Heart Sounds: Who is the Spiritual Life for?

Episode 19 (9:07)

Turning to the “who” question, we find that the spiritual life is for everyone and everything. In this episode we look at both of those dimensions, with the aim of showing the attractiveness and attainability of the spiritual life.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1

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Shepherd’s Care: Creativity

I believe the future of the Church turns on how creative we are willing to be. The pandemic has suspended “business as usual” for institutional Christianity. If we return to it as things open up, we will have failed to discern a moment of opportunity. Among its many problems and challenges, the pandemic has produced a “new wineskins” moment for the Body of Christ. The institutional Church has a window of opportunity to decide whether it will do patchwork on the old skins or do Spirit work in the new skins. We have a choice to be brittle or better.

The Church has been here many times before because it is ‘semper reformanda’ (always being reformed), moving from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). Church history provides a mixed report with respect to creativity. What becomes of the Church in the future will undoubtedly be another tale of success and failure. Institutional Christianity always battles the temptation to make the status quo a sacred cow, and the lure of bureaucratic preservation is strong. The future of the Church will be determined by whether we see it mainly as an organization or as a organism—whether we view it as a machine that needs fixing or a movement that needs advancing. [1] The future of the Church will be shaped by how creative we are willing to be.

I ministered and taught before, during, and after the Church Growth movement was on the ecclesial scene. With respect to Spiritual Formation, I had to assess its vision, values, and ventures through the lens of classic spirituality. And not surprisingly, the movement exhibited both sickness and health.

On the healthy side, the Church Growth movement understood the necessity of creativity. One of its hallmarks was “seeker sensitivity.” Using things like felt-need surveys, congregations developed worship services, recovery ministries, small group experiences, and mission efforts to attract and care for seekers.

I believe the future of the Church pivots on its willingness to remain “seeker sensitive,” but in a way that will demand courage and risk on our part. The tables have turned. Those whom we identify as seekers are increasingly looking for God outside the Church’s walls. Seekers are more likely to be “nones or dones” than they are to be visitors or newbies.

Seeker-sensitivity these days will be more about being missional than attractional. The oft-cited failures of institutional Christianity have turned many away, and it will take a long time to repair the damage and restore confidence in it. [2] While being involved in restorative efforts, the more immediate and pressing need is to follow the seekers as they exit our buildings, and “offer them Christ’ in new places and ways.

This kind of creativity is going to call some churches to rethink brick-and-mortar Christianity. Saddled with debt, insurance payments, maintenance costs, and utility bills, many congregations are financially exhausted before they get to square-one considerations of beyond-the-walls ministry. And even if they have some money for mission, they increasingly see that those funds would be much larger if they did not have to pay so much to “keep the lights on.”

In this respect, signs of creativity are emerging, some even before the pandemic began. Congregations are repurposing property and sometimes selling it as a way to be less burdened by the high costs for empty space. The future of the Church will (for more and more congregations) be determined by whether or not they can be healed of building envy.

Watching churches do this, I am encouraged by a recovery of vision for house-church Christianity—the kind that defined Christianity for its first several centuries. Dave Barnhart’s book, ‘Church Comes Home’ is a witness to this renewed vision, as well as a guide for implementing house-church ministry today. [3] The pandemic has added its own insights as to the viability of at-home Christianity. We have seen that we can work…and worship…from home. This realization can be a way forward for a new kind of Church. [4]

The crucial factor in developing creativity is to remain seeker-sensitive, but to do so in a new way that understands many are no longer coming to church, not to avoid God, but rather in order to find God. The Church of the future will survive and thrive if we have the will to leave with the seekers and tend the flock in our care where it goes.

[1] Of course, this is not an either/or choice because the Church is both invisible and visible. But I believe what we envision determines what we enact. An institutional emphasis will not generate the renewal the Church needs.

[2] Sadly, the Church is seen by many (and often justifiably so) as an institution that excludes and harms. Too many people have experienced this firsthand. Their exodus and disinterest is not a departure from faith, but rather a prophetic judgment upon faux expressions of the Gospel.

[3] Dave Barnhart, ‘Church Comes Home’ (Abingdon Press, 2020).

[4] Among the post-pandemic dynamics of designing the new wineskins are the lessons of a more laity expressed Christianity, a “people of God in the world” faith. These things have usually characterized Church renewal.

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Heart Sounds: Virtue

Episode 18 (9:18)

The spiritual life is important because it cultivates virtue: inward character, outward conduct, and healthy community. We thrive when these three qualities define and direct our lives.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Vision-e12025m

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Shepherd’s Care: Contemplatives

The idea of contemplation can be explored in depth. [1] Today I want to look at it in a more short-and-simple way. I am writing about it because I believe the way forward for the Church is for it to be led by contemplatives.

The institutional/professional dimensions of ministry require us to be managers, and we should seek to be as effective in this role as we can be. But if all we are is managers, then we become what Eugene Peterson called “shop keepers.” [2] The vocation of ministry includes management, but it also requires leadership, which is connected to management, but crucially distinctive from it. Leadership is a deeper and prior disposition of our heart–what I am calling being contemplative.

The contemplative dimension is more difficult to enact because we are “busy” all the time as ministers. But as Thomas Merton reminded us, activism can become a form of violence [3], violence against our wellbeing, and violence against others. When this is our style and pattern, we become POW’s (performance-oriented workers) in an meritocracy environment in which “doing” is emphasized and rewarded.

A leader is different. Bernard of Clairvaux called it being a reservoir. To fellow clergy he wrote, “If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir, than as a canal. A canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing, and thus without loss to itself communicates its superabundant water. In the Church at the present day [the 11th century!] we have have many canals but few reservoirs.” [4]

He took his cue from Jesus (Luke 5:15-16) who ministered as a contemplative leader. Today, we learn the same lesson from Dallas Willard, who showed that the spiritual disciplines are meant to form us into reservoirs who practice abstinence (inflow) and engagement (outflow). [5]

Jesus described this as as having eyes to see and ears to hear (Mark 8:18), and said it’s the kind of disciples he wants us to be. We clergy are not exempt from this life; infeed the challenges of ministry today heighten our need to be contemplatives. The absence of action born of attentiveness, doing flowing from discernment, will determine whether we are overseeing a religious corporation or leading the Body of Christ.

The next time you meet with your leaders, talk about contemplative leadership, and tell them you want to be this kind of pastor. Tell them you want to be a reservoir leader. Ask for their prayers and support as you journey farther into this dimension of your life and ministry. You and those you serve will be the better for it.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘The Inner Experience.’

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘Working the Angles,’ 1-12.

[3] Thomas Merton, ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,’ 86.

[4] Quoted in ‘The Reservoir’ a devotional resource from the Renovaré ministry.

[5] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines.’

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Heart Sounds: Vision

Episode 17 (6:35)

The spiritual life is important because it gives us vision–the vision that we are God’s beloved children, and that we have a place in God’s plan. We look at these two things in this episode

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Vision-e12025m

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Heart Sounds: Vitality

Episode 16 “Vitality” (7:27)

The spiritual life is important because it increases our sense of “aliveness.” In this episode we look at vitality from the vantage points of expansion, wholeness, and hope.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Vitality-e11oqu6

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Heart Sounds: Why Is The Spiritual Life Important?

Episode 15 (7:14)

This episode begins a new round of visits in which we will explore the significance of the spiritual life–looking at its importance in relation to intentionality and growth.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Why-Is-The-Spiritual-Life-Important-e11bcho

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Heart Sounds: Conversations #1

Episode 14 (8:48)

Periodically, I will step out of the thematic flow of the podcast and interact with you about things I am hearing from you. Today, I respond to inquiries about the vision which gives rise to “Heart Sounds,” the brevity of the episodes, and the sharing of resources that give us a big-picture look at the spiritual life.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Conversations-1-e114fhk

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Heart Sounds: Community

Episode 13 (9:07)

In this episode we look at one final aspect of the Grand Story: cosmic community, manifested in our interbeing, individuation, intercommunion, and interdependence. We have lost this aspect of the Grand Story, and in doing so we have descended into toxic life that is destroying us as a people and a planet.  Our survival depends on recovering this sense of community.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Community-e10scmk

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Heart Sounds: Joy

Episode 12 (8:16)

Continuing our look at the Grand Story, we focus in this episode on joy, exploring its inward and outward dimensions in the spiritual life.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Clarification

Every denominational system has a small-to-large ladder, with varying factors that enable every congregation to be placed on it. The intent is to move clergy “upward” as time goes by. The intent to “promote” pastors is a sign of institutional benevolence.


But in the context of ecclesiology, there are no “small” churches. The only people who think that way are those with “large” egos. They are like people who look through the wrong end of binoculars, making everything seem smaller than it really is. We need to turn our institutional binoculars around and look out of them correctly. When we do, several things happen to us…


First, we see that every church is “too big” for us. When I graduated from seminary, I was appointed to one of the smallest churches in the Annual Conference. But even there, the needs were greater than I could meet. People got sick, and some died. Parents were at odds with their children. Marriages dissolved. Poverty was within a stone’s throw of the church building. Members didn’t like each other, and some did not like me. We had fiscal needs and had to “blow the trumpet” to meet the budget.

But in the midst of these obstacles, we had opportunities: to walk with people in grief and loss, to help youth decide what to do with their lives, to counsel confused and troubled folk, and to join with other churches in making the little town a good place to live. Real ministry was “here and now”—not somewhere else later on. My need of Spirit enablement was as urgent there as it was anywhere else I have ever been.


Second, we see the value of each person. One of my favorite reminders of this comes from the writing of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in his little book, ‘The Christian Priest Today,’


“The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration. Consider the Lord himself. Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies, the Lord devoted himself to a small country, to small things, and to individual men and women, often giving hours of time to the very few….The infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many. It is to a ministry like that of our Lord himself that you are called. The Gospel you preach affects the salvation of the world, and you may help your people to influence the world’s problems. But you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child. His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well.”


Third, we see that servanthood is not on a sliding scale of size. Even one cup of cold water given in Jesus’ name is ministry. We can do that in any church. When we think like servants, “more” and “less” have no meaning. Servanthood is caring for whomever is before us in the moment.

This understanding of ministry brings joy into whatever we doing. Writing an email, making a phone call, visiting a parishoner—you name it. We find joy in all things because they have to do with people. A contemporary hymn sets this sentiment to music,


“Will you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
we are trav’lers on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping;
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Will you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant, too.” [1]

This vision is one which can be enacted in every congregation, no matter what size, in every relationship, no matter how routine. I am not at odds with a system that moves people “up” when it can. All I want to do is to encourage us clergy who are on the ladder to see clearly that bigger is not better, and that we can do ministry wherever we are.

[1] “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant?” Richard Gillard, 1977.

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Heart Sounds: Desirability

Episode 11 (8:20)

Continuing our look at the Grand Story, we explore desirability in this episode, learning that the spiritual life is not imposed upon us. It arises from us. Psalm 42:1 is the focal text for this episode.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Desirability-e10efbh

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Heart Sounds: Mystery

Episode 10 (8:51)

In this episode we look at a second aspect of the Grand Story: mystery, and how it enriches the spiritual life.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Mystery-e107uva

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Context

In this season when many clergy are moving, or deciding to stay put, it’s good not only to have confidence that God is at work, it’s also good to remember the context in which God works: here and now. Years ago, Charlie Shedd captured this reality when he looked at his ministry and wrote, “I am where I should be—I have been brought to this place at this moment for this work.” [1] Shedd’s words are words to live by. They create “good soil” for the seeds of our ministry.


First, it is the soil of contentment: “I am where I should be.” Notice the word ‘should.’ Shedd used it rather than the word ‘could.’ Should is a vocational word; could is a career word. We ‘could’ be other places in the system. There’s always a “somewhere else.” But when we believe we are where we ‘should’ be, we are saved from eroding restlessness that can easily breed envy.


An old story from early Christianity illustrates the peril. The devil went to the desert to tempt a hermit. As with Jesus, he exerted three temptations. In the first one the devil said, “Hermit, at night you can hear people in the city laughing and talking, and here you are all alone.” But the hermit had made peace with his solitude. The devil was rebuffed. But he returned a second time and said, “Hermit, when the wind is right, you can smell the sumptuous food others are eating, and here you are living on breadcrumbs.” But the hermit had made peace with his simplicity. The devil was turned away. Knowing he had to change his tactics, the devil returned the third time. All he said was, “Your brother has become a bishop!” The hermit was defeated.


We too are defeated by the ‘could have been’s” or the “could yet be’s.’ But when we live by “I am where I should be,” we can (as Paul described himself) be content in any situation in which we find ourselves.


Second, it is the soil of place. This is the sacredness of locality, the place where all ground is holy. We are not asked to take a soil sample; we are called to take off our shoes—to make direct contact with our place of service and to recognize it as holy. There is only one question, “Can I use my gifts and graces?” If we have eyes to see, the answer is always, “Yes.”


Place is the playing field which makes ministry tangible. It is the location where our theology of ministry turns into the practice of it. Place is where we become pastors, where the Word becomes flesh. The specificity of place requires flexibility and the rejection of a one-size-fits-all approach. But place is also the crucible for creativity. It is where we have the opportunity to see the unique and unrepeatable ways God works in individuals, congregations, and communities.


Eugene Peterson used what he called the pastor’s question to cultivate a sense of place, “Who are these particular people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [2] In a few words he captured the ingredient of place: particularity, with its ensuing elements of people, association, process, and formation.


Third, it is the soil of time. No matter where we serve, we step into a flowing stream—a place with a past and a future. We serve in the present, and only “at this moment” in the larger scheme of things. We must discern the moment and how we are to fit into it.


We intersect the place of ministry at a particular time in its lifecycle. Ministering contextually means discerning “the signs of the times.” Every person is in some age/stage of life; each congregation is somewhere between its beginning and end. [3]


Fourth, it is the soil of work—the work of ministry. When Charlie Shedd asked himself what “this work” was, he was surprised. He expected it to be the work described by his many duties, but it turned out to be the work defined by his singular devotion. He wrote, “We are here on holy assignment. Life’s true effectiveness does not result from getting God to help us. Our lives assume their maximum worth when we turn our wills over to God and ask that we might be of assistance.” [4]


This understanding of work makes each moment a sacrament, and the work of ministry is transformed from striving to “do great things for God” into (as Jean Pierre de Caussade put it) doing the next thing you have to do, and doing it for God. The work of ministry is rooted in simplicity, not the spectacular—rooted in ordinary holiness, “doing little things with great love” as St. Teresa of Calcutta described it.


This is what Saint Francis sought for when he prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” In the twentieth century, it is what Frank Laubach was asking for each morning when he prayed, “Lord, what are you doing in the world today that I can help you with?” It is a wonderful day in ministry when we understand that we are under shepherds appointed to serve the Good Shepherd. Ministry bears nourishing fruit when we can say, “I am where I should be.”

[1] Charlie Shedd, ‘Time For All things” (Abingdon Press, 1962), 29).


[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11. I consider this book to be one of the best books about pastoral ministry.


[3] In relation to people, I have found Parker Palmer’s book, ‘Let Your Life Speak’ and Bruce Demarest’s book, ‘Seasons of the Soul’ to be helpful. In relation to congregations, I have used Arlin Rothauge’s book, ‘The Life Cycle in Congregations’ to understand the sociological/institutional dynamics.


[4] ‘Time for All Things,’ 14.

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Heart Sounds: Singularity

Episode 9, “Singularity” (6:56)

“Heart Sounds”

Episode 9, “Singularity”

We continue looking at the Grand Story. Today, we focus on singularity. Ultimate Reality (God) is one. In this episode we show how singularity enriches our view of God and our understanding of ourselves. We note that a recovery of oneness is a crucial need in the world today.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Singularity-e100546

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Heart Sounds: The Grand Story

Episode 8 (7:36)

Our longing to live a spiritual life is older than any of the world’s religions. Before there were stories, there was the Grand Story. We look at it in this episode.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/The-Grand-Story-evos4s

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Confidence

Jeannie and I are reading the recently-published biography of Eugene Peterson, ‘A Burning in My Bones.’ [1] We are reading it the way Eugene and Jan read books, out loud to each other. The book is great; the way we’re reading it is very enjoyable. Chapter 10 is entitled, “Staying Put.” It’s about the struggles related to careerism, along the lines I wrote about in the last post.


Additionally in the chapter, Eugene shared his need to navigate his calling in relation to the inevitable moving around that clergy do. I found his comments very insightful, and given this is the time of year when pastors have to discern whether or not to move, I offer you his thoughts in his own words…


“There are so many uncertainties in making pastoral changes. I’m not always certain of my own motives—my capacity for self-deception is enormous….And when you look around you, there are so many instances of congregations calling the wrong pastor and of pastors responding to calls for base reasons that you have to wonder if God is able to exercise his will in this system at all [2]….But in this case it was almost as if God said, ‘I don’t very often do this, and I may well never do it again for you, but just for once I want to show you how I work. I want to demonstrate to you that my will is determinative in all the vagaries of the system and the conflict and ambiguity….You must trust me to be doing it in the future too, even if you don’t see it.’”[3]


Whether you move or stay in this season of decision-making, I pray you will find yourself held in the arms of the One Who says, “My will is at work in the vagaries of the system, now and in the future too, even if you don’t see it.” I hope you will move or stay…with confidence.

[1] Winn Collier, ‘A Burning in My Bones’ (Waterbrook, 2021). The entire book is inspiring and instructive.
[2] Peterson was in a Presbyterian system, but there are similarities in the consultative process in the UMC, and elsewhere.
[3] ‘A Burning in My Bones,’ 139.

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Heart Sounds: Spiritual But Not Religious

Episode 7 (9:31)

Today we explore a phrase many are using to describe their hunger for God while being honest about their disillusionment with institutional religion. This episode offers some ways to live when we feel this way–things we can do to move ahead in our spiritual formation.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Spiritual–But-Not-Religious-evgre9

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Heart Sounds: Spiritual Formation

Episode 6 (7:01)

Spiritual formation is the way we enrich our spiritual life. In this episode we look at why it is important and how it occurs…

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Spiritual-Formation-ev9kvj

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Challenge

While in seminary decades ago, I came face-to-face with the great challenge of ministry: careerism. I heard it from a chapel speaker who said simply, “Don’t turn your calling into a career.” [1] Around that same time, a professor told us in class that one of the signs of careerism is when we look at our seminary graduation class and think of whom we’ve risen above in the system and whom we are behind. These statements made a deep impression on me then, and now, fifty years later, I continue to believe careerism is the great challenge we face as clergy.

Before I write more about this, let me be clear: being a professional clergyperson is inevitably a career, precisely because we do ministry in an institutional setting of some kind. Having a ministerial career is unavoidable; the challenge is not to make it central. Many elements of careerism are not bad. Some are necessary. But they are all secondary. The challenge is to keep them that way. Career serves us when we keep it on the circumference of our ministry; it sours us when it is at the center. Today I want to look at the souring from a spiritual formation vantage point.

First, careerism is the soil in which the false self grows, producing a harvest of deformative attitudes and actions. The false self (as Thomas Merton and others since have noted) is false, not because it is all bad, but because it becomes definitive when it should not be.

In her book, ‘The Spiritual Life,’ Evelyn Underhill wrote that our soul is deformed when it’s defined by the verbs “want,” “have,” and “do.” The soul, she noted, is only defined by the verb “be.” [2] Careerism diverts energy from being into a host of doings. When we live there, we become strangers to grace and become performance-oriented workers with a meritocracy mindset.

Second careerism makes “getting noticed” a priority. Years ago, while conducting a clergy retreat, a young pastor said during a dinner conversation with me, “I am in my first year at the church in ________. If I do a good job there, in several years I could be promoted to a larger church, and if I do a good job there, ten years from now I could be at a church like __________(he named one).” There’s too much here to write about in detail. It reeks of a careerism where “getting noticed” had become the motive for ministry, and the young pastor had contracted the disease early on.

Third, careerism produces “pleasers.” One day I was teaching about ordination and the ordination process. A student spoke up and said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I am doing in my ordination process. I am saying and writing what they want me to. That way, I’ll be accepted and I can get on with the ministry I am called to.” The room fell silent, and the other students turned to me with a “So….what are you going to say about that?” kind of look.

I did not say anything for a moment. I just walked silently and slowly to the side of the room where the person was sitting. He happened to be on the front row, which gave me the opportunity to make my response conversational. But I knew it was a “teaching moment” for everyone. I gathered myself and said, “I hope you are never my pastor. Given what you just said, I would never know whether you were telling me what you believe or only what you thought I want to hear.’ [3] Therein lies a major problem with careerism. Pleasers may be praised, but the accolades leave them with an increasingly hollow soul.

Fourth, careerism generates death by comparison. That’s what the professor I quoted above was referring to. From a spiritual formation standpoint, the problem here is that careerism produces a deformed understanding of the soul—one that keeps us restless and thinking we would have a “good ministry” if we were someone else and/or serving someplace else. This temptation has been increased by the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon, which creates the false impression that only a handful of clergy are doing it right. Careerism turns learning from others into trying to be like them.

There is more to be said about the contamination of careerism, but I want to end on a positive note: careerism is curable. I heard it in the voice of a pastor who was serving a small congregation. After telling me that he had suffered from some of the things I mentioned above, he went on to say, “I woke up, decided to unpack my bags and stay put in my appointment–and be myself, offering the people my ministry, not someone else’s.” In a nutshell, he personified the cure.. He exuded contentment, and there is nothing that sustains our ministry any more than that.

[1] I got an audio tape of the sermon and listened to it annually for many years. Later, I used it it my course, “The Spiritual Life of the Minister.”

[2] Evelyn Underhill, ‘The Spiritual Life’ (Harper & Row, n.d.), 24.

[3] This awkward moment had a happy ending. Several years later, the student came up to me at Annual Conference. He was in his first appointment after graduation. All he said was, “I cannot thank you enough for what you said to me in class that day. I just want you to know that I am telling the folks what I believe.” With that, he left, knowing I understood what he meant.

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Heart Sounds: “Spirituality_

Episode 5 (7:52)

When we use the word ‘spirituality’ we mean various things. This episode looks at four of them.

Listen here, or on other platforms: Anchor, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breakers, PocketCasts, or RadioPublic.

The “Heart Sounds” facebook page supports the podcast series in a number if ways.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Spirituality-ev1qdb

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Heart Sounds: “Life”

Episode 4

In this episode we look at “life,” the energy of the spiritual life. We explore its two fundamental dimensions and our need to grow in both of them.

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Life-eur8d0

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Calling

I remember the morning it happened. A Sunday morning. Opening the door to my study, I found that an envelope had been slid under it. I opened it to find an unsigned, type-written letter that said essentially, “This church will be what it should be when you are no longer the pastor of it.” The message cut like a knife. This was not the first time in my ministry I had experienced opposition, but it was the first time I had received it in print!

I do not know a single pastor who has escaped criticism, and I have found they have received it in many ways—including death threats. Even sadder, a few clergy I know have been attacked physically. In some ways, opposition goes with the ministerial territory. In fact, Jesus told us to expect it (John 15:20). The question is, “What do we do when it happens?” Two things are important.

First, we need to search for the kernel of truth which may be in the opposition. Unless the criticism is downright mean (the kind usually expressed by dysfunctional people), there is something we can learn from it. We just have to calm down, take a breath, pause, and force ourselves to take another look at the hurtful thing. When we do, we often find a place to change, grow, or improve.

But second, and even more importantly, we must remember our calling. God’s call can be summed up in three words, “I want you.” When others do not want us, we must remember that God still does. When we face opposition, we must have a “cave of the heart” where we can find rest, refuge, and restoration. When we experience vitriol, we must embrace vocation. God may “uncall” us from being clergy and move us into other forms of ministry, but no human can “uncall” us. Remembering God’s “I want you” secures our ministry when it is opposed. It gives us a place to stand and hang on.

“I want you” is not only the way we keep from being conquered by criticism, it is also the means for avoiding the comparison trap. When people oppose their pastors, it’s usually because they hold a view of what “good ministry” is. The unsigned letter I received was based on some ideal that my critic felt I was not living up to. If we fall prey to this, we will not only be discouraged, we’ll be tempted to trade in our uniqueness for an image. But when God calls us into ministry, God does not clone us to be like some other minister. “I want you” means “YOU,” not someone else. The sacredness of our service lies in its specificity, not in a steteotype.

Over the decades of my ministry, I have asked myself (and sometimes asked God), “Why do I keep doing this?” Each time the Inner Voice answers, “Because a long time ago I asked you to do it.” Vocation. I am called. I am 73, and have been in a clergy-type ministry since 1963. So far, being called has been enough. I hope it is enough for you too.

[The “Shepherd’s Care 2.0” designation indicates these new posts connect to many former ones I’ve written since 2010. They are archived on the Oboedire home page. Give them a look. I’ve shared a lot about clergy wellness in them]

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Heart Sounds: “Spiritual”

Episode 3

The soul is like a diamond refracting the basic “colors” of the spiritual life. In this episode we look at the color “spiritual.”

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1/episodes/Spiritual-euitli

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Heart Sounds: Living from the Heart

Episode 2

https://anchor.fm/steve-harper1

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Heart Sounds: Intro

I have been in discernment regarding whether or not to follow through on the suggestion of friends the past year or two: to begin a podcast.

I have decided to give it a try, and today “Heart Sounds” launches with its first episode (4:52). I will post future episodes here on Oboedire. It will also be available on my personal Facebook page and on Spotify, with other platforms to be added soon. Here is the link…

I have also created a “Heart Sounds” facebook page to support the podcast in various ways. You can find, befriend, and follow it as you like.

“Heart Sounds” (as you’ll learn in the first episode) is a series that will explore the spiritual life from multiple vantage points. In this sense it is part of the Oboedire vision. I hope you will find it to be helpful. Give it a listen.

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Holy Love: The Eunuch Revelation

In my book ‘Holy Love’ I offer an affirmative theology for LGBTQ+ people, and an advocacy for their full inclusion in the church. [1] In the book, I wrote a bit about eunuchs, but since then I have found the biblical message concerning them to be a key revelation for being an ally with LGBTQ+ people. This article is an expansion of what I wrote in the book.

We have a multiple-word vocabulary for talking about gender and sexual orientation. [2] The natural and behavioral sciences help us to recognize the nonbinary nature of our sexuality. Interestingly, the Bible recognizes it, not only in the first creation story [3], but also in the word eunuch. It was the catch-all word for people who were not male or female. Today, we would say people who are transgender or intersex. So, the fact is, Scripture confirms the reality of nonbinary sexuality, and that in itself is significant. But that’s only the beginning.

We move from general revelation into the teaching of Jesus, who referred to eunuchs in Matthew 19:12, noting that some of them are born that way. It’s another indication that people in Bible times knew about transgender and intersex persons. The fact that Jesus speaks about eunuchs in a positive way adds additional weight to the reality and worth of nonbinary persons. But where did Jesus get this positive regard? He got it from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 56:4-5, and these verses are what I am calling “the eunuch revelation”—the primary window through which we can look to see the full humanity (imago dei) of LGBTQ+ people and to advocate for their full inclusion in the Church. God, speaking through the prophet, tells us some important things about eunuchs, about nonbinary people.

First, they are not abnormal. They must not think of themselves as such, as a “dry tree.” They are not disordered in their nature. They are not aberrations in God’s design. They are fully human, existing along the spectrum between maleness and femaleness.

Second, they are included in the Covenant and can keep it like anyone else. They do not have to sublimate their sexuality (e.g. lifelong celibacy) or undergo “conversion therapy” into heterosexual maleness or femaleness. They are only asked to honor the Covenant like everyone else—ordering their sexuality to reflect sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy. [4] This means there is one standard for sexual morality, and all people can manifest it.

Third, they are honored. We erect monuments to those whom we esteem. Eunuchs are given monuments in the temple (religion) and on the city walls (society). Here’s an indication they had ecclesial and civil rights and were respected throughout the culture.

These three things are a lot to commend nonbinary people, but there is a fourth revelation which cinches the case for equality in human sexuality: they are given a name better than sons and daughters. Don’t miss the words “better than.” They are a game-changer, showing from Scripture that males (sons) and females (daughters) do not encompass the totality of sexuality.

We have to step outside of contemporary Christianity to grasp the significance of “better than.” We can understand it by looking at Native American cultures and their concept of two-spirit people. In most tribes, they were considered neither men nor women; they occupied a distinct, alternative gender status. They were seen as particularly spiritual, given they lived beyond binary sexuality. They were honored in the tribe, often serving as wisdom teachers and spiritual guides, and expressing themselves through the arts. They lived as both single and married persons, with the same rights and privileges as everyone else.[5]

This understanding of the nonbinary spectrum of human sexuality illustrates the biblical view. The imposition of binary views onto the scriptural text (increasingly by interpreting the Bible through the lens of European cultural norms) has caused us to misread the first creation story, to fail to see Jesus’ affirmation of nonbinary sexuality, and to overlook the revolutionary story that comes to us through the eunuch revelation.

But things are changing. A growing number of Christians who affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture are using their hermeneutical skills to mine the passages regarding human sexuality, bringing from them the message summed up in Paul’s words, “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). The eunuch revelation is a pivotal piece of this message.

[1] Steve Harper, ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality’ (Abingdon Press,2019). I wrote an earlier book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ (Abingdon Press, 2014) that both announced my becoming an ally with LGBTQ+ people and proposed that the move into full inclusion would be a strengthening of the Church.

[2] Some articles offer eight orientation words and fifty gender diversity ones. Our vocabulary increases as our learnings advance.

[3] ‘Holy Love,’ 15-20.

[4] ‘Holy Love,’ 20-23

[5] “Two Spirit,” is an article on the Indian Health Service website. Related to this Sister José Hobday, a Franciscan sister who was also a Native American Seneca woman once told Matthew Fox, “People like myself who know our traditions before the white people came to our shores know that all the spiritual directors to our great chiefs were gay. We know that gay people bring more spirituality to a community than straight people do.” (Matthew Fox, Daily Meditations, 3/19/21). Her words further interpret the “better than’ name given to eunuchs in Isaiah 56.

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In-Sight: “Religious Evil”

Evil never advances better than when it “gets religion.” When it claims to “have the blessing of God” upon it, evil can justify whatever it says and does. Evil is never more insidious and dangerous than when it operates through a politician/priest collusion.

Israel was farthest away from God during the times when monarchs and ministers conspired to create a top-to-bottom system of oppression (e.g. Jeremiah 6:13-15). In Jesus’ day, evil religion was personified in the Pilate/Herod partnership that desecrated both synagogue and society, turning the Temple itself into a “den of thieves.”

After the close of the biblical era, history continued to document the advance of evil through political/religious deception. [1] The one-word summary for this is imperialism. [2] Today, we describe the advance of religious evil in the word nationalism. [3] Across two millennia, religious evil has produced what Dorothy Day called “the dirty rotten system.”

Religious evil is running roughshod in our country, in ways which can be observed since the founding of our nation. Religious evil has become increasingly toxic the past forty to fifty years. [4] It has raised its ugly head the past four years [5], and it was on full display at the CPAC event in Orlando this past weekend, with a less publicized but more extreme AFPAC event held in Orlando at the same time.

Religious evil has advanced to the extent that conservatives are naming it dangerous. In the March 1st edition of ‘The Bulwark,’ conservative leader William Kristol wrote, ““we are at the edge of crisis, having repulsed one attempted authoritarian power grab and bracing for another.” [6] He names it: an authoritarian power grab, and as always it is an insurrection claiming to have God on its side.

Religious evil creates two immediate mindsets that are powerful. First, the mindset of authority (which William Kristol noted above). Claiming to be “of God” religious evil operates with a king-of-the-hill hubris, behaving like “the chosen ones” (see footnote #2) sent on a mission by God to “save America” (in the current nationalist manifestation). And second, religious evil plays the victim when opposed. “We are being persecuted,” they allege, when the fact is they dwell in elitist social privilege. Taken together, religious evil marches on via its spirit of power and persecution, with a militaristic spirit that says, “We must fight to the death for God.”

Diagnosing religious evil is not enough, resisting it must be our unrelenting aim. The Bible summarized it as overcoming with good (Romans 12:21), and in the midst of religious evil, God raised up prophets in both the Old and New Testaments to envision and enact religious good called the kingdom of God.

The already/not-yet nature of the establishment of God’s reign on the earth means each generation must accept the invitation to be agents of restoration and renewal, until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ (Revelatiin 11:15). We do this following the example of the prophets, Jesus being paramount among them. What does this look like?

First, it means leading with love. Love is the cardinal doctrine of every religion. It is the essence of the Gospel, and the fruit of the Spirit. In the presence of evil, it is tough love. [7] It is the kind of love that almost surely get us kicked out of some “clubs,” but it is a love which sets us free (Galatians 5:1) as we bid farewell to legalism and enter into life-giving relationships rooted in grace. [8]

Second, it means practicing nonviolence. There is too much here to name. Suffice it to say that we must educate/train ourselves in the life of peace and good. [9] We must personify nonviolent living and participate in movements which express it. We do this through direct involvement locally (“the kingdom of God is near”) and by supporting causes that extend beyond our locale.

Third, it means breaking the silence. We declare, “thus says the Lord,” engaging in the prophetic task of calling out evil, evoking godly sorrow, and calling forth a movement of good rooted in the vision of “the peaceable kingdom” [10] summarized biblically in the word shalom.

Fourth, it means dismantling hierarchies. In the Old Testament, the prophets did this through their advocacy of justice (equality, fairness, inclusion), and by teaching that we show compassion to the ‘anawim’ the “little ones” who were oppressed by the potentates and damaged by the demagogues. Jesus enacted the same by saying that it is as we care for “the least of these” that we live the way God intends for us to live (Matthew 25:40).

The early church deepened and widened this vision by eliminating distinctions of race and religion (Jew-Gentile), economics (slave-free), and gender (male-female), and then throwing the doors of the common good wide open by declaring “you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). [11] The ultimate flattening of hierarchies is found in Paul’s assertion, “Christ is in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Fifth, it means defeating evil rulers and authorities. In the context of Christianity this means first and foremost incarnating character and conduct that exceeds that of the hypocrites (Matthew 5:20). It moves on to include the use of reasoned debate to demonstrate the excellence of godliness. And then, it manifests itself in political action to remove leaders from office (at the federal, state, and local levels) who have fallen prey to religious evil and are using their positions to advance it.

These five engagements with religious evil do not exhaust the ways and means of resisting it. But they do show that our opposition must be comprehensive and continuous. Jesus called it “keeping watch” against evil (Mark 14:38), exercising vigil and maintaining resolve as we live into the promised future when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). The need to defeat religious evil is great, the time to do it is now, and the grace to do it has been given to us by God.

[1] Major examples include the Constantianian cooption of Christianity, the Holy Roman Empire, Manifest Destiny, and the Church’s support of Nazism. Each of these evils existed due to a political/religious alliance.

[2] Steven Howe’s book, ‘Empire’ provides a good overview of imperialism in history. Walter Brueggemann looks at the religious expressions in his article, “Ethics: the Codes of Chosenness” on the Lving Church website, 9/11/20.

[3] Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, ‘Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.’

[4] Kathleen Stewart, ‘The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.’

[5] Elizabeth Jennison, ‘The Long Road to White Christians’ Trumpism’ on the Religion and Politics website, 12/8/20.

[6] Heather Cox Richardson quoted Kristol in her eletter, 3/2/21.

[7] Martin Luther King’s book, ‘Strength to Love’ interfaces faith and society, showing the transforming nature of love. E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘Christian Maturity’ is an extensive exploration of the life of love.

[8] I have written about this freedom in my latest book, ‘Life in Christ,’ using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the biblical base.

[9] Begin by reading John Dear’s book, ‘The Nonviolent Life’ and then connect with the Pace e Bene movement for further inspiration and instruction.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Reality, Grief, and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.’

[11] Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 were a repudiation of evil religion which had taken the form of a morning prayer in which males thanked God that they were not Gentiles, slaves, or women.

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At the Gate

Question: I am 66 years of age. I need to think more about living as an elder. What does this mean for you?

Response: I must begin by saying that I don’t think there is a one-size-fits all pattern for eldering. Like so much else we have to work it out “with reverence and experimentation.” [1] But neither are we adrift when it comes to becoming elders. I will use reverence and experimentation to offer a response to your question.

Reverence…. By this I mean that every stage of life is sacred. Abundant living does not have an expiration date; it exists in older adulthood as much as in any other phase of life. But as in all the other phases it takes on different forms and expressions when we ate older.

This means we become elders respecting the aging process and learning about it. We can learn from resources that describe human development as well as those which emphasize some aspect of it (e.g. psychological, spiritual, financial, social). At the end of this response I will list some of the books that have been helpul. Reverence for life in all its stages is what disposes us to live into elderhood with anticipation rather than anxiety. God is with us.

Experimentation…. By this I mean being willing to learn through trial and error, and also by using paradigms which others have found to be beneficial. The one I am currently exploring is the biblical metaphor of “sitting at the gate.”

“At the Gate”…. Elders do not disappear. We remain at the place where people come and go, but we are not coming and going as we once did. Elders remain engaged, but in a new way. We have a role, but it is a different role. At the gate, elders are still involved, but in a way different than before. To use the metaphor of Hebrews 12, we are no longer on the track running the race, but we are still in the stadium, in the great cloud of witnesses.

“Sitting”…. Elder posture is one of observation and conversation. Elders “stop, look, and listen,” and we practice what Eugene Peterson called “the ministry of small talk.” This is not insignificant talk; in fact, it is often strategic…and always pastoral. It is interaction with others arising from attentiveness more than from activity. It is responding more than initiating. I believe the main ingredient for this kind of interaction is encouragement. It is our turn to say (as hopefully others said to us in our younger days), “Don’t quit! You can do this.” At the gate or in the grandstand, we are cheerleaders.

When elders do this well, they serve the primary purpose of their life stage: to be providers of wisdom, which J. Philip Newell defines as “understanding enriched by experience.” Of course, wisdom is not the unique possession of elders, and not all old people are wise. But because elders bring a longer-lived experience to bear on things, hopefully their knowledge will be shaped by it. In that sense, elders are intended to be stewards of wisdom. Joan Chittister calls this “the gift of years.” It is a gift God calls elders to tend and offer.

I use the word ‘eldering’ as a way of indicating that living as an elder is a blend of action and process. We do the best we can in our stage of life to be helpful to those still “coming and going”—still running the race. And as we do so, we continue to learn how to do it better.

Here are a few of the books that have been useful to me in becoming an elder…

Joan Chittister, ‘The Gift of Years’

Emilie Griffin, ‘Souls in Full Sail’

Benedict Groeschel, ‘Spiritual Passages’

Rueben Job, ‘Living Fully, Dying Well

J. Philip Newell, ‘One Foot in Eden’

Parker J. Palmer, ‘On the Brink of Everything’

Paul Tournier, ‘Learn to Grow Old’

I have written a book about clergy retirement entitled, ‘Stepping Aside, Moving Ahead.’ It includes thoughts about eldering, many of which apply to us all, not just clergy.

[1] I paraphrase “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) this way with respect to eldering

[If you have something you’d like me to respond to, use the Oboedire email to be in touch: oboediresite@gmail.com]

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In-Sight: January 2021

“A New Normal?”

Living in the pandemic for a little over a year, we find ourselves asking, “Will there be a new normal?”

As I have read articles in which the question is raised, it is an expression of anxiety, hope, and longing. I offer my response to the question from those three vantage points.

Anxiety….this is the place of fatigue. The past year has worn us out, not only through its sickness, sadness, and stress but also by its revelations of how low we can go individually and collectively. Our egotism and ethnocentrism has ridden roughshod throughout the land.

We have once again exposed the hard truth of how far we can go into inhumanity when we live in the flesh rather than the Spirit. We are naturally anxious in times like this, wondering if the underbelly of existence will persist.

When we ask, “Will there be a new normal?” in this regard, it is an indication of our fear. And as Henri Nouwen so often said, when we live in the house of fear, we must move into the house of love. [1] Anxiety is a means through which we hear God’s call to leave the “far country” and return home. If we do so, there will be a new normal.

Hope….this is the place of faith (Hebrews 11:1). Hope is not a polyanna positivity based in fancy; it is a considered confidence rooted in revelation. It is the conviction that God is with us (Immanuel), and that God’s presence is an active presence walking with us through our darkest valleys (Psalm 23:4).

Hope is not something rekindled as much as it is the thing which keeps the candle of faith from going out in the whirlwind. It is the conviction expressed in the hymn phrase, “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” [2]

When we ask, “Will there be a new normal?” in this regard, it is an indication of our trust. Hope is our way of telling ourselves and others that we are not defined by circumstances, but by principles, two of which are that the arc of the universe bends toward justice [3], and that light is is the primal element for life. In our hope we choose light. [4]

Longing….this is the place of resolve. Longing includes our wishing but goes beyond it to willing. Longing is desire that’s decisive. Longing means we are committed to enacting what we envision.

When I think of the place of the will in spiritual formation, I remember Dallas Willard, who emphasized the importance of willfulness in the spiritual life. [5] Longing is the way we remind ourselves that renewal is never automatic. We must respond to grace. In the words of St. Francis, we must pray to be instruments of God’s peace.

When we ask, “Will there be a new normal?” in this regard, it is an indication of our involvement. We are co-creators with God in the creation of a new normal. As John Wesley put it, “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”

So….will there be a new normal? That is a question yet to be answered so far as the extent of it is concerned. But when we ask it in the contexts of anxiety, hope, and longing the answer is, “Yes.” There will be a new normal when and where love, trust, and resolve prevail.

[1] Nouwen’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ is a good place to see this movement. He also describes it well in ‘The Inner Voice of Love.’

[2] Hymn, “This is My Father’s World.”

[3] I attribute this phrase to Martin Luther King Jr., but I am not sure it is original with him.

[4] Paul Chilcote and I have co-authored, ‘Living Hope’ as a resource for recovering it in our day.

[5] The Dallas Willard Institute is the means to explore his thinking in more detail, not only about the importance of the will but also its place in the larger process of spiritual formation.

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An Ending

Four years ago, I ended Oboedire. I had the sense that it had run its course. I honored that sense, even though I reactivated it ten months later as we moved into a time of national turmoil, bringing a more prophetic dimension to my posts. The focus on social holiness these past four years has been formative for me, and I hope helpful to you.

I now find myself at another transition place, and I am going to honor it as I did at the end of 2016. Oboedire will remain an active site, but the purpose is changing.

I am an elder (older adult), and I want Oboedire to reflect that. Elders “sit at the gate,” engaging in what Eugene Peterson called the ministry of small-talk. Elders listen more and talk less. They are not runners; they are encouragers of those still on the track. I want to use Oboedire that way. So, from time to time, I will write a new series of posts entitled,”At the Gate.”

I welcome suggestions from you regarding what I might write about as an elder sitting “at the gate.” Use the Oboedire email to be in touch.

The “In-Sight” series will become less frequent, but active when I have something in keeping with its theme to share. The January “In-Sight” will be the final one for now.

As the pandemic brings new challenges to the Church, it puts increasing pressure on pastors. So, in the new Oboedire, I am reviving the “Shepherd’s Care” theme, as a way to encourage clergy.

I am also ending the ad-free feature of the Oboedire site since it will not be as active, and that means you will use a new access address if you search for it on the web: oboedire.wordpress.com. If you subscribe to Oboedire, you will continue to receive posts automatically via email.

Some of you have been part of the Oboedire journey from the beginning 10.5 years ago. Others of you are recent companions. Thanks to all of you.

I pray that the new year will be a path of restoration and renewal for you. We are in need of recovery on many levels. I write about that in the January “In-Sight” which posts tomorrow.

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Day One: December 2020

This month’s “Day One” post comes after the “In-Sight” post because I wanted the December “In-Sight” to be about Advent. So, I posted it on November 28th. If you have not seen it, it’s the one immediately before this one on the Oboedire home page.

This “Day One” post has not been easy to write. There is so much going on it’s difficult to focus. But I come to the first of December with a mixture of concern and hope. That’s probably the way we live all the time, but given the way things are right now, the duality is more obvious.
My concern is that the pandemic, the election, and other things reveal how divided we are.

There has never been a time when we had no differences. But right now, our differences have become wedges driven between us. I am caught up in this as much as anyone else, and here on the first of December I am at a loss to know how to change things.

Putting this concern into theological language, I would say we are a people in need of wisdom. Our knowledge is insufficient, with too much of it driven by the superficiality of social media commentary and too much of it contaminated by fake information. We have become people too prone to believe lies…and pass them on.

Donald Trump is the national example of this (one both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly acknowledging) with a self so broken that he has to create a fantasy land to sustain it. There is nothing sadder than only being able to survive by lying. Watching him, we clearly see that living apart from truth is dangerous. Falsehood leads to delusion and to divisiveness. Falasehood creates madness. Donald Trump is a madman.

Our day cries out for wisdom—that is, truth discovered by discernment and disseminated through maturity. I am concerned that we lack wisdom.

But at the very point where I am concerned, I am also hopeful. For in the midst of our need, I see a people rising—people honest enough to confess that “business as usual” is not working, and that the status quo, turned sacred cow, is not a state to be continued. I am hopeful because a growing number of people are “done” with perpetuating things that hamper and harm life, and are now “asking, seeking, and knocking” for something more. This song from Les Miserables describes the stirring of the human spirit taking place,

“Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Will you be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes…

Tomorrow comes!” [1]

History knows times like this, times when change is not only needed, but times when it comes. It is what Isaiah called God doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). It is the moment when people catch the vision of what God is up to and enlist themselves to be instruments through whom the Spirit can work to bring it to pass. It is moving forward, putting our hands to the plow of transformation, and not looking back. It is a time when we cross the bridge of confidence, moving away from being imprisoned by lies to being guided by truth. It is a time inspired by hope.

This is the time I see dawning today, December 1, 2020. I want to be part of it, and help bring it to pass. I imagine that you do too.

[1] “Freedom Song” (Finale), Les Miserables

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In-Sight: Don’t Hold Back

I am posting this a week early to connect with the Advent Season…

Whatever else Advent is, it is an annual season in the Christian Year that invites us to make a fresh start. All four readings contain the keynote of restoration in one way or another, especially the two Old Testament lessons. [1]

I doubt there is anything we want right now more than a deep rest that is restorative. We are tired and worn out due to a host of things, many of which have stalked our trail for months (or years), and some of which continue to do so. As someone I read recently put it, “2020 has been a hard decade.” I feel it too, even inside the bubble of privilege. So many others have faced (and still face) things far beyond anything I have had to endure. This one has gotten us all.

In the midst of everything, Advent plops into our lives as Christians. It comes to us with the promise of newness when we are still in a soul-draining oldness. It comes with an offer of life when so much of the world is coping with death. Honestly, I am not sure how to engage with the message of Advent in a way that’s renewing. I ‘m floundering.

But as I make this confession, it returns to me as a question, “When have you ever entered Advent with everything in good shape? Aren’t you always floundering in some way?” When I allow the question to soak in, I recognize that Advent 2020 is essentially the same as always, the opportunity for those of us who sit in darkness to see a great light (Isaiah 9:2).

Boy, do I need to do that this year! But in truth I need it every time the beginning of the Christian Year rolls around. The reading from Isaiah this year, offers us some guidance for making a fresh start in Advent. I sense it in the words, “Don’t hold back.” These words were used in Isaiah 63:15 to implore God to take decisive action. Isaiah 64 continues the sentiment, with a bent toward a comparable decisiveness on our part. We must not hold back when we ask God not to hold back. Today’s lesson guides us in not holding back.

First, we must not hold back in praying our desires. The text from Isaiah begins, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence (64:1). Eugene Peterson amplifies this desire in The Message, “Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend.” Yes, that’s it! God, let ‘er rip! We need a big dose of help–help strong enough to move the mountains of “stuff” inside us and around us—individually, nationally, globally.

This Advent we must sing, “Lord listen to your children praying….Send us love. Send us power. Send us grace.” And send it in truck loads!

Second, we must not hold back in confessing our sins. Isaiah put it this way, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” (64:6-7).

Whatever else 2020 has revealed, it has shown in spades that we have made ourselves gods. We have followed false messiahs. We have worshipped at the altar of “No One Can Tell Me What I Can and Cannot Do.” We have made golden calves (sacred cows) and substituted them for God. We have sold our souls to the satans (deceivers) of partisanship and supremacy. “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy!”

This Advent we must pray, “Thy kingdom come” with a broken and contrite heart that says, “My kingdom go. You’re God; I’m not.” [2]

And third, we must not hold back in trusting God. Isaiah declared, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (64:8). Notice that this is not abstract trust, it is hands-on trust. We are the child. God is the parent. God is at work on us. The restoration we need comes by God’s action and our willingness to be acted upon.

This Advent we must sing, “Mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.”

The fresh start of Advent is summed up in one word: Emmanuel—”God with us.” We are not left to face our perils alone. God is acting. Aslan is on the move. God has heard our desire, received our confession, and accepted our trust. We enter Advent, Eugene Peterson says, “based on the certainty that God is coming.” [3] Oh, yes!

[1] Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:34-37.

[2] This is a prayer conjoining the sentiments of Father Richard Rohr and Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.

[3] ‘The Message Devotional Bible,’ Peterson’s comment after Isaiah 64:8.

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In-Sight: Expansive Living

I never thought that a song I learned in Vacation Bible School nearly seventy years ago would be one that can take us where we need to go today, but it is. “Deep and Wide” is about as good as it gets for singing about the expansive life God is calling us to live as we move out of our little-story fortresses. and Into Big Story freedom (Galatians 5:1). Making this move is the great need of our time. We must be expansive people. Jesus called it abundant living.

I call it being an expansive person because our “future and hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) will be shaped by those who are deep…and…wide. The key word is ‘and,’—the rejection of either/or thinking by replacing it with both/and thinking. Dualistic thinking helps us differentiate, but when it divides, it must be abandoned. Our age has devolved onto darkness because we have done the opposite of what Isaiah said we must do in order to be the people God intends for us to be. Instead of turning our swords onto plows (Isaiah 2:4), we have turned our plows into swords, with a global military-industrial complex that threatens our existence. Our partisanships have become poisons.

The need is not either/or…either becoming deeper or wider. Yet, that is what many people are choosing. ‘Deeper life” people are bunkering, separating themselves from others. “Wider life” people are abandoning, leaving specific religious identities behind in favor of amorphous spiritualties. Neither option will take us where we need to go. If our future is to be godly, it will be shaped by expansive people, people who are deep…and…wide.

Years ago, Jurgen Moltmann cast the vision for expansive living in his book, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ.’ [1] But most people never read it. Neither did I until recently. It is high-powered theology, and that kind of writing does not attract a wide audience, even though it should. Now that I have read it, I see that Moltmann is God’s prophet (among others) trying to get us to stop building walls and start building bridges. He is a Big Story person.

But even before him there were others calling us to get out of the boxes which little-story living creates. E. Stanley Jones did it in his book, ‘The Way.’ [2] I am grateful that I read it decades ago, even though it has only borne the fruit in me that it should have in the past few years. Taking Jones and Moltmann together, I describe expansive living this way..

Deep….the first step into expansive living is to go deeply onto your particular faith tradition. This is paradox, but it is true. We first go down, and then we can go up. The way to become an expansive person is to become a devoted person. Both Jones and Moltmann personify deep Christian commitment. This is where we begin (if we are Christian) on the way to expansive living. This is precisely what people like the Dalai Lama are saying outside of Christianity: be the best Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Taoist, Muslim, etc. that you can be. [3] Dig your well deeply, and drink from it profusely. When we dig deeply into our faith we are not only enriched it, we also come to see that our chosen faith is part of something larger. Paradoxically, it is in the depth of our faith where we discover its breadth.

We draw the water from our well with our bucket, but we recognize that the water does not originate in the well. And that brings us to the second feature of expansive living…

Wide…the movement into breadth is natural. It is the discovery that the water coming out of our well is coming from something beyond the water in the well itself. And more, the water I take out bucket by bucket is replenished from that larger source.

Beneath every well there is an aquifer. We get our taste for God and the spiritual life from our particular well, but we get our reverence (the sense of wonder) from our recognition that the well is part of the Source from which everyone drinks. [4] Without this wider sense, reverence can turn arrogant, and we can act as if our drink is the whole of Water.

Another image of wideness is light. In the first creation story (Genesis 1:1—2:4), we note the first word of God: “Let there be light.” It goes everywhere, reaching and influencing everyone and everything. This light is the giver of life and the bearer of love. [5]

As I write this, light is coming through the windows of our house. It is the light that illuminates me and my surroundings. But it is only a part of an exponentially greater Light. My light is from Light.

Images of water and light communicate the depth and breadth of faith, which in turn forms the deep-and-wide life.

When we bring the ideas of depth and breadth together and describe it in Christian language, the single word for this expansive experience is Christ. Christ is the depth and breadth. Christ is the water of life (John 5:13) and the light of the world (John 8:12). To use Richard Rohr’s phrase, Christ is the Christian word for everything. [6] It is what Paul was declaring when he wrote, “Christ is all and in all” (Colossiansn3:11).

E. Stanley Jones made the same point through his teaching about the excarnate Christ. [7] For him, the excarnate Christ is none other than the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity, the one through whom all things were made (John 1:3). As the Word made flesh (John 1:14), Jesus personified the expansive life and offered it to us (John 10:10). In the Book of Revelation the excarnate Christ says it clearly, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8).

Returning to the image of the well, the expansive life reveals that life in Christ is not drinking well water (i.e. water from one place), it is drinking the Water of Life (i.e. water from every place). Returning to the image of light, the expansive life shows that as Christ lights my path, he simultaneously illuminates everyone’s path. The world receives its light from many lamps, each of which is from Christ, the light that illuminates everyone (John 1:9).

In following Christ, we follow the One who leads us into the depth and breadth we must have if we are to live as God intends and act in ways that overcome evil with good. God’s call is to live deep… and… wide—to be Water people, not just well people–to be Light people, not lamp people.

One of my spiritual formation joys these days is finding Christ beyond Christianity. As E. Stanley Jones put it, Christ is in every cell, nerve, tissue, fiber, and blood stream of our being, “written into the total organization of our life.” [8] Over and over I find myself exclaiming “Wow! There you are!” And in response, he says, “Of course, before Abraham was, I AM. I am the maker of all things. I am the Alpha and Omega (John 8:58 John 1:3, Revelation 1:8). Christ is the Absolute deep-and-wide person, and following him, I experience expansive living.

I have written at length today, because I believe becoming expansive people is the great need of our day. Our partisanships are poisoning us. Our divisions are destroying us. Our silos are suffocating us. We must transcend them and recover life together. We must restore our common humanity. It takes deep-and-wide people for this to happen.

This kind of life does not happen accidentally. We must give ourselves to it. It is what Paul referred to as training ourselves in all godliness (1Timothy 4:7 NRSV). Note the word ‘all.’ Godliness has to do with all of life, not just the “religious” part.

I believe the coming days are going to require us to live expansively. Our challenges will demand life beyond business as usual. There are some things we must not return to. There are recoveries we must make. More than anything else, there are new discoveries to be made. The life we need to sustain us is “fresh water” coming from the aquifer and “new light” coming from the sun. This is deep-and-wide living, creating the pervasive oneness captured in the words, “In God we live, move, and exist” (Acts 17:28). [9]

As difficult as these days are, I believe it is a time of hope. Walt Whitman’s words capture how I feel, “Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well enveloped. I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” [10] God is doing a new thing. God is raising up deep-and-wide people. God is inviting each of us to be one of them.

[1] Jurgen Moltmann, ‘The Way of Jesus Christ’ (Fortress Press, 1993).

[2] E. Stanley Jones, ‘The Way’ (Abingdon Press, 1946).

[3] Mary Craig, ed., ‘The Pocket Dalai Lama’ (Shambala, 2002), 17-33.

[4] This Source is often referred to as the Perennial Tradition. I recommend Bede Griffith’s book, ‘Universal Wisdom’ (the introduction) as a good overview of the Perennial Tradition.

[5] John Philip Newell, ‘The Book of Creation’ (Paulist Press, 1999), chapter 2.

[6] Richard Rohr, ‘The Universal Christ’ (Convergent Books, 2019), 5.

[7] E. Stanley Jones, ‘The Way,’ Sunday, Week 50….and….’Mastery,’ Wednesday, Week 25. Abingdon Press has republished this book on paperback and ebook formats.

[8] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Abundant Living’ (Whitmore & Stone, 1942), Week Two, Wednesday. Abingdon Press has republished this book in paperback and ebook formats.

[9] After I wrote this post, I came upon the final words Father Thomas Keating spoke shortly before he died. He awoke briefly from a coma to share them. They are about deep-and-wide living. I want you to know about them. They are found on YouTube in a 2.5 minute audio entitled, “Fr. Thomas Keating’s Last Oracle.”

[10] The Daily Good e-letter, October 26, 2020.

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Day One: November 2020

Welcome to November! Our Golden Rain trees are aglow in our back yard with a deep amber that shouts, “Fall is here!” Photos from other parts of the country tell a similar story.

I’m guessing you are on pins and needles, waiting for election results. And while waiting, we are praying for peace to prevail through it all. Beyond the political arena, we continue to live in the shadow of the increasing pandemic with its darker and longer shadows.

In the midst of our challenges I’ve lost count of the number of times I have read or heard the question, “Will there be a new normal emerging out of all this?” I think there will be, and I expect it will manifest itself in all sorts of ways. I hope it does. In saying this, however, I prefer to describe my hope the way Steven Charleston does, as a time needing a deep change. [1] The word “normal” even when modified by the word “new” is not strong enough to describe what the future needs to be.

When I ask the question from a spiritual formation vantage point, one thing is clear: however we describe the future, it will not be accidental or automatic. It will emerge as acts of the will by people who refuse to go back to business as usual.

From a spiritual formation standpoint, the question is, “Will we be a new people, a changed people?” Richard Foster offers us the pathway for change in a formative paradigm: vision, intention, and means. [2] That is, if we have a vision (desire) for change, we must have the intention (will) to bring it to pass, using the means (disciplines) best suited to its fulfillment.

I think this means learning how to live expansively—that is, to live a life that is simultaneously deep and wide. I believe it is what Jesus called abundant living—what he said he came to give (John 10:10). It requires us to cease living within the confines of our many little stories, and become Big Story people. I will use the November “In-Sight” to say more about this. It posts next Saturday.

Before closing, I would remind you that I have been writing here on Oboedire since July 2010. Over the years I have written on a variety of topics. You can find these in the “Categories” list on the home page. Some of them have been extended explorations. I have identified them in the “Major Series” icon, also on the home page. One of the things I like about the site is that everything I write is archived rather than getting lost in a social media news feed.

Most of all, I hope you are doing well in the midst of these crazy and challenging times. I hope Oboedire contributes to that in some way. Despite all our dilemmas, I say with John Wesley, “The best of all is, God is with us!”

[1] I hope you follow his daily meditations on his Facebook page.

[2] This threefold paradigm is described in detail in the introduction to the ‘Life With God Bible,’ (HarperOne, 2005). It is a major resource for the Renovaré spiritual formation ministry.

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Merton’s Prayers: On the ITMS Group Page

The “Merton’s Prayers” series will now post only on the International Thomas Merton Society Group Page on Facebook.

I really want you to find the reflections there, in the midst of a rich feast of other writings with respect to Thomas Merton.

You may want to become an ITMS member and receive even more benefits from this excellent ministry. The ‘Merton Seasonal’ (4 times a year) and the ‘Merton Annual’ explore the life and legacy of Thomas Merton from many angles. These publications come to you through the mail when you become a member.

And remember, you can always go to the ITMS group page and search “Merton’s Prayers” to see the unfolding series in and of itself. It began on October 5th and will continue as I explore the prayers in Merton’s journals.

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Merton’s Prayers: January 16, 1941

More than a year has passed since Merton included a prayer in his journal. But I must emphasize that the intervening months contain ample evidence of his prayerful life, largely shaped by Roman Catholic liturgy and the liturgical calendar. Merton is praying and writing about prayer during this time. And I would go on to add my sense that Merton’s journal keeping was a form of prayer for him—what we sometimes call “praying your life.”

But then….on January 16th, Merton’s journal explodes with prayers and related reflections, based on his reading of Saint Anselm’s ‘Proslogion,’ a consideration of God’s attributes written in a prayerful style. He does not say what prompted the reading, he only shares the fruit of it. This is a rich day of prayer for Merton. It will take a number of posts to harvest that fruit. Here is the first entry—one that shows the meditative flow from thinking into praying,

“Now, little man, turn away a little from your cares, hide a bit from your anxious thoughts. Lay down your burdensome concerns, and put aside your worries. Give a little time to God, and rest a short time in him. Enter into the cell of your mind, exclude everything but God, and that which helps you to seek him, and, with your door closed, seek him. Say now, sincerely, to God: I seek your face, your face I seek, O Lord. (Psalms 26.8) Now, I ask you, Lord, my God, teach my heart where and how it might seek you, where and how it might find you. Lord, if you are not here, but absent, then where shall I seek you? If you really are everywhere, then why don’t I see you here? But surely you live in inaccessible light.“ [1]

In this reflection-prayer, we see how prayer brings the singular devotion we need as we seek to find and follow God’s will. Prayer is the means of grace by which we enact Jesus’ invitation to “ask (inquire), seek (explore), and knock (enter into) with respect to our lives. In this prayer, we learn that our questions are often the means to reveal God’s will for us. Questions asked in prayer are not dead-end streets, they are doorways to discovery. This kind of praying does not always provide “an answer,” but it does sustain our relationship with God and keeps the conversation going.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Run to the Mountain: The Story of Vocation’ (HarperCollins, 1995). By referencing the date, you can find the prayer in any version of the journal you have.

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Along the Way: Originalism

​Once again the concept of Originalism is being heard in the land. It is essentially a legal hermeneutic which says a contemporary law must express the intent of “the founding fathers” around the year 1789. The late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia was the most outspoken adherent of that view. In a speech to the Federalist Society he alleged “there is no way we can know what each other thinks and agrees to besides attributing an objective meaning to words that people state when they write them down.” [1]

I am tempted to dive into his statement and note the “no way we can know….” hyperbole that skews his view from the outset. But that is not the point of this post, so I let it go—but not without pointing it out. My intention is to reveal the flawed methodology of Originalism.

Originalism is part of an interpretive (hermeneutical) process generally known as inductive reasoning or inductive methodology. I taught the method in a seminary course, and I have used it for fifty years. The problem with Originalism is not that it is inductive, but that it is not inductive enough. To explain what I mean, I must provide you with a brief summary of the methodology. [2]

Inductive reasoning employs five steps: observation, interpretation, correlation, evaluation, and application. The first step of observation means paying close attention to the text in order to determine its original meaning. Obviously, Originalism does this. So far, so good. 

The problem is, Originalism stops there. That is, when the “original meaning” is determined, it is transferred to the framing of a contemporary law with the belief that what a law originally meant is what it must mean now. [3] The problem with Originalism is that it does not utilize the other four steps of inductive reasoning. It “freezes” one meaning in time, a past time from long ago, and then seeks to thaw it out in the present moment.

The other four steps of the inductive method intentionally prevent the impositional approach (i.e. “now must be like then”) and keeps the discernment of truth more dynamic. For inductive reasoning to be complete, the other steps must follow observation.

The second step of interpretation moves observation into the realm of viable options, recognizing that between the time something was written and today, other committed and credible people have produced a variety of thoughts on the given subject. Between then and now there has not been silence, there has been sound—and the sound is not “noise,” it is insightful. Views between then and now are not deceptive, they arose from the same kind of devotion we are trying to have now. Interpretation (in biblical theology) keeps alive the idea of progressive revelation. It preserves an evolutionary sense of history.

The third step of correlation adds contemporary interdisciplinary knowledge to the process. We ask, “What are the current disciplines of theology, sociology, psychology, law, biology, medicine, physics, cosmology, etc. telling us?” These too are not judged to be irrelevant or misleading, but rather contributive to the collective wisdom needed to make good decisions today. Correlation means respecting expertise, listening to relevant voices and learning from them.

The fourth step of evaluation means bringing alignment between the first three steps as much as is possible. For example, in biblical study, how do we align the sacrificial system of Leviticus with the teaching of the Book of Hebrews that this system is set aside in the New Covenant?  Evaluation asks, “What is the overarching message?” In the case of this example, it means finding a way in the present to demonstrate our devotion to God. People in Old Testament and New Testament times did it differently, but both were expressing their faith. This does not eliminate either passage per se, rather it brings them together into a workable synthesis for now, offering a way forward for showing our love for God today.[4] Evaluation seeks the Big Story meaning, using it to shape the final step in the process.

The final step is application. This not only means the pragmatic/practical dimensions, but also the universality of the discernment.  In general terms, application asks, “How does this apply to everyone in ways that promote the common good?”—which is the theological and judicial meaning of the word ‘justice.’

 I hope this overview of inductive reasoning has been helpful to you in general. It is the means by which we make good decisions in any area of life. I hope it also shows why Originalism is an insufficient legal hermeneutic. It turns out to be (at best) one-fifth of a complete reasoning process. Neither good laws nor good life can come from truncated thinking..


[1] Quoted in Matthew Fox’s Daily Meditations, 10/21/20.

[2] To study the inductive method in detail, I recommend David R. Bauer and Robert A. Traina’s book, ‘Inductive Bible Study’  (Baker Academic, 2011).

[3] Those who use inductive reasoning are the first to admit that determining the “original meaning” is difficult, sometimes impossible, and always partial in the discernment of truth for today. In biblical hermeneutics, this is the fundamentalist approach which, like legal  Originalism, treats the first step of inductive methodology as if it were the whole.

[4] In biblical hermeneutics, Dr. David Thompson has an excellent chapter on the evaluative step in his book, ‘ Bible Study That Works’ (Evangel Publishing, 1994), chapter five, “ Let Jesus Be the Judge.”  This book is a good study of all five steps in the inductive method

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Merton’s Prayers: December 21, 1939

“Blessed Saint Thomas, who are blessed because, seeing the risen Christ and handling His wounds you believed in Him: pray to Him that I, seeing His body and the blood of His wounds each day may also believe Him, and be filled with His love. And may the image of the five wounds go with me wherever I go; and may the blood from them purify me utterly so that every earthly fear, desire or temptation may be driven out of my heart, and so that I may be wholly filled with God’s love and become His servant and the fellow citizen of the Saints. Amen.” [1]

Here is the first of Merton’s many longer invocations to the saints. He had just completed reading about Thomas in John’s gospel, and he wrote a reflection on what he had read, ending with this prayer. He asks Thomas to pray to God that he might have the same depth of devotion that Thomas had—a devotion that eliminates every evil and instills every virtue. I cannot think of a better request than that.

Making the request to St.Thomas reveals Merton’s belief in the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) as an active presence, not merely a theological statement. To those of us who are not Roman Catholic, we would do well to see the interactive nature between the Church visible (us) and the Church invisible (the cloud of witnesses). The writer of Hebrews saw it, and Merton did too.

And I must go on to say that I do not find asking a member of the Church invisible (one of the saints) to pray for me to be any less appropriate than asking a member of the Church visible (e.g. a friend or pastor) to do so. Intercession is mystery anyway, and perhaps it can take place in heaven as much as on earth.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Run to the Mountain: The Story of Vocation’ (HarperCollins, 1995). By referencing the date, you can find the prayer in any version of the journal you have.

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Merton’s Prayers: December 19, 1939

“Now we faithful glorify 

the Holy Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit 

and we give this triune Lord 

all the taste of the salt 

all the love of the heart

 all the fervor of the soul for ever and ever.” [1]


Merton ends a short story he has been writing with a long hymn that a hermit composed and sang while playing a violin. It is a long poem that resonates as a prayer in many places.


Taken as-a-whole, it is Merton’s way of commending prayer as an expression of total devotion to God, devotion given not just by human beings but (as the hymn reveals) expressed by everyone and everything. It is what we mean when we say, “All nature sings.”  


We need prayers of rejoicing. Prayers of the faithful should exude celebration, and as Merton’s prayer shows, our praise can be directed to all three persons of the Holy Trinity. When we find ourselves in “praise mode,” we can include the prayer practice of adoring the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And maybe like Merton’s hermit in his short story, we can pray by singing and with a violin!


[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Run to the Mountain: The Story of Vocation’ (HarperCollins, 1995). By referencing the date, you can find the prayer in any version of the journal you have.

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Merton’s Prayers

October 22, 1939

“Pax Tecum Filumena”
(“Peace be with you, Philomena) [1]

Between his last recorded prayer and this one (two months) Merton accepted a call to the priesthood and consulted with friends about how best to fulfill the call. They advised him to join an Order. The prayer above was Merton’s brief request for Philomena to dwell in the peace of God in the church invisible.

Out of her peace Merton asked, “so I pray, too, that she will protect me, and ask God to make me chaste and meek and perfect in my vocation, and bring me then to the Monastery and serve Him perfectly there.” Merton’s request for peace was the expression of his desire for purity of heart.

Prayer is the means by which we align ourselves with the Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:8). As Soren Kierkegaard put it, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” That one thing is that the will of God might be done on earth as it is in heaven. Merton’s prayer is toward that end. He wanted to be one through whom that could happen. We should want to be too.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Run to the Mountain: The Story of Vocation’ (HarperCollins, 1995). By referencing the date, you can find the prayer in any version of the journal you have.

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Along the Way: The Root Problem

​I agree with those who point out that social media can be a place where rage overtakes reason, where emotions overrule education. And I confess my own failures along this line in some of the things I have posted. It is difficult to maintain your senses in a storm—particularly a sustained one. Wisdom is hard to come by in a whirlwind.

That’s why I must be clear that this writing is not a reaction to what’s going on, but rather a response to it—a considered response that I have been developing for quite a while by observing a growing mountain of  information. I am writing in the spirit which John Wesley sometimes used to signal his sobriety, substance, and seriousness about a given subject—what he called, “A Calm Address…” I offer you the following in this spirit, even though I know (as Wesley knew) that some will disagree with this post and criticize it. Yet, what follows is not driven by my emotions, but rather by the reading and research I have done. It is my considered opinion of Donald Trump–and one that I would never have expected to make about any President of the United States.

In a word, the root problem we are facing in Donald Trump is this: we are being ruled by a madman. This has happened in history (e.g. Herod, Caligula, Henry VI, to name a few), and it is happening again in Donald Trump. [1] We are being ruled by a madman. Let me unpack this conviction. 

First, we are being ruled. By his own words the past several years, he admires despotic rulers, and he does all he can to behave like one. In doing this, he exhibits his fundamental disregard for our system of government. He acts like a monarch, not a president—going against the documented determination by our nation’s founders not to replicate the demagogueries from which many of them had literally escaped. Donald Trump’s words and actions render his “Make America Great Again” slogan meaningless, because they show he does not know (or care) what the word “America” means politically. His words and actions are also dangerous because they reveal he is attempting to make “America” something it was not intended to be—a system in which one person operates with too much power.

This attempt demonstrates Donald Trump’s toxic leadership as described in an article written by Dr. Jean Kim before he was elected. [2] Dr. Kim’s article was written to describe toxic bosses in the workplace. Sadly, Donald Trump personifies them all…

(1) Unwilling to listen to feedback

(2) Excessive self-promotion and self-interest

(3) Lying and inconsistency

(4) Lack of personal morality or ethical base for their leadership

(5) Rewards incompetence

(6) Operates independently out of a perceived “expertise”

(7) Surround themselves with a cadre of “yes” people, and removes critics

(8) Bullying and harassment

We are being ruled.

Second, by a madman. When this concern surfaced (even prior to his election) Donald Trump’s supporters not surprisingly cried, “foul ball.” Apart from their disagreement was their allegation you may remember. His supporters rejoined the phrase, “He is a political rookie; cut him some slack.” And because it was so early in his presidency, that was difficult to deny. He has never held a public office. So, many of us did that—we backed off and gave him the benefit of the doubt– hoping  for better things from him, while continuing to wonder if we would ever see them.

But now, enough time has elapsed to see that our initial concerns about Donald Trump’s mental health were valid. The concerns have been expressed  by a host of behavioral professionals. Here are a few examples…

(1) 2018—a little more than year into Trump’s presidency, 27 mental health professionals expressed their concerns about his mental health in a book entitled, ‘The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump.’ The book’s author and organizer was Dr. Bandy Lee, Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University. In the second edition ten more weighed in and the number in the title was changed to 37. [3]  This book is considered the standard for a professional assessment of Trump’s mental health.

(2) Also in 2018—Justin Frank, former Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University School of Medicine. wrote ‘Trump on the Couch,’ in which he notes that Trump’s personality is riddled with mental health issues.

(3) 2019—During the impeachment process 350 mental health professionals signed and sent a letter to Congress citing Donald Trump’s increasingly delusional behavior as evidence of his mental illness and their opinion that he was not fit to serve as President.

(4) 2020—Two detailed accounts have continued to document Trump’s mental illness: ‘A Very Stable Genius,’ and ‘Too Much and Never Enough: My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.’ The former volume was co-authored by award-winning journalists  Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. The latter is by Trump’s niece Mary L. Trump, who holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

These four illustrations provide a “Mount Everest” of evidence that Donald Trump is mentally ill, far more evidence than is normally solicited to confirm such in an individual. In addition to these (and other) sobering accounts, we can add the statements made by other of Trump’s family members, business associates, former attorneys, military and political leaders, and White House staff members. When the professional assessments are combined with the accounts of people who have known Donald Trump and worked closely with him, the case that he is mentally ill is persuasive. [4]

We are passed the time when the evidence of Donald Trump’s toxic leadership and mental illness can be ignored, and certainly not dismissed as being partisan. I remind you once again that I am a political independent. I write as a concerned citizen. I have been developing my opinion for some time, and it has only strengthened by what I have seen and heard from him in the past week. [5] We are being ruled by a madman.


[1] To be clear, even madmen do some good things, and Donald Trump’s supporters are quick to defend him, citing “ the goods things he has  done.”  Sadly, this defense avoids the fact that madness can exist in the midst of some positive behaviors. The failure of Trump’s supporters to recognize this, makes his  madness even more insidious, as it did with leaders in the past. The most dangerous leader possible is the one people do not recognize as such.

[2] Dr. Jean Kim, “8 Traits of Toxic Leadership,” Psychology Today, July 6, 2016.

[3] Dr. Lee is careful to distinguish between a professional assessment and a clinical diagnosis. She also notes that mental health professionals are asked to provide both, and that assessments (based on reviews of large amounts of evidence) are considered credible.  In sum, the 37 people who contribute to the book believe that Donald Trump manifests what is called “extreme persistent hedonism” and “sociopathic behavior” which render him mentally unfit to be President. The fact that 37 behavioral scientists were willing to publicly express their concerns is an indication of how serious they consider this to be.

[4] Among the more indicting non-professional assessments is the book by John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer, ‘Authoritarian Nightmare.’ As you will remember, John Dean saw authoritarianism up close and personal in Richard Nixon. He knows despotic behavior when he sees it. But the book is not based in personal experience but in results provided  by analytical instruments that add objectivity to observation.  

[5] Dr. Bandy Lee has voiced her ongoing concerns in an interview just three days ago on the Salon website, an interview conducted with her by Igor Derysh entitled, “Sociopathy: Psychiatrist says Trump’s behavior meets criteria for a locked psychiatric facility” (10/06/2020).

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Along the Way: Fluid Formation

​Years ago, Richard Foster and I were visiting over a meal. It happened to be at a time when my daily devotions were tepid. I asked him about this, hoping he could share something that would “jump start” my prayer time. And he did, but it was not what I expected.

He commiserated with my dryness, admitting he had similar feelings from time to time. And then he gave me his pearl of great price: “Sometimes all I need to pray is a cup of coffee and a squirrel playing outside my window.”  Whatever else he said, I have forgotten. That sentence has stuck with me ever since. I should not have been surprised that he said it, given he has often spoken about the spiritual life as “the freedom of simplicity.” [1]

I am writing about this today because I believe it is counsel we need to take to heart during these challenging times. Physical and emotional fatigue is epidemic, with its corresponding decline of energy for all sorts of things. Spirituality is not immune. It’s difficult to concentrate, for one thing. It’s difficult even to want to concentrate sometime.

And that’s precisely where Richard’s comment to me years ago comes alive for me right now. I have paraphrased it to say, “Sometimes all we need to pray is a beverage and a bird.” When our accustomed formation system is not the solution, drop it. Don’t try to get blood out of a turnip. One of the worst things we can do in our spiritual formation is to “manufacture meaning.” Spiritual formation includes discipline, but we must not turn the spiritual journey into a forced march.

Jesus spoke about “rivers of living water” (John 7:38). In my travels I have flown over many rivers. I have yet to see one that flowed in a straight line. They all meander. And…they have seasonal cycles, including times when they flood and times when there’s no water in the riverbed. Spiritual formation must be fluid; otherwise, it becomes a brittle wineskin that cannot hold the wine. We must go with the flow.

It is in the dry times, when we must not force the empty riverbed to give what it cannot give. And in those moments, Richard Foster’s counsel is the guidance we must follow: “Sometimes all I need to pray is a cup of coffee and a squirrel playing outside my window.” Yes! I am writing this with a beverage in hand and a bird nearby.

[1] He has written a book by that title , ‘Freedom of Simplicity.’ It was subsequently re-titled, ‘The Challenge of the Disciplined Life.’ 

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Merton’s Prayers: August 24, 1939 #2

August 24, 1939

“Christ, have mercy on us.
God save you, Mary, full of grace.” [1]

Merton entered a second prayer into his journal the same day that he included the first one. It was a response he had to scenes in a Charlie Chaplain movie—scenes that led him to write these words, ”It feels that anything that ever had any happiness about this civilization–all the happy things this civilization has produced like Chaplin movies, are all gone and done with. Nothing left but the wars.” He was, of course, referring to the wars and rumors of wars brewing in the world at that time.

As we will see throughout this series, Merton prayed his life. We never lack for things to pray for when we do this because inwardly and outwardly life is going on all the time. In this particular prayer Merton reminds us that we live by God’s mercy, not by any humanly engineered programs. Sooner or later, our efforts will collapse, our systems fail us, and we will find ourselves back to Square One. It begins with the deep sense of loss that Merton described as he watched the movie. But as the prayer also teaches us, mercy is ever present. It is the “full of grace” moment when God gives us the opportunity to make a fresh start.

[1] Thomas Merton, ‘Run to the Mountain: The Story of Vocation’ (HarperCollins, 1995). This is Volume One of the five-volume series. By referencing the date, you can find the prayer in any version of the journal you have.

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Merton’s Prayers: August 24, 1939

​“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”  [1]

The first prayer in Merton’s journal is sometimes called the “Hail Mary.” He found it in Italian in a novel he was reading. He does not say that he prayed it, but he does use it to reflect that the world of his day was “full of grace” in many perceptible ways.

In what seems like a relatively small and passing entry, but Merton’s first prayer and his reflection related to are actually a major lesson: life is a prayer. Prayer does not require a “Dear God” and an “Amen.”  As St. Francis put it, “God is doing cartwheels in creation.”  And like Francis and Thomas Merton, all we have to do is look around, and we will see grace everywhere. 

[1] I am using the ebook edition of the five-volume set of journals published by HarperCollins. The first volume is referenced, Thomas Merton, ‘ Run to the Mountain: The Story of Vocation’ (HarperCollins, 1995). By referencing the date in each post’s title, you can find the prayer in any version of the journal you have.

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Merton’s Prayers: Introduction

​In my classes on Spiritual Formation, I had the opportunity to refer to a host of saints, canonized and otherwise. I made it a point to say that when studying persons, the best way to get to know them is through their journals and letters. I have been particularly fortunate to have that opportunity in my study of John Wesley, and others as well.

One such person is Thomas Merton. His complete extant journals have been published as well as a plethora of letters. [1] A while back, I decided to go through Merton’s journals one more time, this time paying attention to his prayers. [2] I have noticed them during my previous readings; now, I want to make them the focus. Merton’s prayers not only tell us about his prayer life, they provide insights to enrich our praying. I believe Merton’s prayers can be rain falling into the soil of our souls where seeds planted by the Spirit are waiting to germinate and bear fruit.

This series of occasional posts is my invitation to you to come along with me on this journey through Merton’s journals. I believe we are in for a treat. I will post the first prayer tomorrow. [3]


[1] You can easily find his journals by searching “the journals of Thomas Merton” in the Amazon Book Store search box. They come up together and can be purchased individually or as a set. For some reason, the five volumes of letters do not come up in a set, but only by individual titles: ‘The Hidden Ground of Love’….’The Road to Joy’….’The School of Charity’….’The Courage for Truth’….and….’Witness to Freedom.’ Each volume gathers Merton’s letters according to topics.

[2] His comments about prayer are important in addition to the prayers, but they are too numerous to include in this series. Focusing on the prayers alone will take some time.

[3] This series also appears on the International Thomas Merton Society (Group Page) on Facebook. If you are not familiar with the ITMS, I hope you will give it a look, and perhaps become a group member. The Society has two Facebook pages, a general one and a group one.

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In-Sight: Living on the Edge of the Inside

Some of you will immediately recognize the title of this post as one of Richard Rohr’s phrases to describe where he believes God calls us to live.[1]  I have intentionally used his words, because I agree with him, and because I believe it is the place where God is calling us to live in these challenging times.

As you know, I have been studying the book of Micah, and it stands in the background of this month’s “In-Sight” writing.  Like all the prophets, Micah lived and worked on the edge of the inside. It is the prophetic location—the place from which renewal emerges.  It is the location where innumerable Christians have lived, beginning with Jesus and continuing through the first disciples, St. Paul, the early church—and  in movements and people such as the desert mothers and fathers, Celtic Christians,  Francis and Clare, the Wesleys, all the way up to the present in groups like the Poor People’s  Campaign. In this post I want to describe some of the qualities exhibited by those who live on the edge of the inside.

First, they seek to make love their aim, not only taking their cue from St. Paul (1 Corinthians 14:1), but also from the major world religions who commend the same. [2]  We Christians call it agapé.  Martin Luther King, Jr. described it as “a tough mind and a tender heart” that issues in nonviolent ministries of compassion. [3]

Second, they refuse to turn the status quo into a sacred cow, or sell their soul to any company store.  In classical spirituality language, they live for “God alone,” and in doing so they view revelation as progressive, history as evolutionary, and institutions as means. They move toward the singular purpose of God, the reconciliation of all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Third, they live under the inspiration of the Big Story. [4] They identify with a faith tradition, but do not see it as wall of separation, but rather as a particular manifestation of Reality larger than itself. They respect and receive truth wherever it is found. [5] As Christians, we recognize the universal presence and activity of God in everyone and everything (e.g. John 1:3, Acts 10:34-36, Acts 17:28, Colossians a 1:15-20,  Colossians 3:11). [6]

Fourth, they live in community, often beginning renewal movements. They are never “holy solitaries” (John Wesley’s term), but rather practice life together.  From the roots of their fellowship they produce the fruit of service in the world, with particular attention to “the least of these.”

Fifth, they resist principles, not people. Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:10-20 form their mind and fashion their methods. [7] Their aim is not to win, but to transform.  They seek to overcome evil with good through the practice of the better. [8]

Sixth, they strive to advance the kingdom of God, as described by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and exemplified thereafter in his life and ministry. In this sense they live as salt and light in the world. They live by the two great commandments and personify the fruit of the Spirit.

Seventh, they live by faith in “things not seen” and things “hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). [9]  They do this as an act of radical trust in God’s sovereignty, and that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” [10]  With the host of reformers they believe the arc of the universe moves toward justice, understood as inclusion, fairness, and equity—for all.

A final quality combines and activates the previous seven: they live as subversives.  I learned from Eugene Peterson to use this word in relation to the spiritual life. [11] He preferred it to the idea of being a revolutionary, as do I now, thanks to him. Revolutionaries stand on the outside and throw stones. Subversives stand on the inside—the edge of the inside—and  sow seeds. 

Our times are better served by subversives. Every person and group I mentioned at the beginning of this article acted subversively. When we learn from people like this, we live the Gospel well, and living it on the edge of the inside.


[1] He has written about this in his recent series, “Mystics and the Margins” on his Daily Meditations (September 27—October 1). The idea is also the 4th Core Principle of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Rohr writes about each of the principles in his book, ‘The Eight Core Principles.’

[2] Mirabai Star shows how love is present and active in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in her book, ‘God of Love.’ The Dalai Lama brings Buddhism into the picture through his numerous statements about the centrality of love. Hinduism also makes love supreme, calling it “the only thing that is everywhere.”  

[3] Chapter one in his book, ‘ Strength to Love.’

[4] In philosophical language this is called the Perennial Tradition. Bede Griffiths summarized it in his book, ‘Universal Wisdom,’ p. 8. I have been exploring this tradition and may write about it at some point. I believe it is where we must come together if we are to heal the sickness and brokenness in the world today. We must be Big Story people.

[5] The Second Vatican Council affirmed this in “Nostra Aetate  “(In Our Time): Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (October 28, 1965). The ‘ Catechism of the Catholic Church’ affirms this same idea in paragraph 819.

[6] Richard Rohr’s books, ‘Everything Belongs’ and ‘The Universal Christ’ describe this in detail.

[7] I have recently written a three-part series here on Oboedire entitled, ”Dethroning Evil,” based on this Ephesians passage.

[8] “The practice of the better” is one of the core principles of the Center for Action and Contemplation begun by Richard Rohr.  As noted above, he writes about each principle in his book, ‘The Eight Core Principles.’ I wrote an extended series, “Practicing the Better” here on Oboedire. 

[9] Paul Chilcote and I have written about this in our book, ‘Living Hope.’

[10] Hymn, “This is my Father’s World.”

[11] Eugene Peterson, ‘Subversive Spirituality.’

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Day One: October 2020

Thanks to those of you who have recently subscribed to Oboedire so you can automatically receive what I write. And thanks to those of you who have encouraged me to continue writing. I hope a new pace will provide me with both rest (from a deadline-driven approach) and energy (to write things worth reading).
On the horizon, the October “In-Sight” will post on Saturday. It is not the one I wrote a while back and intended to post. It is one I wrote yesterday as a means to ponder the challenges we are facing and to propose a formative vantage point for doing so. It expands on a phrase used by Richard Rohr and is entitled, “Living on the Edge of the Inside.”
On Sunday, I will post the introduction to a new, occasional series entitled, “Merton’s Prayers.” I am re-reading Thomas Merton’s journals, focusing on the prayers he includes in them. Through them we learn a lot about his prayer life, and we derive insights for ours. I hope you find the series helpful. These posts will also appear on The International Thomas Merton Society (Group Page) on Facebook. If you are interested in Merton, I recommend this page. It has articles, poems, music, quotes and photos that enrich our knowledge and appreciation of him.
Another thing I want to remind you about is the publication of my book, ‘Life in Christ’ by Abingdon Press. I have posted about it on Facebook, but it fits the timeline here too. It is available in both paperback and ebook formats, and it is suited to both individual reading and small-group use. I hope you will find it helpful. I recently had the opportunity to join a small group led by Bishop Ken Carder (via Zoom) that is using the book.
On the home front, the big news for Jeannie and me continues to be our kittens, Sweetie and Honey. They are going strong, and they bring us great joy. They were unexpected gifts to us, quickly claiming our hearts and becoming part of “the fam.” I know many of you have followed our kitty saga on Jeannie’s and my Facebook pages. We hope the photos, videos, and comments make you smile.
Here in Florida we are seeing signs that fall is emerging—that is, “signs” as we Floridians read them. For Jeannie and me this means watching our Golden Rain trees turn more and more amber, and feeling the temperature go down a little. These annual changes in nature are one way God reminds us that we too are ever changing, never standing still. We are (to use E. Stanley Jones’ phrase) “Christians under construction.”—human beings in motion on a never-ending journey. God is not finished with any of us.
And with that, I come to the end of this month’s “Day One” post. I am grateful that you are part of Oboedire. I am committed to using this medium as a ministry to provide useful reflections on the spiritual life. I continue to “ask, seek, and knock” about how best to do that. If you have thoughts and/or suggestions, please send them to me at: oboediresite@gmail.com. And if you know of others who would be interested in this site, please let them know about Oboedire.

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Along the Way: Dethroning Evil #3

​This is the final post in this mini-series. I have made use of Ephesians 6:10-20 to commend Christian resistance to evil. In the first post, we looked at the motive for resistance. In the second one, we explored the mindset for it. In this post, I offer an overview of the sevenfold methodology which Paul instructed the Ephesians to use. He called it putting on the full armor of God.

Before looking at each of the component, I want to repeat one thing I noted in the last post: every piece of the armor was given to the soldier, a way for Paul to remind the Ephesians that resistance is by grace. We manifest the fruit of resistance by the root of contemplation. He made this clear in the seventh method—prayer, which we will say more about farther along. For now, we see that “the battle is the Lord’s,” and God provides what we need to practice Christian resistance. Paul describes this provision using seven pieces of armor.

The first piece is the belt of truth. Paul is not talking about broad-based, generic truth, but rather about a focused truth that resists and overcomes “rulers and authorities.” He does not describe the specifics of the truth he has in mind. I think this is because of the length of time he spent in Ephesus. In addition to a brief visit, he lived there for three and a half years preaching and teaching the faith. That’s more than enough time for him to have taught the people what he meant by truth. In fact, I believe he listed the pieces of armor without commentary because he had previously taught them in detail about each one. By mentioning them again in the letter it was his way of saying, “Remember what we talked about when I was with you; it’s time for you put what you know into practice. It’s time to put on the full armor of God, and use it overcome evil with good.”

With respect to truth as he had it in mind, we can look at passages in other letters where Paul was wearing the belt of truth to resist evil. I would note here his letters to the Galatians (possibly his earliest letter) where he was resisting the evil of the Judaizers, and the letter to the Colossians where he resisted pagan philosophy. It’s impossible to go into detail about this here, but a study of these letters reveals several dimensions of truth that challenged imperialism—i.e. the political-religious collusion which enthroned the evil of egotism and ethnocentrism. I would note the truths of universality (Colossians 1:15-20, and 3:11),  oneness (Galatians 3:28), deliverance from legalism (almost the entirety of Galatians), and freedom (Galatians 5:1). [1]  Truth  of this nature challenged the “rulers and authorities” and offered people another way of living called the kingdom of God. This is the truth that, like a belt, encircles us and holds up our clothing as we move around, giving us dexterity and activity.

The second piece of armor is the breastplate of righteousness (“justice” in the CEB). Both words have strong meanings for both inward character and outward conduct. But the first thing we see is that the breastplate was large and substantial. It covered the vital organs, providing confidence to move ahead.  Similarly, we resist evil through righteousness/justice when we feel inwardly (character) and outwardly (compassion) confident. We dare not move forward exposed and vulnerable. We resist from the wellspring of integrity and the outpouring of concern, expressed through advocacy and caregiving.

Thirdly, Paul points to sandals of peace. He most surely had the seventh Beatitude in mind, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), as did Christians later, like Francis and Clare who prayed to be instruments of God’s peace.  Sandals leave our imprint on the path.  God wants our resistance to evil to leave the footprint of peace.  Today, we call it nonviolence. [2] 

Fourth, there is the shield of faith. From William Barclay I learned that the Greek word Paul used was the word for a large, long shield, not the small round one we sometimes see in paintings. [3] Sometimes in battle, the shield was the soldier’s last line of defense. He could literally hide behind it to protect himself from “the flaming arrows of the evil one.”  Likewise, there are times in resistance when evil gets the upper hand, and all we can do is claim faith as our last resort. The hymn writer described it this way, “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” That’s a shield-of-faith statement. Our  last defense is the conviction that evil will not have the final word. Sometimes that kind of faith is all that keeps us from quitting and throwing in the towel. 

Fifth, Paul points to the helmet of salvation. Here the word “salvation” does not mean going to heaven when you die; it means keeping our head while we’re here. It literally means “wholeness,” versus flying off the handle or coming apart at the seams. We might say it is staying cool and remaining calm.  It also has the idea of standing firm.

When I read John Lewis’ books, ‘Across that Bridge’  and ‘Walking with the Wind,’ I learned that Dr. James Lawson (a United Methodist civil rights leader) taught the weekly classes on nonviolent resistance to Lewis and others in Nashville—classes that preceded the first sit-ins by a year. Lawson gave his students the helmet of salvation—that is, knowledge that was necessary to inform courage, to instill stability, and to inspire action. Lewis and others summed it up as “strength to love.” It was a mindset that gave resisters a place to stand (literally and figuratively) when they were confronted.

Sixth, Paul mentions the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. With it the soldier went on the offensive. The word of God is our offense too. Some say this means the Bible, and there are ways that is true. Scripture is useful in providing momentum and forward movement. But the context of Paul’s words is not about the Bible—simply because he did not have one.

What he had was the logos (word) of God.  He had what John wrote about in 1:1-18 of his gospel.  He had Christ, excarnate (universal, eternal) and incarnate (particular, time framed). I think he saved the best for last because with respect to our resistance of evil, Christ is the ultimate thing we have going for us. The battle is the Lord’s. Christ is our example of nonviolent resistance in the flesh, and he is our empowerment for nonviolent resistance in the Spirit.

And then we come to the seventh element: prayer. Some scholars see it more as the atmosphere of resistance, not a piece of armor. Take it either way; you end up at the same place.  Prayer is the means, Paul says, by which we stay alert, the medium through which we pray for all others who are resisting evil, and via the prayers of others for us, it is the motivation we derive to remain engaged in the resistance. Prayer is, as Wesley taught, the chief means of grace. In that sense, nonviolent resistance begins, continues, and ends in prayer.

Well, Ephesians 6:10-20 is a storehouse of knowledge, a reservoir of wisdom, and our marching orders for action.  They give us the motive, mindset, and methodology for resistance.  We need all three…right now.  We need all three in order to dethrone evil.


[1] Galatians is the biblical text which I explore in my new book, ‘Life in Christ: The Core of Intentional Spirituality’ (Abingdon Press, 2020).

[2] My one-book recommendation for learning about, embracing, and manifesting nonviolence is John Dear’s book, ‘The Nonviolent Life.’

[3] William Barclay, ‘The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians: The Daily Study Bible’ (Westminster, 1958).

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Along the Way: Dethroning Evil #2

​In the first post  on this subject a few days ago, I voiced  my conviction that the November election is ultimately about dethroning evil.[1] It is not about Donald Trump losing and Joe Biden winning (though that is a necessary component in the dethronement), it is the casting of votes in local, state, and federal races in ways that restore the soul of our nation, which I summarize as a commitment to the common good. By our votes, we must choose people committed to serving the aims of that goodness and legislating in ways that bring it to pass.

In the mission to dethrone evil, we are in sync with Jesus and with everyone who has labored for justice (i.e. equity, fairness, inclusion) before and after him. In the first post I used Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:12 to emphasize that Christian resistance is not against people per se, but rather it is an opposition to “rulers and authorities, “who have become agents of  fallen-world thinking and living (i.e. imperialism). It is resistance to those who have sold their souls to “forces of cosmic darkness and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens”—that is (as Richard Rohr describes it), to the collective, corporation mindset which elevates the few at the expense of the many through various eugenic and exclusionary means.

Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:12 provide the motive for Christian resistance—what I am calling the dethronement of evil. That was the focus of the first post. But the verse exists in the larger context of Ephesians 6:10-20, which set forth two additional things: the mindset and methodology of our resistance. Paul uses the garb of the Roman soldier to teach both things. [2]  In this post, I explore three aspects of the mindset. In the next post, I will examine the sevenfold methodology that Paul commends. 

First, he shows the problem is serious. The presence of soldiers in a place is an indication of threat. Timothy Brown describes it as “ the malevolent intent of our adversary.” [3]  It is the malevolence enthroned in too much of our political system today which must be resisted and overcome to the greatest extent possible through the use of nonviolent action.

Paul’s tone cancels out two things we often hear in times of crisis. The first is, “The Church should not be involved in politics.” Paul’s jaw would drop if he heard a Christian say this. As accounts in the Book of Acts reveal (along with comments in his letters), he was up to his eyeballs in politics. But more, he followed Jesus who was crucified because he opposed the imperialist system (a collusion of state and religion, as it always is), as did subsequent disciples who were dragged into court (e.g. Acts 4:1-23), and sometimes martyred (Hebrews 11:36-37). The Church cannot be the Church and be aloof from politics because life s political.  But note—in the context of Paul’s words it is a call to be political in a counter-cultural way when the culture is evil.  In such times, we put on the full armor of God.

The second toxic mantra is, “Things are bad. But they have been bad before. They will get better. They always do.”  This way of thinking uses history as a way to justify “keeping quiet” and not “rocking the boat.” It is a mantra that breeds passivity. And more, it is ignorance—a way of overlooking that even though things often do get better, they never do so magically. Things only get better when people speak and act to make them so—when they labor to overcome evil with good. To voice this second phrase is to insult the saints who have rolled up their sleeves and given their lives to resist evil. Instead of being passive, we must say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In such times, we put on the full armor of God.

Second, Paul reveals that the power to overcome evil with good is grace. Every item of the soldier’s gear was provided to them; it did not arise from them. They are able to fight because they have been given the means to do so.

One of the things I have learned from studying nonviolence, and from having friends much more involved in resistance than I am is this: the greatest mistake we can make is to work from the base of our own resources. [4] The way Paul illustrated Christian resistance by using the Ronan soldier is his testimony to the necessity of grace in the dethronement of evil.

In the ensuing Christian tradition, the grace to resist (using the contemplation/action combo) came to be described as the works of piety and the works of mercy. [5] The works of piety form our character; the works of mercy shape our conduct. Taken together, they provide the grace to resist evil and overcome it with good.

Third, Paul teaches us that there must be confession. By calling for resistance, Paul was being honest. The culture of his day did not reflect the will of God. He made this confession against the backdrop of theocracy—the Roman empire, where Caesar was declared to be a god, and his laws were deemed divine. To this fallen-world way of thinking, Paul has an implied two-word response, “Not so!”

It is what our response must be today whenever rulers and authorities become so full of themselves that they get “too big for their britches” and come to believe (and work to deceive others into believing) that they are the bringers of “the light and the glory.”

Against this lie, we bring Paul’s two-word confession, “Not so.” Honesty is the only way to dethrone evil. And with respect to our nation it is having the courage to confess that we have lived with a sanitized version of history—one that is Aryan in perspective, with the ensuing harms that come when prejudice prevails. In our day, we must confess that “liberty and justice for all” has never been fully realized, and that  “law and order” has been a slogan defined and used by those in power to remain in power.

The dethronement of evil requires a mindset—a disposition of heart and an intention of will.  Paul provides it, if we are willing to receive it and put it into practice.


[1] I see the need for the dethronement of evil even more strongly following the death of Justice Ginsburg, as I watch in stunned (but not surprised) amazement to see how brazen Mitch McConnell and others are being in their insistence on choosing a replacement while Donald Trump is president—a hypocritical reversal of themselves when President Obama faced the same situation. Their rush to choose a new Justice is a clear indication that they have sold heir souls to the preservation of power which is fueled by their nationalist (fascist) agenda, even though they do not represent the majority of Americans. Ironically, their shamelessness is a sign that they fear they will lose control of the Senate, so (to use the words of Jesus to Judas) they must do quickly what they seek to do.

[2]] In using the equipment of the Roman soldier, Paul was not commending violence.  He accepted Jesus’ teaching that if we use the sword, we will die by it (Matthew 26:52).  He knew that the kingdom of God would not come by force (Matthew 11:22)—something  Christians after him forgot and/or ignored.  He used the dress of Roman soldiers because people saw them everyday.  They were Paul’s “ show-and-tell” illustrations to teach Christian nonviolent resistance. 

[3] ‘The Life with God Bible’ (HarperOne, 2005), note for Ephesians 6:13-17.

[4] Gandhi, King, Day, Lawson, Lewis, Romero, Rohr, Dear, Charleston, Holmes, and many others teach that action (of the kind we are describing) can only occur through contemplation. To bear the fruit we must first have the root. Without this, we “labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1), and we will eventually fall prey to burnout and cynicism. Henri Nouwen wrote about the contemplation/action link in his book, ‘Gracias’ which describes his time with Christians in Latin America who were having to resist evil every day.

[5] In the Wesleyan tradition, these are referred to as the instituted and prudential means of grace. Taken together, the means of grace create and sustain holiness of heart (inward piety) and life (outward mercy).

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