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: 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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Along the Way: Dangerous Education

A lot of politics in general and some of the president’s words and deeds in particular are beyond my expertise, even though sometimes I can’t keep myself from commenting about them. But when Donald Trump wanders into certain territory, he is on my turf. Education is one of them. Two of his recent comments are ludicrous and dangerous.

First, his ludicrous allegation that progressive Americans are teaching their children to hate America. That’s a lie. The truth is, some Americans are teaching their children to be honest about America. We do this because we have become aware of (through research, not hearsay) how skewed America’s history has been—advanced by a false narrative that is Aryan in concept.

The move to change this is not because we hate America, but because we love it, and we believe honesty is the only way to love something. Paul wrote, “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). We know truth best, and we establish mature perspectives about it when we see it complete. In fact, we learn as much about how to make things better by seeing the bad as we do by viewing the good. Prejudice is the result of partiality. Wisdom is the product of wholeness.

There is only one kind of truth when it comes to history: a mixed narrative in which we have gotten some things right and other things wrong. [1]  To acknowledge this about America is not hatred, it’s honesty. It is only those who “prefer darkness to light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19) who want to truncate truth.  But to do so is to foist falsehood and design deception. A “sanitized” history (i.e. viewed through the lens of white privilege) is not history, it is propaganda. And because most of us were given a sanitized picture, it takes courage to confess it and work to do better. This leads to the second thing Trump has said—the dangerous thing.

Second, his plan to create a task force that will determine ways and means to teach “proper” American history—that is, history which  perpetuates the sanitized version with increased verve. To his credit and to that of his minions who blindly do his bidding, it is true that education is arguably the most powerful force in shaping the national narrative and creating the supportive mindset to declare and defend it. But the fact is, what Trump is proposing is not education, it is indoctrination—and of the kind that will extend white supremacist ideology into another generation. This is dangerous.

Our resistance to his views comes from an “enough is enough” point in time, where a growing number of people believe we are in the mess we’re in to a large degree because we have been taught improper American history. We are those who believe we have been harmed by a caucasian/corporate concept of history, where eugenics and elitism prevail.

We are those who envision a future where education in American history (and the life which issues from it) becomes “a coat of many colors”—a tapestry in which many story threads weave our national narrative.  We envision a national narrative akin to Pentecost, a day when the truth was spoken through many people groups and languages. We envision education that forms human conscience in ways that beget respect, inclusion, and the common good.

Donald Trump’s lies about our history and his plan to perpetuate a skewed narrative are of the darkness, not the light. And as one national newspaper puts it, “Democracy dies in the darkness.” Donald Trump is advocating dangerous education, born of despotism, not democracy.

[1] I imagine you have noticed Donald Trump’s refusal to admit mistakes, and his incessant claims (about almost everything) that no one has ever done things as well as he has. This is sick, and so is his attempt to create a past history and a current narrative that defines itself as “great.”

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Along The Way: Dethroning Evil #1

It’s time for me (you decide if it’s time for you) to push through the “fluff and stuff” and cut to the chase: the election on November 3rd is no longer about candidates or parties. It is about the dethronement of evil. To call it less is to run the risk of standing by passively and watching this nation unravel. My conscience will not let me do this. Niceness is no longer a virtue, if it ever is. Forthrightness is necessary. I say this as a Christian, full bore, but also as a political independent. [1] I have no “agenda,” but I am on a mission: to do what I can as a disciple of Jesus to overcome evil with good—and to do so in the context of our national election, now less than two months away. The soul of our nation is in jeopardy.

I take my cue and accept my assignment from Jesus himself, who modeled nonviolent resistance to evil, and who (in his great commission) included baptism in our missional task—baptism interpreted to me by the Wesleyan tradition as “resisting evil in whatever forms it presents itself.” I have taken a vow to do this.

But as always, how we go about resisting makes all the difference. In my need to learn how to engage in Christian resistance, I gain insight from Paul’s words, ”We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12 CEB). When Paul wrote this, it was not the first time in history evil had taken root, and he knew it would not be the last. Fast forward to today, and we understand as Paul did that we are living in such a time. His words are our blueprint for action, in general and particularly in the days leading up to the election. [2]

First, Paul makes it cleat that “we aren’t fighting against human beings.” We must not miss this; otherwise our resistance will be un-Christian. E. Stanley Jones wrote about this and influenced my thinking originally. Others have done so since. The resistance we are called to make is a hard saying: our fight is not against people. It is against “rulers and authorities” who have fallen prey to evil.

Donald Trump is arguably the clearest and saddest example of an authority figure whose brokenness makes him susceptible to the influence of evil—at least he is the most public illustration of it that we see daily. [3] His sister and niece have confirmed this at their risk, and with courageous detail. On an ordinary day, their witness would be enough to cause people to see through Donald’s personal and political charade (created from his pathological narcissism), and thereby be persuaded that he is a threat to the nation, never deserving to be president in the first place, and surely not to be re-elected.

But this is no “ordinary day” (as I will show below); it is a time of darkness brought on by the multiplied deceptions that the current administration continues to use to pollute the minds of millions of people. To let that go unchallenged is unconscionable.

Michael Cohen reveals the deception in spades in his recent book, but also zeroing in to say, “The cosmic joke was that Trump convinced a vast swath of working-class white folks in the Midwest that he cared about their well-being. The truth was that he couldn’t care less. Everyone other than the ruling class on earth was like an ant, to his way of thinking, their lives meaningless and always subject to the whims of the true rulers of the world.” [4]

In the past six months or so this truth has been repeated by others who know Donald well and have worked closely with him. But most of all, his own words captured in print and on tape (including his frantic attempts to revise the narratives he himself creates—something narcissists do) are the ultimate indictment. Nevertheless, some people live from their brainwashed state and continue to support him. [5] This leads to the next thing Paul said.

Second, we fight “against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens.” Thanks to Richard Rohr, I see evil in a new light that has helped me understand Paul’s words better than before. [6] Evil is a societal darkness, a pre-existing condition (a mindset) that precedes any of our individual expressions. It soaks into us in a variety of ways. The Bible calls it satan. [7] By whatever interpretation, evil is real and active, using systems and groups as its instruments. We see this glaringly illustrated in the QAnon conspiracy [8] and the Christian Nationalism movement[9], two separate entities but which sometimes overlap.

Rohr rightly notes that evil masquerades as goodness (“greatness”—an even stronger appeal to egotism/ethnocentrism), and therein lies its power to deceive. This is not accidental or incidental, but rather deliberate and strategic. The workers of evil are in contact with each other [10], and they operate from a common playbook given over to lying (incessantly), bullying, denial (even in the face of proof), demeaning and caricaturing, passing the buck, deflecting (changing the subject), falsely blaming and vilifying others, preferring their falsehoods to truth, and otherwise perverting things to their advantage.

The whole thing operates and advances by deception. Richard Rohr sees this as the main concern we should have about what’s going on, writing that “People are more duped and intellectually lazy than they are malicious.” [11] And these tendencies are the things that evil leaders exploit to the greatest extent possible. Delusion is the only way such “rulers and authorities” can succeed. It is a system with roots in ancient history (imperialism), and with numerous contemporary manifestations (dictatorships)—all with leaders who enjoy a monarchial style. It is a system that’s immoral at the core: defined, designed, and directed by egoic/ethnocentric supremacies. It is the sin of Cain, who tried to say he was not responsible for his brother. Some in the current administration are skilled architects and engineers of this ancient sin, schooled in its deployment.

This is what we are called to resist…. “evil in whatever forms it presents itself.” We follow Jesus, Paul, and those before and after them, who co-operated with God so that justice would flow down like a mighty river, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream (Amos 5:24). We must oppose any and all systems that preserve, protect, and promote fallen-world imperialism. In upcoming posts, I will connect with the additional counsel of Paul in Ephesians 6. God has given us the means to resist, and now is the time to do so. [12]

For today, I take the words of Ephesians 6:12 to be God’s clarion call to resist evil, and I point to voting in the upcoming general election as a way to dethrone evil in local, state, and federal governments.

[1] I do not view any political party as perfect. It’s one reason I am an independent. Our political system is flawed across the board. But in terms of the vision (i.e. the common good) and its implementations, some platforms and politicians are noticeably better than others.

[2] The context of Ephesians 6:12 is 6:10-20. I intend to work through this longer passage in future posts. Hence, my use of “ #1” to describe this opening one.

[3] He is not alone. Recent brazen comments by Roger Stone and Michael Caputo to establish martial law and to prepare for armed conflict if Trump loses, reveal the same manifestations of evil, along with numerous other similar sentiments voiced by Donald’s minions the past few years. The increase of survivalist groups in the nation brings that chilling possibility to bear upon the future.

[4] Michael Cohen’s, ‘Disloyal’ is one of growing number of books and articles exposing Donald Trump and his administration. The rocks are crying out. Are we listening?

[5] Brainwashing as I use it here is not perjorative, it’s descriptive of the extended process that works over time to replace truth with lies so that people end up believing whatever corrupt leaders tell them. In social systems we call it indoctrination, which produces “group-think ”

[6] Richard Rohr, ‘What Do We Do With Evil?’ (CAC Publishing, 2019). He is not the first to describe evil in collective and systemic senses, but it was while reading this book that some things came together for me in a new way. Prior to this, Walter Brueggemann wrote similarly in relation to imperialism, and does so in most of his books. I reference two: ‘Journey to the Common Good’ and ‘Tenacious Solidarity.’

[7] I leave it to you to weave your particular beliefs about satan into this post. I do not want to distract from the point I am making by saying anything further or particular.

[8] I do not always reference Wikipedia, but the QAnon article there is a good overview, complete with numerous citations to take you into the topic in further detail.

[9] The books about the peril of Christian Nationalism have multiplied in recent years. For a starter I would recommend two: Andrew Whitehead & Samuel Perry, ‘Taking America Back for God’ and (2) Katherine Stewart, ‘The Power Worshippers.’

[10] Jeff Scarlet’s books, ‘The Family’ and ‘C Street’ reveal how this works in Christian Nationalism. Anne Nelson’s book, ‘Shadow Money’ exposes the larger manifestations in society.

[11] Rohr, ‘What Do We Do With Evil?’, 17.

[12] Joan Chittister’s book, ‘The Time is Now’ is a powerful call to nonviolent, prophetic resistance.

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Along the Way: The Formative Flow

I am grateful to Richard Foster for his development of a spiritual formation paradigm: vision, intention, means ]1] I use it often, and remind you about it occasionally.

Today, I had another opportunity to think about it as I read an article by Ilia Delio describing the metaphysical context for spirituality, which she describes as the interaction between epistemology and ethics, and the many expressions that emerge from it. [2]

Here is a list that offers you a way to see the formative flow through a variety of progressions. I begin with the way Ilia viewed it, and then add a few more…

      –Vision: Epistemology (meaning)     
      –Intention: Ethics (morality)       –Means: Expressions (manifestations)

     –Vision: God     
     –Intention: Cosmos (oneness/universility)     
     –Means: Creation (diversity/particularity)

Human (1Thessalonians 5:23)      –Vision: spirit (essence)      –Intention: soul (energy)      –Means: body (expressions)

     –Vision: God (Holy Love)
    –Intention: Holiness of heart and life     
     –Means: Means of grace             –institutional (works of piety)            
            –prudential (works of mercy)

This threefold flow can be seen in many other things, and it helps us to see how we mature in life and faith. I hope you find it useful.

[1] This paradigm is the structure used in ‘The Life with God Bible’ (HarperOne, 2005).  It is a spiritual formation oriented Bible published by the Renivaré ministry.

[2] Ilia Delio’s article in the September 2020 Omega Center e-letter.


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Shepherd’s Care: Ordination

Yesterday, Deacons and Elders were ordained by Bishop Ken Carter in the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. [1] This annual service is a highlight and a reminder that God calls every Christian to a discipleship ministry, and some Christians to an ordained ministry. As a retired clergyperson, it is inspiring and encouraging to see the new people God is raising up. The beat goes on.

It is also a time to remember my ordination as an Elder 46 years ago, at Polk Street UMC in Amarillo, Texas (June 6, 1974), as Bishop Alsie Carelton (and others, including Jeannie) laid hands on me and prayed for me as I knelt at the altar rail. Even though I was the one given the title Elder in that ceremony, ministry has been a team effort with Jeannie every bit involved as I have been. We have been united in holy ministry even as we have been joined in holy matrimony.

Each year, the service gives me the opportunity to reflect anew on the meaning of ordination. Here are the thoughts I had yesterday, thoughts which have evolved over time.

First, ordination is a vision. The Church is never better than in the words it uses to describe itself in the ordination liturgy. In this sense ordination is a witness the Church makes about its nature and mission—a witness to which it holds itself accountable even as it receives new clergy into its membership. Ordination is a moment for the Church and its newest clergy to remember the vision and to recommit to it.

Second, ordination is a vocation. Paul wrote that God gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, to equip the saints for ministry and to build up the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11). Ordination is the way we remind ourselves that being clergy is a calling, not a career. Indeed, every Christian is meant to look at their work in this way. But for clergy, ordination is the reminder that we are not institutional employees. We serve God alone, and do not sell our soul to any “company store.”

Third, ordination is a vow. The bishop asks a number of questions, and clergy answer in ways that affirm their faithfulness. Vows are an expression of conscience, but they are not silencers of it. Vows are an occasion when the Church and its clergy confess mutual accountability. Each promises its best to the other. In the good times, clergy are pastors in the Church; in the bad times they must be prophets to the Church. Our vows hold us to both tasks.

Fourth, ordination is a voyage. We travel with Christ, and the one who calls us is faithful (1Thessalonians 5:24). As an Elder (order of ministry) and as an elder (stage of life), I have experienced Christ’s faithfulness again and again. Ordination is an expression of our confidence in his goodness and trustworthiness.

Finally, ordination is a venture. Earlier in this post I noted that Jeannie stood with me and laid her hands on me when I was ordained. Now, forty-six years later, I can say in a very real sense we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. To be ordained is to spend time on the mountaintop…and…back stage. Ordination is a path through the best and worst of the Church.

But in the words of the gospel song, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.” And I pray that those who were ordained yesterday will say the same some day.

[1] In an earlier service, others were Licensed and Commissioned for various ministries in the denomination.

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In-Sight: Mystic-Prophets

Last month I said we are living in a Micah moment, and using Micah 6:8, I explored the kind of life that God calls for in such a time.  But embedded in all this is the question,“What kind of person is “required” (Micah’s word) for justice, kindness, and humility to be expressed?” This post is a response to the question. The life required is that of the mystic-prophet.

I first saw the term in Matthew Fox’s writing.  It was his way of saying, “We need to reunite contemplation and action and mysticism and prophesy.” [1] I have since found the same sentiment in others [2], and I agree that one of the great needs of our day is to raise up a generation of mystic-prophets. I write this month to describe the life that emerges when we commit ourselves to being mystic-prophets. I will do this by looking at each dimension, and then by bringing them back together into their organic union.

Mystic….To be honest, I shied away from this word longer than I should have. It was a word (I now realize) that others caricatured and by doing so, made it unattractive—a word that I mistakenly took to mean a person who was so heavenly-minded they were of no earthy good.  In so many words, I was told, “You do not want to be a mystic, someone who is strange and separated from life.” And of course, I did not want to be that kind of person, so I turned my attention away from the mystics  to other things.

I was shown the error of my way when I studied the devotional life of John Wesley in my PhD program at Duke University. [3] I learned how he too struggled to make sense of the mystics and had to sift the gold from the sand in them, but in doing so he came to embrace mysticism as an essential element of the Christian life. [4] In fact, he added experience to the Anglican trilateral largely because of the influence of the mystics and the formation of the contemplative tradition. [5]  Looking at the mystics through Wesley’s eyes opened my eyes to them, and his desire to embrace their experience kindled a similar flame in me. I hope this post will do the same for you, if you are among those still holding the mystics at arm’s length. When we step back and allow the Christian tradition to teach us, it shows that being a mystic in the true sense of the word is an essential characteristic. [6]

A mystic believes a direct and sustained relationship with God is possible. God is not “out there somewhere,” but rather the Holy Spirit dwells in the us (1 Corinthians 6:19) and we abide in Christ (John 15:4). This is a formative communion, one in which we discover and develop the imago dei (true self) and recognize that the true self is not selfish, but rather oriented to the love of God and others (Matthew 22: 34-40). It is in contemplation where we sense the heart of God, which is always a heart for the world.

One of my most important discoveries about mystics is their whole-life orientation. Far from being detached in some kind of spiritual La La Land, they engage the complete spirit, soul, and body humanity which St. Paul described in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Through contemplation (spirit) they catch the vision for righteousness, peace, and joy (the Kingdom of God). Through meditation. (soul) they explore the vision with their power of mind and use of reason (“ask, seek, knock”). Through implementation (body) they turn theory into practice by compassion (to “the least of these”).

Mystics practice the disciplines of abstinence, especially solitude and silence. [7] They go into “the cave of the heart” to experience a knowing that is not opposed to knowledge but goes beyond it into an intuitive dimension that the Bible calls wisdom. [8] From the place of wisdom they discern what really matters and give themselves to it through ongoing study practical application. 

The life which flows from this Center is summarized in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), life dimensions which shape our inner character and outer conduct. Mystics have “eyes that see and ears that hear” (Mark 8:18), and this attentiveness ignites the flame of love which is returned to God in worship and to others in service. The social consciousness they find in contemplation becomes their motivation for social action. [9]

Jesus personified the mystic-prophet combination. He announced it in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:1-19). When he said “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he was referring to his Spirit-to-spirit contemplation. When he then said the Spirit “has sent me,” he was declaring the prophetic dimension. He then spent the remainder of his life enacting the vision by declaring that the kingdom of God is the Reality, not the kingdoms of the world.

What I have learned from those whom I mentioned below in footnote #2 is that consciousness (being a mystic) must precede activism (being a prophet), just as a tree must be rooted before it can bear fruit. But just as a rooted tree exists to bear fruit, so too does being a mystic mean that we will be prophets. 

Prophet….William Hocking says, that “the prophet is the mystic in action.” [10]  Hocking’s words provide the bridge from contemplation to action. The move is a natural one, just as exhaling is the obvious effect of inhaling. In fact, the connection between being a mystic and a prophet is so natural there is no awkward movement from one to the other.  Being a mystic-prophet is the heartbeat of the spiritual life. Walter Brueggemann has summarized the three dimensions of being prophets. [11]

First, prophets call up reality, the reality which has been lost or obscured by illusion or imperialism. Prophets are the ultimate truth tellers, but not truth solely as a concept or as a regulation. Rather, they declare there has been a moral-ethical violation of the will of God. At the heart of their concern is that the two great commandments (Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18) have been broken, and people are suffering as a result. Prophets come on the scene to say, “Enough is enough!”

Then secondly, prophets call for repentance.  The word means more than repenting of a sin.  The word means regaining a lost outlook on life by having a “large mind” (metanoia) about things. Sin is selfishness, which is a form of small mindedness (i.e. “It’s all about me”) that must be changed if the will of God is to be restored. Prophets hope to induce godly sorrow, to be sure. But in calling for repentance, they are demanding that the old comes to an end. The new will come when people live for good. Prophets demand renewal.

Finally, prophets call forth restoration. They point to hope.Truth telling unto repentance is the message because the final word is that God is ready and willing to heal the land and breathe new life back into the people. God’s justice rolls down like water and righteousness flows like a stream (Amos 5:24). The prophetic message ends with the declaration, “You can count on God to revive you again.”  Death is defeated by life.  Darkness is overcome with light.

The Synthesis….I have already noted the natural union between mysticism an prophecy.  But what is the nature of the union?  In a word, it is love. For the purpose of this blog, we can use the two great commandments to illustrate the synthesis.

Loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength is an expression of the mysticism.  Each of the dimensions is internal and inherent. We “inhale” the Spirit of God through worship (personal and communal), and we are nurtured in all four aspects of life. Henri Scougal called this “ the life of God in the human soul.” [12]

From this inner life we love our neighbors as ourselves. We “exhale” our commitment to Christ through service which is marked by compassion and nonviolence, two of the characteristics of the life of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 9:36 and 1Peter 2:23).  

Benedict of Nursia established his Rule and Order on the foundation of this synthesis: ora et labora—prayer and work—contemplation and action. [13] Betnard of Clairvaux used the metaphor of the reservoir to teach the same thing.  The reservoir is designed to first be filled, and then to overflow. [14] Jesus described the synthesis when he said, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

As I bring this post to an end, I would call your attention once again to footnote #2. These people are mystic-prophets, and they are only a small sampling of the great cloud of witnesses whose lives have been shaped by the union of contemplation and action. If we want to be instruments of God’s peace as we live in this new Micah moment, we will order our lives in ways which form us into mystic-prophets. 

[1] Matthew Fox’s Daily Meditations, 8/8/2020.

[2] The mystic-prophet (contemplative-activist) dynamic is found in the writing and ministry of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Howard Thurman, Gustavo Gutierrez,  James Lawson, Richard Rohr, Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Brueggemann, Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Wilda Gaffney, Steven Charleston, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, William Barber II, Liz Theoharis, Mirabai Starr, Barbara Holmes, Andrew Harvey, and John Dear—to name a few.  

[3] My dissertation is entitled, ”The Devotional Life of John Wesley: 1703-38’ (Duke University 1981). It included my first scholarly study of the mystics, a study which made the idea come alive for me and in me.

[4] Robert G. Tuttle, Jr., ‘Mysticism in the Wesleyan Tradition (Zondervan, 1989).

[5] Richard Foster provides an excellent overview of the Contemplative tradition in his book, ‘Streams of Living Water’ (HarperOne, 1998).

[6] Evelyn Underhill has played a central role in helping me recover the mystical dimension.  Her book, ‘Mysticism’ (1910) is a classic exploration of mysticism. It remains available in multiple formats. She wrote other books on the subject as well.

[7] In his book, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’ (HarperCollins,1988) Dallas Willard organized the disciplines to show how they help us to form the pattern of the Christian life: abstinence and engagement.

[8] Cynthia Bourgeault, ‘The Wisdom Way of Knowing’ (Josey-Bass, 2003) provides an excellent introduction to the wisdom tradition, with an application of the tradition to today.  Her book, ‘The Wisdom Jesus’ (Shambala, 2008) shows how Jesus was a Wisdom teacher.

[9] John Philip Newell, ‘The Rebirthing of God’ (Skylight Paths, 2015) draws from the Celtic tradition, devoting several chapters to showing how the Wisdom tradition inspires social justice, nonviolent living, compassion, earth care, etc.

[10] Quoted in Matthew Fox’s article, “Moral Issues and Ethics, ” in Progressing  Spirit, September 27, 2018.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, ‘Reality, Grief, and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Eerdmans, 2014). I wrote about this in a series of Oboedire meditations entitled, “The Prophetic Task” from 10/16/2017 to 1/15/2018. You can find it in the “Categories” list on the Oboedire home page.

[12] Henry Scougal, ‘ The Life of God in the Soul of Man,’ (1677).  This devotional classic remains available from a variety of publishers in multiple formats.

[13] ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict’ (c. 516 a.d.)  established the monastic pattern which is still followed today.  The Rule is available in many formats.  I wrote an Oboedire series about it entitled, “Benedict’s Rule” from 1/7/2011 to 3/22/2013.  It is available in the “Categories” list on the Oboedire home page.

[14] Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘The Song of Songs’ (1153 ?).  This classic remains available from a variety of publishers in multiple formats.

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Day One: September 2020

​Beginning today, the differentiation between my Facebook page and Oboedire site is in effect. I am grateful to those of you who have subscribed to Oboedire, and I want to create this “Day One” (first day of the month) communication as an Oboedire-family piece to update you in a general way, and to share thoughts that are currently on my mind, but which I am not developing into full-fledged posts. “Day One” will also include recommendations to other resources.

If you are also a Facebook friend of me or Jeannie, you will know that we have spent the past two weeks rescuing and befriending kittens. Jeannie has written the continuing saga on her Facebook page (Jeannie Waller Harper; they are tagged on my page as well). We have kept the first two kittens (Sweetie and Honey), and given kitten #3 (now named Hagrid) and kitten #4 (to be named) to two great families.  I am sure we will have ongoing cat stories and pics on our Facebook pages.  It’s like being parents again! 😀  Jeannie and I are calling ourselves Sarah and Abraham.

As the new Oboedire rolls out, it will be a “less is more” approach.  For now, you can expect these three things….

(1) This “Day One” Oboedire family piece.

(2) “In Sight”….the anchor series for Oboedire, the first Saturday of each month.

(3) “Along the Way”….occasional posts that comment on life in general.

The “In-Sight” for September continues making use of Micah 6:8, this time showing how it calls us to be mystic-prophets. It posts on the 5th.

On this first day of September, we find ourselves on the other side of both Democratic and Republican conventions, each one conducted in a “perfect storm” of unrest, disease, and natural disasters. In addition, it is clear that lines have been drawn and we are in for a rough ride between now and November 3rd, with “aftershocks” following that, no doubt.  

That being the case, it is essential for us to establish ourselves on “the solid rock,” clinging tightly to Christ and to the mainstays of the spiritual life. It is also crucial for us to become increasingly engaged in the “new thing” God is doing in our day. To these ends, I offer some resources….

(1) Clinging tightly to Christ….my new book, ‘Life in Christ’ (Abingdon Press) has just been released. It may be my last book.  But whether it is, or not, it is a summation of my foundational convictions, using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the biblical text for exploring them. I have been studying Galatians the past few years, and it has become an ancient/future means for me to express my bedrock beliefs about the spiritual life.

(2) Mainstay for the spiritual life….I am looking once again at the Rule of Saint Benedict.  I believe it offers us a place to stand as we live in the “perfect storm” of these days. I wrote an extended series here on Oboedire (“Benedict’s Rule”), and you can find it in the Categories list on the Oboedire home page. I hope you will find it helpful, either as a first-time read, or as a reprise. This time around, I am looking at the Rule through the insights of Joan Chittister’s book, ‘Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Benedict Today.’

(3) God’s “new thing”….David Gushee’s book, ‘After Evangelicalism’ (Eerdmans) has just been released. It is an informative and encouraging read, and I think it will soon be a guide to move us ahead in a much-needed revival in the church and society. We are in a God-initiated new awakening, and we need good guides to help us navigate the passage. David Gushee is one such person to pay attention to and to follow.

Well, I hope you have found this first Oboedire-family post to be helpful.  Again, thank you for being on the journey with me.  And if you know others whom you think would be interested, please let them know about Oboedire.  The only way it grows is by word of mouth.

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In-Sight: Living in a Micah Moment

The Book of Micah has become one of my go-to resources for getting perspective about the time in which we are living. Micah looked at Israel and Judah and said in effect, “We are in deep trouble.” It is easy to look at life today and draw a similar conclusion. Matthew Fox (a Micah-like prophet today) describes our situation succinctly,

“As we stand back and look critically at what is transpiring on this planet today—and in the U.S.—we can see that climate change, coronavirus, hundreds of years of racist history and genocide toward indigenous peoples, the rise of extreme nationalist movements, and the role that bad religion, reptilian-brain-driven patriarchy, and cannibal capitalism have played in so much loss and destruction and present-day angst, we can recognize that the human race is in deep trouble.” [1]

We are living in a time akin to the one Micah lived in 2700 years ago. It’s not the first time his words have spoken directly to people since he wrote his book. History goes through cycles Our time is one in which Micah’s message is needed. We are living in a period of history when the question, “How then shall we live?” is on our minds with acute relevance. Micah provides us with a broad-stroke answer. He does it by showing us what kind of moment we are in, and by offering guidance in how we should live in it.

First, what is a Micah moment?  In the first five chapters, he describes it in several ways.

In chapter one, Micah names the fundamental problem, and repeats it as the book continues.  It is a moment of national crisis in need of a moral restoration. In other words, it is a time when a nation is experiencing root rot, and in doing so bears the bitter fruit of unrighteousness. Like every crisis, Micah reveals in the first five chapters that it is a time fraught with danger, but not bereft of opportunity.

In chapters two and three, Micah exposes the root issue: leaders have defaulted on their assignment and perverted God’s will, reversing what God intended. They “hate the good and love the evil” (3:2). Leadership failure is doing great harm to the people, and Micah uses stark metaphors to describe the damage. The corruption of  leaders, and their collusion with false prophets (see chapter two) is as dire as tearing the skin off the people, eating their flesh, breaking their bones, and chopping them up like meat to be cooked in a kettle (3:2-3).  Meanwhile these leaders reign with bravado and live in luxury, and the false prophets who are in the leaders’ pockets cover over the truth so that the people are led astray (3:5)—that is, deceived.  Injustice (inequality) and falsehood (lies) dominate and shape the nation’s narrative.

But something else is happening in a Micah moment. There is an awakening among the people.  There is a stirring in the national consciousness. There is a movement mounting. Micah points to it in chapters four and five. It is small (a remnant), but genuine—a people’s campaign emerging out of the cries of their oppression and expressed in their shouts, “Enough is enough!”

Sociologists call it a tipping point. It is a pivot away from passivity. It aims to  topple the status quo (“the kingdoms of this world”) and restore righteousness (”the kingdom of God”).  A tipping point is usually something people do not see coming, something unexpected that throws a wrench into the imperialist works. A tipping point includes a period of hesitancy (i.e. “Is this something I should get involved in?“), but as it becomes increasingly evident that the status quo has become a sacred cow no longer worthy of honor or support, more and more people find the courage to join the movement.

We are living in just such a moment—a Micah moment—when a leadership failure glossed over by false prophets has brought us to an “enough is enough” moment which ignites passion and invites participation. It is a Micah moment in that people are awakening from their sleep, recognizing they have been deceived, and taking actions that overcome evil with good.

And it is when we recognize this moment for what it is that Micah helps us answer a second question: What do we do?

Micah put it this way, “What does the Lord require of you?” (6:8). The “you” is the people, not the corrupt leaders and the false prophets. They have had their chance, and they blew it. They muffed their mission. The “enough is enough” moment is one in which God bypasses the potentates and turns to the people. A Micah moment is a movement—a peoples’ movement. It is a resistance movement characterized by three verbs and three qualities.

The Verbs: do, love, and walk.  A Micah moment is a time for action. This does not mean words are unnecessary; it means the words are enacted—words on the move.  Each verb carries an implicit meaning. 

“Do” is a word of advocacy. We voice our values, we support the oppressed, we stand up for what we believe.  This is what Eugene Peterson called “lived theology” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined as “the cost of discipleship.”

“Love” is a word of devotion—to God and to others. It the devotion that strengthens our resolve to obey God rather than people—an obedience Micah described in chapter four of his book, the obedience Jesus named as the two great commandments (Matthew 22:34-40).

“Walk” is a word of endurance. The reform that is needed is not accomplished quickly or easily.  It is achieved little-by-little, step-by-step. Sometimes it loses ground, but rather than giving into despair, we heed the Spirit who simply says, “Keep walking.” As we do so, we learn the lesson of history: achievements are won by those who do not give up. One of God’s repeated exhortations in history is, “Don’t stop!”

The qualities: justice, kindness, humility.  A Micah moment is characterized by nonviolent resistance. On two occasions, Micah described the crisis as one of violence (2:2, 6:12). The cure must issue forth through nonviolence. All three qualities are carried in the container of peace-making, what Jesus later re-emphasized in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:9).

“Justice” is the movement of fairness, equality, and inclusion. We call it the common good. It issues forth through our justice system, to be sure, but justice in and of itself is not a legal term, it is a leveling endeavor, where hierarchies are removed and entitlements are ended.

“Kindness” is the movement of gentleness, generosity, and care-giving. We call it compassion. It issues forth through empathy and solidarity. It is relating to people and things in ways that honor their sacred worth and enable their ability to thrive.

“Humility” is the movement of renunciation, servanthood and teachability. We call it consecration. It issues forth through self-surrender (Matthew 5:3). It is the offering of ourselves to God as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) and asking God to make us instruments of God’s peace (the prayer of Saint Francis).

All this comes together for us in Frank Laubach ‘s morning prayer, “Lord, what are you doing in the world today that I can help you with?” [2] It is the prayer which engages in a Micah moment without being overwhelmed by the enormity of it. It is a recognition that we each have something we can do, and it is an indication of our willingness to do it. We cannot do everything, but we can do something. Living in a Micah moment is becoming a co-creator God, contributing our effort to the larger work God is bringing to pass.

[1] Matthew Fox’s Daily Meditations, 7/18/2020.

[2] I did not get this from a book that I can reference.  Dr. Thomas Carruth, who knew Laubach, told me this was a question he asked in his morning prayer, a question that led him into listening and then into acting.  In this way, Laubach was praying in the classical pattern of contemplation/action.  John Dear’s book, ‘Living Peace’ (2001) commends the same pattern in relation to nonviolent resistance.

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In-Sight: Spiritual Life in a Pandemic

Honestly, this is a post I hoped I would not have to write. But we remain in the grip of a growing pandemic, one that now weaves together the threads of virus and violence—medicine and morality, disease and dis-ease. This combination intensifies the complexity of our situation and increases our anxiety in the midst of it. I find myself drawn back into the question, “How then shall we live?”

Of course, there are a variety of vantage points from which to respond to the question. At the end of this piece, I offer two additional  resources for  responding to the question. In this blog I offer you my response. I have found instruction and inspiration from remembering and reconnecting with my identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ. The two salient features of the word “disciple” are learner and follower. These two qualities of my spiritual life are helping me live in the midst of the pandemic.

First, I am a learner.

This is true in terms of both the virus and the violence. I am not a doctor, and I am not among those who are being oppressed. Whatever else being a disciple means, right now it means committing to the spiritual discipline of deep listening. And for me, having lived every day of my life in the bubble of white privilege… and… functioning for decades in the preaching/teaching mode, the necessity for deep listening is a spiritual discipline. That is, it is a going against the grain of my entitled status and my educator role—both of which dispose me to speak (and write) more than listen. Even this blog is a departure (hopefully momentary) from the practice of deep listening.  

I have discovered in my listening that I am not unique in my need to adopt the disposition of a learner. Others are feeling it too. Last week in her ‘Sunday Paper’ Maria Shriver highlighted this need by sharing an excerpt from a note one of her friends sent her. It encapsulates our need to be learners these days,

“There is an awakening, but it is partial – not just some people and not others, but some parts of ourselves and not other parts. We’re at war within and without – between the new and the old. But I have total faith that we’re moving in the right direction. And yes, the awakening needs us. But it doesn’t need the part of us that says ‘the awakening needs us.’ It needs the humble part that longs to learn, not the arrogant part that wants to teach.”

These words gripped me because I am one, among many others, who believes we are on a path of awakening. Sadly, tragically…it is a path strewn with death and harm brought about by individual and collective inhumanity. But it is a path nevertheless. The words from Maria’s friend gripped me because they are a call to people like me (and many of you reading this) to adopt a learning disposition even as we do our best to exhibit tenacious solidarity and work for the common good. If we can have eyes to see this new day (Mark 8:18), we will recognize it is a moment pregnant with potential for disciples, for those willing to be learners.

I believe this is a particular kind of learning. It is the kind of learning Jesus invited his first followers to engage in–the learning which comes when we are willing to see old things in new ways. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard….but I say.” The learning to which we are called is one that comes from looking at life in a new way. This is the root meaning of ” repent”–metanoia, having an enlarged mind, an expanded view.  

This kind of learning occurs when we refuse to make the status quo a sacred cow. It is the learning that happens when we listen to the voices of those previously ignored or silenced by prejudice and subjugation. It is the learning that takes place as we pay attention to the mystic/prophets, who in their own ways are telling us that God is doing a new thing. It is the learning which happens only when we are willing to take risks, form new relationships, and be labeled “defectors” by those who place a greater value on preserving the past than seeing how the past is evolving into the future as it passes through the refining fire of the present.

Spiritual life in the pandemic is adopting the disposition of a learner. Henri Nouwen called it “paying attention” and went on to say that attentiveness is the essence of the spiritual life.

 And second, I am a follower.

The mindset of a learner becomes the movement of a follower. Christ is on the move, and I am to follow him in both my countenance and my conduct. This too can be described in more than one way. In this blog, I use the template given to us in the trilogy of faith, hope, and love.

Faith….Spiritual life in a pandemic means trusting God in two ways simultaneously: for eternity (the long haul) and in time (the short run).

With respect to eternity it means we trust that the plan of God is moving forward despite the pandemic. That plan is described by Paul, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Put into the words of poetry, faith in the eternal outworking of God means believing that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” [1]. Because it is God’s plan (that is, flowing from God’s heart and accomplishing God’s will), we can sum up the eternal nature of it in two words: love wins.

With respect to time, faith means trusting that God works in history. God is with us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38). Faith in time means believing that God works in history for our good, through the wisdom and guidance of those who know the most about the viral pandemic—the medical community. Spiritual life in the viral pandemic means listening to the doctors and following their advice, not following the politicians and some pastors who would have us disregard the wisdom of science. “Have faith” is not a substitute for having common sense.  Spiritual life in time of disease means being smart.

Faith in time means listening to the wisdom and guidance of those who know the most about the violence pandemic–the nonviolent community. Spiritual life in the violence pandemic means listening to peacemakers and following their advice, not following those who commend the use of “brute force” as the way to restore order.  Spiritual life in a time of dis-ease means being calm.

Hope….Spiritual life in the pandemic means remaining confident that “this too shall pass.” We will get through this. [1]  Confidence is the interior infrastructure that enables us to endure. It is what Jesus called “the good foundation”—the strength to weather the storm. Confidence says, “Nevertheless,” and says it over and over. Spiritual life as hope is the inhaling of the Spirit, the Strengthener, who makes real Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always.”

From that sacred center, hope gives rise to our willingness to do what we can to respect others (e.g. wearing masks and resisting brutality) and to be helpful. Hope is offering ourselves to God as instruments of God’s peace in the process of moving into the new normal. It is what Henri Nouwen called “active waiting.” It is the phrase from the children’s song that says, “everybody do your share.”

Love….Spiritual life in a pandemic means being rooted and grounded in love, which I take to be summarized in the two great commandments and the fruit of the Spirit. Living within these things, we apply them in two directions.

First we love ourselves. This is not selfishness, it’s survival. It means exercising self-care with respect to such things as reasonable precautions, conscientious hygiene, a good diet, and ample sleep. Frederick Buechner offers wise counsel about this, “Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness….Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.” [2] From that strength, we love others. This is what I meant above in the second dimension of hope, but there I was referring to willingness; here I am referring to motive. Love is the motive which ignites the driving force. Spiritual life in a pandemic is the life of love, turned inward and thrust outward. It is the life created by the union of contemplation and action.

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life (John 10:10). In a time of pandemic, we must “ask, seek, and knock” for it with determination, and we must recognize that it will fluctuate as we face new challenges and experience fatigue as we do so. But at the same time, abundant life is not an elusive butterfly. We can net it through the exercise of faith, hope, and love.

Taken together, learning and following provide a means to gain the perspective and to enact the words of the prophet, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).  Spiritual life in a pandemic means being a disciple.

Two Additional Resources

     Walter Brueggemann, ‘ Virus as a Summons to Faith’ (Cascade Books, 2020)

.    N.T. Wright, ‘God and the Pandemic’ (Zondervan, 2020)


[1] From the hymn, “This is My Father’s World.”

[2] Paul Chilcote and I had recognized the need for a resurgence of hope, before the viral pandemic ever came on the scene. We decided to co-author a book about the recovery of hope. We had no idea it would come out at the very time the virus was raging. We wrote an Addendum to the original text that connected hope to the viral pandemic, even though the book is about finding hope whenever we need it. It’s entitled, ‘Living Hope: An Inclusive Vision of the Future.’

[3] Frederick Buechner, ‘Telling Secrets’ (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 27-28.

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The “New” Oboedire

I want to thank those of you who took the time to offer suggestions about what Oboedire might become.  Whatever that means, I want it to be something you look forward to reading when a new installment hits your inbox.

I see the emergence of a “new” Oboedire as a conversation with those of you who have subscribed and/or those of you who visit the site regularly.  Here’s are the suggestions that were sent…

(1) Maintain the spiritual formation purpose.

(2) Write as an elder; that’s who you are, and we need words from older adults.

(2) Continue the monthly “In-Sight” series.

(3) Highlight the new voices that are on the scene to guide us these days.

(4) Continue to provide bibliographic references and reading lists.

(5) Have a “Q&A” series, so we can ask specific questions.

(6) Maintain your prophetic writing. These are days which call for it.

Another suggestion is one I will mention separately because it would mean a new media for Oboedire: Zoom conferences and podcasts.  I must say that I am not inclined to do this, but I recognize that media is moving in this direction.  So, I keep the idea on the table.

Thanks again for sending your ideas.  If you want to send me additional ones, or comment on any of these, send me an email at

Blessings!  Steve

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Past, Present, and Future

It is difficult for me to realize it has been ten years since I began Oboedire. A tenth anniversary is an especially good time to thank you for taking the time to read my posts. Some of you have done that from the beginning, while others of you have connected with Oboedire recently. No matter, I am grateful that you are on the journey, and I pray that what I write is helpful to you.

A tenth anniversary is also a time to discern the future of Oboedire. I am a bonafide “old guy,” and there is a new generation of vibrant voices to whom we must listen and turn to for guidance. They are are leaders now, and we must learn from them and follow them.

So, I am pondering the future of Oboedire. If there is a place for it, I must write as an elder “sitting at the gate,” not playing on the field as I did for so long. I am trying to figure out what it means to write from the edge, from the bleachers, as an encourager.  Pray for me as I ponder the future of Oboedire in relation to this. And if you have thoughts you’d like to share, you can email them to me at  Whatever Oboedire becomes, I want it to be an oasis for any who read it.

As you know, “Love” has been the 2020 theme here on Oboedire. I am going to end this series today, rather than continuing it through the end of the year. I need to step away from deadline-driven writing.  I don’t have the energy for it that I once had. 

So, here is the final post in the Love series…

There’s no way to conclude a series on love, because love never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8). Whenever we speak of love, more remains unsaid. Whatever we write about love, more ink remains in the pen than came out of it. I am convinced that God’s school is The School of Love. Each day is a new course in the curriculum. Learning to love well is the aim of life. We have come from Love, and we will return to Love. Our call is to “be love” and to “do love” in our journey from birth to death. If nothing else, I hope this series has planted in your heart the certainty that you are God’s beloved child, and with that reality in place, I hope it has ignited or reignited in you the desire to be one through whom God can reveal the truth that all are God’s beloved too! 

Recent days have re-exposed us to the lack of love in our nation, showing that the absence of love provokes to say and do things that break God’s heart and thwart God’s intent for the world. We need a revival of love–one that will return us to our right mind and to the rebuilding of Beloved Community.  


Whatever form and frequency Oboedire takes in the future, it will be to serve the purpose of advancing love for all on the earth.  To that end, the journey continues.  Thanks again for being on it with me.

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In-Sight: John Wesley and Emancipation

In solidarity with the message of emancipation which Juneteenth communicates, I offer this link to John Wesley’s championing of freedom for black people in his day….

Interestingly, in the midst of renewed racial turmoil in our country, Michael J. Gerson has recently pointed to John Wesley as someone who can shed light into our darkness and offer guidance on the path toward justice. [1] Wesley’s “ Thoughts on Slavery” was a prophetic writing for the 18th century, and many of his convictions are, as Gerson noted, needed and applicable in our time. In this post, I focus on only one.

By writing on the subject of slavery, and further championing its ending by supporting abolitionists like William Wilberforce [2], Wesley bore witness to the Christian conviction that conscience takes precedence over government. Wesley was a Tory,  and he held a high view of the monarchy—but not one of absolute allegiance. [3] The crown was not (and never is ) supreme—Jesus is Lord. Wesley declared that when we are forced, by bent of circumstance, to choose between the two, we choose Christ. [4] 

In taking this position, Wesley stood against the notion of the divine right of kings as an absolute value, and he opposed those who had fashioned monarchs as little messiahs. He was roundly rebuked for his anti-slavery stance, and Methodists were labeled as subverters of society. [5]  But he stayed the course, following the way of Jesus and the Gospel.

Wesley stood in the line of philosophers such as Aristotle and theologians such as Aquinas, who championed the common good based upon the belief in human dignity and equality rooted in the fact that all people are made in the image of God.  We are one human family, and even though Cain denied it, we are the caregivers of one another.  Indeed, as Paul wrote, when one person suffers, all suffer.  

Wesley bore witness to this conviction, urging that unjust laws must not be obeyed,  and related practices must be rejected. Slavery, Wesley wrote, was the vilest expression of injustice in his day. The laws which legalized it had to be overturned, and the practices of the slave trade had to be overthrown. Just as Jesus overturned the tables of those who had made the Temple a den of thieves, Wesley called on fellow Methodists, other Christians, and all people of good will to overturn the tables of those who made England (and elsewhere) a harbinger of the evil of racism.

Today, we celebrate Juneteenth as the reminder that emancipation is the message–the message still needed in our day. Emancipation is the aim of fundamental human decency and the goal of Christians who say through actions and words, “Christ has set us free for freedom” (Galatians 5:1). Subsequent to Wesley we find the same sentiment running into the present day through a host of abolitionist movements and spokespersons.  The Black Lives Matter movement is on point for the cause of emancipation.  It marches with other groups and leaders in the mission to overcome evil with good.  Michael Gerson is right to bring John Wesley into the picture, for if he were alive, he would be marching too.

[1] Gerson wrote his editorial on June 16th. You can find it on his facebook page or in Washington Post archives.

[2] Wesley’s last letter, written shortly before his death, was to Wilberforce encouraging him in the quest to end slavery.

[3] Here we can see the influence of the Non-Juror tradition at work in Wesley—a tradition that his mother, Susanna, embraced along with others who were good friends of his.  Simply put, the Non-Jurors refused to pledge unquestioning and unbridled allegiance to the King, and particularly so when they believed the King was unjust.

[4] Here is the fatal flaw that renders Christian Nationalism un-Christian.  It reinterprets the Christian message to make it appear to bless and support “the country do or die.”  Portraying Jesus as a patriot, Christian nationalists create a false gospel.

[5] The PBS Masterpiece series “Poldark” showed how Methodists in 18th century England were caricatured as enthusiasts and threats to the status quo.


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Love: Ilia Delio

​I have chosen to include Ilia Delio in this series in order to point to those who are seeking to lead us into fresh discoveries of God, and are doing so using a theology of love.  Sr. Ilia’s core conviction is that Love is at the center of the universe, and that understanding and experiencing God as love are essential if we are to thrive and survive. [1]

Like a growing number of people today, Sr. Ilia believes some of our concepts of God (e.g. a distant machineist) and certain containers for God (e.g. a lot of institutional religion) are “tired” instruments that have served their time, but are failing to do so today.  But she is also one who does not believe that overthrowing the past is the way to go; instead, she chooses to live and work “on the edge of the inside” transforming the past into a dynamic future.  And for her, that means the returning of Love to the core of existence–thst is, to the center of our belirfs and behaviors.  Her vision includes the following things.

First, the words “God is love” are the means for understanding everything else and the lens through which to look in order to see things aright. Far from being an isolated biblical verse, the words are the organizing revelation of Scripture.  And much more than a phrase in a sea of mantras, “God is love” is the root of all the rest.  Love is Being . [2]

That being so, her second overarching conviction is that we experience Love and express it through nondual, integrative, and unitive thinking and living.  The era of divisions (which inevitably spawn hierarchies and resulting conflicts) is over, being replaced by a return to the primal sense that all is one—what Paul meant when he wrote, “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).  This is the nonduality of Genesis 1:1 (”heavens and the earth”)  John 1:3 ( “all things were made by him”), and Acts 17:26 (”in him we live, and move, and have our being”).  Individuality and specificity exist, but they live (and contribute to life) only in a universal relationship characterized by Love. [3]

Third, Sr. Ilia has accepted a call to bring religion and science back into a symbiotic relationship, in which they are meant to be.  Her means for doing this is by using the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  This includes a substantive presentation of his views (as her writings and videos reveal), but also a presentation which ignites the fire of love, which revives the mystical way where Love is expressed for the common good. [4]. Here again she joins a host of others in the reuniting of spirituality and science. [5]

It boils down to the simple fact that we live or die (individually and collectively) in relation to Love.

[1] I hope you will become familiar with Ilia Delio if you are not already.  Her ministry called The Omega Center ( is the best way to begin.

[2] Sr. Ilia writes about this in an essay entitled, “Being as Love” in the “Ask Ilia” series, 3/19/19.  Available in the Resources section on the Omega Center website.

[3] She has an excellent testimony chapter in the book edited by Andrew Davis and Philip Clayton, ‘How I Found God in Everyone and Everywhere (Monkfish Books, 2018), chapter 3.

[4] In the Christian tradition, this is called sapiential theology.  It essentially means that beliefs are genuine only the extent they are enacted.

[5] A good primer on this  union is, ‘On the Mystery of Being: Insights on the Convergence of Science and Spirituality,’ (Reveal Press, 2019).  Chapters from multiple authors.

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Love: Oscar Romero

I turn to Oscar Romero as another witness to love because the more I have read him, the more I see love at the center of his life and ministry.  Indeed, one author described him as the voice of love in a time and place where love’s voice was sorely diminished by hatred and violence.[1] Romero had the strength to love we saw last week in the post about Martin Luther King Jr.  It was a strength we can see in a number of ways.

First, Romero’s love was a sign of his love for God.  Unlike the revolutionaries who stood outside the system in an attempt to overthrow it, he was a subversive who located himself “at the edge of the inside” (Richard Rohr’s term for resistance) of the political and ecclesial systems which colluded to harm people.  Romero sought to reform the society and church because he loved it, not because he was done with it.  True reform always arises from love.

Second, Romero’s love was an advocacy for those who were unloved by the state and church.  It was a love which stood in solidarity with the poor and oppressed—a reflection of the Bible’s call to do so.  In this sense, Romero was a good shepherd to the sheep and a genuine prophet to the imperialists.  He was the mystic/prophet that Matthew Fox sees as a true Christian.

Third, Romero’s love was a sign of hope to those who were tempted to give into hopelessness.  He saw his preaching as a primary means for doing this, writing that “You all know what language I use for preaching. It is a language that wants to plant seeds of hope; yes, it denounces earthly injustices, abuses of power, but not with hatred, rather with love, calling for conversion.” [2]  Love and hope were never separated.

Finally, Romero’s love was sacrificial.  He was assassinated for loving, but he did not live with a martyr’s mentality, but only that of a messenger—the Spirit that was upon Jesus to announce a radical inbreaking of the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:18-19) was upon him.  The risks he took were part of his responsibility.  He lived and worked as a servant, not a victim.

In these ways, and more, Oscar Romero bore witness to love as the evidence of courage and the inspiration for change.  

[1] James  Brockman, ‘Romero: A Life’ (Orbis Books, 2005).

[2] Irene Hodgson, translator, ’Through the Year With Oscar Romero,’ (St Anthony Messenger Press, 2005) , 20.

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In-Sight: Overwhelmed

One of the greatest dangers in life is to feel overwhelmed. Many of us have felt that way during the pandemic. But even before it, we found it easy to feel overwhelmed in a world of enormous challenges, and in a time that includes a never-ending spate of negativity and toxicity, much of which goes against the grain of our deepest values and too often promotes the destruction of life and an erosion of what it means to be human.

If we have an ounce of compassion in our being, we are naturally drawn into the effort to resist evil and promote good, seeking to be “instruments of peace” in situations that are bereft of it. Each of us does this through various means and in differing degrees. But none of us can do it relentlessly or indefinitely. If we try to be “all in all the time,” burnout and bitterness are inevitable. Fatigue (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) emerges, spiraling downward into frustration which eventually turns into a sense of futility. It is what St. Paul called “growing weary in welldoing” (Galatians 6:9).

This descent into darkness is so strong that we must exercise willful resistance to it. We must cultivate our spiritual life in relation to the pattern of engagement/abstinence. [1]. It is the pattern we first see in creation, where God worked but also rested. It is the pattern we see in Jesus (Luke 5:15-26), in his formation of disciples (Mark 6:31), and thereafter across the centuries through the witness of the saints. [2]

We must cultivate the pattern of stepping away, even from good things. It is possible to drown in clean water as much as it is in dirty water. It is not the quality of the water, but its being over our heads that does us in. The disciplines that enable us to survive what someone has called, “the feverish round of unceasing activity” are sabbath keeping, solitude, silence, meditation and simplicity.

The overarching word for it is ‘fasting.’ But as Richard Foster has taught, it is fasting from more than food. Today, I believe that the essential non-food fast is from our devices–from the tumultous onslaught of social media. It not only never stops, it also is designed to keep us stirred up and reactive. It upsets us. This is not healthy, and over the long haul it is deformative. At the extreme, it is an addiction as hard to break as any other. We must fast from the media.

But there are other things we need to fast from; in fact, there are many–too many to name. We find them in our lives wherever we feel “consumed” by something. Fasting in this sense is stepping back from anything that has us in its grip. Most of the time, we can identify these things and exercise our wills to be free of them. At other times, we need spiritual direction to see them and deal with them. And on some occasions, we need professional counseling to overcome the things which are overwhelming us. Any means to freedom is a means of grace.

But any practice of the discipline of abstinence must be in the context of the larger pattern of engagement/abstinence, so that our actions are rooted in and are expressions of the natural rhythm of our life. In spiritual formation there is a deeper question than, “What are you doing?” It is the question. ” How are you intending to live?”
We are helped by good actions in a given moment, but we are shaped by the intentions we establish underneath them. The engagement/abstinence pattern is a formative intention. It is the sacred rhythm of life that prevents us from becoming overwhelmed.

[1] I first saw this pattern in Dallas Willard’s book, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines,’ in which he organized the spiritual disciplines to show how they establish the action/reflection cycle in our lives.
[2] I have observed and studied this pattern in the lives of many ancient and modern Christians, e.g. the early desert mothers and fathers, Sts. Francis and Clare, John Wesley, E. Stanley Jones, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Susan Muto, and Richard Rohr–to name a few.

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Love: Martin Luther King, Jr.

​Since it was published in 1963, Martin’s book ‘Strength to Love’ has been one of my constant companions. [1]  I read it the first time as a teenager trying to understand the insanity of the sixties and seeking to discern where I stood in those days.  I have subsequently re-read the book as a guide for living nonviolently.  Today, I refer to it as a means for learning how to love.

King used the word ‘strength’ in the title.  But what is the strength to love?  It is love—the same sentiment we saw in Julian of Norwich.  Love is the strength to love.  In fact it the only sufficient strength.  Any substitute will not fulfil our mandate to love.  Martin and those who joined with him in the civil rights movement would never have been able to do and endure if they had not first been filled with the love of God.

This is exactly the witness of Scripture: “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:9).  Fruit comes from the seed.  The fruit of love comes from the seed of love.  The heart guides the hand.  Intake becomes outflow.  Love is the strength to love.

With that in place, King’s book, and even more his life, showed how love proliferates in all directions, influencing every dimension of life.  Love gives us a tough mind and a tender heart.  It transforms us from conformists into nonconformists. It enables us to be good neighbors. It inspires our actions, to the deepest action—our love of our enemies.  Love is the knock at midnight which awakens our conscience and fuels our compassion.  Love is the hallmark of our humanity, helping us rise above our shattered dreams and overcome our fears.  Love inspires us to live nonviolently in utter confidence that our God is able. [2]

Those of us who lived through the sixties were inspired by King’s words and his corresponding deeds.  And many of us have discovered that the inspiration was not just for those days, but for the days of our lives ever since.  In the final analysis, it is the abiding nature of love (John 15:9) that gives us the strength to love. 


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Strength to Love’ (Harper & Row, 1963).

[2] The sentences of this paragraph summarize the book’s chapters, giving us a big-picture view of King’s theology and practice of love.

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Love: Dorothy Day

​If life is love expressed, as we saw it last week in Gandhi, then we have no better example of it than in the life of Dorothy Day.  Like Gandhi, her soul force was the force of love.

Dorothy Day was a pipeline through whom the love of God flowed, to any people to be sure, but particularly toward those whom the world had ceased to love as it should.  For decades, she lived with and served the needs of people who were on the margins.  She did this as a response to God’s call, a call which arose from her deep existential sense of oneness with everyone.  

This sense came to her profoundly during her first time in jail.  She described her experience this way, “I was no longer myself….I was no longer a young girl, part of a radical movement seeking justice for those oppressed. I was the oppressed. I was that drug addict, screaming and tossing in her cell, beating her head against the wall. I was that shoplifter who for rebellion was sentenced to solitary.” [1]

Dorothy day incarnated love by living the second great commandment, to love her neighbors as herself—that is, recognizing her essential oneness with everyone.  This is what Buddhists mean by interbeing, and what Jesus embedded in Christianity through the second commandment.  It is the cosmic oneness that physicists call quantum entanglement—the essential oneness of all things.

In Dorothy Day we see a love which bears witness to the fact that there is only one Life, and we share it in our particular lives through life together.  This is soul-level solidarity, the radical oneness of love.


[1] Quoted without reference in Matthew Fox’s Daily Meditation for December 6, 2019.

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Love: Mahatma Gandhi

​This week, we look outside Christianity to see the universality of love, using the witness of Gandhi as our illustration.   He is also a good follow up to our look at Teilhard de Chardin last week, because Gandhi too saw love as the supreme law of the universe.  In his autobiography he refers to love over eighty times, describing its reality in relation to the total range of our human experiences. [1]

Using the word ‘experiments’ in the title of his book. Gandhi revealed the scientific nature of his understanding of love—that is, he was an explorer, a practitioner.  He experienced and confirmed the truth and love by living it, concluding that “nothing is impossible for pure love,”  Gandhi recognized that despite all attempts to destroy it over time, love prevails. He proved the validity of love in the laboratory of life.

Because of his belief in the supremacy and invincibility of love, nonviolent living became his chosen way of manifesting it.  He called nonviolence the “soul force which is but another name for love force.”  And with that force, he marshalled a movement where love overcame hatred through what Richard Rohr has come to call “the practice of the better.”

Through Gandhi’s witness we see the essence of love (philosophically and theologically), and we see the expression of love (practically and specifically) as the way of life.  And as with Jesus, Gandhi’s death took place in the absence of love.  But as with Jesus, his death became the starting point for a resurrection of love that encircles the world, bringing light wherever it is lived.

Gandhi’s emphasis on love as the only thing which can overcome hate, and his commitment to nonviolence as the practice of love for overcoming it have been mediated to me through John Dear.  Although I will not write a post specifically about him, I want to include him as someone to benefit from when it comes to living in love, particularly in a life of nonviolence. [2]  He is a contemporary Gandhi in our midst.

[1] Mahatma Gandhi, ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth.’  This book is available in a multitude of formats.  All quotes in this post come from it.

[2] John Dear, ‘The Nonviolent Life’ (Pace e Bene Press, 2013).  Love runs through this book, especially in relation to the two great commandments.

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Love: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

​Looking last week at E. Stanley Jones’ all-encompassing theology of love provides us the opportunity to see the same thing scientifically through the writing of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who saw love as the physical structure of the universe. Love is the divine milieu. [1]  For him, love is the energy attracting all things to each other.  He saw it in atoms, gravity, orbits, photosynthesis, ecosystems, electromagnetic systems, and human relations.  Moreover, he saw the existence of the cosmos in a dynamic way–as a movement toward love, the Omega point.

Amazing and awesome as this is, it is not surprising, because we would expect there to be congruence between the Creator and the creation.  It would make no sense for God to make a world at cross purposes with the Divine nature.  God is love, and what God makes is love.

At the personal level, this means none of us can ever rightly see ourselves as anyone other than God’s beloved.  We are God made, love made.  We are made in God’s likeness.  This reality both defines who we are and motivates us to develop who we are in deeper and wider ways.  When we do so, as Teilhard would tell us, we are on the trajectory God has in mind for us all.  We are on the never-ending journey into Love.

In this view, Teilhard is in concert with the ideas of growth and maturation that we have seen in Underhill and Jones (indeed, in every other person we have highlighted), but he treats it in the context of science.  For him as a paleantologist, this meant observing how the created order is undergoing evolution–a persavive development of all things from lower to a higher order.  For him as a priest, this meant a spiritual evolution into fulness of life in Christ.  It is most clearly seen in the development of increasingly mature relationships with each other. [2]. Love daws into ever deepening and widening fellowship, community, and oneness.

For Teilhard de Chardin, love is literally and figuratively our DNA.  Love is the essence of what is most passed on from one generation to another.  It is the divine dance in the cosmos.  It is the spring in our step.

[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ‘The Divine Milieu.’He wrote the book in 1926-27, but it was banned by Roman Catholic censors, only finally to be published in English in 1960.  

[2] Louis Savary & Patricia Berne, ‘Teilhard de Chardin on Love’ (Paulist Press, 2017).

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Love: E. Stanley Jones

​I have previously identified E. Stanley Jones as the overall most major influence in my theological and spiritual life.  His influence only increased when, years ago, I discovered that he wrote an entire book on love, ‘Christian Maturity.’ [1]  Like some other of his books, this one offers a year’s worth of  daily readings, affording readers the opportunity to concentrate on love for an extended period.

Using the letter of First John, Jones connects maturity with love, noting that “we are mature as we are mature in love.” [2]  This is a view in keeping with what we noted last week in Evelyn Underhill’s theology of love.  I think they both got the idea from St. Paul, who described his maturation as a growing into love (1 Corinthians 13).

Growth in love is growth into increasing maturity because it is growing increasingly I to God, who is love (1 John 4:8, 16).  Growth in love is also the hallmark of the Spirit-filled life (Galatians 5:22), wherein we find the motivation and the means to love our neighbors as ourselves.
One of the keynotes in Jones’ theology is that love is the means for overcoming the major problems that we face in life.  Love overcomes racism, independence, impulsiveness, fear, resentment, naivete, negativism, self-seeking, pride, self-condemnation, and emptiness. [3] Love is not only the key pronciple that runs through life, it is the ultimate power that enables us to live as God intends.

It is no exaggeration to say that, for E. Stanley Jones, every achievement is due, in some way, to the presence of love, and equally fair to say that every decline is due to the absence of love.  Life rises and falls in relation to love. Love cleanses, consecrates, and conquers.  Love calls out the best in us.  We are never more the people God means for us to be than when we love. 

[1] E. Stanley Jones, ‘Christian Maturity’ (Abingdon Press 1957).

[2] Ibid., xii.

[3] Ibid., Jones writes in the book about love’s ability to overcome each of these things, leaving us to conclude (as St Paul did) that love is the means to victory in all things (1 Corinthians 13:7-8a).

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In-Sight: The Laughing Jesus

“You will laugh” (Luke 6:21) is the only time Jesus referred to laughter, but, but it is certainly not the only time he laughed.  He went to many parties, and you don’t do that without laughing a lot.  He told stories that made people laugh (e.g. the idea of a camel squeezing itself through a needle’s eye), and he likely laughed along with them as he told them. No doubt about it,  Jesus laughed. [1]

Unfortunately, most of the portraits of Jesus do not show him laughing.  But there is one depiction called “Jesus Laughing,” which friends gave to Jeannie and me in 1990.  Every day since, that portrait has hung on a wall in our several homes. We see it all the time, and some days I pause to look at it more intently.

The importance of Luke 6:21 is that Jesus put laughter into our vision of life in the Kingdom of God.  He did it in a way that brought immediate joy, and also in a way that gave inevitable hope. In fact, in 6:25, he warned people not to live so that only the present is humorous.  That kind of limited laughter may bring about weeping later.  Sometimes laughter is a sign that we have things in perspective.

Kingdom laughing not only gives us a lot to laugh about right now, but more…it assures us that even when we weep right now, sadness does not have the last word. Jesus laughing is not only about the funny things happening around us today, it is also his way of saying, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”  Joy is a keynote in eternity.

Years ago, I read that Thomas Merton said “the mark of a saint is the ability to laugh.” [2]  John Wesley believed “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.”  Across the ages, the link between holiness and happiness (eudaemonism) has been noted.  When we are at our best, we know at soul-level that, indeed, there is a time for laughter (Ecclesiastes 3:4).  Jesus set the pace.  Let’s follow it.

[1] Elton Trueblood wrote a book about this, ‘The Humor of Christ’ (Harper & Row, 1975).  My longtime friend and colleague, Donald Demaray, also emphasized Jesus’ humor and the importance of it in the Christian life.  He wrote, ‘Laughter, Joy, and Healing’ (Baker Books, 1986).

[2] I have not found this exact quote in Merton’s writing, but I have found the sentiment many times.  Jim Forest tells that the first time he saw Merton, he was on the floor laughing.  The laughing Merton made a first and lasting impression on him.

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Love: Evelyn Underhill

​For the sake of time, we move from the eighteenth century (last week in the post about the Wesleys) to the twentieth century, continuing our look at love through another Anglican, Evelyn Underhill.  In her writing, we easily detect the centrality of love in Christianity’s essence and expression.

In its essence, she wrote that the spiritual life is “the willed correspondence of the little human spirit with the Infinite Spirit”—correspondence between the Holy Spirit whose nature is love and the human spirit made in God’s image. [1]  Indeed, for Underhill,  the spiritual journey corresponds to the drawing of iron filings to a magnet—natural and inevitable because of Love, akin to the sentiment of St. John, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

John’s declaration leads into Underhill’s belief that the core expression of the spiritual life is the showing of love.  Put first by Paul in his list of the fruit of the Spirit, she noted that “live is the budding point from which all the rest come.”  She summed everything up in one sentence, “To be unloving is to be out of touch with God.” [3]

As a Christian in the mystical tradition, Underhill clearly understood the life of love to be a journey into increasing maturity, which is essentially maturation in love.  Her classic book, ‘Mysticism’ has over 850 references to love.  Growth in love is occurring in every stage of our spiritual formation: purgation, illumination, dark night, and union. [4]

In a very compelling way. Evelyn Underhill invites us into a dynamic spirituality rooted and fruited in love.

[1] Evelyn Underhill, ‘The Spiritual Life’ (Harper & Row, n.d.), 30.

[2] Evelyn Underhill, ‘The Fruits of the Spirit’ (Morehouse-Barlow, 1981), 14.

[3] Ibid., 15. 

[4] Evelyn Underhill, ‘Mysticism’ (1911).  Her book has been republished many times, and it is still available in both traditional and ebook formats.

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Love: The Wesleys

​When I write about the Wesleys, I do so from within the tradition which has most substantially shaped my Christian faith.  Fortunately, the Wesleyan tradition is ecumenical, itself the child of other streams of Christianity, and one which invites us to be formed in relation to the depth and breadth of Christian thought.  All this to say, the theology of love found in the Wesleyan tradition is the culmination of previous theologies in the Roman, Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican traditions.

In addition to the breadth of its theology of love, we also find a depth such that many rightly describe Wesleyan theology as a theology of love. [1]  In demonstrable ways we see this.

First, with respect to theology itself.  The fact that neither John nor Charles Wesley spent their lives in the academy has caused some to discount them as theologians, but that is a both a bogus claim, and one which reveals a too narrowing of the word ‘theologian.’ Their media were different (e.g. sermons, hymns, treatises, and letters) but their message has theological substance.  And their message was rooted in the two great commandment—the love of God and neighbor. Writing sixty years ago, Colin Williams confirmed John Wesley’s alignment with and commitment to the universal Christian belief that faith is formed by love. [2]

Second, love is seen with respect to the ministries that characterized Methodism.  One of the guiding mantras for John and Charles (and other Methodists) was “faith working by love,” a conviction akin to St. James, who wrote that “ faith is dead when it does not arise from faithful activity” (James 2:17).  John Wesley called it “practical divinity,”—what he (and the larger Christian tradition) referred to as social holiness.

My study of Wesleyan spirituality has shown how much John and Charles (and the Methodist movement) connected with, benefitted from, and expressed the many theologies of love which preceded them. [3]  I have come to believe that they saw Methodism as a Third Order, akin to what we have seen in the Franciscan order–a movement rooted in and expressive of love.

Love as the cornerstone of faith and life has generated this principle throughout the Wesleyan world, “Methodists move toward people who need help.” [4]  The help given is not generated solely or primarily by a sense of obligation or duty, but rather from compassion born of love—a sense of love rooted in the person and work of God, who in the Holy Trinity loves the whole world (John 3:16).

[1] Nazarene theologian Mildred Bangs Wynkoop left no doubt as to her recognition of this, entitling her study of Wesleyan theology, ‘A Theology of Love’ (Beacon Hill Press, 1972).

[2] Colin W. Williams, ‘John Wesley’s Theology Today’ (Abingdon Press, 1960), 65.

[3] My PhD dissertation launched my study of Wesleyan spirituality: ‘The Devotional Life of John Wesley: 1703-38’ (Duke University, 1981).  I have since written about this in books and articles–for example, ‘Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition’ (Upper Room Books–first as a book in 1983, and then republished as a workbook in 1996).  The workbook is still in print.

[4] A statement made by Nazarene theologian J. Kenneth Grider in an unpublished paper he wrote in 1999.

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It’s 1984 Every Day Now

The dystopian world envisioned by George Orwell is coming to pass right before our eyes. The pandemic did not create this, it only exposes it. The origins are as old as Cain’s murder of Abel and his denial of responsibility for doing so. The evolution of egotism and ethnocentrism is etched in stone in human history. The seeds sown by Ayn Rand are bearing deadly fruit today and poisoning the souls of toxic leaders. It’s 1984 every day now.

There are more factors making this so than any of us know about, for many deadening dynamics have a life of their own in back rooms filled with the noxious smoke of sub-rosa scheming. But other factors can be seen. The convergence of two ideologies is especially observable in these days:  economic entitlement and the survival of the fittest. Looked at separately, each one is chilling.

Economic entitlement—-In the past couple of weeks, certain leaders have played their materialistic hands, saying that the loss of life is justifiable in the larger need to keep the economic system going. Some of these people hold federal-level offices, others are found at state and local levels. Together they form a network of deception.  On the surface, their claim seems obvious—until we ask one question: “What kind of economy do these people want to preserve?” 

The answer is, the current one—the one that enriches the rich….the one that exempts big business from paying its fair share of taxes….the one that perpetuates a weaponized mindset and a warfare mentality that makes bullets and bombs a multi-trillion dollar machine….the one which engages in the same practices it denounces other countries for doing….the one that calls citizen assistance “socialism” until it needs to be bailed out itself….the one varnished over with God-talk from false prophets who try to make us believe “the kingdoms of this world” is the Kingdom of God….the one  that funds the super PACS which keeps the “return to work” oligarchs and demagogues in power. If the economic factor was the only poison, it would be perilous. But it connects with a second one.

Survival of the fittest—-Ayn Rand’s showcase ethic is now emerging as a defining factor in the pandemic, and in a forecasted overburdened healthcare system in a new-normal world of mutating viruses. Medical schools are being asked to develop guidelines for determining who is treated when there is not enough equipment and medication to go around. Some of the pending proposals are decidedly ageist in their content. [1]  But apart from the ethical question of what constitutes “a life worth saving,” the healthcare system is itself held hostage by the economic entitlement system described above.

This becomes clear when we ask questions like these: “How many more ventilators could be made if the money spent on militarism were diverted to their manufacture?” —-”How much money would there be to develop vaccines if companies currently paying no taxes had to pay the same fair-share amounts required of the rest of us?”—–”How many more medical supplies and protective gear for healthcare workers could be available if celebrities and athletes (and their agents and owners ) did not make exorbitant salaries to entertain us?”—-”How many more people could be cared for in the current healthcare system if CEO’s (and other comparable ones in the church and society) were compensated in sync with what they pay their employees?”  Etc.  Etc.

Yes, it is 1984 every day now, but we are not here by accident.  We are here by choices which have created systems of exploitation. It is 1984 now because a sinister network of people and groups believe that the victimization of “the many” is acceptable if “the few” prosper. Donald Trump is the public face of 1984, but he is more a pawn in the system than the president of it.  He is not a king or a savior. He is merely an incarnation that enables us to see what people become when Narcissus rules their minds and hearts.

The big problem, however, is not that it’s 1984 today. The big problem is that we resign ourselves to the lies it perpetrates. The truth is now, as it always is, that power is in people, not potentates. The fuel of elitism is an anesthetized populace. The greatest threat to demagoguery is an awakened citizenry. The current pandemic is an opportunity to take back what has been ours all along—life governed by a commitment to the common good.  Oligarchs are dead men walking whenever the people they victimize rise up and say, “No more!”

[1] Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s article, “Avoiding Ageist Bias and Tragedy in Triage” (April 15, 2020) in Tikkun online provides an excellent overview of the survival of the fittest views being written into some of the proposed guidelines for healthcare in times of pandemics and shortages

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Love: Thomas á Kempis

​The ‘Imitation of Christ,’ published  in 1441, is said by some to be the most read Christisn book other than the Bible.  But whether or not that’s true, the assertion speaks to the incalculable influence of this devotional classic.  Thomas á Kempis was more likely the editor of an already existing text than the author of the book, but whatever the case, it became the manual of devotion which the Brethren of the Common Life used to train themselves in godliness.  It soon overflowed that community, becoming a devotional classic for everyone.

It sums up the essence of discipleship in the phrase, “the imitation of Christ.’  When John Wesley published his version of the book in 1741, he entitled it ‘The Christian’s Pattern.’  Both titles bear witness to the core of the Christian life: Christlikeness.  And as the book makes clear, the substance and spirit of Christlikeness is love.  This passage illustrates the thread of Christ’s love that runs through the book, 

“The Voice of Christ: Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good.  Love alone lightens every burden, and relieves all uneasiness…. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider , nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or earth.” [1]

Christ is the incarnation of Love. When we see him, we see the Father.  And through the Spirit we produce the fruit of love.  ‘The Imitation of Christ’ continues the Trinitarian nature of love, and as those made in the image of God, we become partakers of God’s love.

One of the many contributions of this book is its linking our experience of love to the Eucharist. In the sacrament we discover that “the love of Christ is never diminished and the greatness of his sacrifice is never exhausted.” [2]  In receiving holy communion, the fire of love is rekindled in us over and over, so that we offer ourselves to God saying, “Receive, my Lord God, my wishes and desires to give you infinite praise and abundant blessing”—a  prayer which we fulfill as we go from the table to love God and others through our words and deeds. [3]

[1] ‘The Imitation of Christ’ is available in many editions and formats.  The quotes in this post are from Paul Chilcote’s rendition, ‘The Imitation of Christ: Selections Annotated and Explained (Skylight Paths, 2012), 83.

[2] Ibid., 137.

[Ibid., 175

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In-Sight: Golden

​I have postponed this month’s In-Sight post until today because it is Jeannie’s and my 50th Anniversary.  Coming on a Friday, it’s the same day we were married five decades ago.

Most of all, I begin this post by saying, “Jeannie, I love you with all my heart, and I am grateful beyond words that you said “Yes” when I asked you to marry me.  I am still breathless when I see you and speechless when I realize the myriad of ways (too many to remember them all) you have loved me. I  use this day to pledge my love anew, for however many years we have left to be husband and wife here on earth.  And if it’s possible for you to have my heart for eternity, it’s all yours!”

In the months leading up to this special day, some have asked, “What have you learned about love over the course of fifty years?”  For starters, I would point you to 1 Corinthians 13. We have experienced love in all the ways Paul describes it.

But apart from that, I would sum it up in three words, “Love is golden.”  When we describe something superlatively, we say it’s “golden.”  And so say I—about love in general, and about the love Jeannie and I have shared for fifty-plus years.  When I say that love is golden, I mean some specific things.

First, it is precious.  I have been blessed in many ways, but none more wonderful than sharing love with Jeannie.  Seeing her each morning.  Coming home from work or travel and receiving her kiss and hug. Experiencing her unwavering encouragement and support. Having her as my confidant, counselor, truth teller, friend, and lover.  Precious in all these ways and more.

Second, love is purified.  I agree with whoever said that we must experience love twice to know it fully.  The first experience is to fall in love, with all the passion that “falling” includes: a “head-over-heels in love” kind of love.  “Crazy love.”  But amazing as it is, there must be more.  In the second experience, we climb into love.  We choose our beloved….and are chosen by our beloved. Climbing into love is where security is born, trust prevails, and a depth and breadth of love emerges which is larger and richer than falling in love can be.  Love is fired in the crucible of reality, moving from being clay to rock.  Purified and even more valuable.

Third, love is protected.  It is not subjected to harm or left vulnerable. Lover and beloved say to each other in a thousand ways, “I’ve got your back.”  Love is honored by fidelity and respect.  Each is the other’s favored one.  Lovers build strong towers and inhabit them against all odds and foes. Protected and never exposed to danger.

Finally, love is proclaimed.  Glen Campbell had a popular song decades ago about a couple in love who “fit together walking.”   One of the joys of our love is how often others refer to us as “Jeannie and Steve”–a unit, the deep kinship bond that the Bible calls a one-flesh relationship.  It is one thing to say, “We are in love,” it is an additional thing for others to recognize it.  It is the proclamation of oneness created and sustained by love.

Love is golden: precious, purified, protected, and proclaimed.  Fifty years on the path of life have confirmed it.  Oh, yes!  More to come!

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Love: Julian of Norwich

​During a time of severe illness, Julian (1342-1413) had a series of sixteen “showings” that all revealed to her some aspect of God’s love.  These were great comforts to her, and when she wrote them down, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ became a source of ongoing blessing that has continued for over 600 years.

The richness of her experiences of God’s love cannot be captured in a blog post.  We must read her book for that, and even then we are left gazing into Mystery. Her visions are beyond words, even thkugh she did her best to write about them.  But it is Mystery which created in her (and in us) the desire to dwell in, grow in, and share the love of God.

Some have seen this statement as a summary of Julian’s experience, “Would you learn the Lord’s meaning in [the revelations]?  Learn it well: Love was the meaning.  And who showed [them] to you?  Love.  What were you shown?  Love.  Why were shown Love?  For Love.” [1] For Juluan, Love is the origin, motive, and content.  It is Love from start to finish.

God is the source of Love: “I Am the might and the goodness of the Fatherhood.  I Am the wisdom of the Motherhood.  I Am the light and grace that is all-blessed Love.  I Am the Trinity. I Am the Unity.  I Am the sovereign Goodness of all things.  I Am the One who moves you to love.  I Am the One who creates your longing to love and to be loved.  I Am the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” [2]

Julian’s contributions to our theology of love are many. But at the core is her reminder that God is the “All-in-all” of love.  Whenever we receive love or give it, it is God, God, God, all the way through. 

[1 Grace Warrack, ed.,] ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ (Methuen &Co., 1914), 29.  The book is available in a variety of editions and formats.  Because the original is in old English, I have modernized the quotations for this post.

[2] Ibid., 147.

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Love: Sts. Francis & Clare

​When we come to Francis (1182-1226) and Clare (1193-1254), we see another mountain peak in a theology of love.  Each of them sought to be instruments of God’s peace, sowing love in a multitude of ways throughout their lifetimes.

Looking at their respective theologies of love as a singular reality (as it largely was), we are plunged anew into Trinitarian love, which they saw as the heavenly Community of Love, which is meant to be the paradigm for earthly communities.  Love, for Francis and Clare, is at the core of individual and collective life, and it is a radiating core that offers love to everyone everywhere.

With respect to Francis, his writing, “The Prayer Inspired by the Our Father” most clearly shows how love runs as the golden thread through all of Francis’ thoughts, words, and actions. [1]  Like others before him, and since, Francis wrote a prayer based on each of the phrases in the Lord’s Prayer. Love is the central idea from beginning to end, expressing the love called for in the two great commandments.

With respect to Clare, we see her commitment to love illustrated in the third letter she wrote to Agnes of Prague, reminding her that she was a “dearly beloved lady in Christ,” and exhorting her to “love Him totally Who gave Himself totally for your love.” [2]

Together they incarnated an intense love of God with an extravagant love of others, which has come to be summarized in the prayer attribute to Francis, a prayer that teaches us that compassion is the inevitable result of contemplation, and that the creation of Beloved Community is the inevitable proof of love.

 Francis and Clare’s deep commitments to love became the cornerstone of the Franciscan order which arose from their leadership.  The disposition of their communities love all creation through vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience was a natural outflowing from the cave of the heart—that soul-place where the Lover and the Beloved dwell in deep communion. [3]

[1] Regis Armstrong & Ignatius Brady, tr., ‘Francis and Clare: The Complete Works,’ in The Classics of Western Spirituality series (Paulist Press, 1982), 104-106.

[2] Ibid., 200-201.

[3] John Michael Talbot, ‘The Lover and the Beloved’ (Crossroad, 1988).


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Love: Bernard of Clairvaux

​When we come to Bernard (1091-1153), we arrive at the highest point so far in church history with respect to a Christian theology of love.  He not only incorporated everything we have looked at previously, he also added new brush strokes to the canvas.

Like those before him, Bernard saw the primacy of God’s love: “It is so important for every soul among you who is seeking God to realize that God was first in the field, and was seeking you before you began to search for Him….He loves both more than you love, and before you love at all.” [1]  Here Bernard is echoing St. John’s words, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

With the primacy of God’s love established, Bernard went on to describe our love to God in four degrees. [2]  In the first degree we love ourselves for our own sake.  And while this is the lowest degree of love, Bernard believed it was a sign of the naturalness of love and a recognition of the imago dei.  This is the level of love charscterized by appreciation.

The second degree of love is loving God because God is useful to us.  In this degree, we do not love God for who God is, but for what God does.  This too is genuine love because it shows we recognize that God is the Source of all goodness and the giver of good gifts.  This the level of love characterized by thanksgiving.

Even though the first two degrees of love are genuine, it is in the third degree when we enter the level of loving that God has in mind for us: loving God for who God is—loving God’s being apart from God’s acts.  This is love characterized by adoration.

The fourth degree of love is one Bernard believed existed, but felt it is rare compared to the first three degrees.  The fourth degree is loving God alone, with no regard for our self on the one hand or God’s gifts on the other.  It is higher than adoration because even in adoration we remain conscious of our self.  In the fourth degree, we transcend the self and dwell in the love of God alone—what Charles Wesley called being “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” [3]. This is love in which God is the sole focus of our life.

The fourth degree is difficult to describe because words cannot grasp it.  One word Bernard used to point to it is ‘harmonization.’  The fourth degree of love is an experience of deep oneness—akin to Paul’s words, “for me to live is Christ” where even the attempt to distinguish our being from God’s being diminishes the love experience. In this degree of love, the union of our spirit with God’s Spirit is so complete that it is pointless to speak of them as separate.  In God we are also most in our true self. [4]

The four degrees of love root Bernard in the mystical tradition, but the love he described did not make him so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good.  Quite the contrary.  He also lived in and taught the importance of the second great commandment. The love of others meant that whatever love we experience on the mountaintop must be lived in the valley.  For Bernard, love is not only contemplative, it is active.

His image to describe this was the reservoir. It fills first, but only in order to give out. Bernard wrote that our desire to be “shown God’s holy Will at every moment [is so] that He may tell us what to do and how to do it.” [5]  Love is obedience and service.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Bernard’s theology of love became the reference point for subsequent Christians who sought to make love their aim, and today his views still shape a theology of love that aspires to love “God alone,” and in doing so, acts to love others as an agent of God’s love.

[1] ‘Bernard on he Song of Songs’ (Mobray & Company, 1952), 261.

[2] E.G. Gardner, tr., “The Love of God,” ‘ Book of St. Bernard’ (Dutton, 1915).  It remains available in multiple editions and formats.  

[3] Hymn, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling”

[4] This does not mean the God/human distinction disappears.  Even our deepest love recognizes that God is God, and we are not.  But in the fourth degree of love, the need to spend time figuring out “what is God” and “what is me” is set aside in a pure experience of being loved and loving.

[5] ‘Bernard on the Song of Songs,’ 184.

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Love: Benedict’s Rule

​Written in the sixth century a.d., the Rule of St. Benedict soon became the guide for cenobitic (communal) monasticism, and I write about it today because the Rule continues to direct the common life of many communities to this day.  Like the Didaché and the desert abbas/ammas, it is rooted and grounded in love.  Chapter 4 of the lists forty five good works the monks are to do, and the list begins, 

“First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, 2 and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27).”  And lest they miss it, about halfway through the list (#21) the monks are told again, “the love of Christ must come before all else.”  With the first great commandment at the core, the other forty three good works are variations of the second great commandment, the love of others.

Not surprisingly then, monasteries and convents became known as “schools of love.”  Through daily worship (oratio) and work (labora), these communities served to illustrate that living together in love was indeed possible.  This witness was/is the heart of monastic evangelism, a kind of “if we can do it, you can do it” testimony.

To many people, the cloistered life seems to be irrelevant, due largely to its isolation.  But it is the “stepping away” (detachment) from the world that creates the sacred space for “entering into” (attachment) the love of God and others.  In this sense, the monastic life is an invitation to pattern our lives according to the same detachment/attachment rhythm as a means for growing in love even withoout a full-time commitment to monasticism.

The Rule of Benedict remains a manual of devotion for us all.  Reading and pondering it is a discipline that will effect the increase of love in our lives. [1]

[1] The oft-used text of the Rule is ‘The Rule of St. Benedict in English’ (The Liturgical Press, 1982). In addition to it, several contemporary versions connect its timeless wisdom to life today: (1) Joan Chittister, ‘The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad, 1982), (2) Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Contemporary Paraphrase (Paraclete Press, 2012), and (3) Basil Pennington, ‘Listen With Your Heart: Spiritual Living with the Rule of Saint Benedict’ (Paraclete Press, 2007).

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Love: Abba/Amma Love

The early Christian spiritual guides were called abbas and ammas, people who incarnated Trinitarian (”Abbba/Amma”) love.  Their central teaching was perfection (completion) in love in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of it in Matthew 5:48. The context for their theology of love was the two great commandments.

The devotion to prayer of the abbas/ammas confirmed their love of God, but their emphasis was on the second commandment, their love of others.  John the Short’s statement summarizes how the abbas/ammas understood that to remain in the love of God meant to “suffer injury without anger, remaining peaceful, and not rendering evil for evil, not looking out for the faults of others.” [1]

The hallmark of love was humility.  Amma Syncletica taught that “a ship cannot be built without  nails and no one can be saved without humility.” [2]  Humility was nothing other than being “poor in spirit” (self-surrendered) as Jesus described it in the first Beatitude.

The sign of love for the abbas/ammas was compassion.  They practiced it through two key means: encouraging others and bearing others’ burdens. [3] These acts were shown to all, but especially to those who were weak, marginalized, and negatively judged by others.  An unnamed abba put it this way, “it is by encouragement that our God bears people,” so they went out of their way to do this through their words and deeds. [4]

As a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, it is clear that John and Charles Wesley’s theology of love is drawn from the abbas/ammas of early Christianity.  But it is also important to note that the New Monasticism and Emergent Christianity are drawing on abba/amma wisdom as well.  [5]  Leaders in these movements are calling us to a renewal of love, and doing so with reference to the early Christians, who indeed surround us like a cloud of witnesses, urging us to run the race set before us—the race of outdoing one another in showing love to all.

[1] Benedicta Ward, ‘The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks’ (Penguin Books, 2003), 4.  This is Ward’s translation of the ‘Verba Seniorum,’ compiled around 550 a.d.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘The Word in the Desert’ (Oxford University Press, 1993), 282-291.

[4] Ibid., 283.

[5] Brian McLaren, ‘Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices’ (Thomas Nelson, 2008).

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Love: The Didaché

​The Didaché is the oldest surviving catechism, likely written between 90-110 a.d. The centrality of love is seen at the beginning, where the “two ways”—life and death—are described.  Concerning life, it says,  ”Now the path of life is this — first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, and thy neighbour as thyself” (1:2).

The way of love is equated with life, and it is a path, which means it is a journey of love that we make over the course of our lifetime.  It is a life which manifests the two great commandments.  Coming at the beginning of the Didaché, love is the context for everything else.  And as a catrchetical document, the Didaché shows that baptism was a declaration by  new Christians that they would live the life of love as they walked the path of life.

The simplicity of the Didaché’s message of love must not be underestimated.  It is the early Church’s witness to the continuation of what we saw in last week’s post about the New Testament, i.e. that love is the pervasive element in the Christian life.  Love is the defining and directing quality of all our attitudes and actions.  Our baptism marks us as lovers.  What we say and do after we’re baptized shows whether we live as those who remember their baptism or as those who forget it.   

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In-Sight: Collision Course

​Lent is the season in the Christian year when we take a prolonged look at ourselves in relation to Christ.  It is a time for remembering the radical nature of the Gospel, and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to it.

We don’t read far into the Book of Acts before we see that the church was on a collision course with “the principalities and powers”–the religious/political collusion between Israel and Rome. It continues the story of Jesus’ own collision course which led him to crucifixion.. Acts confirms Jesus’ words that if he was persecuted, his disciples would be too. (John 15:20) [1]

The stage in Acts was set almost immediately after Pentecost, when the authorities hauled the apostles into court and told them to cease and desist from “stirring up trouble” by preaching and teaching about Jesus, and recruiting others to follow him.  In the opening round of controversy, Peter and John set the norm which played out until the end of the book (indeed, until the end of the New Testament)–“we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard….we must obey God rather than any human authority.” [2]

This conviction has wound its way through history to the present day, expressed clearly in these words of Martin Luther King Jr in his letter from the Birmingham jail, “There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” [3]

From Jesus, the early Christians in Acts, the ensuing Gospel tradition, and contemporary witnesses we have our marching orders. [4]  It is a pattern that emerges from two foundational principles: resistance and reconstruction.  Within the context of the Christian church both of these things, which occurred in Acts, must be lived today.

With respect to resistance, we face the same twofold task the first Christians did: calling out falsehood in the Body of Christ and calling out imperialization in the culture.  In Acts the former action was highlighted by the church’s dealings with Ananias and Saphira.  In the second task we see repeated manifestations of subversion as the early Christians incarnated values and virtues of the Kingdom of God (in contrast to “the kingdoms of this world”) and personified the courageous declaration, “Jesus is Lord!” not the emperor.

Today, we must call out the “high priests” who are propping up the fallen-world empire by erroneously alleging it has the blessing of God on it.  These leaders, like the 850 false prophets of Baal and Asherah, who ate at Jezebel’s table (1Kings 18:19) are being wined and dined by corrupt political leaders. We must call them out, and expose the pseudo-gospel they espouse. [5]  As we do this, we must also continue to declare “Jesus is Lord,” not the current President–or any other President in our past or our future.  These acts constitute the necessary core of ancient and modern Christian resistance.

The reconstructive task runs alongside the resistance.  The revelation of God moves from darkness to light, from death to life.  Criticism is not enough, construction is required.  In fact, resistance is not genuine if it is not accompanied by reconstruction. This example was set for us by the ancient prophets who began with judgment but ended with hope. [6]. Reconstruction begins inside the church itself (1Peter 4:17).  It then moves outward into the culture.  Reconstruction is defined by the phrase “new creation” where the old passes away (through life in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation) and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17-18 ).  

Using the Book of Acts as our focal point, we learn the basics of reconstruction from the church in Antioch.  It is the task of renewal that was/is characterized by caring, inclusion, diversity, transformation, godly leadership, and bearing with opposition–all centered in worship and prayer. [7]  When the church incarnated these qualities, the Holy Spirit moved on the believers to commission Paul and Barnabas to spread the gospel. They could go because they had lived the Message in Antioch and knew what authentic congregations anywhere should look like.

At the heart of the resistance/reconstruction combo is nonviolence, another contrast between the Gospel which commends restorative justice and the fallen-world ideologies (as illustrated in the Book of Acts) which rely on and survive by retributive justice. The calling out (resistance) and calling forth (reconstruction) must be accompanied by nonviolence. [8]  Nonviolence is the living out of Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)

The collision course revealed in the Book of Acts has been repeated in every century since Christianity began.  The resistance/reconstruction dynamic is the pattern of Gospel renewal.  And it all comes to us, as it did for the first disciples and Christians since, as the call to “obey God rather than any human authority.”  God has created the path, we must get on it and walk.  Lent affords us a fresh opportunity to do so.

[1] Jesus’ main message–the Kingdom of God–put him and his disciples on this collision course.  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it in sobering detail in their book, ‘The Last Week’ (HarperCollins, 2006).  Walter Brueggemann expands the picture in nearly all of his his books.  I note especially, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire’ (Baylor University Press, 2016).

[2] Acts 4:20, 5:29.  Dr. Bonnie Thurston writes of these responses, “Peter and John articulate the principle of supremacy of conscience over even religious institutions.” (‘The Life With God Bible,’ HarperOne, 2005, 206nt).

[3] Unjust laws are those that do harm to others, those that promote the gain of the few at the expense of the many, and produce a retributive environment and result.  Unjust laws arise from a supremacist/arrogant mindset which then legislates policies that enhance and preserve its power.

[4] I use the phrase “Gospel tradition” to differentiate between the pre-Constantinian era of Christianity, (pre 313 a.d.) and the “institutional tradition” (i.e. imperialization of Christianity) which followed.  Just as the first apostles resisted in Acts, the desert mothers and fathers (and the 4th and 5th century rise of monasticism) shunned “churchianity” and preserved the Message which became compromised in the empire.

[5] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, ‘Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion’ (IVP Books, 2018) is an excellent study of this longstanding tendency to adopt a gospel that is actually no Gospel.  His more-recent book. ‘Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good’ (IVP Boojs, 2019) continues the exposure of Christian nationalism, with an eye toward overcoming it.

[6] This is what Richard Rohr has called “the practice of the better”–the phrase which was my 2018 theme each Wednesday on Oboedire.

[7] E. Stanley Jones used the church at Antioch as the case study for his book, ‘The Reconstruction of the Church–On What Pattern?’ (Abingdon Press, 1970).  This book did not receive the attention that others of his books did, but it is a “live wire” for the reconstructive task today.

[8] The theme of nonviolence is itself a needed emphasis running as a thread within resistance and reconstruction.  I wrote a series about it on Oboedire from September through December of 2016.  The posts are archived on the Oboedire home page.  For today, I remind you to read the writings of Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, John Dear, and William Barber III, to be guided well into the mind and methods of nonviolence. The Pace e Bene ministry is an excellent resource as well.


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Along the Way: At the Bottom of “The Slippery Slope”

When I wrote ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ in 2014, I received immediate pushback and censure from colleagues at Asbury Theological Seminary, and from the larger conservative Wesleyan world.  One parachurch group described me as “the latest evangelical to go down the slippery slope.”  As it turned out, there was an exodus by many people from evangelicalism in 2014, orthodox Christians who saw the movement becoming increasingly fundamentalistic/legalistic in theology and judgmental in temperament—an exodus which still continues six years later. [1]

The recent dismissal of two Asbury University professors for being LGBTQ+ affirming has taken me back to “the slippery slope,” which they have now surely gone down in the eyes of some of their colleagues and others for whom being an LGBTQ+ ally is the new unpardonable sin in the “one strike and you’re out” game being played in some denominations, educational institutions, and parachurch organizations. [2]

The phrase “the slippery slope” has become the  indication of someone’s abandonment of faith (as defined by the group leveling the charge), a stigma akin to being “unclean” in the Bible, so that offenders are henceforth placed outside the camp.  “The slippery slope” is the icky exit offered to those who once were found, but now are lost—a means that relegates offenders to persona non grata status.

Having been alleged to have gone down that slope, I want to send back a report from the bottom of it.  I offer it to the two Asbury University professors, who now find themselves on the slope—and to any others who may be on it in the future.

Interestingly, critics only speak of the slope, leaving the bottom to a speculative nether-world status akin to the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation. [2]  But the fact is, going down the slope is not only survivable, there is abundant living at the bottom—something critics don’t want folks to know.  At the outset, there is pain.  No one sets out to be rejected. But as the initial wound heals, it becomes a place of  expanded wellness and wholeness.  Here are some things at the bottom of “the slippery slope.”

First, there is an expanded understanding of friendship.  Jeannie and I have some longtime friends with us at the bottom, but a plethora of new friends now added to the list–a lot of them are LGBTQ+ people.  At the bottom of the slope, we experience friendship not contingent on secondary (and often invisible, fleeting) factors. We have found community created not by institutional ethos statements that are required to be signed by those who want to be students, faculty, or employees.  We have friendships that are not subject to being lost at a moment’s notice or by a declarative act. 

Second, there is an expanded vision of humanity and the oneness of the human family.  Recognizing the nonbinary nature of creation (revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the sciences), we recognize the sacred variety of people (Psalm 139:14), and we are enriched by the love they show and the gifts they brIng.  At the bottom of the slope, Joseph’s coat of many colors is our clothing, and the imago dei is the basis of our life together.

Third, new passages of Scripture create the vantage point.  The one that has become my North Star is Colossians 3:11, “Christ is all and in all.” [4]. The first three words (a statement of Christ’s Lordship) has been at the center of my faith for nearly sixty years.  The last three are words I see better now in the last six years.  This verse has become a window for seeing other passages in a new light (especially the Covenant, the two great commandments and the fruit of the Spirit), and for understanding that Jesus (the Word made flesh) is our lens for interpreting Scripture, because in the final analysis, he is the Gospel. [5]

Fourth, there is an expansion of community.  I now understand in new ways that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, a breadth of faith not just a depth.  A host of fully-devoted Christ followers (living and dead) have become mentors, opening onto a grander vision of the Kingdom of God.  Christians across the theological spectrum (and some from other religions) have increased the size of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrewsv12:1) beyond what it once was for me.  There is indeed light from many lamps.

Fifth, at the bottom of the slope, I find God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and I recognize that I am alive at a time when God is doing a new thing, as God has done in the world and church before.  We are in a new pentecost, with a fresh wind blowing and new wineskins being made to hold God’s new wine. [6]  More than anything else, at the bottom of the slope, I find the path of an ongoing journey into the new heaven and new earth (e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:15-20).  And I say with E. Stanley Jones, “I am a Christian under construction.  God isn’t finished with me yet!”

The past six years, at the bottom of the slope, have yielded these treasures and more. The bottom of the slope enables me to understand that you have to be outside the box in order to realize it’s a box.  As long as you stay inside, it looks like a room, and fellow insiders decorate it so as to make you believe it is the only room worth living in.  By their words and deeds they say, “You need not go elsewhere; indeed, you must not—or you will head down the slippery slope.”

Don’t believe it….get out of the box….come on down!  The bottom of the slope is a place of fresh air,  where you can drink freely of the Living Water.

[1] David Gushee, ‘Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism’ (WJK, 2017).  David’s experience of pushback and rejection is very similar to mine.  We have compared notes.  He will publish a book in August that will further describe the validity and vitality of a post-evangelical Christian faith.  I tell my story in chapter one of ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality.’ (Abingdon Press, 2019).

[2] The U.S. Government allows private Christian institutions to be exempt from Title IX  anti-discrimination laws.  Both Asbury institutions have been granted exemptions.  This post is not about the legality of their actions (based on ethos statements that are not LGBTQ+ affirming), but rather about the morality of their actions.  Christians always distinguish between legality and morality.

[3]  This is exactly the image Franklin Graham used in the July/August 2014 issue of Decision magazine, with the cover title, “Cowards Destined for the Lake of Fire.”

[4] E. Stanley Jones wrote, “Nothing in all literature can compare with this” in his book, ‘In Christ’ (Abingdon Press, 1961), Saturday, Week 40.  

[5] Today, this is referred to as The Jesus Hermeneutic.  Richard Rohr describes major features of it in his book, ‘What Do We Do With The Bible?’ (CAC Publishing, 2018), 41-56.  I write similarly in my book, ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality’ (Abingdon Press, 2019), 23-28.

[6] I write more about this in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing’ (Cascade Books, 2013.

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Love: New Testament Style

​Our first step into love in Christian history occurs before we leave the Bible itself.  It happens in the New Testament.  In this post I will illustrate love from three vantage points found in the New Testament.

First, the priority of love.  Jesus established it in John 15:9-17, calling love “my commandment” and enjoining it as the ultimate task of the apostles.  Paul carried the principle into the Greco-Roman world, making love “the greatest of these” in his message (1 Corinthians 13).  In doing this, Jesus’ was fulfilling the Law (Matthew 5:17) and Paul was establishing it as the cornerstone of missiology.

We have already noted the priority of love in our look at the Trinity.  Here is the opportunity to see that the first Christians “got the memo” and wove the thread of love into the tapestry of the Church as its golden thread.  For them, love was the core of their theology—the sign that they were living for God alone. The priority of love moves right into the next point. 

Secondly, the practice of love. The commitment of early Christianity to love was seen on the first day of the Church.  Immediately after Pentecost, the first Christians had the daunting task of organizing the believers whose numbers had swelled in one day from 120 in the Upper Room to at least 3,000. The administrative challenge alone was breath taking, but in Acts 2:42-47 we see that the effort was as much about substance and spirit as it was about structure, if not more.  It’s a biblical confirmation of the principle that form follows function.

And clearly, as these verses in Acts show, the church’s function was to manifest the two great commandments.  Their design gave expression to worship and service, and in so doing it was a fellowship of love.  The truth of this was not in their naming themselves a loving church, but in the surrounding society’s declaration as captured in Tertullian’s ‘Apology’ (chapter 39), It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. “See how they love one another, they say.”  As we say it today: the proof was in the pudding, or as Jesus put it, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16)

The first two points of this post lead into the third one: the preservation of love.  The Church did not exist long before it faced the temptation to make its theology of love a principle without practice.  In his old age, and likely as the last living member of the Twelve, John made it is mission to call out the counterfeiting of love by making it a dangling doctrine divorced from behavior. 

He wrote succinctly, yet powerfully, about the problem in 1 John 4: 7-21.  Cutting through all the rhetoric, John simply said, “Those who don’t love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).  [1]  Professed love without expressed love makes our witness a lie, John said, in the same way James had said earlier to the Church, “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result from faithful activity” (James 2:17)—activity clearly that of love.

The trajectory of Christian history is set before we leave the New Testament.  It continues from then until now: love abides.

[1] Some have alleged that the phrase “brothers and sisters” limits the expression of love to fellow Christians, but there is nothing in this passage to support that.  In fact, the context (e.g. 1 John 3: 18-24 and in 5:4) shows the victory of love is a world victory, not just one inside the Church.

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Love: Eager to Love

​Far from being an abstract concept, the Trinity is what makes us us eager to love.  We are motivated to love because we are made like God, Who is Love. We love, as John put it, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).

I wish you could have known Clyde Latimer.  I met him during my college years, and I imagine Clyde was at least forty years my senior.  He was a retired rough-neck worker in East Texas oil fields, and he lived many years with no faith in Christ.  In fact, the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” image only made Clyde less interested.  I remember Clyde saying that a lot of Christian art turned him farther away from Jesus because “it looked like one gust of wind would blow him away.”

But as with so many others, the Hound of Heaven was on Clyde’s trail, and his “come to Jesus” experience happened when, during a time of depression, Clyde read the 23rd Psalm.  His response was, “I can love a God like that!”—a response that changed his life.  Clyde lived his remaining years loving God and loving others because in the Shepherd, he had found love (or better, been found by love) as never before.

If we keep the Trinity locked in a conceptional/doctrinal prison, we will never understand why we believe in it in the first place.  But when we recognize the Godhead as a passionate Lover, we will find ourselves eager to love, saying through our words and deeds, like Clyde Latimer did, “I can love a God like that!”

This is why the image of fire has been used in Scripture and tradition to describe someone filled the Spirit—the fire of love. The next round of posts in this series will move through Christian history looking at selected people whose hearts burned with love.

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Along The Way: Tending the Flock

​“Tend the flock of God among you” (1Peter 5:2)

During the course of my thirty two years as a seminary professor, I taught courses in United Methodist history, theology, and polity in two theological schools and one Course of Study program.  In doing so, I came to see the differences between these three strands which weave together to create a denominational heritage.

In particular, I saw the distinction between theology and polity, and how in an operational sense, polity often consumes more time, money, and energy.  And while this is a kind of chicken/egg reality where theology and polity are never completely separated (and where one can generate reflection on the other), it is still fair to say that institutional Christianity is given over to polity more than to theology.  Our United Methodist Book of Discipline is a documentary illustration of that fact.  Sociology of religion takes precedence over theology of religion, sometimes leading to more consideration and conflict over the container than the content.

That reality is once again playing out in the dynamics directing the discussions and debates swirling around the future of Methodism as it has been institutionalized in The United Methodist Church since 1968, and before then in pre-UMC days. [1]  

All this came to focus for me in a conversation with an LGBTQ+ person who said, “What’s happening in the UMC has ceased to be about people like me, it is about power and control.  Sometimes I wonder if it has ever been about us.  But whatever the case, LGBTQ+ people have been eclipsed by what the institution is going to look like in its various expressions.”

Part of me wanted to say, “No, you are  still what it’s all about,” but I did not respond that way.  I have been trained to know that in times of oppression, it is the voice of the oppressed that needs to be heard.  And in this case, it was a voice speaking from seeing thing like the following questions increasingly taking center stage in the futuristic controversy…

               –what happens to pensions?

               –how do congregations and Conferences decide whether to stay or go?

               –how do those who leave maintain their church property?

               –how many regions will there be, and what will they look like?

               –how much money will departing entities receive?

               –if there are bishops, what tenure will they have?

               –how will boards and agencies need to be restructured?

Let me be clear: I understand that institutions must deal with the sociology of religion.  I am not trying to create an either/or dynamic in this post.  All I want to highlight is that it is possible to become so institutionally focused that we lose sight of the reason we’re doing all this in the first place.  The Church is people, and the institutional side of Christianity dares not lose that.

The person’s words, “It’s no longer about us….sometimes I wonder if it has ever been,” cleaned the lens of my mind, returning me to the center.  His remark hit home against the backdrop of the questions above, and many others like them.  And in the revelation that his words provided, I asked myself the question, “How do we prevent LGBTQ+ people from being lost in the shuffle….from becoming grist for the institutional mill…..from becoming invisible in something alleged to be about them?”

And from the soil of that question arose the sprout of an answer—a sprout emerging from Peter’s words, “Tend the flock of God among you.”

Let the institutionalists give themselves  to the sociological task.  We have a process and delegates chosen for this task. They will come up with something, and each of us will know where and how to locate ourselves in what they create.

Instead, give yourself to the pastoral task.  Peter’s words describe it.  So do words from Paul, “Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors, to shepherd God’s church” (Acts 20:28).

More recently, Eugene Peterson formulated what he called the pastor’s question, “Who are these people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [2]  His question is a gift and guide for ministry in general but it is particularly useful in preventing LGBTQ+ people from being forgotten in the institutional process.  Played out for them, it means things like this…

(1) Visiting with LGBTQ+ people in your congregation.  Ask them the Wesleyan question, “How is it with your soul? “—that is, how do they feel about what’s happening?  Where do they feel encouraged?  Where are they discouraged?  How can the congregation be more loving to and caring of them?  These are the folks who have not left the church.  Befriend them.

(2) Attend and become active in community groups made up of LGBTQ+ people and allies.  A lot of people you never see in church will be there, and if you care for them or ever intend to hear from them, you must go where they are.  Some groups will be faith-oriented; others will be civic in nature.  Become familiar with both.  Together they provide a panoramic view of your locale.  The world is your parish.

(3) Utilize existing resources to increase your understanding of LGBTQ+ people, the challenges they face, and how churches have been in ministry to them.  Reconciling Ministries Network has an excellent resource list of organizations and materials on their website.  I have also placed a resource list on my Oboedire site.

(4) As you do these things, prayerfully “ask, seek, and knock” to discern how you can deepen your personal involvement and how you can engage your congregation on behalf of LGBTQ+ people.  Turn your affirmations about inclusion into actions.

In calling these things pastoral acts, I am not limiting them to the clergy.  Anyone can do these things.  

“Tend the flock of God among you.”   It’s the means of insuring that LGBTQ+ people do not become invisible to you.  It is the way we answer the question “Lord, when did we see you?” as Jesus intends.


[1] Ashley Boggan-Dreff, ‘Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (New Room Books, 2018).  She offers the definitive work today to show how we got to be where we are today.


[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.



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Along the Way: Real Love

It’s not even noon, and my email box, facebook page, and related social media have presented a host of people and groups, all espousing love as being at the heart of what they are saying and doing.  And not surprisingly, some go on to solicit financial contributions, appealing for would-be donors to “support love.”

Well…yes.  What else would anyone in their right mind want to support?  And if we factor Jesus into the picture, the obvious becomes even more so.

But the moment we make Jesus the portrait and pattern of love, the momentum shifts from the espouser of love to the recipient.  Jesus reframes the narrative away from the giver to the receiver.  For him, the question is not do we allege to be lovers, the question is do people feel loved by us?

Do children feel loved by their parents?

Do wives feel loved by their husbands?

Do LGBTQ+ people feel loved by Christians–or any others, for that matter?

Do non-whites feel loved by white people?

Do non-Christians feel loved by Christians?

Do co-workers feel loved by their colleagues and employers?

Do the “dreamers,” immigrants, and refugees feel loved by this nation?

Do the poor feel loved by the rich?

Not every context uses the word love to define things.  Sometimes the word is ‘respected’….’safe’….‘cared for’….’treated fairly’…. ‘befriended’….’protected’….etc.  But love is the word we all like to claim because we know “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  So, every group claims to be loving.

But Jesus does not let us get away with that. For him, the story does not end with what we say. He predicates the reality of love not on those who claim to love, but on those who are the said to be loved.  To say, “I love you” means nothing if the other person does not feel loved.

Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 5:16).

Whenever I claim to love someone, Jesus immediately invites that person into the room and says, “Steve claims to love you? Do you feel loved by him?”  That’s the moment when allegation become authentic, or dies on the vine.  That’s the moment when words become Gospel, or just remain words.

The “Jesus Test” of love is whether the words of our testimony land in the hearts of those we claim to love, or hit the ground in front of them with a deadening thud.  The historical principle is this: don’t ask the sender about love, ask the receiver.  Until others feel loved by us, we are only using the word love as a salve to cover over reality and make ourselves feel good.

Jesus loved in word, and deed.  He told people he loved them, and they felt loved by him.  He defines the reality of love for the rest of us.

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