was born in Iran and emigrated to Oklahoma when he was 8 years old with his mother and sister, after spending some time as a refugee, which are stories he shares in his book. The book is clearly based upon the details of his life, but reveals him to be an imaginative storyteller (can you sense a theme?). Regardless of what details are factual verses embellished, Everything Sad is Untrue touches something deeply true and human.
  5. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Phillip Yancey
    I have read several of Yancey’s books over the years, but this is a new favorite. It is, as the subtitle suggests, a memoir–a spiritual memoir of sorts. Yancey said of the book, “I truly believe this is the one book I was put on earth to write. So many of the strands from my childhood—racial hostility, political division, culture wars—have resurfaced in modern form. Looking back points me forward” Yancey is not shy about naming the origin of some of his own unhealthy beliefs and how he has reckoned with those in his adult years, and continues to do so now in his seventh decade. He has something to teach all of us.
  6. 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Amrstong
    Karen Armstrong has published a couple dozen books in her writing career that has spanned more than 40 years, but I am a belated fan. I read her 2022 release, Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond With the Natural World this fall and immediately wondered what else I had been missing, so I moved on to 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life and I loved it too. This former nun and religious historian explores themes common to various faith traditions to demonstrate our unified need for compassion. She wrote about concepts such as concern for everybody and love for enemies and how we might employ these in our day to day lives.
  7. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    Braiding Sweetgrass had been lurking around my wish list for a long time and I finally decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. Dr. Kimmerer is a botanist and Potawatomi woman who writes beautifully about our connection with plants and the land on which they grow. Much like most of the authors on this list, she is an excellent storyteller and teacher. Books like this one make me want to care for the earth, and specifically where I have found a home, more deeply and thoughtfully.
  8. God of the Garden: Thoughts on Creation, Culture, and the Kingdom by Andrew Peterson
    If Andrew Peterson publishes a new book, there is a good chance it will be on my top ten list. In God of the Garden, he explores our connection with plants, and especially with trees and what they say about our relationship to God. Too often as Christians, we can distort what it means to steward the earth and we end up abusing our God-given role. Peterson invites us back to a gentler, humbler, more thoughtful place of creation care.
  9. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
    bell hooks died one year ago today (12-15-21). She was a social activist, author, and professor who wrote nearly 40 books, often exploring issues of race, gender, and economics, but in All About Love, she explores how to understand love as people who grow up embedded in families, cultures, and systems. Along the way, she shares much of her own story and how she has come to understand love. I remain awed by her bravery and honesty as she wrote unapologetically about many of the difficult things she had experienced growing up and how they have shaped her.
  10. Wild Land Within: Cultivating Wholeness Through Spiritual Practice by Lisa Colon Delay
    Sometimes I pick a book up and it isn’t the right time for me, but when I return to it, it touches me deeply. Wild Land Within did that for me. When I first purchased it, I started reading and realized I wasn’t in the right heart-space to learn what I needed to from the author. I am so glad I returned. Delay draws together threads from neuroscience, theology, and spiritual formation to help her readers “cultivate wholeness.” Perhaps my favorite part of this book was the way in which she drew upon the spiritual practices of various racial and ethnic traditions to weave together this excellent book.

flesh and blood

St. John began
“In the beginning was the Word”
and we have reduced the Word to words
a set of principles to observe
rules to follow
doctrines to believe
criteria by which to categorize and exclude
but that was never the apostle’s intent.

The Word is a person
the divine Logos
God with us
embodied Spirit
flesh and bone.

In communion,
we were never commanded
to eat the Ten Commandments
or drink a liquified Bible
but to participate
in Christ’s holy body
eating his flesh
and drinking his blood
to remind us of our belonging
and our communion
with a real person
in flesh and blood.

viral observations

On July 19, I tweeted:

I always heard that as people aged, they became more conservative. I’ve become much more liberal. Anyone else?

Inexplicably, the tweet went viral. As of this morning, it is approaching 53,000 likes and nearly 10,000 comments, and I am still getting notifications every few seconds. As a relative nobody on Twitter (before this tweet took off, I had around 750 followers), this attention was unexpected and a bit unnerving. I want to offer a few observations on the experience.

First, thousands of people agreed with me, and thousands didn’t, which was not surprising. Each person has their own experience and political trajectory. I was grateful for the number of people who wrote that their experience was similar to mine, and in truth, I was also grateful for people who simply said that they have indeed become more conservative. Many people also expressed that they do not know where they fit these days politically.

Second, I initially tried to keep up with the comments, but eventually, it became impossible to do so. I am certain I will never go back to read them all. It is a good reminder that when I comment on a thread from someone well-known, it makes sense that they do not respond. It is also true that when we throw our ideas out into the world, they can take on a life of their own.

Third, for all of the people expressing their opinions, it seemed there were an equal number of people who were more interested in name-calling, mischaracterization, offering false assumptions, and setting up straw men. Or perhaps their comments were just the “loudest.” This vitriol was launched in both directions. I was told by someone who has no idea who I am that what I shared about myself wasn’t actually true. I was told repeatedly that I have dementia, a brain injury, a mental illness, and that I’m gay. I was informed that I am not a Christian. These things were often shared by those professing to be Christians themselves. It breaks my heart that people feel so free to engage in hate-filled speech on social media.

Fourth, I knew that as a country, we were divided, but the comments solidified these observations. There appears to be a profound intolerance of those who think or believe differently with some people suggesting that those on the other side deserve death. There were blatantly racist comments.

Fifth, I was accused of posting the original tweet as an opportunity to sell my book, Letters to the Beloved. My immediate thought was, “Yes, I decided to write a viral tweet that has very little to do with my book just on the off chance that someone might buy it.” Truthfully, I never expected anything to happen with the tweet, so selling books was not even a consideration. However, I happily used my 15 minutes of fame to draw attention to a project I am proud of.

All in all, social media has its place, but it will never replace sitting around a table with real people having real conversations. Attacking people when you are looking them in the eyes is much more difficult. It leads me to wonder how I can connect with others on a local level in more significant ways.

wild and beautiful

One of my neighbors has an immaculate lawn. His attention to it is constant and uncompromising. The groundskeepers at Augusta would be thrilled to have him on their staff. I look across the street in admiration. There is never a blade of grass out of place.

My lawn looks nothing like his, but I love mine no less. Over the past couple of years, I have been diversifying my yard, adding clover and wildflowers where I can. I would estimate that most of my lawn has at least some clover in it now, and some sections are almost entirely clover. The backyard needs work; I think that’s why my dogs keep digging holes, but we keep at it–adding flowers and trees here and there. Over time, the plants mingle. I find lilies of the valley crossing the border into the lawn. Dandelions stand proudly next to the fescue.

To be sure, some of the plants try to overwhelm, the others, and I uproot them or trim them back, but to my eyes, the diversity brings beauty.

and bees.

reflections on restore 2022-day 2

Yesterday, I got home from Restore 2022 around noon and spent the rest of the day sitting on the couch. I could not do otherwise. I was physically exhausted and my soul was weary; Those two things often go hand in hand. For those who missed my reflections on day one, I attended Restore 2022, a conference dealing with spiritual trauma, with my friends Kelley and Mike. Much like the first day, I benefited from every talk. In fact, I have told several people that this is the only conference I remember where I not only attended every single talk (there were 11 of them) but I actually appreciated each and every one. On day 2, we heard from Lina Abujamra, Wade Mullen, Scot McKnight, Ruth Malhotra, Karen Swallow Prior, Lori Ann Thompson, and Diane Langberg. The day finished with communion. Although it was an emotional weekend, it was the hope of communion that brought me to tears.

A few quotes before moving on:

  • War leaves no victors–only victims.-Lina Albujamra
  • Each wrong must be rightly named.-Wade Mullen
  • I believe in the church, but I don’t believe in toxic church cultures.-Scot McKnight
  • All abuse causes a spiritual wound-Lori Ann Thompson
  • To push oneself into the life of another is a form of rape. Jesus does not do that.-Diane Langberg
  • Sometimes your greatest anger is not against those who perpetrated against you, but against those who did not protect you.-Mary DeMuth

Each of the speakers shared so much goodness (TOV), truth, and beauty, but sharing space with a couple hundred of the hurting and healing was equally a gift. I met Twitter friends. I heard peoples’ stories as they heard mine. I had a chance encounter where a woman stopped and said I looked familiar. Although it’s unlikely that she has ever seen me, we discovered that her college roommate was from my very small hometown.

Restore 2022 was beauty wrapped in beauty.

I think the exhaustion and weariness come from continuing to reckon with my own story. As I said in my day 1 reflection, it is no minor miracle that I went to a conference about spiritual trauma with Mike and Kelley, two dear friends whom I once maligned and misrepresented, and I am deeply grateful.