There are moments when you experience a deep settledness, a generous contentment, with your life. You find yourself at ease or you realize that the laughter’s flowing free or maybe you recognize how, with almost no effort on your part, your joy exudes an uncanny resilience. And what I find most delightful with these generous flashes is how I can never tell you exactly why they’ve arrived, what wind blows them in – or even what wind will eventually push them on. I did not manufacture this grace, and so I know it’s foolhardy to cling tight. It’s my happy lot to just enjoy the gift, to wink and say thank you.

I’ve experienced this ineffable joy a time or two over the past couple weeks. Our life is good, but we’ve had no fewer troubles than normal. If anything, our world has added a few stress factors that would typically leave me sucking wind. And yet, here and there, I’ve been overcome by a profound gratitude, an awareness (even if only for a few hours) that I am alive in this good and magnificent world with people I love, doing work that, though small and ordinary, matters to me and maybe to a few others as well.

For so many good gifts, I want to say my thanks. There are sorrows in this world, but there is also much goodness, much beauty, much possibility. As often as the gifts come, I want my thanks to come just as fast. “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.” Like thunder follows lighting, yes indeed.

In this week when we turn our heart to gratitude, I want to join the chorus. I also want to thank those of you who read my words. Perhaps it sounds cheeky for a writer to say thank you for reading, but what else would we say? And particularly if we really mean it? So, thanks to those of you who land here regularly, those who drop a line every once in a while. It matters.


There are a few things Jesus repeated often, as if there are a few words so essential they must be spoken again and again. Words like this: Don’t be afraid. Apparently, Jesus’ friends were prone to fear, with the powers menacing and their futures uncertain. And into these grave moments, Jesus spoke a clear instruction. Don’t be afraid.

We too are prone to fear – and the fears are often legitimate. Evil strikes at this world, and if any of are so naive as to think otherwise, the awful truth crashed upon us yet again this weekend, as it crashes upon us most every day in so many places far and near.

And yet, in the very midst of terrors, Jesus tells us to resist this compulsive urge to give ourselves over to fear. Fear takes on many guises. We may succumb to panic. We may hide, just drowning out the noise. We may go the way of machismo and beat our chest, motivated by the madness of crazed retribution. All fear. And all of this yields destruction. None of this yields life.

And to “not be afraid” does not mean that we must never feel fear, but rather that we do not succumb to it. We do not feed the fright. We choose something truer, something more powerful. It means we move toward courage. We resist the catcall of doom and ruin. “My courage is a wild dog,” says Ze Frank. “It won’t just come when I call it. I have to chase it down and hold on as tight as I can.”

And we do hold tight, clinging to an alternative possibility. We refuse to let our courage loose. And even when we must act with a boldness and ferocity (and sometimes love requires exactly this), we still refuse the fear. We hear Jesus again: Don’t be afraid.



There is a place in my mind, tucked away in the Virginia Blue Ridge or just outside one of the little towns we love so much in the Colorado Rockies. We slip away, to this little roost, as often as we’re able. We do not come here merely to ‘get away,’ because this little porch, these acres, are not an escape but rather a way of returning – to wholeness, to the good earth, to a kind of slowness that reminds us we are humans and lovers and friends, not machines. We take our boys here and over time (and perhaps without them ever realizing what’s happened), these four walls and these kind woods become a sacred spot for them as well.

My vision has grown over the years. Now I envision a few more cabins, nestled into the hills nearby – not too far but not too close. A few friends have their own little place of laughter and wholeness. Together, we form a kind of mountain neighborhood. Together, we split wood and walk the forests and share more than a few warm dinners under moonlight. Friendships ripen here. We share a bond born in simplicity, a sense of wonder at this splendid world – and our place in it, an ever-expanding delight and gratitude, a sturdy hope that will not yield despite all the troubles, a keen sense of pleasure.

We don’t talk much about these places we share, because the whole experience seems to us a quiet thing, a neighborly thing. But we do welcome folks in as much as we’re able; we pass along the spaciousness we’ve been given. Our little spot in the woods makes us more whole, more true to ourselves and to one another. We have been given another place to love, to be welcomed into the solidness and generosity of this good world, and we are the better for it.

I don’t know if this vision will ever come to be, but I believe that even the picture of it, the possibility, enlarges my heart and keeps something very good burning bright.


image: anoldent

I believe that if we happen to be one of those folks who make it our work to attempt to say something helpful about God, someone who seeks to offer some light or clarity in this confusing world, then we must move into the pain. Sometimes we will speak with boldness. Sometimes we will whisper with a tremble in our voice. Sometimes, this ruin we encounter, the stories we enter, these heartaches, require only our silence.

If a preacher knows only principles and ideals and theological maxims but never goes silent… If a pastor refuses to wade into the dreadful terrors… If a pastor is too fearful to acknowledge the uncertainties, the oppressive fog… If a pastor never weeps with her people… If a pastor never wrangles with the weight covering one he loves or the sorrow pressing upon his own soul…

If a writer attempts to speak on questions of faith but never lays down the pen to wipe away the tears… If they seem certain of their cause or their position but they forget their own humanity — or the humanity of those they are writing to (or especially the humanity of those they are correcting or cajoling)… If a writer never comes up short, never finds their words paltry, never joins me in my quandary or sadness…

Such people, no matter how well intentioned, may provide me with insight or instruction, but they will inevitably leave me alone. And worse, despite their language, they will not offer me God.

It’s important for me to return to Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko’s description of his sobering first days in seminary:

I entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1957. The school was housed in an apartment house in New York City. Our professors were refugees from communist lands, mostly Russians. My first lesson in seminary was that I was never to say anything about God that I could not say over a furnace of burning babies.

I don’t know what to say about Hopko’s words here, what could I possibly say? But I believe I would trust a man who would write such a thing, a man who would know such a thing. I believe he would have something to say to me, something that would penetrate my heart. I believe he would offer me God, and I believe I would not be left alone.



I believe Christian faith engenders an inherent playfulness, a free-wheeling optimism drenched in the largess of God’s love, yielding great droughts of laughter, hope and a near-scandalous rejection of fear, narrow-mindedness and gloom. Some of us, saddled with a stilted, dour or unimaginative faith, need to encounter anew the Father who threw raucous parties for wayward sons and daughters, the Jesus who gathered children, scoundrels and outcasts like the pied piper.

However, to say that faith is playful is not at all to say that faith is frivolous. God’s wide and joyous welcome comes as a happy shock precisely because God is the Almighty, the Holy, the final judge, the One true mystery. When we encounter this God, we’re fools if there’s never any tremor in our voice, never any disoriented wobble in our step. Because of Jesus, we come to God joyfully assured of God’s lavish welcome, but something’s wrong if our vision of this welcoming God evokes runaway chatter and piles of self-confident schemes. Something’s wrong if we never go mute, are never dumbstruck by wonder or the weight of love or the gravity of this God who was and who is and who will be forever.

God’s welcome releases us to be free, to make mistakes, to forgive ourselves, to chuckle over our muddleheaded detours. But God’s holiness, God’s fierceness, God’s piercing otherness, reminds us that this welcome God gladly offers arrives as a stunning gift.

clouds over tetons

I wonder what would happen if we could see into one another’s soul, if all the static between us were removed, if all I saw was your heart, your hopes, your fears, your joys? And you saw these same things in me? I wonder what would happen if I could trust that you were truly for me, that your love would not waver, your delight in me would never falter, no matter what comes? I wonder what would happen if you felt assured that my love and delight in you were secure, even as we parted treacherous waters, even as we saw the world with different eyes?

What would it be like for us if we expected the best of one another and simply refused to let that expectation go? What would change in us if a sharp word spoken in weariness or distress or a season of distance or coolness did not fluster us or prod us to draw away in anger or insecurity? What if we were comfortable with ourselves and secure in the sturdiness of love and friendship, so much so that we felt the ease to sit on the front porch and revel in gratitude for the breeze and the sunset — and what if we could simply sit there, even if the other had to walk away for a while, resting in the knowledge that goodness always brings us home?

I wonder.

I’ve lived with my old pal fear for a very long time. I don’t know if I struggle with fear more or less than the average person (who, by the way, has ever met this mythical average person?), but I do know that I’ve endured seasons in my life where I thought fear might ruin me, where the anxieties felt so overwhelming, so deafening, that I could no longer imagine a day when I would feel hope or lighthearted again.

These experiences attack your personhood. They make you feel weak and ashamed because you know you’re supposed to be able to handle your life, you’re supposed to be able to do basic stuff like have coffee with a friend or cuddle with your kids or drive your car to work without thinking you’re about to lose your everlovin’ mind.

There’s a lot to be said about all this, but for those who are in the midst of this dark hole, you must hear me: there’s lots of help. Our lives don’t have to lock into this debilitating cycle forever. A few good friends make a world of difference – and if you haven’t entrusted your story to someone, take that leap. It’s not that having friends makes the noise go away, but it does mean you’ll have someone to go grab a taco or see a movie with you when the noise hits an unbearable decibel. Also, doctors and therapists are your allies here. I know therapists can be expensive, but don’t let that stop you. Exercise and being outside does wonders. Sometimes your biochemistry is off, and meds do the trick. And sometimes, you have to just gut it out, at least for a little while. You have to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking, choosing to believe that the crazy circus show that’s camped out in your head will not stay forever.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about my fears. Maybe this will be helpful to you, maybe not. Whenever I fear something in a compulsive, runaway train kind of way, I’ve learned that I have to step into the fear, not away from it. If I fear an interaction with a person, I step toward them. If I fear a certain social setting, I move into it. I don’t do this all the time, creating some whole other loony compulsion. Rather, when the time seems right or when my action is required in order for me to be present with those I love, I buckle up and do the opposite of what my fears tell me.

There’s psychological language for what I’m describing, but for me, it’s merely my refusal to allow my fears to control me. Whenever I enact this courage, it doesn’t mean my fear immediately evaporates (I may still feel anxious energy pulsing or I may still have wild chatter in my head). It only means I’ve decided that how I feel (fearful) does not define who I am (bold and hopeful). And I choose, in those moments, to act on the truth of who I am rather than on the lie of what I feel. This is a battle, and if I’ve made it sound easy, I lied. But it’s a good battle, and over time, the skirmishes lessen in frequency and intensity.

Here’s the thing: Fear’s gonna do what fear’s gonna do. We have to just keep on living.

I remember an elderly saint in the church of my youth. So moved by a sacred moment, her voice would tremble and she could only utter a few quiet words with holy reverence: Look there now. Glory.

In Scripture, few words evoke as much solemn mystery as the word glory. Glory speaks of brilliance, radiant beauty. Glory finds its way into the sentence whenever we’re struggling to describe the ineffable. When God’s presence filled Israel’s Tabernacle and when God’s voice thundered atop the Mount, glory escaped the trembling lips of both priests and children. These beautiful terrors evoked a wonder too large for language. Glory was the only thing one could think to say. Look there now. Glory.

St. Paul made bold use of the word. “When Christ, who is our life appears,” wrote the apostle, “then we will also appear with Christ in glory.” Did you catch that — Paul speaks not only of Christ’s appearance as glorious, but yours too. According to Paul, in that day, when our true life (our true self) trots out in plain view, then we will have truly appeared. And what a grand entrance it will be. In that moment, we’ll see not only Christ’s glory, but our glory, our radiance in God. In the good end, when all things return to their center, we will find God (with Eden echoes) naming us good, grinning wide and announcing us glorious. Now look there. Glory.

This is why Gregory of Nyssa spoke of the soul’s divine beauty as a blade darkened with the rust of sin (rusted, not ruined), a blade that must be (and would be) returned to shimmering splendor. This is why St. Irenaeus insisted that “the glory of God is a human fully alive.” This is why it is our great travesty if we only see our (or another’s) wretchedness or malfeasance, if we only notice all the fear or hatred, if we succumb to the lie that anyone (ourself included) is ruined. This is why it will never do to write someone off or give up on their return or think our shame concludes the tale.

You are meant for magnificence, not squalor. God marked you for his dance partner at the big finale, and God gets what God wants. Whatever dogs you, whatever whispers ruin in the cold night, whatever troubles your memory or your hope, remember this: glory is in you, and glory wins the day.

It’s the church’s job to help us see what’s coming, to help us see what’s true even now, particularly when what’s true lies buried underneath rubble and tears. Some of us are skilled at pointing out the sin, but our truest vocation is to point out the glory.

Look there now. Glory.

The desperate father brought his pallid son to Jesus’ disciples, begging for their help to cast out the evil spirit tormenting his boy. The disciples tried their best, but their best was not enough. They gave the pitiful boy back to his heartbroken father, apologetic but unable to do anything more. It must have been embarrassing and infuriating then, when the disciples came across an exorcist who was not even a follower of Jesus casting out demons left and right (and using Jesus’ name to boot).

Indignant, the disciples rebuked the freelancer and as soon as they returned home, John, adrenaline still pulsing, sidled next to Jesus. Teacher, John said, you’re not going to believe this but we saw someone who’s not part of our group casting out demons in your name – but don’t worry, we put a stop to it. Unbelievable, huh?

But Jesus looked at John and shocked the room with his response. Nah, leave them alone. If they’re not our enemy, we’re going to count them as friends. Then Jesus goes a step further. What’s more, all someone needs to do is merely be willing to offer a cup of cold water in my name – and for that simple gesture, they secure an eternal reward. I imagine the disciples looking at one another, scratching their heads, thinking “come again?” Look, Jesus says, the bar’s pretty low here. We’re just looking for bare minimums: don’t work against us and pass us a cup of water. We need all the friends we can get. More power to ’em.

Boy do we need Jesus’ words today. I’m grieved at my own swiftness to judge, to reject, to feel superior or more secure by dismissing those who follow Jesus differently than I do.

Too often, those with a traditional understanding of faith lose their minds over those squishy progressives and enact a scorched earth policy against all the looney compromisers. Likewise, too often, those with a progressive understanding of faith go ape-shit crazy at those neanderthal conservatives, using ridicule and mockery to embarrass the fundamentalist wackos. And we just had Pope Francis visit, so I don’t even know where to begin with the Catholic / Protestant divide. Friends, anger is not the way of Jesus. Rejection is not the way of Jesus. Snark is not the way of Jesus.

If you’re not against me, Jesus says… If you’re just wiling to pass a cup of water, Jesus says…

Sometimes we work very hard to not be labeled as one of “those kinds of Christians” – I get it. Distinctions matter. Stating what we understand, and trying to be more and more faithful to the way of Jesus is good, necessary. But I think we know when we’re really just protecting our ego, working out of fear or anger – or trying so very hard to not look foolish.

Jesus exhibited massive patience, going overboard with his eagerness to welcome, his relentless desire to see the very best possibility in another. What if we practiced more gentleness and generosity toward each other – even toward those who represent the very things that ignite our ire? What if we decided to be Christian before everything else?


I grew up in a world where parishoners referred to their pastors as preachers. I understand why some folks these days dislike the word, evoking for many grainy images of fire-belching crazies sweating like hogs and literally scaring the hell out of people. You don’t have to read too many stories, like Dennis Covington’s wonderful Salvation on Sand Mountain (the true saga of the snake-handling preacher of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following who tried to murder his wife with a crate of his rattlers), before you get the idea that preachers can be crazy coots.

This is too bad. In its truest sense, to preach means to announce (to declare) good news. To preach is not to blast wild, thoughtless words or to pretend to own a private hotline for divine truth. Rather, to preach is to refuse to stay silent when a soul is weary or a body undone.

A preacher believes we are starved for a good word, but the preacher will not surrender to the cynical belief that all the good words are gone. A preacher speaks up when the silence deafens, when we are desperate for a bit of light or hope. But a preacher also knows when to stop the talking, when to surrender the floor and let the quiet speak. A preacher tells the old story, and a true preacher simply lets this story stand, bearing its own weight, fully aware that the truth will both console and confound. The preacher does not use the Story or the Good Book (or words like gospeldisciplebiblical) as artillery or to build a following. A true preacher will not stand by when God’s grace or God’s mysteries suffer at the hands of boisterous, angry rhetoric or are desecrated by cliquish Christianity.

A preacher courageously opens her mouth when she sees how parched we are for words of life. A preacher weeps like Jeremiah when words will no longer do. A preacher sings a Psalm when darkness threatens to snuff out the hope. A preacher grieves when our foolish choices steer us toward death. A preacher gets riled when the poor are trampled or the powerful mock mercy. A preacher gets feisty whenever arrogant buffoons tarnish the stole.

To preach, in the old sense, is not a theatrical display or the opportunity for a polished speaker to wow the crowd. A preacher speaks to the very people surrounding him, the ones who need God’s voice in this one moment and amid these unique details. A preacher offers whatever he holds within his soul, whether born in travail or in joy, then gives that true thing fully, and humbly, to the people he loves. The preacher listens before she speaks, and afterwards too. Preaching is, as Marilynne Robinson says, one side of a passionate conversation.

If a preacher rarely laughs, or never cries, I do not trust him. Are we paying any attention at all to our world, to our God, to our own heart? Do we see the beauty, or the weariness, of those who receive our words? Do we have any inkling of the vast generosity and holy love of the One in whose name we speak? A preacher does not have a bully pulpit, but a meeting place from which to say again and again: God is here.

Karl Barth said that when he stood behind a pulpit, he assumed there would always be at least one person listening who, when hearing the story of scandalous grace, would surely be asking themselves: Could this possibly be true? “Then,” Barth said, “I preach to that person.”

Barth offers as good a description of preaching as I could muster. Preach to that single soul, to that one who’s desperate for a fresh possibility, a truly good word. This kind of preaching, this kind of life, will never grow old.