New Awakening: A New Consciousness

A while back, I realized that in exploring the new Awakening, I had not begun at the obvious place— “waking up.” I do it every morning, and what is so natural is also metaphorical for experiencing the new Awakening today. I want the first round of posts in this series to glean insights from what we do every day. I begin with the idea that waking up is moving into a new consciousness.

When I awaken, I leave one state of consciousness and move into a new one. I have been asleep; now I am awake. Even if I stay in bed for a while, I am in a new reality. I am awake.

Interestingly, Jesus used the idea of being awake as a metaphor for the spiritual life—having eyes to hear and ears to hear (Mark 8:18), a state of being awake. He expressed this in his ministry of restoring sight to the blind. It was simultaneously an act of compassion and a symbol for opening eyes to see the kingdom of God in their midst.

Restoring sight was one way Jesus re-raised the question God had asked in Isaiah’s day about the new thing that was happening: “Don’t you recognize it?” (Isaiah 43:19). And as we know, some did and some didn’t. Some were asleep and some were awake. Some of the sleepers were very religious in the institutional sense. Some of the awakened ones were not fully welcomed in the temple (except in highly limited and controlled ways), reminding us that when we are exploring Awakening, we must do so in unconventional ways. That was true in Isaiah’s day (e g. 56:1-9), in Jesus’ day (e.g. Matthew 25:40, John 10:16), and in our day as well.

As a result, Paul put into words our great need, “Wake up, sleeper! Get up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). [1] Until we are awake, we will not recognize the new things God is doing (Isaiah 43:19). But once we are awake, we can never “unsee” them or ignore them. To use another of Paul’s phrases , when we are in Christ, the old passes away and the new comes. We are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Experiencing the new Awakening is waking up to a new consciousness of God’s unconventional way of doing things–new things that overturn the status quo and overcome evil with good.

[1] Paul’s one-sentence appeal weaves together four passages from Isaiah: 27:19, 51:17, 52:1, and 60:1. This is Paul’s way of showing how the simple exhortation is a thread running through the larger message of the prophet. It is a textual way of saying, “This is a big deal.”

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New Awakening: Really?

It is understandable that the announcement of a new Awakening would evoke the question, “Really? You really believe we are in a time of new Awakening?” Before going farther in this series, I want to respond to the question. For one thing, it is the question I asked when I first heard others announcing it. And it is the questions I am asked whenever I speak or write, “Really? Do you really believe we are in a time of new Awakening?”

A bit farther in this series I will describe some of the signs which indicate we are in a new Awakening. Today, I want to write generally to say why I answer “Yes” to the question. I find my general sense in the biblical stories of the Exodus and the return of the exiles from captivity, and later in the emergence of the Christian movement. From them I see these things about awakenings…

First, they seem like a dream. Psalm 126 sums up how we feel at the outset of an awakening. The slaves in Egypt must surely have heard Moses’ words, “Let my people go” as a dream, or worse, a pipe dream. The call to go home from exile sounded too good to be true. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost left people amazed, and asking “What is this all about?” The natural response to an announcement of awakening is, “Really?”

Awakenings are not in the headlines; in the beginning they are tucked away on back pages and in fine print. They begin in upper rooms, not temples. The attention-getters are the meanness and mayhem delivered to us each day in the media. But as the psalmist wrote, the dreamlike state is the new Reality, the restoration of life….the movement from darkness to light. Awakenings always begin by seeming unbelievable.

Second, the early announcers look like naïve optimists. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech was received that way by many, even some in the civil rights movement. But in reality, his words were a prophetic declaration that change was under way. The words of Moses and those of later prophets to the exiles were messages for the people to take notice that God was doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). Peter’s sermon at Pentecost cast the vision. As I write these words, the transformation we long for is already occurring. Our call is to recognize it and join the advancement of it as instruments of God’s peace.

Third, the awakening is not universal. It is seen in little “movements” not in a mass movement—in pieces and parts, not wholes. I will illustrate this when I begin writing posts about the signs of the new Awakening. In addition, the awakening is not uniform. It is farther ahead in some places than others. People still in the tunnel have more trouble believing there is light at end of it. Moreover, not everyone joins in. It is estimated that only about 43,000 of the exiles returned home. Many stayed put, and for a variety of reasons. The point is, an awakening is never universal—even at its height. We announce it and participate in it because it is Real, not because it is everywhere.

Fourth, an awakening moves slowly, and with setbacks. The Exodus us “Exhibit A” for that. Awakenings are a mixture of success and failure. Even the leaders of it don’t always get it right. The Wesleyan doctrine of “the repentance of believers” is in full gear during awakenings. Humility characterizes the journey of transformation. Moreover the work is not accomplished quickly, and many only see the promised land, they do not enter it (Hebrews 11). But here is what all those who become new-Awakening people do: we run the race set before us, looking to Jesus—the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). We run our leg of the race…that’s it.

Fifth, awakenings are resisted by “the powers that be.” Every time. Why? Because the “principalities and “powers” equate their “kingdoms of this world” with the kingdom of God. They clutch their pearls of egotism and ethnocentrism, dwell in their human-created empires of supremacy and subjugation, make the status quo a sacred cow, and push back when someone says, “the emperor has no clothes on.” Long before prophets arrive, they have dug their wells (Jeremiah 38), built their prisons (Acts 16:24), deified their group (John 8:39), and excommunicated those unlike them (John 9:22). But they cannot prevail. Love prevails. The darkness cannot extinguish the light (John 1:5).

These are some of the reasons a growing number of people, living in one of the most tumultuous times we can remember, nevertheless declare there is a new Awakening. To those who rightly ask, “Really?” we joyfully reply, “Yes, oh yes, there is a new Awakening. Aslan is on the move!” I do declare.

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New Awakening: Introduction

“Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?” ( Isaiah 43:19, CEB)

God spoke these words through the prophet in a time of awakening. God is speaking them again today, as we live in another new awakening. I stand with those who believe a fresh Wind of the Spirit is blowing in our time, removing walls that divide and harm us, and restoring us to the sacredness, goodness, and oneness God intends for everyone and everything. [1]

Thanks to a variety of people, some in the Christian tradition [2] some from other religions [3] some who are eclectic [4], I have awakened to the reality of the Awakening. I am in their debt, and I join them in their witness.

For the past four months, I have been involved with Northwind Theological Seminary, a school that exists in relation to the new Awakening vision and has a mission to advance a new re-formation in the society and the church. [5] It is an exciting place, but being there has revived my need to think more about the new Awakening.

God’s revelation through Isaiah ends a question, “Don’t you recognize it?” It is the question that gives rise to this new, occasional series on Oboedire. It is where I must begin as a follower of Christ, for it is a question that moves me from awareness into action. It is the question God asks us as the means for inviting us to experience and express our engagement in the “new thing” God is doing. It is the question that launches this series and shapes the opening round of posts.

I invite you to join this journey into an exploration of “God’s new thing.” In Isaiah’s time, everyone was meant to see and participate in it. Again today, none need be left out

[1] I wrote some early thoughts about this in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing’ (Cascade Books, 2013).
[2] Writers in the emergent Christianity have been helpful: Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler-Bass, Lisa Sharon Harper, to name a few.
[3] The Tao The Ching and the writing of the Dalai Lama have enabled me to see how the new Awakening is a reality larger than the Judeo-Christian tradition.
[4] The writing of Ilia Delio, Thomas Berry, and Andrew Harvey have brought interdisciplinary insights into my sense of new Awakening.
[5] The seminary website is I am serving as the director of the Wesleyan Studies Program.

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Heart Sounds: How? Amplification

Episode 30 (8:23)

We live the spiritual life by cultivating the parts of it that have the greatest potential. In this episode we look at some ways to do that.

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Along the Way: The Great Challenge

If you were to ask me, “What is the greatest challenge in your spiritual life these days?” I would have no trouble answering you. It is living within Paul’s exhortation, “Be angry without sinning” (Ephesians 4:26). I am angry with respect to many things going on today that are doing harm to too many people. Without going into detail, I confess that some expressions of my anger are un-Christian, and I know it. But I am angry anyway.

So, Paul’s words are my “sticking point,” and I know that I must not live apart from them. The challenge is knowing how to live within them.  Matthew Fox has come along for me at a good time. Right now, his Daily Meditations are dealing with the same challenge in the face of all the ungodliness we are witnessing these days—and even worse, an ungodliness that masquerades as godliness….which, I confess, only increases my anger. Richard Rohr’s book, ‘What Do We Do with Evil?’ has also been helpful.

In this post, I will mix my thoughts and theirs to offer what little light I have on being angry without sinning. Even a candle’s worth of light is helpful in total darkness. And total darkness is where we live if we don’t take Paul’s words to heart.  I am learning to do so through the practice of contemplation.

First, in contemplation, I face reality. I have learned from Thomas Merton and others that “the prayer closet” (Matthew 6:6) is where I confront my deficiencies. When I speak, write, and act for justice, the activity distracts me from considering my own heart.

Nonviolent resistance, I have learned from John Dear, can be a form of self-righteousness unless it is set in the context of prayer. Without contemplation, we can lack the humility which must precede and infuse resistance.

It is in contemplation, not action, where the Spirit has a chance to tell me, “Steve, your anger is not healthy.” Action can be a way of avoiding ever hearing that. It can be an expression of “this people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8). It is in contemplation where God has space to say, “Steve, we need to visit about your anger. You’ve got a problem with it.”

Second, it is in contemplation where I receive a vision for godly anger—for righteous indignation. The vision originates in Jesus, who when reviled did not revile in return (1 Peter 2:23). And then, I move from him to the host of disciples (ancient and modern, Christians and those of other religions) who model Paul’s words, “be angry without sinning.”  From them, I learn there is a prophetic anger that is not only real, it is necessary if we are to overcome evil.

It is anger that stays focused on evil (“the dirty rotten system” Dorothy Day), not on people. It is channeling my anger into the prayer Jesus prayed in the face of evil, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Of course, on one level evil people know exactly what they ate doing, and they act (as John Wesley put it) with cunning and concealment.  But on the level Jesus was praying, he recognized that some can become so hard-hearted and self-deceived that they call evil good, and good evil (Isaiah 5:20). That is precisely what has happened to those in the Religious Right, and who believe that nationalism and the gospel are synonymous.  We are right to be angry at this, and resist it.

Third, it is in contemplation where the Spirit asks me to make the saving exchange—to hand over my anger in exchange for God’s—that is, redemptive anger set in the context of steadfast love. This is godly anger, and it is not easily come by, or maintained. But it is real, and it is what God offers me in the quiet place. God does not remove my anger, God replaces it.  Martin Luther King Jr. called it having the strength to love. It is being angry about evil, not the people who practice it.

And yes, that is a fine distinction—one hard to maintain. That’s precisely why contemplation is the means of grace for “being angry without sinning.” I go daily to the prayer closet, which always includes some kind of “cleaning the lens” so I can see as I should, and act as I must. Charles Wesley put it this way, “If to the right or left I stray, that moment, Lord, reprove.”

Contemplation is the means for getting back on track rather than derailing the whole train of my soul. Contemplation is the gift God offers us to confront the great challenge of “being angry without sinning” and being given the grace to do it.

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Heart Sounds: Alignment

Episode 29 (8:07)

The spiritual life is lived best when our inner and outer life match. In this episode, we look at ways to establish and maintain this alignment.

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Heart Sounds: “Abandonment”

Episode 28 (6:25)

In the spiritual journey we inevitably come to the place where we have to let go of some things in order to make progress. In this episode we explore the idea of abandonment, and how it opens the way to further formation.

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Heart Sounds: Appropriation

Episode 27 (7:54)

We appropriate the spiritual life by practicing the words of Jesus: ask, seek, and knock. In this episode we look at how these three things enable us to turn discoveries into experience.

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Heart Sounds: How? Attention

Episode 26 (9:54)

We practice the spiritual life by paying attention. In this episode we use the lenses of nature, scripture, and our lives to become attentive, and we do so naturally.

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Along the Way: The Sacred Union of Science and Theology”

“The sciences are helping to restore spirituality to its rightful place, revealing to us a supernatural Reality that is in everyone and everything. [1] Theology, likewise, is restoring this understanding to matters of faith and action. [2]

Matter is concentrated spirit, the intangible made visible (Hebrews 11:3). Running through the cosmos is consciousness, relationship, and interbeing. [3]. Energy is what’s produced in the space between interacting particles—that is, between all which exists. [4] Life is life together, from the smallest particle to the farthest star (Romans 12:15-16; 14:7-8)

Theologically, this brings the Emmanuel principle to the fore. [5] God is with us, not “out there somewhere.” And more, God is in all that God has made. We live, move, and have our being “in God” (Acts 17:28). [6]

The great illusion is separateness, the Grand Revelation is oneness. The tragic consequences of the separatist lie are supremacy and subjugation manifested in innumerable ways. The redemptive conclusion of the Unitive Truth is the restoration of all things in the universal Christ (Acts 3:21, Ephesians 1:9-10). [7]

[1] The scientific contribution is described by Diarmuid Ó Murchú in his book, ‘Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics,’ rev. ed. (Crossroad: 2004). Richard Rohr brings the theological perspective to this in his book, ‘Everything Belongs,’ rev.ed.’ (Crossroad, 2003).

[2] That is, some theology is restoring this Reality. Other theologies are locked in denial and obscurantism, resisting truth in favor of their version of “orthodoxy”–a resistance that’s becoming less and less credible and attractive. “Sacred cow” theology is flailing around a lot these days, but it is the death throe of refusal to join the new Awakening that is regenerating everyone and everything.

[3] The science of panpsychism is making breakthrough discoveries with respect to the nature and expression of universal consciousness. Ken Wilber’s work in integral consciousness is contributing to our understanding, as is the teaching of Eckhart Tolle. In theological language, these are prevenient-grace (awakening) windows through which we are fortunate to see things today–if we are willing to do so.

[4] The term for this is Liminal Space. ‘Oneing Journal,’ volume 8, number 1 (April 2020). The Center fir Christogenesis, founded by Ilia Delio is integrating theology and science with respect to the notion of “energy” (abundant life).

[5] ‘The Life With God Bible’ (produced by the Renovaré ministry) is designed to teach the “Immanuel Principle” and the formation of spiritual life that emerges from it. I highly recommend it.

[6] Thomas Oord’s writing and the wir of The Center for Open and Relational Theology are enriching our knowledge and experience of this biblical truth.

[7] Christology is the theological cutting edge for the new Awakening. Far from being a triumphalist imposition of Christianity on others, it is the bringing of Christianity into the larger reality of the Cosmic Christ which leads to what Matthew Fox calls Deep Ecumenism–a coalition of humanity aimed to overcome evil with good. That is, the new Awakening is a movement to join and a force to be reckoned with.

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Along the Way: The Note of Joy

During my time as a seminary administrator, I would often ask, “Are we having fun?” And I would say to staff, “Get as close to a party as you can.” These were lighthearted ways of making an important point: we live and work best when the note of joy is present. One of my delights was to hear staff and students say, “I look forward to coming to campus.”

The note of joy is second on the list of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I believe that love is the singular fruit, and the additional eight words are expressions of it. If that’s so, then joy is the first evidence of the Spirit’s presence in us, and therefore, it should be the first sign of the Spirit’s work through us.

The importance of joy is emphasized in all the world’s religions. Ani Palmo describes it this way,“If the mind is delighted with what it’s doing, it engages and becomes one with the practice….We need to learn how to use the mind as an ally, so it does the practice with joy… If we stop while the mind is still enjoying the experience, the mind remembers, “That was fun.” It will be enthusiastic again next time.” [1]

I find this principle to be true in retirement, and as important as ever. You may notice that I will stop posting for a while. It is almost always because the note of joy has gone away, and I want to wait until I hear it again in my writing. The same is true for other aspects of my life. As Ani Palmo says, joy engages us in our work and keeps us coming back to it.

Of course, there are times when we act through the impetus of will. Some things need doing regardless of how we feel. But as a general rule, we live and work better when the note of joy is present.

So, I ask, “Are you having fun?”

And I say, “Get as close to a party as you can.”

[1] Ani Tenzin Palmo, ‘Reflections on a Mountain Lake’ (Snow Lion, 2002), 23.

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Heart Sounds: How? Awe

Episode 25 (7:49)

Awe is our response to awakening. In this episode we look at awe as the bridge into a “wonder-full” life.

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Heart Sounds: How? Awakening

Episode 24 (6;37)

The spiritual life begins to be lived in an experience of awakening. In this episode we explore aspects of “waking up” to God and to abundant living.

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Along the Way: The Upward Way

For more than a decade I have been on a journey often referred to as “emergent Christianity.” [1] It has taken me into that part of Christianity called “progressive.”  It has been a life-changing experience in more ways than I can name in this post. Many of my previous Oboedire posts illustrate the specific expression of my progressivism..  And as the song says, ‘I wouldn’t take ‘nothin for my journey now.”

One learning along the way is how progressives are caricatured as those who don’t believe much, those who “dillute” the faith and are theological minimalists. My journey into a more progressive Christianity has revealed that the exact opposite is true. The fact is, progressives are maximalists, people who affirm the Grand Story that comes from God to us all. Far from “going down the slippery slope,” progressives are those who sing, “I’m pressing on the upward way. New heights I’m gaining every day…Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

We look for the places in the Bible that reveal the Message in ways that maximize light, life, and love (the three primal elements in the original creation) and which ignite compassion and a commitment to the common good, summed up in the Bible in the word ‘justice.’ For more than a decade I have read Scripture underlining in blue the passages where words like “all” and “everyone” appear. They’re everywhere, and the sum of them shows that the “high ground” of the Bible is found in oneness and union, not partisanship and division.

The apex for this “highest” is found in Paul’s words, “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11). More than anything else, moving into progressive Christianity has expanded (in depth and breadth) my Christology, as Paul described it above, both in terms of Christ’s Lordship and his universality.

In this vision I see the comprehensiveness of redemption, that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is what we call “the Christ mystery”—that is, we do not know how God will work this out, but we do know that God’s plan is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). The focal point for this is Christ’s death on the cross “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Colossians 1:20).

This is not minimalism! On the contrary, it is utmost faith in the highest. It is the vision that creates deep ecumenism in the human family, the vision which removes walls that divide, and restores the oneness God has intended for us from the beginning. It is this vision of Christ’s ultimacy in principle, purpose, and power that is at the heart of the Awakening progressives are seeing today as another recurring act of God to do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19).

It is the cosmic Christ who is creating new wineskins for God’s wine, discarding the brittle and leaking “ kingdoms of this world” with the supple and sound Gospel of the kingdom of God. It is this maximum vision of the Christ, who is Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:17) that puts this song into the heart of every progressive Christian, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”

[1] It began when I read Brian McLaren’s ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ in 2009. It came together when I read Phyllis Tickle’s book,’The Great Emergence’ in 2012. In 2013, I put my own experience into words in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing.’

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Heart Sounds: How Do We Live the Spiritual Life?

Episode 23 (9:04)

In this episode we begin looking at the sixth and final foundational question of the spiritual life, the “how” question. It’s the application question, the one that moves theory into practice–the inevitable question that expresses our hunger for God in terms of behavior. Today’s episode provides an overview of the “how” question, a look we will offer in more detail in upcoming episodes.

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Along the Way: It’s Temple Time

America is a house divided. Not as it was during the time of the Union and the Confederacy, but in observable ways, very recently demonstrated by those I read on social media who lambasted the inclusion of “Let Every Voice Sing” as an insult to 4th of July celebrations. Telling as this kind of pushback is, it is but a comparatively mild illustration of a division far deeper and sinister than song selection. But it is a reminder that we are living in a time when we must choose whom we will serve.

Looking to Jesus for guidance, I call the situation we are in “Temple Time.” And from Jesus, I find help in his example for dealing with it. From him we learn some important things.

First, Jesus respected the Temple as a symbol of God’s presence among the people. Nothing he said or did undermined that holy metaphor. He worshiped God in the Temple and taught on its premises. This is the starting point for understanding of how we are to speak and act relative to our national and ecclesial temples today. But from Jesus we learn that reverence and respect is not the end of things. It is not all we do. Faux patriotism and faux faith want us to stop here. But we cannot because Jesus did not.

Second, he overturned the tables of the money changers (a metaphor for the “dirty rotten system” Dorothy Day called it) that had made the Temple a “den of thieves.” He did not destroy the Temple, he cleansed it. And it is here that Jesus gives us our marching orders for dealing with the evils that are undermining our country (e g. Nationalism) and church (e.g. Fundamentalism) today.

I recently thought about our divided house as being in good shape on one end, and the other end being on fire. Recognizing that one end of the house is okay does not mean we ignore the fire burning on the other end. We don’t sit in the undamaged part of the house and allow the fire to consume more and more of the dwelling. We don’t call our friends and say, “We’re fine,” we call the fire department and say, “Come quick!”

It’s Temple Time, in both society and religion.  Respecting the whole while overturning the parts is the way of Jesus. It must be ours too.

There’s one final lesson we learn from Jesus’ actions in Temple Time. Those who “set up shop” in the Temple so that the system promoted their imperialism, preserved their power, and perpetuated their benefits were quick to denounce Jesus. Those who had made the Temple a sacred cow did not remain passive and silent when Jesus upset their system. They called him crazy, even one who was working against God. That’s all imperialists can do when their monuments are exposed as idols.

Likewise, our words and deeds in Temple Time will be said to be libtard socialism, unbiblical progressivism–unpatriotic, heretical, etc. etc. But Jesus knew better, and so do we. When we are said to have “gone down the slippery slope,” it is because Jesus went down it first, and we are only following him. It’s what you do when it’s Temple Time.

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Heart Sounds: Conversations #2

Episode 22 (8:05)

In this episode I offer the paradigm, the “big picture” that I am using to move the series along…and…I connect the series to the larger Oboedire ministry of spiritual formation that I launched in 2010

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Along the Way: The Faith We Need

We live by faith. So says the Bible in several places. But what kind of faith? I nominate the faith of St. Thomas, what Brian McLaren calls “faith after doubt” in his book by the same title. [1] Our stereotype of Thomas as “Doubting Thomas” has come with the message, “And you don’t want to be like him.” But that’s dead wrong. Actually, we do want to be like him as the story about him in John’s gospel clearly shows (John 20:24-29).

Faith comes alive after doubt because that is where conviction is born. Without doubt, what we call faith is not really faith, it’s “certainty”—faux faith that comes with hubris (not humility) and turns our beliefs into sacred cows. It’s believing in what we “see” (our doctrines and dogmas), which is the exact opposite of what the writer of Hebrews said true faith is, believing in things “not seen”—that is, things beyond our conceiving and control. Without doubt we come to believe faith is to be defended rather than developed.

It’s what Philip Yancey calls doubting our doubts. [2] It’s what Thomas did, and it kept him receptive to new things. It kept his soul a pliable wineskin rather than a brittle one. It moved him beyond doubt to make the most profound statement anyone ever made about Jesus, “my Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Doubt is a door, but it’s an entrance not an exit.

Is there faith after doubt? Absolutely! In fact, the real question is, “Is there faith before doubt?” And the answer is probably not, because the only thing that keeps us open to God is our willingness to say, “I could be wrong.” Like Thomas, there’s no telling what we will experience when we are willing to say that.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, ‘Faith After Doubt’ (St. Martins Press, 2021).

[2] Philip Yancey, “A Time to Doubt” (January 12, 2020)

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Heart Sounds: When Do We Live the Spiritual Life?

Episode 21 (8:16)

The present moment is the only real time we have. Spirituality is reality, and now is the time to cultivate our faith, fullness, and formation.–Living-the-Spiritual-Life-in-the-Now-e13l2bh

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Hesrt Sounds: “Where Do We Live the Spiritual Life?”

Episode 20 (10:37)

In this episode we explore the connection between spirituality and location, focusing on six places that foster growth in the spiritual life….

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Along the Way: A Good Trembling

I posted this earlier today on my Facebook page. I am reposting it here to better archive it, and to share it with those of you who are not Facebook friends….

“A Good Trembling”

I had no plans to write today, but I am sitting here with an unexpected trembling in my soul—a good trembling, a God trembling. It came as I re-read chapter one of E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘The Christ of Every Road.’ He wrote it in 1930, but it is ablaze with the light of insight and the fire of passion. I am writing this under the influence of Jones’ words that he went on to unpack under the title of the first chapter, “On the Verge of a Spiritual Awakening?”

If you follow my writing, you know I am among those who believe God is once again doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19), and that we are in the midst of another Awakening. Jones said as much nearly 100 years ago! And what set me to trembling is that he gave evidence for his belief in the very four areas I (and others) are seeing today. In 1930, Jones named them as follows,

First, the scientific affirmation of faith and its place in teaching us new things about faith. Jones saw the sciences as friends with religion in helping to usher in a new awakening—what he called a bringing out from the facts of life a view of life that would be transforming. As a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition (which itself is part of the larger Anglo, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions), I see this in Wesley’s inclusion of Reason in his hermeneutic—an inclusion that was enhanced by the sciences. [1]

Second, the trend toward experience. That is, life arising from concreteness, not concepts. It’s what some today are calling lived theology. Jones said it clearly, “The world of dogmatic authority is dead.” But that death was for him (and for a growing number of us today) a resurrection. Again, John Wesley affirmed it through his inclusion of experience (“practical divinity”) in his hermeneutic, envisioning the movement of Christianity away from what he called “dead orthodoxy” into living faith (“faith working by love”). [2]

Third, the undertone of deep spiritual craving. A hunger Jones saw as he traveled the world. He found it among those who were still religious but hanging on by a thread and looking to religion in new ways. He also found the craving in those who had left religion not because they had lost a hunger for God, but because the institutional forms of religion had failed to satisfy their hunger. Jones saw nearly a hundred years ago what we call today the “nones and dones” phenomenon, and he viewed it as a sign of being on the verge of another awakening. [3] In the Wesleyan tradition, we find John Wesley going toward those outside institutional Christianity who nevertheless hungered for God. They experienced God in ways they had not previously done.

Finally, the expansion of Christo-centric consciousness—a mindfulness Jones found within and beyond Christianity. [4] Christlikeness, he noted, was increasingly becoming the spirit of the age. He contrasted this with a denominational-centric Christianity—a form of religion to which God would not entrust the power of the Spirit because it produced what he described in two words: “imperialism” and “megalomania” driven more by a lust for power than a love of God. [5] Again, I see in John Wesley a similar discernment of the same temptations which Jones saw, and we continue to see. Wesley intentionally kept Methodism defined more as a movement than an institution, partly to avoid these pitfalls.

And so, with these four things before me, I find myself unexpectedly experiencing today a good trembling—one afforded me by E. Stanley Jones, my overall key mentor in faith and its formation. My trembling is a surprising, “Wow!” but it is more. It is a strengthening of my resolve to stay on the path others have seen and are seeing—God’s new Pentecost, God once again doing a new thing. [6] Isaiah’s question in 43:19, “Do you see it?” is one I want to answer with a resounding, “Yes, I do!” as I journey on the way walked by Wesley, Jones, and so many others, including Jesus himself and a multitude of his followers since. And I want to be among those saying to everyone, “Come on along!”

[1] Here is conservative Christianity’s “Achilles’ Heel”—its willful obscurantism of scientific facts that leave it advancing untruths with respect to such things as human sexuality and our oneness of being (human and planetary), leaving it to get it wrong on such matters as LGBTQ+ people, race, government, ecology, and more. Now representing outdated and untrue science in its statements of faith and ethos statements, a large segment of Evangelicalism is a faux Gospel, founding its allegations on falsehood no longer supported by facts.

[2] Large segments of Evangelicalism continue to exist on the basis of alleged “doctrinal purity” that creates leaders who arrogantly act like illuminati who oversee communities where the unpardonable sin is disagreement and acceptance is “agreeing with us because we have the truth.” These folks knowingly erect walls rather than build bridges, turning their faith into fortresses, mistaking schism for spirituality. Jones’ promotion of the Round Table is a healthy alternative to that toxic faith. See his book, ‘The Christ of the Round Table’ for more.

[3] Sadly, a large segment of Evangelicalism views the “nones and dones” as people who are departing the faith, people who have “left the truth” and gone into error, even heresy. But this view survives only through caricaturing those outside their restrictive communities and by a counterfeit definition of “nones and dones” as unspiritual, when in fact the opposite is true.

[4] In his book, ‘The Way’ (reading for Week 50, Saturday), Jones bravely wrote that Christianity does not have to be exclusionary, but rather to be affirmative–that because Christ is the light of the world, anyone who lives by that light “will be saved and saved by Christ, however unconscious they may have been of Him as Christ.” He continued his bravery by sharing his belief that Gandhi would be in heaven. These convictions put him at odds with exclusionary Christians, but it was a price he was willing to pay to declare his belief in an expansive Christology–the kind Richard Rohr describes in his book, ‘The Universal Christ.’

[5] Here again, a large segment of Evangelicalism has sold its soul to what we today refer to as Christian Nationalism, with the same penchant for imperialism and megalomania Jones wrote about in 1930.

[6] I wrote about this in my book ‘Fresh Wind Blowing.’

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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.

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: 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.

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Shepherd’s Care 2.0: 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.–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…

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Heart Sounds: Living from the Heart

Episode 2

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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:]

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