The Poetry of the Gospels or “The Art of the Deal”?: Moral Leadership in an Uncertain Time

I was honored to be invited to deliver this year’s Turner Warren Lecture at First Christian Church, Lynchburg, VA.  The lecture series has a long history, and has included such notable lecturers as Rabbi Harold Kushner, Dr. Fred Craddock, Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, and Dr. Martin Marty.  It was also a treat to see other familiar names, such as Dr. Ben Bohren an Rev. Sotello Long, as previous lecturers.  My Manuscript is below (If you read this blog, you’ll notice some threads that make their way into the lecture):

The 2017 Turner-Warren Lecture on Life and Faith

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Lynchburg, Virginia, April 2, 2017

I am so honored to have been invited to First Christian Church for the Turner-Warren Lecture. I must admit, I am also a bit intimidated. So for the opportunity to feel both of these things, I am thankful to the planning committee. I am not, by temperament or by training, a scholar, but have long entertained my call to ministry as one where the work of interpretation and practice intersect. Writing has always been for me, not only about ideas, not only about texts—but about people. Reason and Rationality, yes, but also the Realism that grits its teeth when theories and formulas stop making sense. Stories matter to me. Words matter to me. And the hope that is beyond words—the hope expressed in the Christian faith—matters to me. I am grateful for an invitation to spend some times exploring not only ideas, not only texts, but perhaps the real life that we all share, for but a few minutes with you this afternoon.

It also does not escape me that Lynchburg, VA, is itself an interesting place for us to have this conversation. This congregation has long shared a progressive vision and ministry in a place where the Ghost of Jerry Falwell, Sr. looms large (and loomed large even before he was a Ghost), and of course, this is also a community where both poetry and biblical studies were smashed with the introduction of the phrase “TWO CORINTHIANS” just a few months ago. Christian Fundamentalism has long woven itself into the landscape here. But as faithful, progressive congregations like FCC and institutions of higher learning committed to the educating a diverse student body like Lynchburg College prove—the landscape can look different from a different perspective, and there is not simply one way to understand the world, there is not simply one way to understand the Christian—or any other religious tradition, and there is not simply one way to understand the Holy One we call God.

But in an attempt to understand the current climate in which we find ourselves, as people of many and no faiths, as political people, and as people who are concerned about the world in which we live, I want to begin from a number of vantage points—some clearly my own, and a couple, because they are wrapped up in the practice of poetic language and fiction making, are perhaps my own, but perhaps something entirely different.

And so I begin with a different voice before I use my own. The voice I seek to bring to life now I hope is a fitting one, given the love of literature and theology that embodies the legacies of John Turner and Pete Warren.

Introduction to Theodicy

She believed that evil
was, ultimately, something
She liked to tell her students
that she learned about original sin
sharing a refrigerator with two roommates.
The darkest cruelty she ever experienced
was brushed off by a high school principal
who would drink himself to death years later.
“Boys will be boys,” he shrugged. “You’ll survive.”
Boys will be boys. Dogs will eat their own shit.
It’s how things are. People who would never in
their life put a child in an oven or sic a dog
on one or drop the bomb will, at the same time,
never lift a finger until it affects their property’s value.
There’s nothing supernatural about evil. It is what we do.

“It’s like trying to wrestle a Rubik’s Cube,”
she liked to tell her students. “Don’t try so hard.
All this talk of God and ‘Why?’ We love to say that
we are the builders and the discoverers and
the makers. We forget that we are also the
ones who pluck, the ones who break, and the ones
who cover it all up.”

Still, there were nights, when the old puzzle
with which she always opened her first 8:50 AM
lecture of the Spring Semester:
“If God is Good, God is not God; If God is God,
God is not Good” kept her up till all hours.
She turned it on all of its sides, tried to make
the pieces fit, the colors match. They never did.
Perhaps it is not what they do, she’d muse, twisting
her wrist one more time, on a hunch and something
like a prayer.

II: When we call Good Evil, and Good Evil: the New Nationalism

Just a few weeks ago, in an essay entitled “Breaking Faith,” a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine, Peter Beinart, named an assumption that I have been struggling with for the last several years.

As you might well know, research on American Christianity has pointed to the growing percentage of “the nones:” people who claim no religious tradition, and see American culture, civil society, and life in purely secular terms. 22 Percent of Americans claimed no religious tradition in 2014, up from 6 percent in 1992. In the essay, Beinart considered how:

Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”

As a Generation X Christian Minister, someone whose faith is shared by many friends, and who also counts friends who see my faith as a bit of foreign curiosity, I have to say that I shared the assumption Beinart described. A more secular America sounded to me like a more religiously neutral America where there was more room for religious diversity. To my ear, this all sounded like a more tolerant America.

In the wake of the 2016 Election, a political drama that was marked by accusations of serious journalism being “fake news”, of incredibly violent rhetoric, and of the re-mainstreaming of xenophobia, This idea of a more tolerant America, Beinart argues, was naive.

Instead, what Beinart describes is a political discourse that is not rooted in a tolerant neutrality or the long-gone shared assumption of Culturally Christian values, but instead reflects an increasingly brutal partisanship. The boundaries between the “Us”s and the “Them”s are not only firm—They are spiked, sharp enough to draw blood.

And while Beinart notes that these divisions have emerged across the political spectrum, what concerns me most are two emerging elements of what I would call the New Nationalism: Secular Evangelicals and the Alt-Right.

Of the many surprises of the 2016 election, one that was most puzzling to many observers was the support for Trump, the thrice-married playboy known for gambling, swindling, and womanizing among Evangelicals. The reason, as Beinart cites Notre Dame Political Scientist Geoffrey Layman:

“Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”

While there were plenty of committed Church going Evangelicals who voted for Trump out of resignation, seeing him as the lesser of two evils because they objected to Hilary Clinton’s support of abortion rights or saw her as having integrity issues around scandals connected to her name, but in a close election that played the razor thin margins of electoral politics, Trump was able to capture the political support of people who identified as evangelicals but do not attend churches, perhaps, Beinart argues, because he was able to name their despair, rooted in a nostalgic desire for identity and economic security, and their resentments, which are rooted in economic concerns, fear, and historic divides.

If Layman’s number crunching is correct, What seems to be emerging is a Christian identity that is not shaped by the lived-out experience of Christian community—community that—though sometimes exclusively, sometimes superficially—emphasizes forgiveness and love of neighbor. This Christian identity, presented almost as a closely-guarded, always threatened possession, easily cross-pollinates with xenophobia and uncritical patriotism to the degree that these elements become indistinguishable from one another. It’s a frightening prospect, different from the Religious Right of Falwell Sr’s generation, which looks almost genteel in comparison. It is no longer about national morality or doctrinal correctness, but about possession of the power that comes with being tribally right, and thus endowed with the freedom to set the boundaries and make the rules. It’s the way, the truth, and the life—but without the baggage or commitment of “love your neighbor as yourself”.

Beinart also describes the white-supremacist movement known as the At-Right as a closely related, though even more secular phenomenon.

Though the Alt-Right seems to be a gathering of ideological strands that are not easily articulated in a coherent philosophy, it does seem be emerging as secular, ideologically weaponized white nationalist successor of the religious right that uses racialized, nostalgic language as a touchstone and rallying cry. Though still a fringe movement, the rising prominence of Breitbart media (which has served as a self-proclaimed platform for the Alt-Right) and other media outlets has allowed for Alt-Right activists to gather a bit of credibility among disaffected whites. As is the case in a number of Nationalist movements across Europe, the Alt-Right movement has leveraged resentment and identity into the work of bringing a fantasy to life: There is the West, which represents enlightened culture, and there are the Barbarians. Our Liberalism and Latitudinarianism have made us weak. We need to reclaim our identity, and guard it mightily.

As Beinart sums up the Alt-Right:

Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil.

These two phenomenon share an uncertainty and need for identity that folks seem to be yearning for, and it’s easy to see that in a multicultural, more secular, more consumer-minded America, to which you’re marketed based on aesthetic, political, and other preferences, that it might be easy to get lost.

The former Editor of Breitbart News, now serving as a chief strategist to President Trump, Steve Bannon, is often mentioned in the same breath as the term “Alt-right,” though he doesn’t necessarily describe his own political views in such a way. In a televideo presentation at a 2014 conference on poverty hosted at the Vatican by the Human Dignity Institute, a conservative group founded by Benjamin Harnwell, a longtime aide to Conservative member of the European Parliament Nirj Deva, to promote a “Christian voice” in European politics, Bannon did offer a very clear, tribalist vision of a “Western, Enlightened Capitalist Judeo-Christian Identity” at war (ideologically) with the forces of secularism and crony capitalists and readying for a war with the Islamic world. While I think it’s harder to nail down Bannon on white supremacy, what emerges here is a very clear mythic (though not uncommon) fusion of the West and Christianity, and a clear sense of Christian Supremacy:

…We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.

Bannon seems to pick up on Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” Thesis—that humanity can be classified by a small handful of civilizations: Western and Islamic, for example, and that these would be the prime reason for conflict in the post-Cold War era, but more than that. Though Huntington’s thesis has come under fire from folks who say that he painted with too broad a brush or trafficked in stereotypes—for Huntington, the “Clash of Civilizations” was Analysis. For Bannon, it’s a rallying cry. His response—in a conference on Global Poverty, no less—is to call for a Church Militant, a phrase that is both Nostalgic and reflective of the brutality of political discourse that Beinart described. Christian faith in the service of nationalist—or “civilizationist”—hegemony.

The fact that these points of views are finding wider acceptability should give us pause. But when we consider what this means, we should realize that this is not about one person, one election. As Beinart reminds us, this about all of us—and the type of discourse, politics, and culture we are creating. Our self-definitions—our boundaries—are now weapons.

Though I’ve described the phenomenon of the New Nationalism and Secular Evangelical “piety” in stark, dramatic—and perhaps hyperbolic—terms, it is ultimately not to hold up a straw man, but a mirror. After all, Are we—in our needs to be correct, our desires to be the ones who name and control orthodoxies, and our tribal need for a community—are we that different? Is it a difference of kind, of type, or simply of degree?

I return to the fictional theologian whose questions about God and evil keep her from sleeping:

There’s nothing supernatural about evil. It is what we do.
“It’s like trying to wrestle a Rubik’s Cube,”
she liked to tell her students. “Don’t try so hard.
All this talk of God and ‘Why?’ We love to say that
we are the builders and the discoverers and
the makers. We forget that we are also the
ones who pluck, the ones who break, and the ones
who cover it all up.”

Evil is not so much supernatural as it is natural. We like to hold up the Bonhoeffers, the Martin Luther Kings, the Dorothy Days—the Anti-war, Justice seeking saints, as “who we are “but as this nameless theologian reminds us, as the Christian tradition reminds us, we’re also the ones enforcing the laws (just or unjust), ignoring the report of drone warfare, raising the rents in our neighborhood, and asking if we get to throw the first stone.

And as we lionize these role models, we claim that it is through memory—through remembering the mistakes, the resistance, and the lessons of the past, that we will never again make the same mistakes. We will remember how to do things better.

But perhaps it is actually the smoke and mirrors of memory that keeps us in destructive patterns.

The Old Pastor Remembers

He remembers the day when
his daily two mile run
suddenly became more
but he does not
remember how it became
customary to come together
every week to bury so many dead;

shoulder a harsh winter: that is
something he can still do.

Though he can no longer shovel the snow
at the same pace; though his hearing
has begun to fail him, faster than
his memory, thanks be to the one
who gives the gift in the first

But there are days, he
declares in the dark to the
silent congregation he still sees
before he falls into an unsteady

when he takes out his
hearing aid and shouts when
he only means to whisper, there
are days when he would rather
lose his memory, or at least
put notice and cognition to bed.

He remembers the day the copy
of The Atlantic Monthly
with “The Negro is Your Brother”
arrived in his mailbox.

He had
grown tired of the sleepy work
of his tiny town’s parish but
had felt his heart skip and

a buzz behind his brain when
he read “I am in Birmingham
because injustice is here.”
and it carried him for the
next thirty years as he sipped
tea, baptized, broke bread and
sat beside so many deathbeds.

Surely we will see the day
was the hope that sustained him.

But he feels the buzz ring differently
today when his granddaughter
the one with the purple hair,
the one loud enough for him to
hear always, tells him something
about hashtags and dash cams, and
a woman named Sandra.

She tells him about dead bodies and wounds
self inflicted.

Surely, Surely,
She was yelling, and not for
his benefit, there is justice.

Surely, surely, the truth will
set us all free. Surely it will.

In the night, he remembers the day
he first noticed his hearing lose
a step.

How he misunderstood names
and repeated them wrong. No one
corrected him. No one wanted to
embarrass him. It was at a funeral
for a stranger, and he named the
wrong dead soul.

He remembers aloud
That night, soldiers and sailors
and travelers and young women locked away
on their last nights.

Men gunned down with babies on the way.
Men gunned down lest they kill some more.
He remembers the dead, mourns them as his
own, is sure to say their names, prays that his sobs
might at last be loud enough to wake them.
II: Nostalgia and Idolatry

This past week, President Trump signed an executive order that launched the beginning of the end of the 2015 Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era policy which aimed to cut emissions from existing coal- and gas-fired power plants. In doing so, he said the following:

Perhaps no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers and companies more than this crushing attack on American industry.

While it is true that coal mining jobs are in decline, the majority of fact-checkers, industry and energy analysts, and other informed observers will point to the rise of other cleaner energy sources, technological advances that increase efficiency while utilizing fewer workers, and associated market forces like an oil boom as having more impact than emission standards. Nonetheless, the rhetoric has remained part of our news cycle and our national dialogue.

Anti-regulation politics are nothing new. I grew up in Kentucky, though I grew up in the tobacco-producing part of the state, not the part where coal was King. Nonetheless, the rhetoric always evokes something quite close to home for me: In the 1980s and 1990s, as public health advocates clashed with Big Tobacco around smoking-related health concerns, the protest of farmers, buyers, and community leaders with economic and other interests in the tobacco industry gave birth to a defiant fusion of anti-regulation politics and and the smoke and mirrors of nostalgia.

For my part today, I am not as interested in the questions of economics as I am with the question of Nostalgia, as it has been an overriding theme in both the electoral politics of the last presidential election cycle, the “post-game” analysis of that election, and the ongoing conversation about the state of our nation.

Nostalgia is never far from the work of Nation-building. We rely on foundational myths—of cherry trees, of shots heard around the world, of “a more perfect union” to articulate and continue to shape who we say we are, and it is easy to let those foundational myths transform into an idealized past that we long for.

Since November 2016, we’ve known that Nostalgia can become a winning strategy in electoral politics, especially when it’s presented as an easily digestible slogan slapped on a red hat.

We’ve seen those idealized pasts pop up in the Monday Morning Quarterbacking that has followed the election.

A number of these interpretations have put Nostalgia front and center:
One, I’ll cal the Hillbilly Elegy Hypothesis: From the Coal Mines to the Rust Belt, blue collar voters heard the clarion call that their way of life would return, their economic interests would be addressed, their communities would thrive, and their way of life would return, global economic policy and market forces be damned.

A second, I’ll call the Christendom Hypothesis: Tired of the supposed Atheist/Socialist/Liberal/Secret Muslim agenda (another myth!) that occupied the White House for 8 years, evangelicals organized to reclaim it—with the hope of ending Roe v. Wade, enacting so-called Religious Freedom Acts, and welcoming God back into the Whitehouse.

The “Political Correctness” Hypothesis: As “Everyone” knows, Men are men, women are women, Islam is violent, undocumented immigrants are dangerous—what should be self-evident has been refuted and repressed by “Political Correctness.” Once upon a time, the notion goes, Common Sense was common. Making America great again requires the rejection of Political correctness so that common sense can be restored, and we’ll get the world we used to have.
Our Way of life will return. God will be welcomed back. Common Sense will be restored.

Nostalgia brings with it the illusion of certainty. There was an idealized, simpler, better past that we remember. The flaws or simply the complexities of that past disappear in the fuzz of our memories. If we just replicate, reconstruct, bring back this idealized, sanitized version of our history, our desires will be satisfied—America will be great again.

I’m reminded of an online joke that began circulating not long after Donald Trump was directly questioned about his appeal to nostalgia, and asked for an example of when America was truly great: His answer was, of course, the 1950s. The Joke went like this:

“Why do so many people romanticize the 1950’s? Calm down!
We still have milkshakes and racism”

For every Happy Days-like fantasy that Nostalgia holds up as ideal, there is a Jim Crow reality that nostalgia represses, disguises, or lies about.

In American Christianity, Nostalgia makes for a particularly pernicious problem. By perpetuating idealized half-truths or outright lies as certainties for the sake of our own desires for what we long for, nostalgia is a type of idolatry. In fact, I would go as far to say that Nostalgia functions as the idolatrous inversion of resurrection.

What do I mean? While Clearly, as a Christian minister, when I use the word resurrection, I am noting Christ’s resurrection—The Good News of the empty tomb as told in the Christian Scriptures., but I tend to think of the Gospel and Pauline reports of resurrection not as a historical or supernatural event confined to the life of Christ, but as an invitation to Christian practice. In Christian practice, Resurrection is when life is victorious—unexpectedly—when we think death has the final word, whether through pastoral ministries of reconciliation, faithful witness in the streets and on capital steps, or the healing poetry of liturgy.

Nostalgia is the idolatrous hope that if we keep propping up, talking up, and beating on a dead horse, it will come back to life.

Resurrection is mystery and surprise. Like other forms of idolatry—Like the memory of 1950s Woolworths with a great milkshake that conveniently overlooks the segregated lunch counter where it was served—Nostalgia is forced. It isn’t real, and it doesn’t bring forth life.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t seductive. The certainty of nostalgia, and the facade of safety that nostalgia projects is what draws us in. We like safety, we like certainty, we like familiarity. Nostalgia shows us the apple we remember so fondly and tells us “You will not Die.”

Heard that one before?

Let us return to our Old Pastor. His hearing slipping, on the last act of his life, he’s beginning to confront the reality of death. He’s beginning to confront the past, too: his unrealized hopes, especially in the case of civil rights, and he’s mourning the violence, destruction, and loss of life that he sees around us. As Walter Brueggemann argues in The Prophetic Imagination, Our old pastor has penetrated a self-involved numbness that allows him to confront the mortality of the entire world, and is thus in the midst of lament—which is the root of empathy, which is, in turn, the root of love of neighbor, which is the root of justice.

Though it is painful, he rejects the apple, and he embraces an uncertain future.

But that’s the work of the church, right?

When we practice resurrection, we participate in a mystery that moves toward justice, confronts death, and opens the door to a possibility that looks nothing like the past.

But that is easier said than done.

III: Fake News and The Good News

Not long ago, I preached from Ephesians, one of those letters that scholars often classify as “Deutero-Pauline,” so not written by Paul (so….Fake News?), but written by a student of Paul, or in Paul’s name.

The passage, from the 5th Chapter, though in the middle of a cataloguing of practical teaching, is perhaps the most poetic section of the letter:

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.

Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.

Try to find out what is pleasing to God.

The writer of this letter spends a considerable amount of time telling her readers that they have been transformed—they have been invited into the practice of resurrection—and then—in the midst of a list of practical instructions for living this transformation out as a Christian community—things that you assume would be Crystal clear—we encounter this nod to ambiguity, discernment, and a sort of freedom to experiment as to what being the light might be:
Try to find out what is pleasing to God.

Now, when we read the entire letter, we not only get that nod to ambiguity, but we get a nice little hint as to how such an instruction brings its own risks. After all, there’s this little nugget just a few verses later:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

It is incredible how when we try to be the light, we often leave others in the dark.

In an age when we are so divided—politically, theologically, in our social commitments, even in our ways of understanding what it means to be a part of our religious traditions, or a part of the American fabric—the mistake the community that gave birth to Ephesians made—ignoring how the light we try to make becomes darkness for others—is the mistake that we who confuse nostalgia for a future and we who settle for a brutal partisanship because we believe it helps us become who we truly are, even if means setting boundaries sharp enough to wound or kill.

When we make this mistake, we turn the Good News of the Gospel into the Fake News of a Church that is one more institution that can’t be trusted.

But I am thankful for this letter to the Ephesians—in its entirety—because I think there is hope in discovering that our first and second century forbears understood the ways they tried to practice resurrection not as subscribing to calcified doctrine, but as the fluid, almost improvisational work of a community trying to get it right.

And in a time of the idolatry of nostalgia, I’m grateful to read about a first century church that didn’t get it right—the first time, or the second time, but encouraged its communities to keep on trying, even while they simultaneously messed up.

I have recently been rethinking one of the most beloved pieces of my tradition, the Disciples of Christ. The Open Table—both as practice, in terms of the practice of the Lord’s Supper—and as symbol of our commitment to Christian Unity—figures prominently in my theology. At the table, Disciples theology names a non-exclusionary divine welcome as a lived out reality: We welcome all as Christ welcomes us. The invitation to all is both comfort and inspiration to me.

But over the last several months, I have been considering the inadequacy of the invitation to the open table. When we tell the story of remembrance around the table, or when we tell the heroic stories of our tradition, how we’ve had an ecumenical commitment before that was a “thing,” do we find ourselves falling into the trap of nostalgia?

And doesn’t every church say “Everyone is Welcome?”

And how many people do we know who have heard this invitation, received it, but found that as women who seek ordination, queer folk who want to be married, people who want their struggle against institutional racism to simply be recognized—both “Everyone” and “Welcome” are accompanied by asterisks?

Or just as often, how many people have encountered our communities’ deeply woven familiarity with one another, the specifics of our “churchy” language, or the local quirks that we transform into orthodoxies, and wonder if they could ever fit in in such an internally-focused community.

Our light may leave others in the dark, after all.

For  the Disciples, the table has long been a contradictory thing—we set the boundary that defines our identity by setting no boundaries at all. However, in a time when boundaries are set with tribalist, idolatrous brutality, we can no longer assume a passive, open welcome is heard as something transformative.

And So we must TRY to make the table into something slightly different.
Not only do we welcome all because Christ welcomes us, but we resist everything—eventthose things that are deep within us—that blocks access to the table that God opens to all people.

The table becomes the center of a politics of resistance, but this Christian politic of resistance cannot become another crude partisan boundary.

We repeat the story of a broken body and spilled blood in order to proclaim our wholeness. Brokenness and Wholeness are clearly intertwined—and a non-nostalgic look at our embodied humanity means confronting this honestly: Our differences and our conflicts must be welcomed. The table is one that God opens to all—to women and men, to refugee and undocumented, to queer and straight, to black and brown, to the whole world. Only in making that welcome explicit, can we truly re-member a simultaneously broken and whole body out of people who are both.

Otherwise, we once again offer darkness when we claim to offer light.

If there is one thing about which I agree with Steve Bannon, it is that the 20th Century offered global, bloody conflict on a scale we never really saw before. But this supposed Christian Century brought with it a number of responses: a global system for the resettlement of refugees; the United Nations and other cross-national, or ecumencial, or interfaith attempts at peacebuilinding; a vast sustainable development, anti-poverty apparatus; and movements for anti-racist and gender-equality justice all over the world.

And at the risk of sounding nostalgic myself, we stand at the precipice of abandoning this, exchanging it for a much more brutal, isolationist world.

But rather than simply fall into a nostalgic illusion, whether of a remembered first century or twentieth century, we need to follow the example of that writer trying to shake things up in Ephesus, The church must extract itself from the brutality, teach its people how to set radically open tables with our public lives and try, try, try, until it becomes the sanctuary for all:

Welcome must become our doctrine, resistance our sacrament.

In a time when we fear that we are witnessing the long con disguised as populism undoing our democratic institutions, inn a time when our nostalgia makes us complicit

That must be the shape of Christian Moral Leadership in the days to come:

Welcome our doctrine, resistance our sacrament.

This will push us to become open in ways that stretch us all, and defiant in ways that scare the hell of us.

As I believe this openness will mean that we must listen to voices we will never expect to hear,
I offer you one more voice that is not exactly my own:

The Atheist Advises the Pastor

No one else will
ever see the stars you dream
so often.

so pencil-punch through
the black
lift it up

Make them see
when you
let your light shine through

Do not do more than this.

When you break bread,
Tell the tales you always tell
but if you tell the one about enough
for all, give it all away. Do not dare
waste a crumb.

You know what to do with the wine.

But should you speak of mountaintops
that you long to reach but
may never
Of temples that risk the sky
Or of a million souls rinsed clean
by your hand in a river you must reach,

remember just how long cardboard
really lasts, even covered in Hebrew
and Greek–
and put to bed
each one of those earthly ambitions

Choose to stay behind
bury the dead.


Prayer 3.26.17

It is the quick kick of anxiousness

that awakens us in 

the dark night.
The long, slow 

silence that lulls

nothing to sleep

Our ears perked

our heartbeat quickening
Holy One

This is what we have.

It is the grief we anticipate

and the grief that outlasts every year

The memory of missed chances

forks in the road not taken

Lives we never had
Holy One

This is what we bring to you.
It is the hurt we shoved back in the back of our mind

The way we have turned our neighbor’s light into darkness

The way we have sought our own wholeness on the back of another’s fragmentation.

The way we deny the things we know we need to others who need them, too.
Holy One, 

This is our offering.
It is confession that we offer

and a repentent hope
that we long for.
We seek to learn 

love for neighbor


and love for you.
We seek to be

navigators of ways

dreamers of dreams

prophets of justice

Makers of Peace
God beyond language

meet us in the places where our words

will never suffice
Give us new words

holy and true

enough to still

our anxious, quickening hearts
This we pray

as a prayer for ourselves

and for the world.

An Ash Wednesday Prayer 2017

In the dark of a night
when no sleep comes
We look up

No stars on nights like this
crowded in by clouds

We still look up

In the cold,
we are shivering.
As the wind shakes the world
around us,
we shudder.

We brace ourselves,
our eyes searching for you.

We trudge on
Holy One
Our own mortality
our own regrets
our own misspent words
our own lives
packed tightly
and carried on
on our backs

We search for you
remnants of the fire
that burned deep within
now lightless embers.

We look for you,
Holy One,
knowing our eyes
have grown heavy
veiling our vision

In the dark,

we can barely see ourselves

You see
that we are but dust

You see
those embers to which we will return

You see
Our hearts, broken and penitent,

are with you.

Overdue Books: Still A Mother

Still a Mother Book Cover.jpg

Still A Mother: Journeys Through Perinatal Bereavement

Edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson

I have a small stack of three books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week. Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough and Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds

In the always growing sub genre of pastoral literature concerning pastoral ministry, there is no shortage of writing about the multiple identities that ministers must live into–can one be a good, competent minister as well as a good spouse, parent, friend, citizen?  While not the only concern driving the essays features in Still a Mother, in form and function, this type of question is never far from the minds of the writers in this collection of essays by clergy on their very personal experiences of perinatal bereavement.

The essays, chosen by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson, two ministers who include their own stories of unexpected grief and hard choices, represent a significant spectrum of theological and vocational perspectives.  Mennonites and Episcopals, Chaplains and Senior Ministers–all share very personal perspectives on how such loss impacted their lives, relationships and sense of call to ministry.

The essays are unflinchingly honest and detailed, not only often sharing experiences in hospital settings that range from mechanistic to warm, but also clearly mapping out theological dilemmas that emerge for women who live and work as religious leaders while grieving their own losses.  These pastors and priests often find themselves strangers in their own bodies, asking questions about what it means for all of creation to be good when one’s body seems to defy such a notion; and at times, strangers in their own faith traditions, asking what it means to proclaim a God who is loving and just while they grieve children they longed to parent but whose first cries were never heard.

The wide range of experience included in an anthology like Still a Mother does give the pastoral care giver a good sampling of experiences of perinatal bereavement to consider as they consider their own responses.   Kelly Hough Rogers’ essay–which includes struggles with fibroid tumors, infertility, and the loss of a child, tenderly describes her choice to baptize her stillborn son, an act that brings her significant solace in the midst of her grief.  While I would not consider any of the essays in this book cliched, hers in particular resists the tendency of “inspirational” writing to look too quickly for a silver lining, finding healing in an unexpected resolution.

The editors themselves offer incredibly vulnerable narratives: Johnson shares how her grief following miscarriages and her own struggle with cancer interplayed, and Freeman tells a story of choosing to end a pregnancy that was ultimately unviable–a decision that was undoubtedly the right medical decision, but as Freeman indicates, carried some social risk for her and her husband.  Other essays challenged my own understanding of the scope of grief, and others gave me great insight into the role of liturgy and story in healing from this particular type of loss.

On the other hand, the intersection of storytelling and pastoral insight can create blurry moments: do stories of unproven herbal treatments and hypnosis serve readers who may have shaky understandings of science and medicine?  While it’s important to share one’s own journey, does a story told without caveat or qualification turn into an endorsement?  Does pastoral authority undermine the needs of a critical healthcare consumer?

Outside of that, as a book  geared for learning or deepening one’s understanding of pastoral caregiving, Still A Mother hits the right notes. The book is structured nicely–the essays are short enough to be easily digested by a busy student, pastor, or chaplain, and each is accompanied by questions that help inform the reader’s own pastoral practice. It also includes a section with rituals and liturgies, as well as a section of “Do”s and “Don’t”s for spiritual and emotional care.  Caregivers will find new tools here, and those who have experienced perinatal grief will find a virtual community here, perhaps inspiring words for a grief that too often goes unspoken.

Overdue Books: Healing Spiritual Wounds


Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church

Carol Howard Merritt

I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews.  I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts.  These reviews will be appearing in my blog this week.  Also reviewed this week are Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough  and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.

Ten years ago or so, I picked up a copy of Carol Howard Merritt’s Tribal Church. For many of my colleagues in ministry, it was a touchstone book: with clear-eyed analysis and a knack for narrative, Merritt told a story that resonated with a new generation of ministers who brought hopes for more innovative, just, and creative ways of doing church but ran into structures that were often counter-intuitively bureaucratic, oppressively hierarchical, and downright stodgy. As I watch my denominational and ecumenical contemporaries come into their own (we Gen Xers are all at least 40something these days–even Millennials have a hard time calling themselves “Young Adults” anymore!), Tribal Church  is one of a short list of books with lessons that still resonate.  Merritt is a gifted memoirist, but her books always goes beyond her own story.  Such is the case with Healing Spiritual Wounds.

Wounds could not have been an easy book to write.  Merritt tells her own story of a journey from fundamentalist Christianity to a spirituality where “God got bigger.”  She dares to dig into memories that range from uneasy to painful, and she frames her time growing up in a family, church, and Bible college that drew delineations between parent and child, church and member, school and student so sharp that the resulting scars are hardly surprising. Merritt paints the days of her life in fundamentalist Christianity in bold colors:  dress codes and rapture pranks at Moody Bible College pop off the page with wicked attention to humor, and the more hurtful, often violent underbelly of a faith that makes demands without giving nurture comes through with dark clarity.

There is, however, a gorgeous lightness when she tells of her “a-ha” moments that pushed her to a more generous, open, and life-affirming Christian vision.  Serendipitous relationships and hard-won epiphanies–even painful ones–lead Merritt to discover faith-filled alternatives to misogyny, homophobia, supersessionism, and an abusive theological anthropology.

What makes Wounds so unique is that Merritt intertwines pastoral skill with her gift for memoir.  Solid exegesis and history are woven into the narrative, as is a deep care for folks who have taken similar paths. She tells the stories of so many folks she encounters–old friends, neighbors, strangers at parties–and how she has journeyed alongside them as they’ve worked on their own healing as they discover a Christianity so different from that of their fundamentalist childhoods. While Merritt grinds no axes here, she fearlessly confronts the roots of a rage she comes by honestly, and she deftly reminds us that healing is something that must be done intentionally.

Which leads me to the only part of the book that didn’t initially “work” for me.  Each section concludes with an exercise, sometimes directing a journaling discipline, sometimes a private or group liturgy, sometimes a meditation exercise.  I initially bristled at their inclusion, wondering if such exercises take away from the power of a memoir.  I found myself asking what a book like this is for –should we not let stories speak for themselves?  Do such structured exercises distract or augment?

As I reviewed my notes, however, I rethought my reluctance.  Ironically, it was a quote from Merritt’s  evangelism professor at Moody that led me there:

“I know. It’s terrible,” Dr. Fisher, the course professor, said while shaking his head. “You take an evangelism class to talk about evangelism, and here I am going to make you actually do evangelism.”

Perhaps it should have been obvious–this brave book is not simply a memoir of healing, but it’s an invitation to others who’ve found themselves weighed down by the harm that is often done in the name of God.  And Merritt, as theologian, thinker, pastor, and coach, doesn’t just talk about how to begin a new type of faith journey, she sketches a blueprint for the “doing,” too.

Overdue Books: More Than Enough


More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess

Lee Hull Moses

I have a small stack of books for which I’ve promised to write book reviews. I finally made the time to read them and sketch out my thoughts. These reviews will be appearing in my blog over the next week. I’ll also post reviews of  Carol Howard Merritt’s Healing Spiritual Wounds and Still A Mother, edited by Joy Freeman and Tabatha Johnson.

In the middle of sketching some notes on Lee Hull Moses’s More than Enough, the Greek word “Oikos” came to mind.  In addition to being the brand name of a popular type of yogurt, oikos referred to the household, a social cornerstone of the Ancient Greco-Roman World.  As with most words, however, oikos has a life and relevance beyond itself–it’s the root of “ecumenical” and “ecology,” for example. In the literary context of the New Testament, particularly its narrative books, the oikos is often an important place–sacred conversations are held, intimate meals are shared, people are healed, the word is made flesh, all who are gathered catch a glimpse of a world beyond their imagining.

 Oikos came to mind because all of the other phrases that I could come up with to describe Moses’s book–“Public Theology” or “Pastoral Memoir” seemed inadequate.  While More than Enough is both of those things, it seems to me that it is perhaps better described as a theology of the Oikos in both its widest and most intimate meanings. Like a “House Musician,” or “Poet-in-Residence,” Moses writes as a “House Theologian”–weaving insight into what she observes about the spaces she inhabits.

Whether she is writing as a guest in the unfamiliar home of old friends in Nicaragua, balancing the complicated life of parent, pastor, and partner with her own household, or making her way to the State Capitol–A “people’s house” if there ever was one–as part of the North Carolina “Moral Mondays” movement, Hull brings both pastoral self-awareness and theological insight to her own life, her own relationships, and her own call to ministry as she engages a critical question:

How Do We Live Well?

Through her storytelling, Hull invites readers into honest struggles with global inequality, our dual lives as consumers and citizens, and the contradictions of middle-class privilege.  It’s familiar territory for those of us who are constantly juggling our hope for justice with keeping up with our to-do lists. It’s honest, and quite funny– you laugh along with her daughter discovering the delight and power that comes from a protest march, and if you’re like me, you’ll roll your eyes in an all too familiar way when she tells the story of her electronic-banking family scrambling to find a check.

But Moses does she simply serve up comfort food, nor does she offer simple, contrived solutions to big questions.  Instead, she writes like the sort of preacher I learn the most from: She  weaves her own story deftly alongside the scriptures of our tradition, conversation with colleagues and role models of our shared denomination, and insight from innovative ethicists and practitioners, and admits her struggle, even as she points toward possibility. Though she promises, almost apologetically, to not make her readers feel too guilty (A challenge when you also dive deeply into stories of vast economic inequality, considerable injustice, and the sheer busy-ness of American life), her book is at its best when it challenges her readers.

For example, in a chapter on Lament, she announces what sort of book this is not–a journey to self in the pop-psychology sense.  Instead, she gently pushes her readers to embrace how relationship, community, and justice are part of answering the question of living well. She even includes her own lament at the end of the chapter. She nails the power of the form, articulating a word of hope for a world that desperately needs it. The Prophet Moses is indeed in the house.

Pointing toward a rich abundance that’s hard to quantify, but easily named in those not-quite-ordinary moments that happen more often than we might assume, More than Enough stirs the prophetic imagination, waking up our households, calling us to embrace the bigger joy and the grander hope.