Autobiographies and Chapters …

If you were to sit down and write your autobiography, how would you go about organizing the material? What would each chapter be called?

While there are many ways I could go about organizing my material, the easiest was would be to use the names of the five places I have lived for an extended about of time: Deer Park, WA; Tacoma, WA; Spokane, WA; Denver, CO; and Los Angeles.

Each chapter would contain not only the name of a city, but a subtitle as well that captures what went on for me in that setting. The chapter titled Deer Park, would be subtitled “Being Formed”; Tacoma would be subtitled “Learning”; Spokane would be subtitled “Exploring”; Denver would be subtitled “Integrating”; and Los Angeles would be subtitled “Claiming”.

Deer Park represents the only stage of my life that was largely driven by other people and their agendas for me. That seems appropriate since chapter comprised my life from birth through the age of 18. Tacoma would explore how my time at Pacific Lutheran University – between the ages of 18-22 – gave me a template for learning that has staying with me all my life. Spokane would explore how I came to explore pieces of myself during my 20’s that I had never explored before: my political passions, my vocational interests, my sexual orientation, and my spiritual life. Denver – the period of my life between the ages of 32-42 – would examine how I took the various pieces of my life and integrated them in ways I had never thought possible. Los Angeles – between ages of 42 through 52 and counting – is the chapter of my life where I have learned to claim and defend the person who I am becoming.

So why am I thinking about biographies and the chapters of one’s life?

In the month of July, I have the unprecedented opportunity to spend time in 4 of the 5 places that defined my life. The only “chapter” I won’t have the opportunity to visit/revisit is Tacoma. As I have moved from one chapter to another – first Los Angeles, then Spokane, and then Deer Park (with Denver on the horizon today) – I’ve been flooded by memories. It’s been a powerful spiritual experience to feel my story unfold. What a blessing this opportunity has been!

I don’t want to make my time with you today self-indulgent. Instead, I want to close my time by drawing you back to my opening pair of questions. If you were to sit down and write your autobiography, how would you go about organizing the material? What would each chapter be called? I hope your time exploring those questions is both rewarding, exhilarating, and meaningful!

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Acceptance

There were two stories I encountered recently that got me thinking about a concept that has become foundational in my life. The first was a book by Stephen King titled Revival; the second was a story told in the early episodes of the new Netflix series Tales of the City. Let me tell you about the subject matter, and then talk for a moment about what those elements of the story raised for me.

In the book Revival, one of the primary characters was a pastor named Charles Jacobs. Charles had an interest in harnessing the powers of electricity to effect the healing of others. That interest grew into an obsession when a tragedy unexpectedly took the life of his wife and young son. From that point on, Charles was consumed with the thought of using electricity to heal folks of a variety of maladies.

In the series Tales of the City, the early episodes dealt with the fact that a young woman named Shawna Hawkins had never been told that her biological mother – Connie – had died in childbirth. Connie had arranged for Shawna to be raised by her close friends, Brian and Mary Ann. Brian and Mary Ann never revealed to Shawna that they were not her biological parents.

Here’s where things got tricky in each instance.

In the book Revival, the healings that Charles Jacobs effected often came with serious side effects: effects which he often didn’t disclose to the person being healed. This mean that while the initial “problem” went away, others arrived to take its place.
In the series Tales of the City, Brian and Mary Ann had split when Shawna was just 2. At the start of the series, Mary Ann re-emerged after a 20-year absence. Shawna was understandably furious at Mary Ann for having left her. Mary Ann was convinced that she needed to tell Shawna the truth about who her mother really was.

So what do these wildly divergent situations have to do with one another?

In both cases, the individuals at the heart of the story had the opportunity to step in and play God. The individuals could evaluate the status quo, decide if it was to their liking, and then do whatever they thought was necessary in order to get things back on track.
Those circumstances reminded me that it can be so easy in life to try to step in and control or manipulate circumstances so things turn out to OUR liking. And therein lies the problem. As human beings, our perceptions are so incredibly limited. We fail to acknowledge our limitations. So when we try to “fix” one problem, we often find ourselves in situations like Charles Jacobs found himself: having eliminated one problem but created a few more.

And like Mary Ann, we often find ourselves with access to more information than those around us have. In such circumstances, we might feel compelled to share ALL the information so the other person(s) can “get it” (meaning agree with our conclusion or accept our perspective). So often, our desire to inform others backfires and makes things even messier.

So how can we break this cycle?

This is where my friends in Alcoholics Anonymous have helped me immensely. We can break the cycle by working on something called acceptance. Here is a statement a friend shared with me recently from The Big Book (a manual of sorts used by those in AA).

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life —unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes” (Page 417).

We often think about acceptance when it comes to things that are palatable. We might think, for instance, that acceptance means embracing a child’s decision to major in English rather than Business in college. Or when a supervisor decides the office will take one approach to a project rather than another. Acceptance applies certainly applies in those circumstances.

Acceptance, however, extends far beyond those circumstances. Acceptance also means doing the unthinkable: accepting the unexpected death of a young loved one or accepting that a loved one has an addiction that you can’t fix.

I can say that one of the greatest spiritual lessons I’ve been called to work on is accepting things as they are. That’s because for years I – like so many people around me – equated acceptance with giving up. I desperately wanted to fix those things I considered to be broken: for only then, I thought, could I be happy.

It took me YEARS to realize that only when I accept things as they are is real transformation possible: both within myself and in the world. Acceptance became the key for me to achieve inner peace and happiness.

So what about you? What thoughts does this notion of acceptance raise for you?

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Evolving

Last week I made the long, challenging trip home. The trip was long and challenging in two ways. First, the trip involved driving 1,202 miles over nearly 19 hours. Second, it involved a considerable amount of soul-searching.

That soul-searching helped me realize several things. One of those things was that my primary goal in life has changed considerably since I was a young person raised in my small hometown of approximately 1,5000 people.

When I was young, my primary goal was to be a nice guy. On the surface, that goal sounded pretty good. As the years passed, however, I realized that there was a dark side to being nice. Being nice often meant doing things like not speaking one’s truth, for fear it might upset someone; not questioning the status quo, for fear it would offend those whom had created it; and not setting healthy boundaries, for fear those boundaries could be perceived of as me being selfish and ignoring the needs of others.

Over the past 30 years, the word “nice” has become a four-letter word to me.

So what has taken its place as my primary goal?

My newer goal is to be Christ-like. That goal might sound pretty simple and straight forward – but it’s not. For being Christ-like involves doing things that are opposite of being nice.

Take the whole “speaking one’s truth” thing. Jesus knew very clearly what was expected of folks in his day. He knew, for instance, that a nice person was expected to follow the leading of the religious and political figures of the day. And yet from the first time he stood up in the Temple and spoke his truth (i.e. in Luke 4:21 when he stood up and said “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”) In that moment, Jesus showed that he and his followers should say what needed to be said; not what others want to hear.

Jesus also presented a challenge to the “not questioning the status quo” thing as well. Jesus knew very well, for instance, that if was frowned upon for Jewish men to engage foreign women. And yet when the Syrophoenician woman approached him and begged for healing for her daughter, what did Jesus do? He not only engaged the woman; he healed her daughter – thereby obliterating the social norms of his day. Jesus also knew that his religious tradition forbit individuals from doing work on the Sabbath – including healing. And yet when Jesus approached the man with the shriveled hand outside the Temple on the Sabbath (as told in Mark 3:1-6), what did Jesus do? He violated the laws of the status quo and healed the man. I could give countless examples of how Jesus questioned the status quo, but I think you get the point.

Finally, there’s the matter of setting healthy boundaries. When word began to spread about Jesus’ ability to bring healing and wholeness to those who were sick, there was no end to the work that Jesus could have done. Many probably expected Jesus to work non-stop.

So what did Jesus do?

Luke 5:15-16 tell us something rather unexpected. “News of [Jesus] spread even more and huge crowds gathered to listen and to be healed from their illnesses. But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.” What a marvelous thing that Jesus modeled for us: that if we want to care for others, we must set boundaries on our time and energy in order to re-charge our batteries. Only then can we return to the work God has called us to do.

So when I say my goal in life is now to be Christ-like, perhaps you can now see what a dangerous goal that is. One might even go so far as to say, being Christ-like is the opposite of being nice: for being Christ-like means speaking one’s truth boldly; challenging the status quo when it becomes an impediment to the in-breaking of God’s reign; and setting clear and healthy boundaries that balance the needs of others with your own needs.

I’ve taken a moment and reflected on how my goal in life has shifted over the years. I’m curious about you. As you think back to your spiritual journey, how have your goals for life shifted or evolved?

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Making the Connection Between Faith & Issues

The other day I was scrolling through a social media site when I saw a posting from a friend with whom I grew up. My friend wasn’t particularly religious during my friend’s childhood. In the last 25 years or so, my friend has become increasingly religious.

What caught my eye was the nature of my friend’s post. The post expressed concern about the redistribution of wealth: taking money away from good, hard-working folks; and giving it to those less deserving. (Cue the ominous music and cut the lights).

Here’s what struck me about the post.

So many folks who go to great lengths to talk about their faith VERY publicly as Christians, spend almost all of their time and energy talking about two issues – and two issues alone: abortion and homosexuality. More specifically, they tend to talk publicly about a specific position on each of those two issues (i.e. a “good” Christian vehemently opposes a women’s right to choose and the extension of human rights protections for LGBTQI people). That’s about all they talk about.

It would seem, however, that our Christian faith calls us to engage a host of other issues. I wondered, for instance, if my friend who was so morally outraged by the notion of redistributing wealth from the “haves” to the “have nots” had read Acts 2:45 that, in describing one of the earliest Christian communities, said, “They sold property and possession to give to anyone who had need” (NIV). I could only imagine how my friend would react if my friend’s pastor preached THAT text!

All of this got me to thinking about the many, many, many other issues that those who are so quick to pronounce their faith publicly are utterly silent about: things like immigration policy, environmental policy, public health policy relating to gun-violence, policies regarding affordable housing and health care …. The list of issues is nearly endless.

This leads me to ask you – my readers – two questions.

Why do you think some are so incredibly selective about the issues to which they apply their faith? And more importantly, what could we do to encourage people of faith to talk about other issues and how their faith informs their positions on those matters?

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Finding Our Way to the Good

In my downtime this Spring, I’ve started watching a new series called NOS4RA2. The series – broadcast on AMC – is based upon a story told by Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the pen name used by the son of author Stephen King. The name of the series is based upon a 1922 film by the name of Nosferatu: a silent movie that told one of the earliest vampire stories on film.

As I’ve watched the series unfold, there is a theological element of the story that fascinates me. One of the series’ primary characters – Charlie Manx – is a creature that draws life energy by preying upon children.

“What’s theological about that?” you ask.

What fascinates me most is how Charlie Manx justifies his actions to others. In recruiting a helper in the series’ second episode, for instance, he convinces his recruit that he is merely reaching out to children who had nightmarish home lives due to neglect or abuse. In other words, he convinces the recruit that he is really doing good, when he is in fact doing something heinous.

That element of the story is a sobering reminder of how dangerous it can be to put our ultimate trust – or faith – in a person. For it is so easy to get caught up in the righteousness of our cause, that we begin to lose sight of the bigger picture.

One of the most fascinating things I learned in seminary was the story of Karl Barth. Barth is considered one of the most famous theologians of the 20th Century. He is the father of a movement known as neo-conservatism.

The most interesting piece of Barth’s story for me is that he actually started out as a liberal in Germany in the days before the rise of the Third Reich. As the movement began to gain ground in the tumultuous years following the First World War, some liberals in Germany tacitly supported the movement. Other liberals simply failed to oppose it. In the process, they helped open themselves – and their country – to the rise of the Nazis. That’s why Karl Barth made a shift in his thinking and grew to place his ultimate faith in God, not humanity.

I’ve thought a lot about Barth’s story over the years.

Every 4 years, when we ramp up to elect a President, I find it intriguing to see the language that is used to put forth candidates. If you weren’t paying attention, one might conclude we are in the process of electing a Savior, or a Messiah – not a President: a figure who can fix everything for us.

I suppose that’s why some get so furious when their preferred candidate takes a position on an issue with which they disagree. It’s a painful reminder the individual isn’t “perfect”. And rather than revisit their unrealistic expectations, it’s easier to violently lash out at the candidate.

I’ve long ago abandoned the belief that our greatest hope lies in trusting the absolute goodness of a single person, or of humanity itself. While we human beings certainly ARE capable of tremendous acts of goodness, if we are rigorously honest with ourselves, we must admit we human beings are also capable of tremendous acts of harm. That includes even the very best of us.  Yours truly would be at the front of that line.

So as we move forward and deal with the challenging issues of our day, my fervent hope and prayer is that we will keep a sense of the Big Picture that prevents us from falling for those who would make grandiose promises about solving all our problems. For if we lose our sense of perspective, we might fall for “solutions” that are nearly as bad as the problems they seek to fix.

Only if we keep our eyes – and our spirits – focused on the Source of good, can we move in directions that truly represent the best part of ourselves as human beings.

So how about you? What guides you in ways that keep the Bigger Picture in mind – and prevents you from falling for troublesome solutions that feel good in the moment?

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One Faith-Based Perspective on Choice

I’ve been quiet for a while due to the demands of my vocational and personal lives. I thought I would take a moment and re-emerge.
So what have I been thinking about?
Many things: one of which is the recent surge in the attempt to ban all forms of safe and legal abortions. I have been a life-time supporter of women’s right to affordable and accessible comprehensive health care. That includes access to abortion services.
Some might be surprised to hear a pastor say that. If you listen to many in the media, you would think all Christians are opposed to abortion rights. Let me say this: they are not.
So how does a faithful Christian get to such a position?
Let me share a few thoughts and then invite you into the conversation.
First, the language we use in discussing the issue is incredibly important. I do not know of anyone in my inner circle who is pro-abortion. I know many, however, who are pro-choice.
What’s the difference between the two?
In my mind, a pro-abortion individual is someone who encourages women to get abortions since abortion represents the preferred option. Pro-choice means something very different. While a pro-choice individual might believe very strongly in the sanctity of life – and that she could never make such a decision herself, the pro-choice individual respects a woman and her loved ones’ right to choose the option that best fits their circumstance.
Second, I believe we begin the whole conversation about reproductive rights much later than we should. We wouldn’t have to talk as much about abortion, for instance, if we were willing to provide our youth with comprehensive information about sex and sexuality and give them age-appropriate access to various forms of contraception.
One of the greatest ironies in this matter is that those who are most opposed to abortion are often the same ones who are most opposed to comprehensive sex/sexuality education and access to contraception. As a result, they find themselves desperately trying to stop a problem they helped create!
Third, folks don’t often step back and think about the complexities of what Scripture has to say about the matter. I’ve heard many biblical literalists use passages from places like Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”) or Psalm 139:13 (“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb”) to make their case. They act as if that’s all Scripture says on the matter.
Such people forget another important aspect of Scripture: the part that talks about the punishment for adultery. It was common for folks in what many today call Old Testament times to stone those who committed adultery.
Now let’s stop and think for a moment. If life begins at conception (as pro-lifers frequently argue), and a child was conceived in the act of adultery – then the stoning sanctioned in Scripture was in effect terminating a pregnancy.
I say this simply to remind folks that the matter of “what the Bible says” in regard to terminating a pregnancy is far more complicated than some would have us believe.
Fourth, I believe efforts to outlaw abortions under all circumstance are attempts to ignore the undeniable complexities of life. While there are some who would have us believe there are only two crayons by which our lives are colored (black and white), the reality is that my Christian faith tells me there are many more colors involved.
Jesus knew that. That’s why his earthly ministry was FULL of examples when he reached inside his box of crayons and pulled out a wide range of colors. Let me give you just a few examples.
The people of Jesus’ day told him that it was wrong to heal on the sabbath. What did Jesus do? He healed on the sabbath. The people of Jesus’ day told him it was always wrong to extend effort to secure a meal on the sabbath. What did Jesus do? When the Pharisees attacked Jesus’ disciples for grabbing wheat on the sabbath to nourish their bodies, Jesus took the side of his disciples. The people of Jesus’ day told him it was wrong to talk to interact randomly with women and people of other ethnic traditions. What did Jesus do? He engaged the Samaritan woman at the well and the Syrophoenician woman and treated them as people worthy of his time and attention. Time after time, Jesus used the context of situations to push beyond accepted norms of his day.
The new stream of bills attempting to eradicate access to safe and legal abortions are no longer considering context at all. They are outlawing abortions in all circumstance: even those that are the result of rape and incest. And the saddest part is that many of the proponents of those bills are using Jesus’ name to justify their acts.
I hope that in these difficult times people of faith will summon the courage to speak their truth. For only when we provide a faith-based witness will people realize that Christians are NOT of one voice on this matter. And as we move forward, I hope we will do so with love and respect for all persons – especially those women and their loved ones who wrestle with some of the most challenging decisions of their lives.
So how about you? What do these matters raise for you?

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The Path of Love …

As my regular readers know, I have a HUUUUUUUUUUUGE passion for fostering relationships and communication between those with whom we disagree.  One of my readers sent me a link to an article that a family member shared with her.  The article is titled “Why I Do Not Hate Donald Trump”.  It was written by someone who – according to this world’s standards – would have ample reason to do that.  Here’s a link to the article: “Why I Do Not Hate Donald Trump”.  I hope you’ll take time to read it.

Here’s a few things that moved me about the article.

First, the message was put forward by someone you would NOT expect to write this article (i.e. someone easily identifiable on the Left or someone who works in a field you would expect such an article to come from).  By it’s very nature, the article challenges many of the assumptions about who would advance such a position – and whether or not such a position is viable “in the real world”.

Second, the article contains elements that show powerful honesty and profound vulnerability.  When the author talked about his long-time resistance to reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” – and his eventual willingness to read it – it reminded me how often I tend to read/absorb only material I expect to agree with.  Opening oneself to read/listen to the positions of those we perceive of as our opponents takes a lot of strength and moral courage.  For many of us, it’s a life-long process to develop the ability to do that.  Jim Baker modeled that willingness to grow – even in one’s later years!

And third, I think Jim Baker BEAUTIFULLY captures why the path of love is so much better than the path of hatred.  Here’s a portion of what Baker wrote.  “Loving someone with whom you disagree or whom you do not admire holds the potential for transforming that person for the better. But even if it appears to have no effect on the other person, loving transforms and frees the person who loves. It allows one to set down the exhausting weight of hatred, anger and disappointment. It is a proactive act. It means taking control of the situation. The reaction of President Trump and his supporters to love is inconsequential. By loving them—whether they accept, or reject, or mock the sentiment—the president’s opponents can move toward an agenda that they set, hopefully one that seeks to unite and serve all Americans. The Dalai Lama says that “[w]orld peace can only be based on inner peace. If we ask what destroys our inner peace, it’s not weapons and external threats, but our own inner flaws like anger. This is one of the reasons why love and compassion are important, because they strengthen us. This is a source of hope.”

So what does Jim Baker’s article raise for you?  In asking that question, I want my readers to know that my tendency NOT to respond to comments does not indicate I don’t appreciate or value your perspectives.  Rather, my goal is to simply start the conversation and then let others carry it forward.  My hope is that in this increasingly hostile and polarized world we can find our way back into relationship with one another.  Even with those whom we disagree!

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