Practices for Disturbing Times

January 21, 2021

Apparently year 536 beats out 2020 as the worst year ever. Among other things, a volcano in Iceland plunged the earth into darkness and climates so cold that crops wouldn’t grow. A bubonic plague killed a hundred million people. Ash covered everything. As disturbing as 2020 has been, however, I’m not eager to set the record for worst year ever. Still, it’s been troubling enough that you almost worry for folks who don’t seem disturbed by it, if you could find any. 

In the midst of it all, Christians hold on to knowing that God is with us, among us, alongside of us. Embracing this conviction may comfort us, puzzle us, encourage us, and guide us. Let me suggest four practices that may help us even while we’re dismayed. 

The first is simply to explain. We generally try to explain things so that we can understand them, or adapt to them, or even try (vainly) to control them. Some kinds of explanation can help us. With the coronavirus, for example, it can help us to understand what it is, how it acts, and what we can do to combat it. Apart from misleading information, we can learn enough to help us know how to live well while the virus is around. 

In disturbing times, some Christian folk seem eager to offer unhelpful explanations. One approach is to say that God sent this because you’ve done something wrong. This shows up predictably, often with predictable voices,  in every crisis. It’s a kind of mechanical application of ideas of curse and blessing. It’s the sort of explanation Job’s “friends” offered him. “This is awful, Job. You’ve obviously done something wrong, so you had better repent and get it over with.” Of course, one of the main points in the Book of Job is that his friends were wrong. That this mechanical explanation misses the mark. Please understand here. If you need to repent because you’ve eaten too much shrimp wrapped in bacon or you’ve gotten tattoos wherever (see Leviticus for other possibilities), don’t hesitate. Take care of it. But speaking mechanically like this about how God is at work is misleading. 

Another misleading, but predictable, explanation is that we’re facing the end times. It’s not just that I’m cynical since I’ve already missed the end of the world at least several times that I know of. It’s also that we don’t have the information we need to figure that out, and we’re not supposed to. Such alarming explanations don’t help us live more wisely or faithfully. 

A second practice is to complain. But here I mean something more than whining about masks, social distancing, and varied inconveniences. No, I don’t like them either. Instead, we can enter into the confusion and pain of complaining to God. In the Psalms we call this the lament song, and there are lots of them. At root, the laments grow out of the root of believing God is here. So the singers cry out “Why?” “Can’t you hear?” “Don’t you care?” “Can’t you do something?” “How long, O Lord?” Typically these songs include a confession of trust along with the cries of bewilderment and pain. Having these psalms teaches us that we don’t have to brave-face it before God. Instead, we can pour out our distress to the God who is with us, who understands and shares our trouble. 

Another helpful practice is to live with wonder. To wonder is to accept, however uneasily, mystery. It is to live without knowing or being sure of answers to the circumstances and questions that trouble us. As the Book of Job concludes, Job gets a glimpse of what he doesn’t know of God, who, for all of Job’s faithfulness, is beyond his understanding. He sees creation itself acting with a freedom in which God delights. And we know from the Prophets and elsewhere that people can act freely and badly in ways that God does not send or control or like. Sometimes we are tempted to say too breezily or too simply that God is control. We can fail to embrace the mystery in God’s presence and sovereignty. Wonder helps us live with mystery. 

Finally, I suggest we listen. Even in small things and in subtle ways God faithfully guides us as we pay attention to nudges, clear directions, and gentle whispers. Listen: how is God acting among us? how can we share in what God is doing? out of  all of that, in what particular ways may God be inviting each of us to act? I’ve been impressed by how many in our community are responding with simple acts of kindness, of being present, of helping others get what they need, of raising a voice in the public square. We each have ways of joining with God who with us, actively working to heal, to restore, and to open new realities.



God Teaching through the Bible

February 19, 2019

Scripture calls us to account and helps us know God’s will. 
The Bible, as interpreted by the Holy Spirit, shows us what God requires of us and provides authoritative and unfailing spiritual guidance for our lives today. (A statement from Core Values of Northwest Yearly Meeting.)

The Bible witnesses that God is present among us, that God is self-revealing, that God wants to be known. The Old Testament’s stories tell of how God showed up to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the prophets and many others to guide them, teach them, and empower them to follow God in their ordinary lives. In the New Testament, God shows up especially in the person of Jesus who lived and taught among us, revealing in his life God’s wondrous character, full of grace and truth. And we see the emergence of a community that responds by following Jesus and sharing the good news of what they had seen with the world around them.

In giving us the Bible, God worked in its storytellers, writers, and editors and in the communities of faith over time that have valued and preserved these texts for us. Because God is still here, we rely on God to continue to lead us and teach us directly, and we rely on God to help us understand and rightly use the Bible.

The Bible sometimes seems very direct and succinct, as in Micah’s “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:8), or in Jesus’ words “You should treat people in the same way you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). And as we come to know the whole Bible, enduring themes and specific instruction become clear and important to us. At other times, the Bible may puzzle us or we may not easily get a clear sense of authoritative guidance, and here we need to read with humility and with help from others.

God is with us in the rough and tumble of our world, and we see in the Bible that God was present to folks who lived in the rough and tumble of worlds very different from our own. They spoke different languages than ours, had different customs and ideas about how the world worked, and lived in profoundly different cultures than ours. We see those realities in the biblical texts. So as we read, we need to respect those differences and often go to the trouble of learning about them so we can better understand. Modern study Bibles, translators, commentators, and others can help us as we read.

At the same time, reading to soak in all of Scripture, not just in our favorite texts, grows a deeper knowledge that helps us resonate with the Bible’s core witness, a kind of resonance that helps us understand and discern what we need to know. We’ll see how people grew in knowing God over time, but we’ll also be grounded in the encounter with God to which the Bible witnesses. God is still with us to teach and to guide.

(This essay was first published in the newsletter of Newberg Emerging Friends Church in September, 2018.)


Tide of Light

February 12, 2019

As young George Fox was discovering first-hand the love and presence of God, he reported, “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness… I saw…the greatness and infinitude of the love of God, which cannot be expressed by words.”

Such words of hope were winsome in the dark time in mid-1600s England with its plagues, sharpening social conflict, even years of bloody civil war. Fox’ vision endures as a vital witness among Friends even today. God is here. God cares. God actively pursues the world and its peoples with power and love. We’re all invited to be shaped toward God’s love and to share in God’s work in the world.

But in times when the ocean of darkness and death seems rising to high tide, we might feel paralyzed to do much of anything. We can be overwhelmed by how much needs to be done or discouraged by thinking that what little we can do won’t matter much.

Precisely at this point God’s presence to us in love and power can lift us. In the midst of our doubt, our busyness, our scatteredness, and our weakness, God calls each of us to particular tasks that fit us and that we can do. Though we rightly admire “giants” of the faith, God’s work gets done not through the heroic actions of a few, but through the faithful actions of many. God’s particular call gives us both obligation and freedom. We know that God is counting on us to do our part, and we know that we don’t have to do it all. God is at work through us all. We can help each other discover our calls; we can encourage and cheer for each other’s faithfulness. We together can be part of the infinite tide of light and love that overcomes darkness and death.

(This essay was first published in the January 31, 2019 newsletter of the Newberg Emerging Friends Church.)


My Slow-Walk, Surprising Journey

November 20, 2017

My church family, local and regional, has been fighting over human sexuality. And it’s been ugly. We all agree that there is such a thing as human sexuality, but the conversations go downhill from there. In the meantime, as I’ve been sneaking up on or crashing into geezerhood, I’ve been on a private journey to understand these issues better for myself. It’s a journey that has brought me to change my mind. This essay is about that journey. It’s not an argument, but a story of where I’ve come. I’m telling the story mostly for friends or for folks who have known me as a public person. I need to speak and act differently on these issues than I have in the past, and I want you to understand why. (If you want to read arguments, I’m a retired teacher who knows how to construct reading lists and such, but this is just my story.)

The most recent part of my journey began when I overheard two friends loudly declaring to one another how they agreed on the hot topic of Christian responses to homosexuality. “If we just did what the Bible says,” complained one, “we wouldn’t even be talking about this.” “Yes,” his friend agreed, “what the Bible teaches is clear and simple.”

Well, I knew that wasn’t true. I had studied this issue some years before and had already discovered the tangled web of disagreement that interpreters weave around this issue. I let the loud friends walk on, but I decided on the spot to study again what the Bible says, and this time from scratch. I told myself, “I’m a Bible guy. I have the training and the tools, I have the time, and others have published a lot of good research since I last worked on this. Just for my own understanding, I want to read the best stuff I can find, from all sides, and see what I can learn.”

So I set out to do just that. I didn’t buy every book ever written about it, but I identified the most highly regarded works, leaving my book budget (?) wounded and my bookshelves groaning (they’re used to that).

Some folks insist they can open their favorite English translation, just read it, and take it at face value. I learn more by studying about the original Hebrew and Greek words and about the cultures where they were used. Among other things, such study gives clues about which English translation is more accurate and about what we know and don’t know. Sound interpreters of the Bible insist on exploring all kinds of context – historical, cultural, linguistic, biblical, and more. So I studied.

Starting from scratch means trying to leave preconceptions aside and trying not to reach conclusions too soon. I did that for several years. I have finally concluded that the Bible does not well support the “traditional” view that my friends declared as “clear and simple.” The case for “clear and simple” usually relies on six or seven biblical texts nicknamed by some as the “clobber passages.” They basically include the story of Sodom, a law repeated twice in Leviticus, and a few passages from Paul’s letters. Some will argue more broadly from passages in Genesis about creation, though interpreters disagree on the application of these texts. In my judgment, arguments from these texts often neglect biblical context and cling to fragile filaments of evidence, sometimes supported by questionable translation. In the process, I did think often about how to learn from Leviticus about God’s character and purpose and yet, like early Christians, still live in a new way guided by the Spirit and by Jesus’ teachings about loving God and neighbor. (Offering more detail here would move from story to argument.) Further, the Bible doesn’t directly answer some important questions we have today as we try to think about and act responsibly in issues of human sexuality. Many readers find, however, that the Bible still offers helpful guidance.

The Bible calls us steadily to love and respect other people, all made in the image of God. It repeatedly urges us to act justly, to show compassion, and to watch out and care for those who are vulnerable and needy. While the Bible includes plenty of stories about sexual misbehavior, I don’t see them offered as examples for us to copy. (Following David into adultery and murder is a bad idea.) What the Bible teaches about sexual behaviors rejects anything that is demeaning, abusive, manipulative, predatory, or promiscuous. We should not trick, force, or use other people for our own pleasure or selfish ends. The Bible suggests instead that fully intimate sexual behaviors should be reserved for long-term committed relationships characterized by dignity and love. Even when we confront puzzling questions, the Bible gives us plenty to ponder.

A second major insight on my journey was to recognize that many churches routinely misunderstand and misrepresent people who have to struggle with questions of same-sex attraction or gender identity. Often these churches have insisted that people choose to be gay, seeing this as a sinful act in itself, and that they can repent and reverse that choice, often with prayer and help from reparative programs. To put it briefly and bluntly, I have learned that neither of these teachings is true. For the most part, people do not choose to be homosexual, and programs to reverse same-sex attraction don’t work.

I’ve learned about choice from medical researchers and psychologists, as well as from the witness of homosexual folk who would gladly choose otherwise if they could. I had doubted the effectiveness of reparative programs, but became convinced of their inadequacy when the well-established organization Exodus International shut down in 2013. The head of the organization, Alan Chambers, apologized to those people they had hurt, said that their reparative programs don’t work, and closed their operation.

I knew through my experience that many churches’ teaching and attitudes harmed individuals and families (and the churches themselves). But it sobered me to learn how widespread and deeply hurtful these effects are. Many churches, even when they claim to be “welcoming,” marginalize and even show contempt for people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). And many Christians, both gay and straight, have left churches over it. Also, in response to teaching in churches, many families have rejected LGBTQ children, often leaving them homeless and highly susceptible to thinking of and attempting suicide. The list of harm could go on and on. But David Gushee sums up the situation well: “It says something really terrible when the least safe place to deal with sexual orientation and identity issues is the Christian family and church.” (Changing Our Mind, 35) I’ve come to believe that this must change.

I also learned a lot in my journey by getting to know people. Sometimes I knew them through reading, particularly in autobiography. Some I came to know through story, both direct and indirect. Some were widely respected leaders who wrote I’ve-changed-my-mind books, knowing that they would be trashed for saying so.

I have also learned through people I know and cherish personally. Some are people I’ve long trusted who changed their understandings and have quietly become advocates and helpers for folks in the LGBTQ community. Others have helped churches think together about these issues, overcoming the objection “let’s just not talk about it.” Still others have suffered for their advocacy, but have persisted in witness in spite of angry opposition.

Probably the most important people I have learned from are friends who are both homosexual and devout followers of Christ. Frankly, I’ve been slow to learn, I’ve been hurtful, and I’m having to apologize for that in trying to renew stalled friendships. I’m sure I have more to do. Even then, as my friends have extended grace, I give thanks that we share life in the family of God.

That’s my journey so far. I’m not a pioneer, as many others share this path. But it’s awkward, since plenty of folks I love and respect haven’t shared it. I know well that I still have lots to learn and lots of people to meet. Yet above all, I am glad to have learned more of the wide embrace of the love of God.


It’s Hard to Be Right

January 19, 2015

When you’re right, it’s hard to be humble. When you’re always right, it’s even harder. A plaque my wife put in our kitchen reminds me about this: “When I married Mr. Right… I didn’t know his first name was Always.” (Already I have to confess that I’m not always right. When I shared a draft of this essay with her, my dear wife reminded me that we together saw this plaque in a shop, we both laughed, and I bought it. It is still in the kitchen, though.)

I’ve been trying to learn from Dallas Willard, a brilliant scholar and teacher in both the university and the Church. He was sure-fire smart and had thought about ideas more carefully than most, but the people who knew him best describe him as always humble and always gracious. “It’s hard to be right and not hurt anyone with it,” he’d say. When you’re sure you’re right, you can hurt people in all sorts of ways – belittle them, embarrass them, attack them, ignore them. Or you can give them a look that says, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that people who disagree with you may have something worthwhile to say. But it could happen. So skipping the evil eye, showing respect, and listening patiently might be okay.

Dallas would also say, “I assume that I am wrong about some things, because everyone else I know is wrong about some things, and it would be very unusual.” Not that you’d actually set out to be wrong. Mostly we’re not wrong on purpose, though sometimes we might avoid learning more so we don’t risk having to change our minds or admit that we were mistaken, maybe especially about things that are dear to us. In a Charles Schulz “Peanuts” cartoon, author Snoopy announces the title to his new book on theology, Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong? Sometimes I read books like that, not with that title, but with that spirit. Sometimes they rattle my cage.

A slightly less distinguished theologian, Mark Twain, once remarked, “The thing that gets you in trouble isn’t what you don’t know, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We might swap stories about how we’ve discovered this in our lives, privately or publicly. As a teacher I know that I’ve passed along wrong ideas and information, all the while trying to learn and grow. This can humble you; you’d like a do-over. And you regret any hurt you have caused. Sometimes I’ve made a huge mistake, kind of a “magnum oopsus,” though I won’t entertain you with accounts of all of these, and I might magnum my oopsus again. I’ve seen folks who too readily defend or get entrenched in their error. I’ve seen others who, even if embarrassed, will share their change of mind. All in all, it makes sense to me to find grace and humility, maybe especially about the things we know for dead certain. Humor helps, too, by creating perspective and reminding us of human frailty.

Of course, most folks are trying to think as straight as they can, even with all the distractions and roadblocks we may face. They aren’t joining those who say, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making a few more.” But I’ve discovered over time that I know less than I thought I did, that the vast world won’t yield easily to my grasp, and that mystery piles wonder on wonder far beyond my imagination. Maybe it’s part of learning and growing. Maybe it’s age; I keep trying to remember my date of birth and phone number when medical clerks ask. In the end, though, I keep trying to be as right as I can, but I want to learn more of humility and grace. And I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.


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Living in Fun

"Walking Cheerfully" is place to think out loud about how to use and enjoy humor in positive, life-giving ways. We’ll explore how following Christ in all of life can shape, not scuttle, laughter and creative play. What might it mean to laugh with others as you would have them laugh with you?

Probably the other most common posts will be "Finds in Fun." I first learned the phrase “being in fun” from Tom Mullen’s Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences. He points to the playfulness of children, who are readier to laugh and to see the silly than most adults. Living each day “in fun” often makes us laugh as we slog through a nearly endless supply of things odd, silly, klutzy, and preposterous. The stories here are mostly from my own ordinary, “in fun” days.

Fun Nooks and Crannies

There’s “Humor in the Bible,” and these posts explore where it is, how to find it, and what to do with it. It’s one way of thinking about how to read the Bible well.

Since a lot of us spend big chunks of time at work, the “Humor at Work” posts will suggest ways to stay sane and happy, to get along with cow-orkers, and to use humor to do good work.

I’m a book-pusher at heart, and some of my best friends push books, too. I even know some folks who read. So “Fun Books” posts will tell about books that are funny and help us think about humor.

Sometimes I’ll brag on some of the friends I’ve been given or share some photos I’ve enjoyed taking. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe not, but they’ve brought joy in my journey.

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