Category Archives: Spirituality

Healing the Wounds of the Bible Belt – Revisted

This past week, Jamie Arpin-Ricci a fellow urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer, tweeted these words, “Everyone suffers from poor mental health at times. We’re not so different from those with mental illness.  End the stigma once & for all.”  Working with people who suffer from mental illness has helped me see the same reality that Jamie points to, “we all suffer from poor mental health at times.”

My family is no stranger to mental illness and I tweeted back to Jamie these words, “If we could do what you suggest, substance abuse would decline and our streets would be safer. I might also still have my dad.”  I have only blogged specifically on the issue of mental illness once and have only written of my father’s suicide in my book.  Jamie’s post challenged me to overcome my fear of judgment in the hope that we can reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  Last Memorial Day I posted this post on the subject of the church’s response to mental illness.  While many of you have read this story, I thought it was worth reposting.

I grew up un-churched in the heart of the Bible belt.  I become a Christian in my late twenties after a series of miscarriages launched me on a spiritual journey.  Even though I have been a part of the local church for more than 15 years, I still approach the church with the eyes of an outsider and a heart for those who, for whatever reason, have not found a home within the walls of the church.  I am particularly drawn to those who feel unwelcome and judged by the church.

I think this sensitivity toward the outcast is the result of a traumatic event that occurred in 1977 when I was only ten years old.  Douglas Miiller was my favorite uncle, we called him “funny Doug”.  He always had a way of making me laugh.  I will never forget getting my first bicycle.  I could not figure out how to ride it so my uncle Doug decided to show me.  He looked so funny on that tiny bike with his knees up around his shoulders.  He went riding down our drive way, lost control and crashed my brand new bike into a tree…that was not so funny.  Thankfully Uncle Doug was fine but the impact bent the front tire of my bike.  My uncle, whom I know was not a wealthy man, immediately went out and purchased me an even better bike, this one had a basket on the front and ribbons on the handle bars.  I loved my uncle Doug.

As a young man, Douglas Miiller was drafted into the army and served a tour of duty in Vietnam.  He never talked about his days in the military but I overheard the adults saying that, “it messed him up.”  I never really knew what they meant but in 1977, when he decided to end his life, this part of his past seemed to be the key to understanding why he had lived such a tortured life.  From my keen ability to ease drop on adult conversations, I learned that my uncle had a drinking problem which only contributed to his pain.

He was the first person I can remember losing to death.  Dealing with death is never easy, especially for a ten year old, but adding suicide to that equation makes it even more difficult.  As I mentioned, my family did not attend church so the only images of God available to me were those shared by family and friends who claimed to be Christians.  I will never forget hearing the words, “Your uncle is going to go to hell for what he did,” spoken by a child I thought was my friend.  This was the message the Church gave me during my time of grief.  These words wounded me so deeply that it was more than twenty years before I was willing to step foot in a church.

My call to create safe spaces for spiritual seekers grows out of this very early wounding by the messages of judgment that I heard as a child.  In my book, “From the Sanctuary to the Streets”, I have captured the stories of many people, who like my Uncle Doug, never found a home in the church walls but whose lives have enriched my own.  My prayer is that by sharing their stories I will bring honor to the lives of those who feel shut out, judged and cast off.  For those are the very people Jesus chose to identify with and spend time with.  It is in the presence of the “least of these” where I have seen the real “Church” come alive.

My prayer is that through the stories of those who do not feel welcome in the church with walls, pulpits and steeples, we will begin to see that the Church Universal is far bigger than the structures built by human hands.  It exists in the very people who seek to be Christ in the world and in the faces of those Christ identified with in Matthew 25; those who hunger and thirst, the stranger, the sick and those who are imprisoned.

I choose the image of the Vietnam memorial for this post to honor both those who have died in battle this Memorial Day weekend, but also those whom like my uncle had their lives shattered by war.  The lasting effects of the horrors of war continue on for generations.  In some ways, I myself am a victim both through the loss of my uncle and the effects that my uncle’s suicide had on my family, in particular my father who lost his youngest brother.

I pray for peace for all the families across the world who suffer due to war and I lift up a prayer for peace for all the nations.  May your Memorial Day be peaceful and blessed.

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Filed under Personal Reflection, Spirituality

A Search for Soul Food

Smoking Jointphoto © 2007 Wiros | more info (via: Wylio)My favorite way to spend a Friday night is to camp on the couch, set Pandora loose with one of my favorite songs and catch up with friends on Facebook and Twitter.  God always uses that background music to draw my attention to ordinary moments and turns them into divine encounters.

Today it was these words from the secular artist Jewell’s song “Little Sister” that got my attention:

My little sister is a Zombie in a body
with no soul in a role she has learned to play
in a world today where nothing else matters
but it matters, we gotta start feeding our souls
Not our addiction or afflictions of pain
to avoid the same questions we must
ask ourselves to get any answers
We gotta start feeding our souls
have been lost to the millions with lots
who feed on addiction selling pills and what’s hot
I wish I could save her from all their delusions
all the confusion
of a nation that starves for salvation
but clothing is the closest to approximation
to God and He only knows that drugs
are all we know of love

These words resonated deeply with my own reality.  We have been working hard with our friends in Hillside, many of whom have become like family to us.   Our friends voice a desire for employment, but like the “little sister” in Jewell’s song, are like Zombie’s whose bodies have been taken over by addiction.  Week after week I watch as good people make bad choices related to drugs.  Marijuana seems to be the drug of choice for many of our younger friends and no matter how clearly we articulate the dangers and consequences of abusing substances, they continue to act as if it does not matter.

Like the older sister in Jewell’s song, I wish I could save my friends from the delusions and confusion that plague the Hillside community.  I wish I could save people from the demon of drugs that is robbing them of the abundant life God desires for them.   As I was reflecting on my feelings of helplessness in this matter, the words “We gotta start feeding our souls” leaped out at me.

My very wise friend Charles Fitzgerald who has himself overcome a 33 year addiction through the support of The Healing Place program often says, “If you miss the spiritual part of the program, you miss the program.”  We all know the battle before us is spiritual in nature.  We can continue to invest tremendous energy into vocational mentoring and job readiness programs only to have substance abuse undermine those efforts for many of our friends or we can get serious about helping people feed their souls.  I am not sure yet what form that soul feeding will take.  I am just sensing God is calling us to focus our efforts in that direction at this season in our journey.

I would love your input into this conversation, especially those of you who have experienced challenges related to substance abuse personally or with family members and friends.

What kind of soul feeding helped you break free of drug addiction?  For those who have walked alongside those with addictions, what kind of soul care did your friend or family member find helpful?  What advice would you give us as we seek to come alongside those trapped in addiction?


Filed under Spirituality, Stories from the Street

Embracing the Grey

I knew Shelly before she went to jail and stayed in contact with her during the 18 months she was locked up.  She never talked much about her spirituality but the one thing she wanted me to bring her when she got arrested was her recovery Bible.  When she was finally released, I helped her find housing and hired her to help me at Embrace.

When Shelly proudly showed me her new, very large tattoo of a cross on her forearm with the word “embrace” in scroll curving over the cross, I know it was meant as a profession of faith and a token of gratitude for the relationship we had built over the years.  I later learned that as she battled her heroin addiction, she also craved the feeling of the needles piercing her skin.  The tattoo parlor became both her new drug of choice and her temporary path to sobriety.  The tattoo symbolized her faith in Christ and her continued bondage to the demon of addiction at the same time.  She had crossed from the black night of addiction, into the grey morning of early sobriety.

Within six months of this unorthodox profession, she attempted to take her own life. As we rushed her to the emergency room and sat with her as they treated her, I realized just how broken she was.  I had prayed countless prayers, shared with her in every way she was open to receiving it, the love of Christ and yet she remained a tortured soul.  She was slipping from grey to black, from the early light of morning to the darkness of night.

Upon her exit from the hospital, I took her into my home, welcomed her into my family, and loved her like a sister.  I poured myself into her but there was a depth of despair that I could not touch. While she did regain her will to live, the darkness had reclaimed her spirit.  When she ultimately slipped back into the dark world of addiction, I felt like a part of me went with her. I felt like I had failed her, not loved her enough, not prayed for her enough.  I other words, I had not been able to save her.  There is a secular song by The Fray called “How to Save a Life” and every time I hear it, I think of Shelly – the girl who taught me about the grey.

Prior to having Shelly for a friend, I thought the Christian faith was pretty black and white.  You either had Jesus in your life or you didn’t.  If you did, you automatically had triumph over the forces of darkness because “greater is the one in us.”  I had been taught “once saved” always “saved.”  Backsliders, I was taught, never fully embraced Jesus and so their profession really did not count.  But that was before I walked with Shelly in the grey.  Her relationship with Jesus though unorthodox was real, she embraced the light and begged it to overtake the darkness, yet the darkness triumphed.

As Shelly swallowed a bottle of pills seeking to end her life, Charles lay on the floor across town saying to himself, “if I have to live this way, I might as well be dead.”  As he contemplated suicide, the spirit of God directed him to The Healing Place, a residential recovery program based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.  There Charles met the “god of his understanding” and it was that nameless God that helped him overcome his 33 year drug addiction.  The AA big book became the only bible Charles has ever read, the fellowship of AA the only church he will ever be a member of.   My traditional church training would tell me that Charles does not know Jesus, but my spirit has told me otherwise.  Every morning Charles gets up at 5:30 to read his AA devotional book, greets the God who freed him from the darkness and sustains him in the light.  Every day I watch as he is being transformed into the likeness of Jesus by that same God who is daily transforming me.

Shelly and Charles helped me let go of my black and white, in or out, saved or unsaved way of thinking.  I think we all exist in the “now” and “not yet” of God’s redemptive grace.  Some have never been touched by the light, some have been touched but get drawn back into darkness, others follow a mysterious spirit into the light, while others of us follow the traditional path of being introduced to Jesus as the light. We all exist along a continuum of darkness to pure light with the majority of us existing in various stages of grey.  We are both a new person and being transformed at the same time.  We are saved from our sin and being saved.  We are all under construction and none of us have fully arrived.

When I let go of a dualistic, right or wrong, in or out, black and white way of thinking and began to see the things in varying stages of grey, I was freed of the need to be right, and the need to judge others as wrong.   I began to see God at work in unusual places using unorthodox approaches and speaking to me through unexpected people.  When I stopped judging or dictating how, when and through whom God could speak, I entered into a mystery where God was the only judge, the only truth, and the pure light.  I was free to follow God in ways my former black and white thinking would not have allowed.  I was free to love people without judgment in a way my right and wrong thinking would have rejected. I was free to embrace the light of Christ in people, places and situations that my former state of being would not have seen.  I have learned to admit that I simply do not have all the answers and this truth has set me free.

This post is part of a synchroblog about some of the things we’ve let go of along the way in our spiritual journeys and what we’re learning in the process.

What have you let go of in your spiritual journey and what have you learned in the process?

Read how others have answered this question:


Filed under Spirituality

I Have a Dream that John Piper and Rob Bell will one day walk side by side in the Kingdom of God both here on earth and in the age to come

Rob Bell’s newest book “Love Wins” has set off a fire storm of ridicule and name calling from the religious right.  In an effort to take the high road in this debate, Rachel Held Evans has invited bloggers to participate in a Synchroblog which she has titled “The Rally to Restore Christian Unity.”  This post is a part of that effort.

If you have been reading my blog for any period of time, you know that Christian unity is something that I have struggled with a lot over the past year and have written on frequently.  As I shared in my post “Ouch that Hurts”, for a season I gave up on this thing called Christian unity.   I have defined unity in a number of ways through the years, all with equally disastrous results.

Early on I naively thought that if we all just believed in the Bible, we would achieve Christian unity.  That was way back when I thought there was only one way to read the Bible and thought that everyone who read it interpreted it the same way.  I know – I was really green back then.

After many painful theological debates with those whose bibles emphasized different passages than mine did, I gave up on theological unity.  I decided missional unity was the way to go.  This approach yielded some success, such as a diverse group of Christians agreeing that children should not sleep on the floor in our city and working together to address this issue.  But, this perceived unity was very shallow.  As we got into the deeper issues of how to solve the systemic issues causing poverty in our city, some advocated focusing on “personal salvation” while others focused on “community transformation.”  Ultimately this debate resulted in one friend labeling me a socialist and another accusing me of not being “Christian” enough.  So, I have abandoned “missional” unity as pathway to Christian unity.  I do however applaud Rachel Held Evans for using this rally to promote missional unity through her clean water emphasis and encourage you all to participate.

The personal attacks on my character have died down.  Basically, we have an agreement.  Those who oppose my views will not attack me personally on my Facebook page or blog and I will not blog about their attacks.  We have agreed to disagree or basically ignore each other.  While that is far more peaceful for all of us, is that really we mean by Christian “unity?”

As I have prayed about this issue this week, images of another form of unity keep coming to my mind.  In my context, racial unity has been a significant challenge and a blessing.  Christians today would never define racial unity as simply co-existing, nor would we ever seek unity that eliminates the diversity of cultural heritage.  No, the unity we seek is one of mutual respect, equal voice, a place at the table for all.

In order for that kind of “unity” to be achieved, those in power had to relinquish control and those with no voice had to be elevated.  In our nations struggle toward racial unity there was a season of tremendous strife, fighting, name calling and discontent.  Things got really ugly before the beauty of a new season of unity could be realized. We still have a long way to go and I know this analogy is limited.

However, I think there is a very real parallel to what we are seeing today in the Christian dialog.  Those who have traditionally controlled the telling of the Christian narrative are being challenged by those who emphasize different elements of our mutual story.  As Jimmy Spencer Jr. noted, both sides love Jesus too much to simply remain silent.

While I hate the name calling, judgment and fighting as much as anyone, Christian unity is NOT “just getting along.” It is not pretending we all agree.  It is not ignoring each other. It is not pretending our differences are minor.  It is not the absence of diversity of thought.  It is not easy.  It does not require we sell out or give up our own beliefs.   It is messy.  It is painful.  It does require we respect one another.  It will require more voice be given to those historically excluded from the conversation.  It may require a shift in the power structures that currently control the Christian dialog. It is a mystery.   It is spiritual in nature.  It is worth the pain.  It is God’s desire.  It is achievable through Christ spirit.

To achieve racial unity, Dr. King called on the nation to envision a world different than the one they lived in.  The powerful imagery found in his “I Have a Dream” speech, inspired a nation to advance toward that vision.   So here is my dream, “I have a dream that one day Christians will be free to express their ideas about God without being called heretics. I have a dream that Christians of every theological position will one day seek unity of the spirit while allowing diversity in theology.  I have a dream that one day men, women, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, conservative, moderate, and progressive will gather at the same table without throwing food at each other.  I have a dream that one day Brian McLaren, Al Mohler, Rob Bell and John Piper will be joined by female and minority voices in debates that impact us all.  I have a dream that the Lion of Judah will lie down with the Lamb of God and God’s justice will be served through God’s lavish love of us all.”


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

Personal Salvation or Social Revolution?

We have shrunk Jesus to the size where He can save our soul but now don’t believe He can change the world. – Anonymous

I am still processing Jimmy Spencer Jr.’s post, “Digging Deeper: The Coming Evangelical Split“ which I shared a little about in my most recent post.  One of the insights that Spencer shared was that the split seems to be forming along the line of what he terms “methodology.”  He sees the divide as “scripture” verse “practice” which are terms I am not sure I would have used but the distinction between the two camps rang true to me.

Spencer writes:

The Traditional View: Christianity is a set of beliefs that are rooted in the inerrant Word of God, the Bible. The scriptures are the primary filter thru which traditional evangelicals engage others, and metaphorically ‘hold it tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.

The Progressive View: Christianity is a lifestyle modeled by Jesus—to be imitated and practiced. Growth happens in community first and foremost thru practice. Social justice and practice are metaphorically ‘held tightly and heavily’ in their right hand.

I find this comparison interesting because at different times in my life, I have identified with both positions.  In my early walk as a Christian, I attended a very “traditional evangelical” church that rooted me and grounded me in scripture which I am very grateful for.  However, God’s call led me to take that foundation and build on it through my call to social justice oriented ministry.  My theology and faith is now grounded in scripture but deeply shaped by practice.  For me, scripture was the raw material God used but it was only through practice that these materials took shape in my life.  I think most mature “progressives” would say the same thing.

As I have reflected on Spencer’s post, I was reminded of the book “The Hole in our Gospel”, by Richard Stearns the president of World Vision.  Stearns crafts one of the most compelling arguments for the centrality of every Christian’s call to social justice.  Below, are a few insights gleaned from Stearns:

 “If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith – and mine – has a hole in it.  Christ’s words in the Lords prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call of Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now. (Matt. 6:10)  This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals.  It means a social revolution.”

“It’s not what you believe that counts, it’s what you believe enough to do.”

I think seeing this debate between progressives and traditionalist as either “scripture” or “practice” is flawed.  I think those from the “traditionalist” side of the debate are dismissing “progressives” by claiming that they are not biblical.  However, if you listen to the progressive voices who are living out their faith through practice, you will find that their faith is deeply rooted in scripture.

None of the progressives that I know would be engaged in social ministries if they were not seeking to be faithful to the biblical teachings of Jesus to “love our neighbors.”  I do however concur with Spencer’s assessment that scripture is held more loosely by those in the practice camp.  I think that is because it is really hard to judge those you are seeking to love with the love of Christ.  In other words, when the “sinner” is standing in front of you and has a face, a name, and a story, it is really hard to tell them they are going to hell if they do not repent of their wicked ways.  In working with those so easily judged by the “traditionalist” camp, I am often humbled by their journey and honestly do not know what I would do if their shoes.  They cause me to realize just how short I fall of faithfully living out my faith.  That is where the rub started for me and in the end “love” won.  I realized pretty quickly that I have no right to judge anyone and decided to simply be Christ in the world as best I could and leave the rest up to God.

I think the more helpful distinction in this debate is found in Stearn’s words.  It is the distinction between “proclaiming the good news” and “being the good news.”  It is a shift in focus from “saving” others to “being” Christ to others.  Of course, the real question becomes, “What is the good news?”  For traditionalist, it is personal salvation with an emphasis on the afterlife and for progressives it is social revolution that transforms all of creation now.  Most traditionalists I know are primarily interested in what you say you believe, whereas most progressives are more interested in what you believe enough to do.

While all labels and generalizations have limitations.  Without this kind of naming, we would never be able to understand the shifts and growing tensions that are causing the divisions within the Body.  Without understanding these growing divides, we will never be able to hear each other or respect each other.  While I don’t agree with some parts of Spencer’s analysis, I am thankful for his willingness to name these trends and for the opportunity to add my own thoughts to the discussion.


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

Bullied No More!

bullying-739607photo © 2008 Pimkie | more info (via: Wylio)
Jimmy Spencer Jr.’s writes in his post, “Digging Deeper: The Coming Evangelical Split“:

I think Love Wins has triggered this coming landslide, shifting the landscape enough to expose the already growing split of methodology and theology. I think this erosion was what George Barna recorded in his book Revolution years ago. Many of my international friends have already experienced this shift across the world as this shift is just starting to come light to the United States.

This is about the right to control and frame the story of Jesus.

I’ve got news for you…

Neither side will relinquish their right to that.

Because they both love Jesus too much.

Spencer does a good job of defining the two loudest “voices” within the current evangelical debates as either “traditional evangelicals” or “progressive evangelicals.”  While the article is great and I encourage you to read it, I found the comments even more helpful.

While Spencer presents the debate in a somewhat neutral voice, most of those who commented were of the more “progressive” persuasion, which is not surprising considering that the post appeared on Tony Campolo’s blog Red Letter Christians. I think for some, this was a coming out experience.  As Spencer notes in the article many progressives are “closeted” both inside and outside the church.  As I read the comments, I felt an overall sense of liberation just by seeing people willing to voice their views openly and honestly.

I think many progressive Christians have felt their voice has been stifled by the more traditional evangelicals and I know many who have left the church for this very reason.  Some, myself included, have remained silent for fear of being ostracized.  I am thankful for folks like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell who are willing to take the heat so that the rest of us can find our voice. Over the years, I have been bullied and even threatened by the “traditionalist” hardliner’s for even entertaining the ideas shared by more progressive theologians and practitioners.  However, as more people step forward and call their bluff, I become more confident that I can do the same.

I don’t know if Spencer’s prediction of a split is accurate or not but I think we all can feel things shifting beneath our feet.  I suspect as people find their voice the divide between these two camps will become better defined.  I pray we all learn to love and respect one another despite our differences – as brothers and sisters in Christ.  As Spencer says, “we all love Jesus too much to relinquish our right to tell His story.”  We are just telling the story from different vantage points.


Filed under Spirituality, Theology

The Spiritual Practice of Trailblazing

Every year I pick a project out at our land.  Two years ago, I choose to build a wood deck out of scrap lumber.  In building the deck, which jets out over the side of the ridge, I learned the importance of balance and I also learned how to use a level and a plumb line.  I have never built anything in my life and though my husband offered to help me, I did not let him.  I wanted to see if I could build something all on my own.  I also insisted on using rocks as well as recycled and discarded materials we had around the property.  One reason is because I am really cheap but more importantly I wanted to put these items to good use. I hate to see things go to waste.

Sunday has become “family day at the land.”  So, I spent my “Sabbath” building this deck.  I once heard someone say that if you work with your hands then engage your mind on your Sabbath and if you work with your mind, engage your hands on your Sabbath.  So, rather than reading books or listening to sermons, I decided to get physical.  And, you know what?  I not only loved it, but miraculously my deck is still standing!

As I worked on this deck, I did so very prayerfully.  It was a season of challenges for me.  I was working both as the director of the CARITAS Furniture Bank and Embrace Richmond and what I realized is that no matter how hard I tried to find balance, it was simply too heavy a work load.  Just like building on the side of a steep ridge, I could not get my footing. I needed to get my life leveled out, I needed to find balance again.  It was that spring when I finally let go of the Furniture bank.  I can now sit on that deck and be reminded of the peace that comes when life is in balance.

Last year I decided to build a rock patio between the cabin and the deck.  It is made up of rocks from our property.  They are all different shapes, sizes, colors and types.  I found great joy in figuring out what sizes and shapes to put together to arrive at a level surface.  Those on the downhill side are more than 9 inches thick while those on the uphill side are less than ½ an inch.  I had to dig in the dirt to accommodate the strange shapes and study the sides to find complementary shaped rocks to fit together.

Through this exercise God spoke to me about the place and value of every human being in the created order.  I was in the process of engaging the residents of Hillside Court with the dream of one day having a team made up fully of Hillside residents who were meeting the many needs of their neighbors.  My new friends were all so unique, their gifts often over looked or undeveloped.  As we began to pull them together, a beautiful mosaic was created much the way my rock patio came together. Like my patio, building this kind of organic ministry is messy and requires that each person be seen as a unique individual with their own special gift as well as a part of a collective whole.

This year, I have taken up trail blazing.  Our property is on a very steep ridge overlooking a beautiful creek.  However there is no easy path to the water.  The shortest path would lead you straight down the side of the ridge and you would likely break your neck trying to get down that way.  I decided that I wanted a path that would snake all along the side of the ridge and would allow people to see all the beautiful scenic spots my family has discovered through the years. I also wanted the path to have a gentle slop so that when I am older, I will be able to walk on it.

Like all my building projects, God begin speaking to me as I worked on the path this past weekend.  The first thing I had to do was clear away the leaves from the portion of the path I started earlier this year. I have learned that if a trail is not traveled it will disappear.  Once I got to the new section of the trail, I had to use a hoe type ax to cut into the side of the ridge then pull the dirt back then pack the dirt down to make a level foot path.  It is hard work and slow going.

As I was blazing away, it dawned on me that not very many people would find trail blazing all that much fun.  I pondered why for me it was so rewarding. I realized that the work it’s self is not what kept me going but the realization that someday, others would walk this path and experience the beauty of this place I have grown to love.  There are parts of our property that are currently very difficult to reach but these places are also some of the most breathtaking and interesting.

There are three kinds of wilderness explorers; the pioneers who prefer to go off the beaten trail and rarely return to the same place twice, the trail blazers like me who find wonderful treasures and want to share them with the world and those who walk the pathways others have blazed.  All are equally important.  My husband is a pioneer.  He told me about some of these wonderful spots and coaxed me into making the effort to see them.  Without him, I likely would never have discovered them.  I have also learned that without those who walk these pathways, my hard work will simply disappear under the debris that collects on the forest floor.

I find joy in being a trail blazer both literally and figuratively.  Life is filled with treasures that cannot be experienced by simply driving down the paved roads of life – they are found along paths that are invisible to most and traveled by few.   Sometimes you have to get out of your car or go beyond you church walls.  You have to climb up a mountain and open yourself up to the mystery that awaits you.

Very few people are going to do the kind of climbing that my husband had to do to find the places on my trail.  Likewise few people seem to be willing to put themselves in the situations that lead to deep spiritual insights.  I have learned that if I want people to discover the mystery of Christ who dwells among the least, I have to build pathways for them to follow.  I also have to create signs along the way so they don’t get lost and places to rest so they can marvel at the beauty of it all.

Some think we have plenty of pathways and see my trail blazing activities as a distraction.  Others think I have blazed far enough and need to build a house and camp out for a while.  However, I realized this past weekend that I was created to blaze trails both physical ones and spiritual ones.  As long as people continue to race past the beauty of God’s created world and as long as there is a gap between this earth and God’s Kingdom come, then there will be a need for trail blazers.

I really wish you all could see all that I saw as I blazed my trail this weekend.  The trees are still without their leaves and I was high up the ridge overlooking a pasture beside a spring fed creek.  It was a clear day and I could see from my ridge to the next.   I pray God leads you all down a few new paths in the near future and that you behold the beauty of God’s creation and experience the mystery of God’s presence in these wild and untamed places.

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They Are Not Lazy and They Don’t Want to be Entertained

Contemplationphoto © 2009 Monica Arellano-Ongpin | more info (via: Wylio)Recently I got into a heated discussion with a friend.  She claimed that the Pentecostal style evangelical movement was the fastest growing denominational expression in the country and thus must be a movement of God.  I shared my belief that the “formerly churched” contingent was actually the fastest growing sector of Christianity and asked if the same assumption could be made, “Does that mean people leaving churches is a movement of God?”

She then proceeded to discount the fact that millions of Christians have checked out of church saying, “You can’t count them.  They are all just lazy and would rather play golf than to give time to God.”  Well, that got me a bit heated because I have a lot of formerly churched friends and none of them choose not to go to church on Sunday because they are simply lazy.

Most of my “de-churched” friends are still devout Christians and I would put their walk with God above that of most every Sunday church goers.  I actually know quite a few folks who have checked out of Church but whose spirituality is deeper now than it ever was before.  I know many of my pastor friends are going to hate this post, but stick with me a minute.

Many of the people I know who have left the church did so because they were seeking something more.  I actually think much of what I have witnessed among my friends and in my own church going experience is a backlash to the “seeker” movement which bred consumerism within the church.

In the 1990’s, we were told to think about church as business competing against the many entertainment options people have on Sunday.  We began to market the church as such.  We advertised our amazing “programs” and our “relevant, casual atmospheres.”  We sought to make church easier, less demanding, more entertaining and for many this worked.  This approach led to the rise of the mega-church phenomenon.  I’ll admit, I was a big supporter back in the day.  It made sense to my business brain.  I never calculated the long-term cost of this philosophy of ministry.

Many mega-church leaders have become master showmen.  They are highly engaging, their messages meet our felt needs and they make us feel good just for showing up on Sunday.  They ask only for our presence in worship, our tithes, and our willingness to bring our friends to church.

At one point, I joined the missions committee of one of these churches and the most significant request they made of me was that I bake cookies for my neighbors and invite them to an upcoming Easter Egg hunt.  I remember thinking, “Wow, Stephen was stoned, Paul beaten and imprisoned and my big sacrifice is baking cookies!?!”

Needless to say, I did not find much fulfillment at that church and we left shortly thereafter.  Many would see my “church hopping” as a negative and would say I was treating the church like a consumer product.  I guess in a way they would be correct.  I was seeking a church that actually expects those who call themselves Christ followers to live in such a way that the world would see Jesus.  Perhaps some would answer the question, “What would Jesus be doing in 2011?”, as “baking chocolate chip cookies and hosting an Easter egg hunt.” However, I just could not reconcile the Jesus of the bible with the kinds of Christ followers being produced by these churches.

I know many people have come to Christ in these Churches and I am not knocking them.  I am just pointing out that “Christianity lite” is not right for everyone.  While I admit that many have left the church out of boredom and are now on the golf courses or at the soccer field on Sunday morning, I do think there is a significant number who left for the same reason I left the cookie baking club.  I left because I want to spend my time following Jesus.   As I shared last week, following Jesus leads me into times of solitude in the wilderness and times of solidarity with the poor and oppressed.   For me, Christianity is deeply spiritual and profoundly committed to social justice.  I have found this combination hard to come by in the institutional expressions of the churches I have attended.

Though my question to my friend, “Does that mean that people leaving churches is a movement of God?”, was said tongue in cheek.  I honestly think that the answer might be “yes.” Many of the people I know have not given up on following Jesus, they have simply felt called to go deeper in their walk.  They are choosing to follow Jesus in ways that are different than our traditional “church going” images. In a way, the church did what it was supposed to do.  It made them hungry for more and sent them out into the world to live out their call. Rather than judge that decision, I think we should be celebrating it.

I wish rather than Christian’s greeting one another with the question, “Where do you go to Church?” we instead ask, “Where do you see Jesus?”  While I do experience Christ presence within the church walls, I also see Jesus in the faces of the people I work with and in the trees under which I seek God’s presence.  I see Jesus in the budding “beloved community” we are ushering into existence in Hillside court and expressed in God’s reconciling work all around me.  I also hear it in your comments on this blog and hope you will share with me any thoughts, ideas or insights you have into this subject.


Filed under missional church, Spirituality

Mud Slinging Christians: Dreaming of Another Way

muddy shoesphoto © 2006 Ivy Lique | more info (via: Wylio)I grew up outside the church and one of the things that kept me out of the church for many years was the divisions among Christians.

I came to faith in an ELCA Lutheran Church in my late 20’s, attended a Methodist Church for many years, and was on staff at an evangelical non-denominational seeker church for a while.  I started a women’s ministry consisting of women from all different denominations.  I have a spiritual mentor who is Catholic, and I graduated from a Cooperative Baptist Seminary.  I now spend my days with those who met God through Alcoholics Anonymous and who experienced God’s healing touch in ways I can never fully comprehend.  Most of those who call themselves Christians in my urban context are from a Pentecostal background.

I have spoken and worked with congregational groups across the spectrum from very liberal to ultra conservative and have found things about all of them I love.  As my love of diverse expressions of the Christian tradition has grown, my distaste for the divisive, exclusive, judgmental ways in which various groups treat one another has also grown.

As I shared in my post “Will Gandhi Burn?”, Rob Bell is taking a lot of heat from those in power in the evangelical right but the ugliness is spreading.  I read this week that a Methodist minister got fired just for blogging about Bell’s book.  I also read a very insightful post by Drew G.I. Hart that views all this infighting as a power struggle among the white male evangelicals for control of religious dialog in this country.  No matter how you view it, I am just tired of the constant bickering.  I think it is distracting us from our real call to be reconcilers who work together to usher in the Kingdom of God here and now.

I dream of an expression of the Christian tradition where people from all different theological positions and who have taken all different types of paths to God can respect and love one another.  I think the only way this kind of unity will ever occur is for us all to accept that none of us are God and none of us truly have the mind of Christ.  I think the thing most lacking in our religious dialog is humility – thus my whole point in writing “Will Gandhi Burn?”

Last week I attended my first Quaker service.  I was invited to share a little about Embrace Richmond with a group that has been supporting our work for many years.  After the service, I engaged in an extensive email dialog with an acquaintance who is Quaker.  He was gracious enough to share with me the Quaker beliefs.  From what I can see, their beliefs are incredibly open to a diversity of theological positions.  I guess the only way we will ever achieve Christian unity is not to open our mouths!  I love the idea of simply connecting spirit to spirit with other Christians.  I am not sure how it plays out in the broader Christian context.  Maybe I need to hang out with my Quaker friends a bit more.

So while I am dreaming, my ideal expression of Christianity would embrace people wherever they are on their spiritual journey – liberals, conservatives, agnostics, atheists, etc.  However, it would encourage all to grow in Christ likeness (or love, the spirit, the light or whatever word people identify with what I know as the Holy Spirit) by engaging them in the work of reconciliation.  These “reconcilers” would seek to heal a broken world and usher in God’s Kingdom through relationships across race, class and religious beliefs.  I envision diverse groups of people who come together to address the brokenness of our world through very real, tangible projects such as increasing affordable housing, creating jobs for people with barriers, helping urban youth escape the cycle of poverty. The most important element of these groups is not the “project” or “mission” but the fact that we bring together people who are radically diverse and learning to hear, love and respect one another.  These types of reconciling relationships will do more to usher in “The Kingdom of God” than anything we “achieve” through our efforts.

The final element of my dream expression of the Christian tradition would foster deep, life giving spiritual practices such as contemplative prayer, meditation on Divine writings and the fostering of spiritual experiences.  As I shared in a recent post, spending time alone in nature feeds my soul.  I can see people alone in the wilderness, sitting in urban gardens and resting in God in their living rooms.  As we rest, I trust that we will experience God’s spirit in powerful ways.   Like my Quaker friends I think we spend way too much time talking about God and not nearly enough time experiencing the healing, life giving presence of Christ spirit within us.  Silence, reflection, meditation and contemplation open us up to these experiences far more effectively than debating theology and dissecting passages of scripture.

I would of course love to see people gather so those who feel led can share their spiritual experiences with the group through the ancient practice of testimony.  I have recently participated in a group that used group spiritual direction as a way of sharing spiritual insight and found it spiritually nurturing and far more effective at bringing about spiritual conversations than the traditional small group curriculum.  I think learning to share our unique experiences of God is both nurturing to those sharing and enriching to the broader community.

So that is my dream.  Not sure if this dream will ever become a reality but if you have read my book you know I am a dreamer.  I have been blessed to have been a part of so many expressions of the Christian tradition and the diversity of my experience has enriched my spirituality.  However, it makes me hungry for places where we can all come together and appreciate how God moves in and through each of our Christian expressions.   I actually think my Quaker friends may offer the expression closest to my dream.  Perhaps I if I spend a bit more time with them, God will use their openness and commitment to peace and justice to teach me how to better unite the broader body of Christ in both action and contemplation.

Just imagine what God could do with a united Body that loved and respected all God’s children?  That is what I dream of and pray I get to experience in my own little corner of the world.  Perhaps I will only see it in our work in Hillside Court but I do hope God allows us to start a movement that will sweep across this city.  I don’t expect this movement of unity and reconciliation to come from the superstars of the faith like Piper and Bell.  I think it will be the little people like me and my friends at Embrace and as I shared on Friday, it will be a very quiet revolution – not nearly as entertaining to watch as the Bell and Piper debate but far more sustainable and life giving.


Filed under missional church, Personal Reflection, Spirituality

A Quiet Revolution

My post “Will Gandhi Burn” launched me on a journey – a journey toward understanding the bigger vision of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things. Last week I shared some of the biblical foundation for our call to be reconcilers.  However, that post did not go quite far enough in defining the practical realities of living our lives as “reconcilers” of a broken world.  This week I picked up Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice’s book, “Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing” and was both challenged and encouraged by some of what they had to say.

“Reconciliation is an invitation into a long and fragile journey.  It is not a “solution” or an end product, but a process and an ongoing search.  We find ourselves pilgrims in search of something better in a divided world. Reconciliation flows from hope – hope that the way things are is not the way things have to be.

Recently Charles and I were invited to speak on the topic of racial reconciliation.  I actually found this topic to be somewhat uncomfortable because “racial reconciliation” is so often seen as a “goal” to be achieved verses a journey to be embarked on.  As I reflected on the topic, I realized that I did not set out to “reconcile” the racial divide.  I simply felt called to hang out with people who had a different story to tell.  In their stories I came face to face with the same Jesus I had come to know and love.  It was through our common identity as children of God that we connected across race and class.  It was through this shared identity that we began to see one another as sisters and brothers.

I have also learned that reconciliation is a two way street.  It was as difficult for Charles to cross over into a white middle class community as it was for me to feel at home in an African American inner city neighborhood.  However, we were both pilgrims called on the same journey through the hope that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.

“The journey of reconciliation begins with seeing that reconciliation is not the goal of human striving but is instead a gift God longs for us to accept.  God’s mission of reconciliation challenges, moves beyond, and even explodes the conventional distinctions. The more Christians are able to ground reconciliation as a journey with God from old toward new, the more we are able to recover the indispensible gifts that sustain that journey and make it possible.”

This past week we had a listening session around the topic of safety in Hillside court, one of the most violent neighborhood’s in our city.  There were black, white, rich and poor all present in that room.  My Hillside friends could have easily said, “You do not belong here!  What do you know about life in Hillside Court?” Honestly, that is what was running through my mind.  However, we were able to be reconciled in our willingness to go on a journey together with God as we move from the “old Hillside” to the vision of a “new Hillside.”  A vision where God’s people stand hand in hand and beseech God to bring peace to this wounded community.  On Wednesday there were no newspaper reporters, no fanfare, but I do believe we started a quiet revolution to reclaim the streets of Hillside Court and make them safe for the next generation.

“A Christian vision insists that reconciliation is ultimately about the transformation of the everyday- a quiet revolution that occurs over time in everyday people, everyday congregations, everyday communities, amid the most broken places on God’s earth.  God’s life-giving vision grows out of a story; and that story is about a quieter revolution.  We must gain the eyes to see this hope because this quiet revolution often happens under the radar screen.”

The picture above is of that quiet revolution.  It is a photo of my friend John cooking with a volunteer from Salisbury Presbyterian Church.  John is a resident of Hillside Court, one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in our city while Salisbury is one of the wealthiest communities in Metro Richmond.  Through the everyday act of cooking together, God’s mysterious spirit is reconciling our city and writing a new story.  This quiet revolution is being sparked by boundary crossers like John who believe that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down,  but not destroyed…therefore we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:8-9,16). We’re able to not lose heart because we look beyond the now, beyond the visible, and remember the story of God. Without that story, we would be overwhelmed, crushed, destroyed.  That is why stepping back from relentless activism is essential in order to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” “

As I shared in my post “A Voice Calling in the Wilderness”, I have developed a regular rhythm of stepping back and reflecting through my time in the wilderness.  We have also built into our Embrace team schedule times of reflecting on what God is doing in our midst and inviting God to ground us in truth as we seek to join God in the unfolding story of our city.  These times of meditation and reflection have radically transformed our team over the past year and have taught us to listen not only to one another but to that still small voice that is the power behind all we see and do.  It is only in remembering that the story the world sees, a story of murder and violence is not the only story unfolding.  This quiet revolution is tapping into the unseen story of God’s reconciling spirit that is changing Hillside Court from a community terrorized by fear to one triumphant through God’s power.

“The problem with individualistic Christianity is what we call “reconciliation without memory,” an approach that ignores wounds of the world and proclaims peace where there is no peace (see Jer 8:11).  This shallow kind of Christianity does not take local places and their history of trauma, division and oppression seriously.  It abandons the past too quickly and confidently in search of a new future.  This  insufficient version of Christian mission or reconciliation without memory,  jumps over the past too quickly by offering cheap grace to those who have done wrong and never repented.”

Over the past several months we have been listening deeply to our Hillside friends and trying to understand the fears they have that hold them in bondage to terrorist forces in their community.  When we had a conversation about neighborhood watch we heard, “I don’t want to be seen with police…I don’t want to be a snitch…I keep to myself and I stay safe that way.”  When we asked our team to pass out flyers, they expressed fear over being associated with any conversation about safety.  I realize now that we were seeking “reconciliation without memory.”

As we listened more deeply I discovered a very real fear of the police.  Many of the residents had been harassed by the police in the past and had little confidence in the police department’s ability to protect them from the criminal element.  I finally understood why my friends were so resistant to any safety solution that required them to collaborate with the police.  As we listened to their traumatic memories, we allowed space for a different means of reconciliation to take shape.

We discovered that the residents cared deeply for their children and felt called to create safer streets by simply providing more adult presence outside with the children and by also supporting the single mothers in the community.  This is not the direction I thought the conversation would go but it clearly a better starting place for the community.  We never would have found this path toward peace had we not listened to their experiences and pain.

“The Christian practice of reconciliation has to do with recovering a posture of receptivity and gratitude as a key virtue – the original virtue – for Christians living in a divided world.  The story of Scripture hangs on this theme of movement toward new creation. We must give ourselves and others time and space to become new people.  We need one another to become all that Christ has called us to be. This is work in which we learn to lay down our lives for the sake of a deeper hope breaking into the world. However weak it may seem to us, we are called to work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of the enemy.  Unless a Christian pursuit of peace and reconciliation constantly points to this story of “the battle is the Lord’s,“ it can never be sustained.”

I think developing a posture of openness is the key in everything we have done at Embrace.  As we remain open and receptive to the stories of people whose journey is very different than our own, we allow ourselves to be transformed into reconcilers.  As reconcilers we are able to usher in a new reality.  In the case of Hillside this reality would be a community where fear does not rule the streets.  I pray my Hillside friends grow in confidence knowing that “the battle is the Lord’s” as we all work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of our enemies.

I am only half way through this wonderful book but hope to share more insights next week.

Do you see God’s Kingdom breaking into our divided world?  Are you called to be an agent of reconciliation in your own city?  What challenges have you faced?  What breakthroughs are you seeing?

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Filed under Community Development, Spirituality, Theology