Category Archives: Culture

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 4: Death and Failure

4. Death and Failure

Before we get to Part 5, where the hope is (and, unfortunately, the portion I may not get to for a while), there are two other ways that this frenetic spirit seems to manifest in this story:

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Mark 9:25-28, NRSV)

So much happens so quickly here. Jesus exorcises the demon, but since the disciples had failed in the same task, and because the father has likely seen others make the same attempt, the terrible convulsion that follows may not have seemed any different than past experiences. But then the boy seems “like a corpse,” and they believe him dead. One of our greatest anxieties pokes his head into the story. (I say one of because I once heard Jerry Seinfeld reference a study that indicated people were more afraid of public speaking than death, suggesting that if at a funeral we’d rather be the one in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy.)

The specter of death seems to drive so much of our behavior. I’ve read we often spend more in medical care in the last months of a person’s life than in their entire life to that point. Poet Dylan Thomas wrote, as his father lay dying, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In Act 3 of Hamlet, Shakespeare gives its titular character the following lines, reflecting on the fear of death:

The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

While some people strong in faith have, perhaps, faced death well(1), our own mortality seems a universal anxiety that we struggle with from time to time…

And so, too, is the specter of failure. We idolize success, and often look down upon failure. So, when the disciples ask Jesus about why he could cast out this spirit and they could not, they are struggling with their own failure.

It’s important to note that earlier in the Gospel of Mark the disciples were not only given authority and power to act out demons (Mark 3:13-15; 6:7), but they actually have some success!

13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (Mark 6:13, NRSV)

But now they are faced with the question; why, when something worked before, did it not work now? Why did they fail?

Sadly, I think too many of our churches seem to be asking the same question in some form or other these days…

We are so afraid of failure that sometimes it immobilizes us from trying. At least in the disciples’ defense, they made some attempt at casting out this demon, unsuccessful though they may have been. What have we left undone, untried, or un-risked because we feared failure?


(1) There’s an article at Seedbed about how members of my “tribe” once faced death with perhaps more contentment and dignity than we do today.

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 3: The Father

3. The Father

21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out [with tears], “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24)

Mark 9:24 has long been a favorite verse of mine, giving words to a confession of faith I feel deep within: “I believe; help my unbelief!” There’s a sense of desire for faith but struggle with doubt in the father’s exclamation the reflects my own.

Years ago, between high school and college, I worked as an intern at a local church, partnered with the church’s youth pastor. I spent the summer accompanying him in visits, in helping to plan youth ministry events, as a shadow to a well-respected man of faith. One day late in the summer, I summoned the courage to ask him, “do you ever have any doubts?” He paused and responded (as best I can remember it), “I asked the same thing of a mentor of mine once, and he said the same thing I’ll tell you: every day.”

As a student I excelled in science and math, the “hard” sciences which relied on observable fact. I struggled with elements of Christian faith, particularly my limited understanding of God as Creator.(1) I had trouble reconciling faith with science, and had my share of doubts. I was grateful to learn, then and now, a truth that Tillich and Frederick Buechner shared in different ways: doubt is not the antithesis of faith, but rather is a part of an active faith. Doubt suggests I hold faith as important enough to ask questions of, to wrestle and struggle with.

There are times, though, I experience a bit of existential anxiety around faith and doubt. I’m anxious I don’t have good faith, or strong faith. If I really did have stronger faith, wouldn’t it make things easier? And wouldn’t I be able to hear and understand God more clearly? More directly?(2) So if the father’s declaration is an expression of such an existential anxiety, a struggle of thinking one’s faith too small(3), then both then as a teen and now as an adult I can resonate with the father.

As a parent, though, I resonate with another level of anxiety present in the father’s exchange with Jesus. There is a frantic energy that underlies his decision to seek out Jesus, to ask the disciples for their help in Jesus’ absence, and that colors his conversation with Jesus now. If you’re a parent I know you’ve felt the same kind of frantic energy; and, even if you aren’t a parent, you may have, as well. I know I have.

Years ago, when our son was around two, we had stopped at the outlets near Anthem, Arizona. There was/is a playground there, and while I had to go back to the car for one reason or another long since forgotten, Lynn took him there to play. As I was walking back, I heard the sudden surprised cry of an adult, followed by our son’s cry. As a parent, you know your own child’s cry. It just resonates with you. I’d found that I could preach successfully through other children’s outbursts or tears (which I don’t think were caused by me), but if Will started to howl from the nursery it would trip me up. So hearing his wail, I rushed back to the playground.

When I got there, Will was howling in his mother’s arms, Lynn was definitely frazzled, and there was another man helping them both. I found out what had happened: Lynn had gone up the twisty slide with Will, to encourage him to slide down. She watched as he started down the slide, picking up speed, but when the slide turned, he didn’t. He flew out off the slide, arced, and landed on the ground, head first. Thank God they had an incredibly spongy playground ground! We walked with him for an hour, watching his reactions, making sure he didn’t have a concussion or other injury to his neck. He may have had a headache, but overall he was fine.

But as I was running, as I was hearing the story, and as Lynn and I were waiting and walking with him, there was a rush of energy inside me. Chemicals like adrenaline, sure; but there is often a frantic energy that we feel when a child is hurt or threatened. Hearing your own child cry brings it out of you, pulls up a depth of fear and concern you might not have known you possessed.

Now, remember the boy’s father’s experience. The boy has been afflicted with this demon since he was a child, and the father has watched it threaten his life for some time, repeatedly bearing witness to his son’s potential destruction. We can thus easily entertain the idea, and speculate into the story, that this father has done everything possible that he could do to help his son over the years. He’s likely gone to the usual religious experts, exorcists, and healers, but been disappointed by their failure. Hearing about the one they call Jesus, he brought his boy to be healed, only to hear that Jesus was out of pocket at the moment. He asked Jesus’ disciples to help, but they apparently failed, too.

And so when Jesus comes down the mountain to encounter this father, he’s likely at his wits’ end. he’s tried all he can, and no one has been able to help. After explaining the situation to Jesus, his exasperation seeps into his own request, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Help my son, help me, we’re both drowning here. This thing is eating us alive.

I can so readily and deeply resonate with this father’s experience. I can imagine the anxiety he has felt; the desperation in his heart and mind; his fear for his son; his frustration that he cannot relieve his boy’s pain, nor find any one else who can. When your child hurts, it hurts you. The father’s cry, “I believe; help my disbelief” is the deepest, rawest, most honest cry of his heart.

In so many ways, as a follower of Christ, it is, at times, the cry of my own heart, too. “I believe; help my disbelief.” I believe in a creating, loving, awesome God of infinite grace. But in the midst of world problems or family breakdowns, its hard to hold that faith. Our experiences of the pain and darkness of our world seem to run counter to, seem to threaten the integrity of, the very faith we profess. Lord, I believe; help my disbelief at such times!


(1) While I don’t profess to fully understand the nature of our divine Creator, I’ve come a long way. I don’t read the creation story of Genesis as intended to be scientific fact, but for the deeper truth of God as one who creates peacefully, bringing order to chaos. I have read some ways in which the biblical narrative alludes to modern quantum theory, though! Check out Daniel Wolpert’s “The Collapse of the Three Story Universe” for an introduction.

(2) If you’ve never heard it, Chris Rice has a fantastic song along this theme, “Smell The Color Nine.”

(3) John Wesley interprets the father’s expression this way in his Notes on verse. He interprets the father’s cry, “Although my faith be so small that it might rather be termed unbelief, yet help me.”

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 2: The Boy

Part 2. The Boy (and possession by reactivity)

20 And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. (Mk 9:20, NRSV)

Herein we ostensibly encounter for the first time the titular spirit of this conversation. Convulsing its host, the spirit seems to take control of the boy, overwhelming him. Earlier in the story, the father described much the same kind of activity, adding to it that the spirit kept the boy mute:

“he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid…” (9:17-18)

There are a variety of ways modern Christians respond to passages of Scripture about demons and demon-possession. While some argue for the literal truth of such passages, insisting that evil spirits are real and pose a threat, others argue for more scientifically-nuanced readings of such passages, suggesting we de-mythologize the Biblical authors’ attributions of a variety of conditions to “demon-possession” that we would categorize differently today. Like most biblical scholarship, people range a wide spectrum between the fundamentalist extremes of conservative literalism and liberal progressivism.

I would humbly suggest that, however you read and interpret demons and demon-possession in the Bible, I can attest to this truth: many people wrestle with demons today. There are those who attest to the presence and influence of evil external to themselves; and others who eschew the anthropomorphism of powers of darkness but attest to the lure of evil within. And a variety of maladies, illness, or addictions that we might be able to name are often metaphorically referred to as demons that someone struggles with.

In discussing such passages with me growing up, my father tried to explain away such stories of demon-possession maladies as epilepsy or other diseases we now know the cure to. At the same time, the specter of his own mother’s alcoholism was the proverbial “demon in a bottle” that haunted him his life; he never fully shed the sway that it had held over him growing up.

Years later, a church member I deeply respect shared her own experience of a demonic presence. One night she had woken to the sight of glowing eyes and an oppressiveness that surrounded her; one that retreated from her as she began to pray.

Whatever they may be or we may call them, I find that there are demons in our world, lives, and hearts that threaten us. There are those sources of fear, anxiety, and even violence that seem beyond our control. One need only watch the news to be anxious that destruction threatens us from without. Yet as I read the passage of late, a particular manifestation of this frenetic spirit makes itself known to me.

I find beyond the original source, the perspective with which we read it, or the intent of this tale of the demon-possessed boy, there is in the story of possession a grain of truth that speaks to me. We are told that the boy has been possessed by something since his childhood, and that it often contributes to him losing control. That lack of control threatens his very life.

We are all beset by something from childhood that can lead us to lose control, and even threatens the health of our self. By nature and nurture, as we grow we learn how to respond to the world around us; and we generally all learn an unhealthy response, one wherein we lost control, which without consulting another text I’ll refer to as “emotional reactivity.”

Even if I’m mis-using the term or the science, you can recognize emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever returned home, only to feel yourself being treated like, and perhaps even responding, as when you were a child, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever found yourself lashing out at your child in a way that goes against what you desire in your better nature(1) but seem to neglect in the acute moment of misbehavior, you’ve experienced emotional reactivity. If you’ve ever thought “I sound like my mother/father,” you know emotional reactivity. We learn how to react to situations, often in unbidden ways.

More often than I care to admit, I am not the parent I desire to be. I do not consistently respond with the patience, care, and levity that I know would benefit myself and my children. Instead, I respond with the same kind of reactivity I grew up with. I lash out in anger and frustration, by word or deed. It is not for nothing that we can often hear said of an emotionally reactive parent that he or she has “lost control.”

Where an addict might see the frenetic spirit of the boy in one light, as a struggling parent I suddenly see in myself the possibility of the same frenetic spirit, capable of convulsing me into losing control…


(1) Is it coincidental that just as we refer to the evils we struggle against as demons, since Abraham Lincoln we have heard our best selves referred to as our “better angels.”

Frenetic Spirit, Pt. 1: The Crowd

Part 1: The Crowd (and our anxiety for “right” answers)

When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. (Mark 9:14, NRSV)

I can’t speculate on what it was like for Jesus himself, but Peter, James, and John have just had an eye-opening, transformative experience. Having stepped off alone with Jesus, they have borne witness to the glory of God – the divine nature – that always permeates Jesus but that they often are unable to perceive. Coming down from this literal “mountain top” experience to the rest of the group of disciples, they find a large crowd and hear arguing going on.

Because these thoughts evolve from a conversation God invited me in to, I have to take a moment and share about my personal feelings toward crowds.

Are you ready?

I don’t like crowds. As an introvert, I generally feel uneasy and anxious when presented with a crowd (unless that crowd is at a Star Wars convention, in which case it’s one of the greatest on earth!). I like my space, both physically and emotionally, and crowds tend to… crowd in on that space. I have been known, during church Christmas parties, to eschew the larger gathering of adults engaging in conversation and hors d’oeuvres and instead hang out with the children playing Nintendo games.

So as we read of Jesus and the disciples coming back from a spiritually formative moment to encounter a crowd, I began to feel some unease.

And then we learn that within the crowd, scribes (or “legal experts,” religious leaders well acquainted with both Scripture and tradition) have been arguing with the disciples. This isn’t in and of itself surprising, as such religious experts routinely argue with Jesus throughout the gospels. Here they likely came to continue that trend of conversation but, finding Jesus off “on retreat,” they contented themselves by arguing with his disciples instead.

We learn the nature of the argument after Jesus asks what it was about, and “someone” from the crowd (we later learn it to be the father) shares that he brought his son to be healed by Jesus and, finding him sequestered away with his inner circle, sought the help of the disciples. Knowing that healing is involved in the argument – not to mention an example of failure to do so – we can anticipate/speculate what the arguments might have been, since this moment is reminiscent of others where legal experts challenged Jesus:

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-11, NRSV)

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:22, 28-30, NRSV)

(On a related note, earlier in Mark 3:5, Jesus looks around at the legal experts “with anger” because of their attitude, something I comment on in a recent sermon, “Mark’s Action Hero.”)

So often the Pharisees, scribes, legal experts, and other religious leaders of his day are taken aback by Jesus and his action. “Only God can forgive sins!” they cry out in shock and horror when Jesus declares forgiveness. They remain silent when asked if one should do good or evil on the Sabbath. They plot against Jesus, to the point of seeking his death!

Why? I think we are readily too quick to give the Pharisees a bad rap, seeing them as a one-dimensional foil to the activity of God in Jesus. But what seems to really be going on is that their commitment to the law, and to doing what is right, acts to blind them from the new activity of God in Jesus. They are so deeply committed to their understanding of the Scriptures and God’s promise of a Messiah, that they are anxious and unsure about Jesus because Jesus’ activity does not connect with their perspective of who the Messiah is or will do. They are anxious because this rabbi from Nazareth that is being lifted as the potential Messiah does not meet their expectations of the Messiah…

And the crowd, gathered around these bickering religious experts and Jesus’ seeming second-tier disciples, must be feeling anxious, too. After all, they are now faced with two very differing ideas about God, about how to live in a way that honors God, about what God desires. Which of the perspectives is right? (In another story, we are told that when Jesus encounters a crowd he “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” [Mk. 6:34]. To me, this image of a crowd suggest a group that is clueless, afraid, uncared for, and/or unprotected, as I imagine abandoned sheep might look.)

And so, as Jesus and the three disciples descend from the mountain to real life below, they encounter this crowd abuzz with anxious people…

When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. (Mark 9:15, NRSV)

There are times as a parent when I suddenly find my two children (and sometimes their friends) descending on me all at once. They’ve had some kind of disagreement, and when they cannot work it out, they rush to me to solve it for them; to fix it. (If I’m honest, I sometimes have experienced the same thing in church ministry, too!)

In the same way, when those in the crowd cannot work out this dispute between the disciples and legal experts, they rush to Jesus to solve it. They triangulate Jesus in to the conflict between the other two, expecting that he will determine a winner and a loser.

In fact, Jesus’ eventual response almost sounds like that of an exasperated parent or teacher…

He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (Mark 9:19, NRSV)

How often do we turn to some external source, some reputed expert, to provide us the “right answer” to a dilemma we face? It seems to be a trend that if one finds a relationship distressing, a family dysfunctional, or an organization challenging, then one looks to another to step in and fix it. Marriage counselors sometimes face members of a couple expecting the counselor to fix the argument (or their spouse!), and when a quick solution isn’t presented but instead the real work of mending a relationship is posed, the couple quits.

I wonder if we have become overly anxious for the “right” answer for situations.(1) Edwin Friedman’s excellent, if perhaps obtuse, book on leadership comes to mind. In “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friendman shares how we have come to think we can find the right data or solution to some acute problem, rather than working more deeply at the underlying causes of our anxiety and turmoil that lead to acute problems.

I believe that “the crowd” today, presented with even more differencing perspectives than the two shared in this story, still acts out of its anxious nature. Perplexed by an ever expanding diversity of options and perspectives, the crowd turns looking for the right answer to fix it; and so perhaps do we, individually. We might feel that the right job, or the right spouse, or the right leader will provide the answer, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

I had this experience in one appointment. About a year or so in to a challenging church position, a prominent leader of the church came to me to share that he was leaving the church. He shared that the congregation, and he himself, had been struggling before I got there, but he stuck it out because he expected the new pastor would come in and “fix it.” He used those exact words with me! Suffice it to say, I had not provided the fix he was desiring, and he left for greener pastures. It was a sad, but enlightening, moment.

And so here we are, shifting from my initial thoughts about my personal unease with a crowd to what seems to be a deeper anxiety within the crowd that day, and then the story focuses in a little more closely…


(1) Just an aside: I respect and appreciate how Rev. Gina Campbell, when giving presentations, asks the question of whether something is “comfortable” to her listeners, rather than “does that sound right?”

Frenetic Spirit (Intro)

Frenetic Spirit (Introduction)

People around me are anxious. While national newscasts spark concern, debate, and ire, I’ve sat with parents whose children cried themselves to sleep for (irrational) fear of deportation. As medical tests suggest the promise of clarity for treatment, I’ve commiserated with people uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. Amid deepening divisions within my theological tribe, there is angst and anxiety about whether we can truly remain United, Methodist, or even a Church. And if I’m honest, even as I volunteer in our local school, I know some degree of anxiety from time to time about whether my children are getting the best education they might. Fears and uncertainty seem to be widespread, and I am certain you could add your own to this brief list.

So, today I am inviting you in to an ongoing conversation. As I organize and put these thoughts to paper (or keyboard, anyway!), I do so with an awareness that what I have to share is not some authoritative theological treatise, nor a life-changing book on spirituality. Instead, as I give myself time to muse in a generic text editor, I’m sharing with you reflections on a conversation that I believe God has begun with me and, I’m fairly certain, is keen for me to get back to.

As a bit of background, this particular conversation began during a recent Bible Study I led at my local church, Trinity Heights U.M.C. As part of an ongoing devotional reading and study of the New Testament, each week we begin with a shortened version of Lectio Divina. Latin for “divine reading,” Lectio Divina is a prayer form that integrates reading of Scripture with meditation, reflection, and conversation with God. On the night in question, as we slowly read and pondered the following passage three times, God began this conversation that I hope to share with you in five subsequent parts (too long for a sermon; too short for a book).

The likely-familiar story in question takes place in the Gospel of Mark immediately following the “transfiguration” experience of Jesus and three disciples (I’ve briefly touched on this here). It’s the story of a demon-possessed boy and his father, who have come to Jesus for healing. In years’ past, I’ve often been struck by v. 24 – “I believe; help my unbelief!”, which I’ll share a bit about in part 3. This time, however, as we read through the pericope, I encountered a new focus I hadn’t really read before.

Below is the passage in question. I invite you to perhaps read it slowly and repeatedly on your own, and see what inspiration it/God speaks to you before moving on to my ramblings that follow:

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?”

17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.”

24 Immediately the father of the child cried out,[a] “I believe; help my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.

28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

[a]Mark 9:24 Other ancient authorities add ‘with tears’
(Mark 9:14-29, scripture and notation, NRSV, c. 1989)

As a new conversation emerged from this recent reading of this text, I find that it draws me/us first through four different, difficult movements of conversation before bringing me/us to a word of hope and good news…

Why I Want to Quit… But Won’t

Yesterday, someone opened up an old wound. So now I share in the spirit of a quote attributed to Hemingway and Red Smith, “if you want to write, sit at a typewriter and open a vein.” Read at your own risk.

I was the solo pastor of a young but modestly sized church. Lynn was on family leave, as we had two very young children at home – a toddler and an infant. During our time, several new families with similar young children began attending the church. Lynn became friends with a younger woman and her son, close in age to ours. For a few years, this little boy and Will were friends; perhaps the stablest friend he had. They would have play dates, and Will actually asked for and prayed about this other little boy.

Then in a rough season, both in the church and in my family, the woman became angry at me and withdrew from the church. I would not say I was without blame, but her response was exaggerated. The attempts I made to rectify and rebuild the relationship were rebuffed and rejected. The mother stopped connecting with Lynn, and the little boy suddenly disappeared from Will’s life. What hurt me most was that my son was robbed of a friendship because another person though so little of the relationships to begin with.

Over the years, I’ve seen many – too many – people leave church communities, sharing a wide berth of “reasons” why they came to such a “difficult decision.” Some times they seek to assure that it isn’t personal; but, in the end, it always is – because, whatever reason they might give, they are casting off relationship with you, and/or with others with whom you are invested. Beyond people leaving my life, my children have experienced Sunday School teachers and volunteers suddenly disappearing; relationships that were helping them grow suddenly cut asunder. The other night, in a book study, I asked, without answer myself, “have we so commoditized relationships that they are easily tossed aside?”

And so it was yesterday the old wound was opened up again when yet another person stabbed at it with their decision to leave the congregation because they were upset with denominational conflict, in this case movement regarding potential changes in how the church responds to homosexual persons. The same conflict has been going on throughout my ministry, and I’ve had people express their disgust and leave because the church was becoming to libertine or accommodating to culture, and others because the church was not loving or open enough. Recently Lynn and I articulated, as clearly as we could, that we have known people of deep faith with very different positions on issues of sexuality, and as pastors our commitment was to sustaining a community culture where people with diverse opinions could join together pursuing growth in love for God and neighbor. Sadly, this means we are not “committed enough” for those who want change to occur, nor for those opposed to such change.

One of my dilemmas is that I can see the faith, the heart, and the good in people with very different perspectives. Perhaps it is because my life has been blessed with mentors of liberal and conservative leanings – people very radically different in perspective but who still demonstrated love and respect for one another – that I can live with such tension and not insist on certainty from others aligned with my own perspective. I know people coming to radically different conclusions but who start from the same place I do, a deep desire to love God and others. I’m not always at ease with ambiguity, for perhaps none of us ever are. But I can live with the tension of different perspectives, because I know they arise from people with strong relationships with God and others. But others can’t, or won’t, and sever their connections with others who don’t think as they do.

So I went to a dark place internally as I spent yesterday on the road, coming to question if this was the kind of church I wanted my children to be a part of. You see, one of the commitments and teachings I cling to is that the church is not an organization or institution, but an organic community of people; more like a “body” – the metaphor most often used in Scripture – or a “family” – the metaphor most prominent in modernity. Like the bonds of family, we are all individually fallible and incomplete, but we don’t render the bonds because of disagreement. The body is supposed to have a deep unity – again, “unity” being regularly exhorted in Scripture while “uniformity” is not – founded not in agreement with one another, but in love for one another.

But my growing perception is that for too many, religion/spirituality has become so individualized that we commoditize the church: instead of a community we commit to, it’s a CostCo where we purchase the things we want, and when we don’t like something, we bail for a different big box location. We tender our resignations, leaving for better pastures where the pastors are “real Christians”… at least until we find something in them we don’t like. (I had a tenure long enough at one congregation to see a family leave, bound through two other churches, and end up back where they had begun!)

And here’s the thing: while I maintain faith in God, I worry I’m losing faith in people. (The tenor of our recent election didn’t help this perception any, either!) If I can’t trust you to maintain love and seek unity even when there might be disagreements along the way; if the threat is always there that you’re going to bail because you’re upset about something; if you’re likely to reopen old wounds; then why should I bother with you?

Why would I stay? If my faith, hope, and commitment are to an idealized community that isn’t realistically going to happen, why invest and sacrifice so much to help lead and form the community? If my own children are not going to know continuity with others who love and care for them as part of God’s extended family, why make them experience the sacrifice of me being gone so much? Why stay somewhere you are being hurt?

And so driving through snow, rain, and sand all in the same day, wind buffeting me with different trials along the way, I once again contemplated quitting the local church. I want to quit, because other people let me down. I want to quit, because I don’t feel strong enough to persevere investing to build community others cast aside so readily. I want to quit, because the reality they’ve seen is not the church as I want my children to know it. I want to quit, because I have skills and passions I could put to good use in other arenas…

When I woke this morning, the sense of personal hurt had ebbed and was replaced by the larger grief I’ve known of late, that I’m losing faith in people. I shared that grief in prayer and moved on. I read through the Gospel of Mark (which was simply the next scheduled morning reading I had, and not some inspired “Oh, I should do this…”), seeing Jesus develop community where it was least expected, and the outcomes of that community: healing and wholeness for people who had been sick, lame, or lost. I saw again his affirmation of the scribe who knew what was the greatest of God’s commandments, and his grief at the Pharisees who were so assured of their own righteousness because they followed God’s Law. I was reminded of Who it is I follow, but saw even he struggled with how people responded…

Then there was another book I turned to finish, having just the last two chapters of The Road to Character by David Brooks left to read after starting it months ago. In the last chapter*, as Brooks shared a radical cultural shift that began in 1945, from moral realism to moral romanticism, something happened. Perhaps it was the movement of the Holy Spirit, perhaps it was just my bruised ego healing, or perhaps it was just inspiration shared from one to another. You can ascribe the source as you wish.** But as Brooks shared his “Humility Code, a coherent image of what to live for and how to live” – a simplified list of propositions that should resonate deeply with any person of faith – I was reminded why I may, at times, want to quit, but why I won’t quit.

Brooks shares his view that we “don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness… The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle.” He writes that people “with character are capable of long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.” He reminded me that we can not arrive at self-mastery and good character on our own, “Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and examples…” He points out our need for community, perhaps all the more for the deep statistics the chapter shares about the impact of our increasingly individualistic society. And, in the midst of this, he shares that wise leaders always struggle, knowing that lows are lower than the highs are high, but seeking to leave things a little better, making progress toward the ideals after which we strive.

Like others before me, I may want to quit, but I won’t. I won’t because, for whatever reason, I and various communities of faith I have been a part of have discerned God’s calling in my life to be a leader. A leader who strives after ideals – ideals of what it means to know and love God, to follow Christ, to live in Christian community – even if we fall short of those ideals. And, as both David Brooks and Simon Sinek*** allude to, perhaps now more than ever we need true community; and to achieve it, we need people who work to help us develop and experience it.

I know these old wounds will continue to be re-opened. I know I will continue to be let down by others. I know that, at times, I will bear witness to the price others pay for a person’s “difficult personal decision.” Like others before me (Jeremiah and Elijah spring to mind, but I know there are countless others), there will be times I want to quit. But I will persevere, sticking to my core principles – the centrality of love (especially of God and neighbor), and the importance of community to our spiritual health even amid a culture of individualism being central to much of who I am and what I do.

For selfish reasons, I may want to quit;
but because of (what I hope are) selfless ones, I won’t.


*The book is long and wordy, but the last chapter is incredibly profound. I recommend it!

**This is an aside, but in a few recent democratic processes I’ve observed that some Christians only ascribe movement or inspiration to the Holy Spirit if it aligns with their perspectives. Otherwise, they see that God isn’t really present in the activity…

***I also listened to the bulk of Leaders Eat Last, by Sinek, while driving yesterday.

…in the spaces between…

“…the holy things we need for healing and sustenance are almost always the same as the ordinary things right in front of us.” (–Nadia Bolz-Weber; Accidental Saints)

I have been “in a funk” of late. Self-destructively, I tend to feed this beast from time to time, spiraling down into thoughts of my own inadequacy and ineffectiveness. This is not a “pity party,” per se, but more of a spiritual and vocational malaise, generally loosed upon myself in times of stress.

The opposite of meditation – when one intentionally reflects upon the positive, or quiets one’s soul to listen – this was rumination, where one listens to (and even nurtures!) that internal voice we all carry, the antithesis of Stuart Smiley that is ever ready to tell us that we aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough, and dog-gone-it, no one likes us.

I know this particular record all-too-well, and despite the fact that I know its tracks are hideously out of rhythm, still I let it play through in bits, here and there, from time to time.These funks settle in when I forget to lead and live out of my giftedness; in those days when the mundane daily details are endless, and that internal voice whispers that a career as a Video Store manager might be more meaningful than vocational ministry.

One night (morning?) in the midst of this particular cycle, I had an incredibly vivid dream. Now, i often dream, sometimes even repeatedly – for seven years, particularly during seminary, I routinely dreamt I was a vampire hunter. And I have several times dreamt that I was a former writer for Saturday Night Live. I generally discard most of my dreams as my subconscious mind unwinding. But sometimes, in addition to listening to my own subconscious, I think that in some dreams I perhaps am given a glimpse of the holy.

The dream was so vivid, I posted about it on Facebook. In the dream, author Rob Bell served as the Virgil to my Dante, but rather than descending into hell, we were journeying deeper and deeper into a building…

We are walking into and through a large, ornate, beautiful cathedral; a mix of ancient and modern: soaring ceilings and colored glass in the sanctuary, flatscreen LCDs in classrooms and meeting rooms.

The sanctuary is full of people I know or have known through the years; members of churches served in the past, even some long gone. We talk; I am particularly interested in what the dead have to share, but they speak minimally, trying to keep my attention focused on… the goal of our visit. The nature of the Church, perhaps?
We walk into the most inner office, where Bell and someone else (likely Tertullian or some other ancient theologian) have a particularly animated (spirited?) conversation around a white board.

I am distressed, disappointed, at what we find. As we walk back to the narthex with its gothic doors, Bell challenges me to think about it more clearly. “God isn’t somewhere to be found in a church space,” he critiques me, waiting for a response.

After a moment of reflection I reply, to Bell’s pleasure, “God is found in the space between people.”

This weekend after Easter, I left town to officiate at the wedding of a friend from our previous church. In our denominational tribe (United Methodist), there is the standard expectation that once you are moved you don’t return for ministerial duties. But in this case there was an invitation from a family and the current pastor, and as a connectional church we also help one another out when we can. (And… I was excited to be able to do so!)

So I took the kids with me for the weekend (farming them off to my brother during the wedding itself), freeing Lynn up to have a quiet weekend before leading worship alone.

This was a family that I was comfortable with – perhaps too comfortable, as I will admit this is the first time I have ever led a wedding rehearsal with a drink in one hand! But this crowd of family and friends who were jocular and joyous with one another were also at ease with the “God-talk” I brought with me as my standard stock-in-trade, and even expressed a feeling of being blessed.

One table of women at the reception thanked me for my part in the service, expressing two moments that touched them as a group: when we invited all those assembled to bless the couple in the beginning, and when we ended with words blessing the congregation itself. Straight from the Book of Worship, they were

“Friends, go forth and bear witness to the love of God, so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in you generous friends. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.”

Without going in to details, another shared how in the weeks leading up to the wedding there was a family reconciliation, and they felt blessed with how the evening had gone.

We talked of times past and days to come. I pontificated on Jesus’ pleasure in our love for one another (as a reflection of His love for us). Strangers shared with me about the churches they used to attend or where they were encountering God today.

And I experienced something divine, gathering with these friends and their families. Somehow, in the midst of the most ordinary things – laughter, love, good food, a bit of alcohol, spoken words of blessing, promises of commitment, dancing – we experienced the holy. I remembered the joy and meaning I know as a follower of Christ, and in my vocation as minister. As I read the very next morning in Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Accidental Saints, I found healing in the holy ordinary that surrounds me every day.

Somehow, in the spaces between people, I experienced God.

And I have to wonder if perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he shared, in Matthew 18:20, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”