Okay, but why?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks 

I remember my 13-year-old self sitting on the altar of a small Southern Baptist church. The altar was brown, carpeted steps. A woman who had shown me incredible kindness sat with me. She was holding my hand. I was wracked with sadness and sobs. She listened to me as I told her about the divorces, the turmoil in my family, the fear that I was not normal (that meant queer, but I didn’t yet have the words for that). She listened. She leaned in. She cared.

After I shared, she opened her Bible and I remember her taking me through “The Roman Road”. I spent most of the time listening for Roman to show up in the story line. The Roman character never made an appearance.

The Roman Road is a fundamentalist evangelical tool often used in explaining the “Plan of Salvation”. I would come to know that well later, but for that moment, I didn’t understand any of it.

This is pretty much how the many conversations would go:

Nice lady (NL): When Eve took that apple and decided to eat from the tree, sin entered the world. We needed a path back to God and we get that through Jesus.

Perplexed 13 y/o Davin (PD): Well, why did God make that tree then?

NL: God wanted us to choose Him. When we don’t we invite sin into our lives and we need salvation.

PD: I don’t get it. If I poisoned candy and put it in a kid’s room, wouldn’t that mean I poisoned the kid if the kid ate it?

NL: blinking with a minorly irritated look.

Our session ended for that day. Two weeks later the nice lady tried again. Same place, ready to dig in, Bible between us.

NL: Okay so please remember that we chose sin.

PD: Yeah, but God kinda made that happen, right? Why did he put that tree there?

NL: Because God wanted us to choose Him.

PD: What? Why?

NL: Because he loves us and wants us to love him.

PD: Then why didn’t he leave out the tree that would ruin everything?

Our session ended again.

We met more and I had many questions:
Why did God make Lucifer if He knew that he would turn into Satan?
Who was Cain afraid of? Wasn’t it just him, Abel, Eve and Adam in the world? Who was Cain afraid would harm him when he was cast out of the garden?
If God made us and the tree of good and evil, isn’t that kinda passive aggressive?
She sighed a lot in those visits.

I was a teenager who just discovered faith community.
I liked the church a lot.
I liked the people.
I liked the adults who worked in the youth group.
I kept coming back and the nice lady kept trying to help me understand why I needed salvation in the form of repentance.

After many sessions with her, I was willing to admit I was a sinner, admit Jesus died for my sins, profess my belief in Christ, invite Jesus into my heart and promise to walk a path of faith, sharing the Good News. This is called a few things in literal, evangelical Christianity: being born again, getting saved, turning my life over to Jesus. Once I was in, I was in. The questions went away and I was determined to be the next Billy Graham.

Much of my theology in those days was slathered with fear and shame. I passed that on to those who took time to listen to my conversion messages. I was going to make sure Heaven was full and Hell was empty.

I was zealous and I was persistent. I was also very scared, brokenhearted, shame-filled and sad. The church kept me busy so my heart didn’t feel so very alone.

I was always angry back then. If you had to find me in a crowd, you could simply look for the kid with arms crossed over their chest, glowering, glaring, guarded and grrrrrr…

All the while I pushed people away, I was super offended when they did not talk to me. Hurt people often long for what they desperately try to convince others they don’t need.

I was creating an emotional wall; I was a teenage emotional construction worker with endless mortar and bricks: Sob the Builder.

There’s reasons for that wall. There’s reasons for everything we think, feel and do. Behavior is to meet a need, or at least a perception of a need. We spend so much time judging actions we rarely think about what is behind those actions. We rarely are compassionate with ourselves.

Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time or else they wouldn’t do it. My fortress was built for a reason. It kept the bad out, but then it started keeping EVERYTHING out.

If I ever write a memoir I will call it “Well, that didn’t work.” And we still try again.

It’s comfortable to think in black and white because there is certainty there. It’s super hard when you let in the colorful world of all sorts of living and needing. It changes everything.

The option of truly being present with someone and learning who they are without an agenda to change them is the only way we get to have honest relationship. I didn’t get that concept for much of my life. I wanted the world to bend, not for me to bend. That’s how brokenness happens, in the not bending and the demanding it be different.

2016 has been awful for me and many I love. It has been the worst year of my life for sure. It also has been a very rich year. I have felt loved more often than not. I have given love more freely than I have in any other year. And 2016 was still the worst ever for me.

I am not someone who believes life’s trials are there to make you a better person. I don’t believe it is orchestrated in that way. I do believe, though, in every situation that sorrow exists, we can see aspects of living we never would have noticed without the sorrow. I don’t believe sorrow exists as a life lesson. I think it’s just part of life and what we choose to do with it determines a lot.

It’s been almost a year since I was harmed through sexual assault and there have been oh so many layers of pain my family and I have walked through. It has been horrendous and it has been illuminating. It has been heartbreaking and it has been healing. For me, what makes it or breaks it is my willingness to engage life in hard times vs run, run, run!

Engaging in life requires some courage when everything within wants to retreat. When that’s my reality I take the absolute smallest inching forward I can muster to just stay in the world, stay in my life. I have to get open, drop the mortar and brick, and choose to live in the elements, responding to life and love as it comes and as I co-create it. Dear ones, we are creating our inner world as we participate in life. I want my inner world to be a sanctuary and refuge.

The idea of refuge reminds me of my younger brother who tells a story that when he was about 19 years old or so, his AC busted and he had to have more windows and doors open at night to keep cool. He did this regularly in the apartment he lived in so he had adjusted and slept well most of the time.

One morning he gradually woke from sleep with the cat on his belly. He petted her, she purred and nuzzles. Then the slow dawning: “I don’t have a cat.” Yup. A random cat decided to sleep on my brother’s belly.

I love picturing this story playing out. It’s awesome, funny, and it highlights my gentle brother who awakes with welcome.

What I really love most, though, is the cat. The cat went all rogue and decided this house was as good as any and my brother’s warm belly was just the stuff this felonious cat needed to get a good rest.

What’s hurting within you? What’s preventing you from welcoming warmth and companionship into the core of who you are? What is this fortress you are building? What is keeping you from the wander and the wonder that may lead to new relationship?  What is the smallest inching forward you can muster today to answer the pain with hopeful forward momentum?

Whatever it is, I promise you this: the pain you feel in that place is made worse with isolation and vigilance. Peace to your precious, scared heart and peace to your amazing, enduring spirit.

We all have the “why” questions. Keep that up! The questions are beautiful and welcomed. The altar is within you as you seek your heart out.

Knowing this and living this is my road to salvation.

Theology of the Nursery

by Karen Richter

This blog is dedicated to all church nursery staff and volunteers! You too are loved!

Where is faith birthed?

What early experiences correlate to a lifetime of prayer and service?

What opportunities are we overlooking or missing or failing to maximize for congregational vitality?

These are the questions that occupy me, especially on my commute to and from Shadow Rock UCC. As a parent and as a church staffer in the area of faith formation, these are crucial inquiries.

A couple of years ago, we were struggling with a mid-week after-school program. So many families couldn’t commit to regular attendance, and adult volunteers available 4 pm to 6 pm on a Wednesday were hard to find. For a time, we had a low-key program with several activity centers that required minimal adult direction. Different and often more cynical questions were asked: are social and play-oriented activities worth investing in? what kinds of experiences do kids need in the midst of the school week? where’s the proper balance between relationship-building and content for children’s faith programming?

In the end, we discontinued the program, but the period of questioning bore fruit for me. A vision for what children must experience in their spiritual community emerged: Church is where people love me.

I’ll say it again: Church is where people love me.

Church is where I am LOVED.

These wacky people really care about me!

When my teenage son was a wee Cub Scout, he got a little note from a church member congratulating him on a successful scout food drive. Under her signed name, she wrote (one of the church people you probably don’t really know). When I asked him about it, he said, “Of course I know who that is. She says hello to me every week.”

All of the life of faith, all service and care of people and creation, and all growth in faith, understanding and spirituality – the whole of what we do! – hang on this kind of experience. There will be time later to learn Psalm 23 and the Beatitudes, time for skits about Jesus calling the fishermen, even time for wrestling with Romans chapter 8.

But it starts in the nursery. The warm safety of the place, the gentle hands of nursery workers and volunteers, the opportunity to make connections and first friendships… for babies and toddlers, it’s their first Sunday learning.

So this week, show some appreciation and gratitude to those people who make this wonderment happen. Hug a nursery person. They might be a little sticky (or worse!), but it’s worth it.

Making Peace With Thanksgiving

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons

There is nothing sinful about gathering as a family or with friends to eat a meal steeped in tradition and memories. God isn’t against football. Remember that there are people in the world who don’t have life as good as we do, and to do something nice for them, seems like a pretty good idea – dare I even say religious. Why, then, did I feel so guilty every fourth Thursday in November?

As a child I felt suspicious of the Pilgrims. There was something fundamentally unfair about strangers arriving in a new land and taking it away from the people who lived there first. A teacher’s, “Well, we’re here now so don’t worry about it,” only confirmed I was on to something. As much as I liked the day with my family, I knew families who wouldn’t be together because of the war (Viet Nam back then). When we got back to school I could tell from their silence when the rest of us compared pie counts and turkey sizes, I had friends who couldn’t have the feast my family enjoyed.

Growing up taught me a new word for my uneasiness: privilege. It didn’t help. Nor did it help to discover that the only truth in the first Thanksgiving story was that there were Pilgrims, there were Indians, and there was a celebration.  As far as we know the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims never repeated their celebration. No one much thought about what happened that autumn in 1621 for 200 years. The details most of us learned in elementary school about what our teachers called ‘the first Thanksgiving’ were little more than the creation of Jane G. Austin in her 1889 historical novel Standish of Standish. Thanksgiving observances and rituals had been part of American Indian culture for thousands of years. Spanish colonists held a thanksgiving mass in St. Augustine, FL in 1565, and celebrated thanksgiving with Manso Indians near present day El Paso TX in 1598. French Huguenots observed a thanksgiving celebration in 1564 in what is now Jacksonville FL. English colonists had celebrated thanksgiving in New England in 1607, 1610, and 1619.  

While the story of the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving has remained relatively consistent since then, the roles of the Pilgrims and the Indians have been re-written time and again to reflect the crisis or the mood or the prejudices of the country. The Indians were hardly mentioned during the western expansion. The Pilgrims of World War 2 were hardy war-winners whose victory came from God. According to Look Magazine, the Pilgrims of the 1960s were “dissidents” and “commune builders.” How is a someone supposed to make peace with a holiday that seems always to be reinventing itself? And when I discovered that the Wampanoag people today observe a day of mourning on the day we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the pain they experienced at the hands of the doctrine of discovery, well… I needed to make peace with this holiday!  

From the doctrine of the trinity to debates about the jurisdiction of the church in matters of marriage, Puritans held deep convictions about how to practice their faith, convictions out of step with the Church of England. In any religious movement there are always zealots. Puritan zealots were called Separatists. For them there was no compromise, and no value to reform-from-within. When the Scrooby Puritan Separatist congregation emigrated illegally to the Netherlands they thought religious freedom would complete their sense of well-being. But the society that afforded them freedom of religious expression also afforded others that same freedom. They worried about the moral influences of what they considered a corrupt and permissive culture. The Scrooby congregants were not skilled in ways that permitted them to participate successfully in their new economy. Poverty and deep concerns about providing for themselves in their old age took center stage. 37 of them, along with 65 adventurers recruited by the voyage’s financiers, decided to pursue a what they hoped would be a better life in the new world.

Those passengers and crew were unprepared to endure the winter of 1620 aboard a ship anchored in Provincetown Harbor. By harvest 1621, half of the passengers had died, including 14 of the 18 married women. Of the 53 passengers remaining nearly half were children and teens, and the adults were mostly widowers, only 3 of whom were over age 40.

That anyone survived was due to the intervention of the Wampanoag people, specifically a Patuxet named Tisquantum. After a 14-year odyssey as a slave, a story worthy of its own telling, Tisquantum returned to his homeland only to find his people had fallen victim to a plague, the origin of which was most likely European traders. Evidence proves Tisquantum’s duplicity when dealing with Wampanoag and Pilgrims alike, but motives aside, he attended to the well-being of the Plimoth (the Pilgrim’s spelling) colonists.

Thanksgivings in Puritan tradition were solemn religious occasions. This is the only paragraph – 112 words – that we have from eyewitnesses:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

In today’s terms what the participants recorded about that event some 400 years ago reads more like what historian Robert Tracy McKenzie calls a week of “beer and barbecue, shooting and sports.” There turned out to be twice as many Indians as many as there were Pilgrims. Nothing like a good time to attract the neighbors! The scene reads like the typical human response to prolonged pain. Enough already – let’s party! After everything they had been through the survivors seem to have needed something to celebrate. And so they made the most of the legitimate reasons at hand to feel relief and gladness and gratitude, and to lay aside the concerns of the day at least for awhile. They needed to recover their sense of well-being.

The real story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is a story about the human quest for well-being. Christians have a word for that. The word is peace. We also have a word for how far people are willing to go to secure the welfare of others. Jesus called that peacemaking.

I have finally made my peace with Thanksgiving. No more trying to force a secular peg into a religious hole. The one-day observance we call Thanksgiving will be forever a secular holiday for me. No more outrage in God’s name about retailers opening at midnight Thursday; I choose to express my outrage in the name of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and others! Even in a secular world families’ well-being trumps corporate profits or personal savings.

My faith, like that of the Pilgrims, teaches me that gratitude is not a holiday to be celebrated but a discipline to be practiced each day at all times in every circumstance.

My faith teaches me to say I am sorry for wrongs done against others even when my ancestors did them, especially if it leads to reconciliation with others. Thanksgiving for me will forever be a day I stand in solidarity with the Indigenous People of this land as they mourn what they’ve lost, what my ancestors stole from them.

My faith teaches me that more important than the thanks I offer to God for my blessings is the thanks that someone else will offer to God because I have used my life to attend to, advocate for, and in any way I can, supply them with a greater sense of well-being.  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them [even on Thanksgiving], “Go in peace [or Happy Thanksgiving]; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” (2 Cor 9:11) 

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”  Oh how that lesson has played out these past few weeks. While Thanksgiving is the occasion that brings us together, we have a more urgent need. Tonight there are people in our world who are not living in peace. So tonight I ask you to embrace a more complex celebration of Thanksgiving, one in which you strive to put words of gratitude on the lips of someone else by improving their personal well-being. In these frightening and uncertain times people are looking what our brand of Christianity is offering. We are the purveyors of well-being – hope, safety, sanctuary, meaning, dignity and love.  Let us join one another on the narrow path that is peacemaking.  Amen.

Hope of Seeds

by Abigail Conley

My church is kicking off a stewardship campaign this week. We chose the theme, “From seeds to fruit.” Today, I finished up posters with images of those steps. Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about seeds.

I grew up on a farm, with a father who worked at a farm supply store. I remember being in the back of the store with giant bins of seeds. I’m pretty sure most people, when they think of seeds, think of the kind you plant. They think of seeds that create corn, beans and pumpkins. They think of seeds that are distinct. They think of seeds that can often be eaten or planted.

When I think of seeds, though, I think of the tiny ones that are sown. Sowing seeds sounds so eloquent, biblical even. In reality, it’s far more chaotic. Seeds that are sown are tiny, and more or less strewn into rows, or maybe seedbeds, or small pots. They’re never carefully placed like seeds of larger varieties. The tiny seeds that would be sown were the ones that filled up the bins in the back of the farm store of my childhood. I never got my fill of running my hands through them. My dad knew what each one was, of course. Many of them were grass seeds. I remember the way they flowed through my hands, softer, silkier than any fabric could ever be.

Believing those tiny seeds could produce anything was an act of faith. The seeds were so tiny, no one was even worried about the ones that spilled onto the ground when they were bagged for a customer. Of course, I recall Jesus’ words, “…faith the size of a mustard seed…”

Those of us who live apart from the rhythm of sowing or planting, waiting, and harvesting, miss out a little. We miss out on the beauty of a small plant peeking out of the ground. We miss out on the worry of too much or too little water. We miss out on the goodness of going out and picking our food to eat that very night. We miss out on that rhythm that offers a deep hope in the order of the world. It is a rhythm nearly as old as humanity, after all.

So I think about seeds, seeds that point to that rhythm, and let my body grow calm and my mind cease its worry. The anxieties of life run deep for me, as they do for most of us. There are many things to be done in my own life—and after all, if not me, who? I wait for an election days away, wondering if the outcome drastically alters my life. As they should, my friends remind me of the things I shouldn’t let slip from my view because they are the things of God. They are voting early in suffragette white. They drive by the places where people of color were killed, forgotten by most only days later. They call me to vigils for those things and others, like domestic violence, one of those things that is supposed to draw our awareness this month.

I know they struggle to remember those things, too, among jobs, and marriages, children to take care of, and babies on the way.  

And I remember seeds.

I trust in the promise that they hold: our future is full of hope. Some days, that hope is evident, like a bit of green breaking the dirt for the first time. Some days, that hope is realized, like the bite of an apple when the first hint of cool is in the air.

And some days, that hope is buried beneath the earth, waiting. Just waiting. The rhythm of life long established will take over at any time, as holy as God’s ordering of the world in the first days of creation.

So today, I think about seeds.

One Big Idea

(reprinted with permission from a Facebook post by Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World)

Ten years ago, in Christianity for the Rest of Us, I shared a vision of institutional church renewed by vibrant spirituality. That vision emerged from three sources: 1) my own experience, 2) dreaming of a different sort of church, and 3) solid research.

Community renewed by vibrant spirituality. That’s the dream. That’s the big idea. An old idea. But an idea that needs new life today when institutions and communities are struggling and can’t find their way.

It is really pretty simple. Christianity for the Rest of Us was about spirituality embodied in practices — ten beautiful practices of faith. Communities that found new heart by choosing to do good.

People’s History of Christianity was about the same thing — the life of institutions being renewed through vibrant spirituality — this time, it was about the life-giving power of those practices throughout history as the real “thread” of faith, a living tradition. The heartbeat of Christianity at its best.

Christianity After Religion argued that the future depends on us getting this right — that spiritual experience and touching the holy is not only a path to renewing the church but is part of a larger story about the renewing of our culture — an awakening.

And Grounded opens the door to spiritual experience,”storied” by religious traditions, as a path to full humanity and renewal of the earth.

That’s it. One big idea: the whole point is experiencing the power of the sacred, of trusting and following the Spirit as it moves toward love of God and neighbor. Of eyes open, awake to love and joy, hearts “strangely warmed.” And if we do this, we can get across the dangerous chasm of our times and find ourselves on the other side of a bridge — the side where there is more love for the earth, more love for each other, a kind of community that can be accepting and peaceable. We can set a bigger table for the future. It is real.

One idea.

One idea that has called my heart since I was a child. One idea shared in speech and story. But not my idea. It is OUR idea. For so many thousands and thousands and thousands of us know this idea in our bones, we’ve ached for it, prayed for it, worked for it. One idea of justice and grace and goodness in a renewed way in transformed community.

And we can measure our progress. Not by attendance, but by measuring the spread of the conversation, by tracking things like spiritual depth, gratitude, awareness of awe and wonder, and our understandings of meaning and purpose of our lives (for instance, Pew “measures” these things in polling). We can figure out if we are successful by framing the questions differently, by looking for alternative forms of “success” and transformation. We can do this — there are ways of introducing these ideas into communities and congregations and discerning the changes in people’s lives.

And it is lovely. It is a way full of stories, laughter, unexpected surprises, everyday heroes, tragic mistakes — it is like living the play we are writing — everyday enacting grace in the world’s theater. It is magic. It is the greatest drama, comedy, farce, thriller, ballad, and romance ever.

And it is hope. Hope, hope, hope.

Do NOT give up. The current ugliness is because the greater vision beckons, the new possibilities are closer than ever. A more hospitable world, a more just humanity. It isn’t about fixing the church. It is about renewing our life together — and our life with the planet — by experiencing God with us.

Answers Will Vary

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I heard the whispers. I saw the quiet exchanges between the ones in the know. I watched this play out among the most powerful of my peers. They knew something and I was going to find out what that was. Information is power.

I waited.

I knew it was just a matter of time until one of them slipped up and told me what they knew.

Yeah. That’s right.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.

I mean, did they think I was born yesterday?


They gave in within an hour and I didn’t even have to ask them anything. They came to me as I sat in my converted office which doubled as a jungle gym what with us being in the second grade and all.

The secret was a good one! It. Blew. My. Mind. Each word they shared was better than the last. Ready for the secret?

The answers to the odd numbered math problems are in the back of the textbook. Just sitting there, waiting for us to use them. Talk about a #lifehack, this was golden.

Take a minute to catch your breath. That was a lot to take in.

As a kid who turned in every math assignment with several worn holes in the paper from my  baffled work that had to be erased and gone over again and again, this was music to my ears. This was evidence that I was obviously on God’s good person list with this piece of info! I was blissful.

I put this new knowledge to use immediately, finishing my math word problems assignment in 2.25 minutes, just a mere 27.75 minutes from my usual. Nothing suspicious here.

I marched up, handed that work to Mrs. Johnson and waited for her accolades. I was baffled when I saw her put that red pen to use. She handed it back with a big fat “0” at the top of the page. Looking back I should have likely been suspicious when most of the problems shared the exact same solution which was: “Answers Will Vary”.

Sigh. I may have peaked in the second grade.

There’s a joke meme that I have posted on my Facebook page in the past that reads “It turns out being an adult is mostly just googling how to do stuff.” Most people read the first three sentences when they search something on Wikipedia and that’s it. Most of us take in absolutely overly simplified explanations and act as though we have a PhD on the topic.

Seven-year old me just wanted the boring parts over with so I could get back to doing what I wanted to do. It was a very basic thinking pattern. Math boring; must stop. I can do that by copying all the answers in the book and move on from this moment.

This type of thinking makes sense in a seven year old, but far less sense in a 37-year-old. And yet when I was 37, I found myself wanting the quick answer while I was waiting to hear if I got a position I had interviewed for and very much wanted.

I turned to the internet like it was a magic 8-ball and knew everything. I searched online using this question: “Am I going to get the job?” And I searched this on several different search engine sites as though each may reveal more of my future… the things we do in lieu of feeling always surprises me.

I knew it was silly as I did it. The questioning allowed me to do something with all that nervous energy and I found it amusing. That was the payoff of doing this search. What it didn’t do, though, was yield a definitive answer or help me in anyway.

In my life, I have observed many times that the insistence of an immediate answer leaves me feeling empty when I get it. This is usually because I wasn’t asking the true question that would assist in meeting my needs. I was just trying to distract myself until I knew the outcome. It is a fear-based way of being for me.

Ultimately, the thing I was looking for most that day was an assurance that I was worthy of such a job and that I would be okay if I didn’t get it. Evidently the internet has yet to produce the self esteem and affirmation we long for, available by clicking a link. Give it a year. The internet has been busy with the election, after all.

I am a person of faith who has chosen to walk a Christian path. That’s never really varied for me, even when I lost a faith community after coming out as a queer, gender diverse person, I knew this was still my path. The way I understand and live into the call as a Christian has changed but my willingness to walk a Christian path has never wavered.

I spent most of my early life developing a belief system that I had all the answers and humanity needed me to tell them. I had the solution and they needed it. I have spent the last 16 years of my life letting that go and opening myself to the mystery and wonder that comes with living and being in the world, among each other, seeking love, seeking life, seeking Spirit.

When I do not have the answers, I get to do some things that are pretty great: I get to replace the closed-fisted certainty with an open handed wonderment. I get to hear your experiences and allow them to expand my sense of who God is and who we are in relation to God. I get to stop faking it when I just don’t know what to do with suffering. I get to be authentic and a person of faith.

I used to think that faith was the goal God laid out for me, as though the searching would give me an object to hold up and say “See what I got? Isn’t it shiny? Isn’t it amazing? I win!” Faith was to be obtained.

There was such a massive arrogance to how I thought about the role of faith and my call in that. A few minutes with me back then would have you asking, “Is it getting smuggy in here?” Yea. I brought the smug.

My faith was aggressive absolutism that I lived in as though I was waiting to get to the afterlife and say, “See, I told you!” I have learned that when the motivation is to be right the action I am taking is likely wrong.

Parables are the original word problems for Christians and none yield a direct answer. Jesus used juxtaposition regularly to get us out of the data and into the questions. Faith isn’t the ultimate answer to who God is and who I am to God. Faith was never the destination. Faith is the vehicle of how I get to live with you in the world and how I get to understand what love is and what love isn’t. It’s not to be obtained, it is for us to make use of in  our seeking God.

What a mistake we make flipping furiously to the answers. What a mistake we make thinking the supplied answer was ever the point of the work. What a mistake we make when we allow an answer to snuff out wonderment.

I have had such a sense of relief when I realized the whole point of this assignment of life isn’t in deriving the answer and arriving at faith.

Faith is the pencil.

Faith is the paper.

Faith is the eraser.

Faith is what we get to use to figure and wonder at the questions that come in living.

I want answers often, especially recently for this season I have lived in. Here’s where I hurt myself in that wanting of answers: when I mistake having a stark and clear answer for a spiritual solution, I am left empty. Answers aren’t all that filling or satisfying when I hunger for relationship with God and with others. When I can replace answers with wonderment my spirit is strengthened and bolstered. Wonderment is life giving.

I have found my most honest words and thoughts I have had when faced with life’s questions are on paper riddled and marred with my attempts, stained with all my tries and mistakes. That is the clearest evidence of my willingness to engage in the questions. Those questions are all the same in front of each of us. All the big life questions cut across all aspects of humanity no matter the culture or language. We are all grappling with making sense of the world around us. That’s the work. That’s the living. And I guarantee, if we really do the hard work, our answers will vary. They were meant to by design.

Faith Nonetheless

by Kenneth McIntosh

It would seem that in recent news there’s something happening to make almost everyone afraid. Gun violence in general, the Pulse nightclub massacre, and killings connected with racism, are all viscerally upsetting. Political stakes have never seemed higher, with voters on the left and the right portraying the upcoming presidential race as near-apocalyptic in its possible outcome. Even before these recent events, Time Magazine, at the start of this year, published an article titled “Why Americans are More Afraid Than They Used to Be.” It included terrorism as a cause, along with “the politics of fear” (the trend for politicians to invoke fear as motivation for their causes). They add that the widespread loss of trust in government (on all sides) leads to the perception that citizens must handle threats increasingly by themselves — adding to the sense of anxiety.

Christians in mainline denominations have a well-established and laudable reaction to fear; we redouble efforts for justice. This certainly reflects Jesus’ priority to “seek first the Reign of God, and God’s justice.” There’s a risk, however, in passionate involvement even for thoroughly good causes—activists can fall prey to the same fears and anxieties that afflict persons who are not involved in justice work—and when that happens, people of faith lose their distinctive witness.

In uncertain times, belief in the Living God can counterbalance the temptation to fear and its attendant maladies (such as anger, desperation, withdrawal and poor judgement). Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, wrote about how his wife would teach adult classes the meaning of faith by asking them “How many of you have taught a child to swim?” Borg then notes that “Faith … is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being.” He goes on to explain “The opposite of trust is not doubt or disbelief…its opposite is ‘anxiety’ or ‘worry.” He concludes “Growth in faith as trust casts out anxiety.”

More recently, John Cobb, the famous process theologian, released his book Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed. Cobb laments that misunderstandings of God’s nature have led many liberal Christians to eschew robust faith in the Deity that Jesus followed. The unfortunate result is that such a religion “rarely challenges its members to devote themselves to God.” Cobb understands the problems that have led believers to eschew God-talk. The list of these problems includes: claims of God’s absolute omnipotence, lack of compassion, scientific unreasonableness, and exclusivity. But these problems—he says—are not attributes of Jesus’s Abba God. We need to relate to God with the same manner of faith we see in Jesus, because The pressing issues of our world require actions that will be “hard to achieve without the belief in the One who is, or relates to, the whole and is felt worthy of our total devotion.”

In Luke 18:1, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (NRSV). This seems a timely word for our situation today. We need to keep our focus on the reality of God, who is present in the rough-and-tumble physicality of our world and is constantly working to create openings for grace and redemption. Accompanying such a focus, we need to remain steadfast in time-honored practices of prayer and contemplation that keep us “tuned in” to God. The stories of faith in our Scriptures include the presence of great evil, of intolerance, and of dire injustice. We should not be surprised to see the same powers and principalities at work in our world today; and by the same token we should expect to see Abba God powerfully at work in our midst. When fear and discouragement knock at our door we can reply “we have faith in God, nonetheless.”

Love Manifesto

by Karen MacDonald

In the midst of a disheartening, divisive election season, the last few days have brought even more disgust and deep dismay.

A Stanford University student who raped a young woman for “only” 20 minutes last year was given a 6-month jail sentence, and he could be released after 3 months for good behavior.  Good behavior?!

On Friday in Orlando, FL, a young woman singer was shot by a man who came to her concert for that purpose, and she died shortly after.

In the early hours of this morning in Orlando, a young man walked into a LGBT nightclub with a handgun and an AR-15 assault rifle and massacred at least 50 patrons, injuring at least 50 more.

What the —– is going on?

As a woman, a defense mechanism, literally, is to recognize that I and my sisters are always potential targets of male power.  As a lesbian woman, I know full well that I and my queer sisters and brothers, for all the legal progress being made, are still despised by many.  It would be easy to put up a wall or to lash out or to pre-judge everyone harshly.  It would be easy—and it would be deadly, to my spirit and to our communal life, to life itself.

Among many diverse spiritual sages over the centuries, Jesus taught another way.  “Love your enemies.”  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Our spiritual sages keep pointing us to what our spirits already know deep down—love is the only way.  That takes faith and courage and community.  

And it probably takes anger.  And weeping.  Both of those emotions are evidence that the way things are isn’t the way we want it to be.  We don’t want hatred and fear and violence.  So we weep when it seems like those things are holding sway, because our hearts are breaking.  So we get angry at the suffering we humans continue to perpetrate, because we can be and do so much better.

And then we channel the energy that rises in weeping and anger to act for wholeness, for peace; we act in love.  That will mean resisting powers-that-be, in politics, in economics, even in religious institutions, heck, maybe even in our families.  Just make sure that our acting, our speaking, our resisting is done in a spirit of open-heartedness, rather than vengeance or defensiveness.  

What’s going on?  Let’s make sure love is going on….and on….and on…….

Review – Nomad: A spirituality for travelling light

by Ryan Gear

Brandan Robertson has written a book, just released in the UK, that any spiritually searching, thoughtful person can appreciate. This includes evangelicals, the expression of Christianity with which Brandan identifies. Contrary to some who have questioned their faith, Nomad is an honest story of a spiritual journey that has not left the author cynical. Brandon can’t be smugly written off with a label. There is no hint of academic elitism in his writing. He has not forsaken the Bible or become “just another one of those liberals.”

It’s clear from reading Nomad that Brandan loves God and the Scriptures and that he simply brave enough to say (or write) what many evangelicals are too afraid to admit… they have questions.

I first heard Brandan’s story when he shared it on a Sunday morning with the church I founded, One Church in Chandler, Arizona (onechurch.com). I can personally attest to his humble spirit and the grace that he writes about so beautifully in chapter 13. Brandon is not angry or vindictive. He is a loving, open-minded, young man who is an inspiration to anyone who wants to work out her or his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

In the early chapters, Brandan tells his story of coming to faith in Christ in a high-octane fundamentalist KJV-only church when he was a teenager. He was so hungry to grow in his new relationship with Christ that he watched Charles Stanley before going to school in the morning. The church was a new family for him that modeled some level of love and healing in contrast to his hurting and dysfunctional family. Searching for belonging, he took on the same Bible-thumping ethos as his newly adopted church family. He began a teen evangelism, winning souls for Jesus and preaching against the Religious Right’s common enemies, abortion and homosexuality.

But then…


Chapter 6 is the turning point of Nomad and of Brandan’s life. I love Brandan’s description of his first encounter with doubt while watching a History Channel Easter special at 13 years old (58). He was terrified that Jesus may not have been raised from the dead, but at 13, sobbed with relief at the fact that the Gospel of Matthew reported otherwise. Still in early teens, Brandan absorbed his church’s commitment to biblical inerrancy, but the doctrine would not go unquestioned forever.

Brandan addresses the common conservative evangelical conundrums of biblical contradictions, Bible class questions, and the favorite apologetics buzz phrase “absolute truth.” I was reminded of how tortured I felt as a teenager trying to make the Bible a cohesive document, like a term paper dropped out of heaven.

He identifies with so many serious-minded young evangelicals who learn to become intellectual circus acrobats as they try to harmonize Bible verses that clearly contradict one another. In fact, the term contradiction carries negative connotations, while the Bible is actually a collection of books, a library, and no one expects every book in a library to agree on every topic. The biblical books are more like a conversation, sometimes even an argument, than a term paper.

Later in his teens, Brandan bravely and honestly acknowledged his questions. He writes, “The beliefs that we once held to be absolute and certain suddenly become subjective and unclear. The answers that we once held to so tightly dissolve and new, terrifying questions emerge” (56-57).

In my own experience, once a crack of intellectual honesty appears in the dam, it won’t be long before a flood of questions rush through, breaking apart what was once thought to be an immoveable concrete wall. Honestly acknowledging the first question begins the journey of the spiritual nomad.

Brandon then relays his story of discovery, becoming acquainted with church history and the ancient rhythms of a spiritual life that were ignored in his conservative evangelical church. He studied Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. He became aware of a new world of Christian history, belief, and practice.

He points out what many evangelicals are becoming aware of, that Christianity is much larger than one particular Baptist-y megachurch, and in fact, evangelical megachurches are still a minority in global Christianity:

“In the churches I grew up in, there was absolutely no sense of tradition or a broader narrative we participated in. Instead, we focused on our communities’ autonomy and God’s unique work in our midst. We were rarely connected to other churches in the area because all of us were focused on creating our own unique style and brand of Christianity” (83).

In chapter 11, the second major movement of Nomad is Brandan’s discovery of his fluid sexuality in his late teens. Of course, this is the current hot button issue in the U.S., and within American Christianity, one’s full acceptance or non-acceptance of LGBTQ persons is the litmus test of one’s orthodoxy.

Sadly, there will be evangelicals who write off Brandan’s spiritual journey due to their judgment of his sexuality. This is tragic, and one that will ultimately count as their loss. Brandon is a sweet-spirited, grace-filled evangelist who will likely lead a megachurch in the future. His humble and loving presence will win over many detractors, but unfortunately, some will not even give Brandan or Nomad the chance.

Those who do will discover an inspiring leader and communicator who does his best to live out his understanding of the Eucharist in chapter 12. It is one of the simplest and best descriptions of the Gospel you will read:

“The first was that at the Table of the Lord where the Eucharist was served, all people are equal… For one moment of time, all of us stood on level ground. All our prejudices and biases were forced to fade into the background. We came together as one broken but connected body in need of grace” (113).

“The Eucharist also reminded early believers of a second truth – the pattern of life that they were to live. When Christ commanded us to do this ritual ‘to remember and proclaim his death until he comes again’, he was asking us to remember the way of life that he lived and to follow him in it” (114).

The remaining chapters of Nomad, “Grace,” “Journey,” and “Wonder” offer practical examples of how Brandan attempts to live this eucharistic lifestyle. He tells a stirring story of reconciling with his abusive father after his father’s arrest and release. Brandan finishes his story with an invitation to journey through the questions, citing that the narrative arc of Scripture is one of a journey, and the only way to travel is with an attitude of wonder.

At its heart, Brandan’s honest sharing of his journey is an invitation to all readers, not to necessarily begin a new spiritual journey, but to be honest about the journey they are already on.

5 Bad Theologies You Might Be Living Out

by Karen Richter

I taught a class a couple of years ago called Everyday Theology.

The main idea for the class was that we are always living out our theology. With every little decision, we are revealing what we value and the concepts we believe to be true. The most interesting part of the class was talking about and revealing some concepts that are not based in reality – what I am calling here ‘Bad Theologies.’

Of course, I’m using the word theology to mean something both bigger and more mundane that the academic discipline of study about God. By theology, I mean those often invisible ideas and assumptions that permeate our thinking about what is real, how we know what we know, and how we are must live. I hope you’ll get a feel for what I mean by exploring this Buzzfeed-style Top 5 list.

1. Cheap Karma

Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about Cheap Grace… in my own parlance, this is a way of misunderstanding God’s grace that ends up meaning that everything is just okie dokie. Cheap karma is similar in that it takes a religious concept that has value and turns it into a greeting card.

Cheap Karma is that idea that good things happen to people who do good things. The corollary is more dangerous – that bad things happen to people who do bad things.

Occasionally, it works (maybe just often enough to reinforce our cognitive prejudices): you are cut off in traffic by a person driving dangerously and a mile later you see them pulled over by the highway patrol. “Ha! Karma!” you think. But the idea that you do good things for a reward is really awful.

Plus, there are lots of people suffering in the world that surely don’t deserve it. Karma of course is a Hindu belief that the universe works in logical, cause-and-effect ways over many years and many, many lifetimes. Cheap karma is just a “what comes around, goes around” falsehood.

I lost my phone last summer at SeaWorld with my Girl Scout troop. My co-leader (a lovely non-traditionally spiritual person) suggested that we might think positively, sending good vibes to the universe that would bring my phone back to me. I explained that my philosophy is more akin to “it is what it is” and our spirituality consists of our response to life as it is. We had our different responses to the minor crisis of my lost phone. Maybe chance; maybe my friend’s good vibes… but a kind person shipped my phone to me the next week. So it’s possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about regarding Cheap Karma.

2. American Exceptionalism

I won’t say too much about this one, except that if you think the USA is somehow a shining city on a hill on a mission from God… you need to pay closer attention. My first exposure to this Bad Theology was in high school when an evangelical youth pastor explained to me that America is now God’s Chosen People. Even at that tender age, I could smell something.

Because it’s an election year, we’ll see this particular theology left, right, and center – so to speak.

3. Transactional Salvation

This one is a biggie.  The crux of the idea is that God requires something specific from us in order to escape the fires of hell.

For some evangelicals and fundamentalists, it’s the Sinner’s Prayer or ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’ or a personal relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior.  For Catholics, the requirements are more subtle and more complex.  But any kind of thinking that involves I do/choose/perform/pray/vote/act a certain way to get heaven/blessings/grace from God is a nonstarter for me.

Sometimes at Shadow Rock we call it “gettin’ your ticket punched” or Fire Insurance.  Two huge problems with this particular Bad Theology:  1) it totally discounts and misunderstands the nature of Ultimate Reality or in traditional language, God’s grace and 2) after folks get their ticket punched (or pray the magic prayer or whatever), they tend to stop growing and learning.

4.  Redemptive Violence

The Myth of Redemptive Violence might be THE Bad Theology.  It’s everywhere.  The premise is that violence is useful, even NECESSARY, for problem-solving.  For the background and history of redemptive violence, see Walter Wink.  For an on-the-ground feel for it, check out Batman, Rango (it’s particularly obvious in this movie), or any superhero movie or any children’s cartoon ever.  “Good guys” use violence to defeat the “bad guys.”  But if both sides are using the same violent methods, who can tell the difference?  That’s why it’s so useful to get an intuitive grasp of this through fictional settings.  It’s less jarring than looking at the newspaper, where the same exact thing is happening.  I’ll start with two problems with this Bad Theology as well:  1) it keeps us from looking at more peaceful and creative ways to change bad things and 2) if we make good things happen through causing pain, it makes us more likely to assume that God does the same thing..

5.  Certainty

Human beings, in my estimation, are most likely to go off the rails when we think we have it all figured out.  When we imagine that the universe works in a certain way through certain rules that we can grasp with our gigantic frontal lobes, we are foolish.  Things change.  Perspectives can be radically dissimilar.  There is so much we don’t know.  Yet at the same time, humans are meaning-making, meaning-grasping, meaning-creating creatures.  THIS IS WHAT WE DO.  We make rules, draw conclusions, see patterns.  So it’s possible that I’m being too harsh on the species.

Religion and faith and spirituality are the sources for much good in the world… when they are grounded in reality.  This Top 5 is just a start. Where do you see people – even yourself – living out Bad Theology?