Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

John Oliver vs. Televangelists and Their “Big Seed” Prosperity Gospel

If you’ve not seen it, you must: John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” offered the most brilliantly funny rebuke of televangelists and the prosperity gospel I’ve seen to date. Oliver doesn’t mince words, including the four-letter ones, in blasting the moral obscenities of those who specialize in selling the gospel for their own enrichment. Here is Oliver so satisfyingly condemning spiritual abuse when he sees it among those who should know better:

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How the Latest Revelations Re: ISIS’ Systemized Sexual Violence Against Girls Remind Me I Am Not a Pacifist

As if ISIS had not already convinced us enough of its total depravity … the latest revelations by The New York Times —(be forewarned, they are disturbing to read) — remind me why I am not a pacifist. As if turning small boys into child soldiers is not enough to raise the ire of the international community, the article details how ISIS is now instituting a whole system of religiously justified, theologically rationalized sexual violence against non-Muslim girls, and is using this system to lure new recruits to its ranks with the promise of young girls whom they can rape at their convenience in the name of Allah.


“A theology of rape,” the article terms it, and if evil has a face, it looks like this. We’ve seen that face far too many times in recent history alone: in Rwanda; in Bosnia; in Nazi Germany. We human beings have a despair-inducing ability to let what John Calvin called “total depravity” rob us of the “kingdom of heaven on earth” that Jesus instructs His followers to pray for.

So much so that these latest revelations can feed our compassion fatigue…

…Or, sophisticated-sounding strategies of “containment,” as one commentator recently opined should be the U.S. approach toward ISIS. Recognizing the foreign policy considerations are breathtakingly complex, I still can’t help but wonder if “containment” in this case is more of a convenient euphemism for delaying our moral imperative as Christians in the West and as human beings to take a stand against such plain-faced evil.


Jesus Himself says there is a special place in hell — or at least at the very bottom of the sea — for those who undertake the kind of evil that ISIS now proclaims is the will of God Himself. “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble,” Jesus says (Luke 17:2).

Does Praying for God’s Kingdom to Come and for God’s Deliverance From Evil Mean Standing Against Unadulterated Evil When We See It?

I suspect that when we Christians pray for God’s deliverance from evil, and ask that God’s kingdom come, “on earth as in heaven,” our prayers require something of us. After all, if C.S. Lewis is right — that prayer is as important because of what it does for those who pray — then the prayer that God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come must entail more than worries about our own job security or personal health or safety. To pray “deliver us from evil,” is to acknowledge at least implicitly that our own deliverance is inextricably linked to the deliverance of those around us, our “neighbors.”


Is it not possible, then, that when we pray that God deliver us from evil, in the context of asking for God’s kingdom to come, we are making a request that could very well demand more of us than our prayer? More action — and in some cases, where unadulterated evil threatens our neighbor(s), a call to take up arms? I think so.

What moral strength required a young German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to grapple with great fear and trembling about his role in that struggle against evil, in the form of a Nazi ideology that sought to eradicate a whole ethnic group? What reserves of courage did Bonhoeffer’s part in an assassination attempt that could very well fail (and did) call forth? What great faith, or assurance of God’s ultimate and final triumph over evil, did such bravery finally demand of Bonhoeffer? I can only begin to wonder.


We, most of us, will not be asked to undertake such feats of heroism. But we can do more than nothing in the face of evil. We can choose not to give in to compassion fatigue. We can question claims that containment is the very best we can do in the face of pure evil that seeks to destroy the most vulnerable members of our society. We can do something rather than nothing.

What Christians Can Do To Stand Against ISIS’ Evil

If you’re wondering what, in particular, we can do, here are some preliminary ideas…will you please send along yours, so I can add them to this list?

1. Pray. Pray daily and unceasingly on behalf of all victims of ISIS — that God would deliver them from evil. And read this New York Times article as you pray — for healing, restoration and protection for those most vulnerable to the threat of ISIS.


2. Reconsider our policy priorities, and re-evaluate what we should be standing for and against. How, for example, loud opposition to the now legal marriage of two gay men in the state of Kentucky deserves as much time, attention and priority as it is receiving from Christians in public service, when horrors like ISIS’ war on innocent children continue unabated, is beyond me.

3. Advocate for more aggressive intervention to take down ISIS. In particular, Christians can push for greater military intervention to stop ISIS (on the part of the U.S. and an international coalition of forces). And we can lobby for more proactive U.S. support of those on the ground actually fighting ISIS (namely, Iran and the Kurds). Support for these allies in a fight against evil can also mean speaking out in favor of the recent Iran deal, rather than letting a particularly loud and vociferous faction of religious conservatives in this country claim to speak for all Christians (in their denunciation of the recent Iran nuclear deal).


4. Find ways to support our brothers and sisters most physically vulnerable to ISIS’ evil rampage.
The Muslim and Christian families who live directly in ISIS’ line of fire, and who every day risk losing their sons and daughters to the kind of unfathomable evil most of us will never thankfully have to see, deserve any and all shows of support from Christians in the West.

Got more ideas about what Christians can do to stand up to these evils? Please send them my way. 






Mustard Seed Faith and a Mustard Seed Kingdom of God, Via Mary Oliver

American poet Mary Oliver is a winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times described her as "far and away, America's best-selling poet."

American poet Mary Oliver is a winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times described her as “far and away, America’s best-selling poet.”

Last week school started, demo began on our long overdue home renovation, and we moved into temporary housing in the form of a kind neighbor couple’s guesthouse. Thankfully, through the now endlessly mind-numbing conversations about new kitchen back splash, bathroom fixtures and carpet colors, several volumes of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver’s work on our neighbors’ book shelves have been breaths of fresh air.


This morning I stumbled upon Oliver’s poem, “Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith,” in her book of poetry, West Wind. Rather wonderfully, Oliver’s poem arrived in the context of some devotional reflections on Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed (Matthew 13). Why, I’ve wondered, does Jesus use the same image of a mustard seed to describe both the kingdom of heaven and the faintest glimmers of faith? What of the correspondence? Oliver’s poem may shed some light:

Every summer

            I listen and look

                        under the sun’s brass and even

                                    in the moonlight, but I can’t hear



anything, I can’t see anything —

            not the pale roots digging down, not the green stalks muscling up

                        nor the leaves

                                    deepening their damp pleats,


nor the tassels making,

            nor the shucks, nor the cobs.

                        And still,

                                    Every day,


the leafy fields

            grow taller and thicker —


                   green gowns lofting up in the night,

                            showered with silk.


And so, every summer,

            I fail as a witness, seeing nothing —

                        I am deaf too

                                    to the tick of the leaves,


the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet —

            all of it


                                    beyond all seeable proof, or hearable hum



And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.

            Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.

                        Let the wind turn in the trees,

                                    And the mystery hidden in dirt


swing through the air.

            How could I look at anything in this world

                        and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?

                                    What should I fear?



One morning

            In the leafy green ocean

                        the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body

                                    is sure to be there.


But why do you think Jesus uses the same metaphor of the mustard seed to describe both His kingdom and our nascent glimmers of faith?



A Beloved Lion, The Dentist Who Trophy-Hunted Him, and the Power of Shame

13-year-old Cecil was the beloved resident of Hwange National Park, where earlier this July he was baited and killed for fun by Walter Palmer, DDS. The GPS collar Cecil was wearing helped to piece together the lion's last hours, during which time he was  baited and shot (first by a bow and arrow), and then tracked, while wounded, for the next 40 hours before Palmer finally killed, skinned and beheaded him.

13-year-old Cecil was the beloved resident of Hwange National Park, where earlier this July he was baited and killed for fun by Walter Palmer, DDS. The GPS collar Cecil was wearing helped to piece together the lion’s last hours, during which time he was lured away from his home and shot (first by a bow and arrow), and then tracked while wounded for the next 40 hours, before Palmer finally killed, skinned and beheaded him.


This week Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer admitted to hunting and killing Zimbabwe’s beloved celebrity lion Cecil, the most famous resident of one of Zimbabwe’s national parks and the subject of a decade-long study by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit.

Earlier this summer, Palmer reportedly paid two local guides $55,000 for the thrill of baiting then luring Cecil out of his government-protected habitation, so that Palmer — who has a long and colorfully photographed track record of hunting endangered animals, and who has misled authorities before about his illegal activities — could use Cecil for target practice and, presumably, for another disgusting photo opp, just before skinning and beheading the magnificent creature whose movements in the bush researchers had been studying for years.


Palmer and His Dental Practice Are Now the Target of an Effective Public Shaming Campaign on Yelp

News of the identity of Cecil’s killer and details of Cecil’s death generated an international outcry in no time. Public heartbreak and outrage spontaneously prompted a public shaming campaign of sorts, directed against Palmer and the River Bluff Dental Practice he ran — this in the form of a flood of devastating rebukes on Yelp. The public shaming quickly met its mark: it effectively shut down Palmer’s dental practice, (which on its website had previously characterized Palmer’s endangered animal hunting pursuits with the misleading euphemism, “photographing wildlife”).


Walter Palmer poses with a leopard he shot in Zimbabwe in 2010.

Walter Palmer poses with a leopard he shot in Zimbabwe in 2010.

I read with relish those comments on Yelp, from the more serious

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated -Mahatma Gandhi


You are a true example of the degeneration of our gene pool.  You are the lowest form of life and should bear the pain that only a mind as twisted and warped as yours can provide.  

Dentist…go figure. — Myron in Seattle, WA

To the creative, like this 5-star rating for “vile” and “sociopathic” dentistry:

Here’s what I look for in a healthcare professional:  a disgusting and thorough lack of compassion, sociopathic tendencies, a vile propensity for torture of the innocent, a bombastic self-importance, a demented and narcissistic sense of fun, a self-serving and egocentric disposition, a knack for betraying others’ trust, a history of lying to officials, a criminal record, and most of all a smug mug. I found all that in Dr. Walter Palmer at River Bluff Dental!


I don’t give many 5-star reviews, so you know that Dr. Palmer really fits the bill!  With Dr. Palmer at his best, your soul will be black, your hands will be bloody, your head will spin, your stomach will turn, and your heart will hurt, but hell if your teeth won’t be white!!!!

The main con with Dr. Palmer is that he doesn’t have any balls, but he more than compensates for it with his BIG bow and arrow.  Pssssshhh. In case there’s any doubt, he will be happy to prove it by illegally slaying “mature, magnificent” creatures who are beloved and protected. And when he needs reinforcements, he doesn’t hesitate to bribe the right people to back him up. Highly recommended! — Christine, in Los Angeles, CA


To the more merciful:

Dr.  Palmer, I am going to pray for you. Your heart has something wrong down deep in your soul. … —Michelle in Waukegan, IL

To the far more common, profanity-laced and relentlessly unmerciful (which I won’t feature here but which were therapeutic to read, nonetheless).

To the humorous

Hi, I’m every other DDS in Minneapolis. Just want to thank Walt for all his former patients. Regards, Normal People — Andrew in Nashville, TN

This guy is wonderful at administering novocaine. He just waits until you’re sedated, relaxed, comfortable. You trust him. Then he shines a blinding light in your eyes and bang! There’s the shot. If a dentist can be a hero, this man, ladies and gentlemen, is a brave, brave American hero! — Christian in New York, NY


The Power of Shame — Is It Necessary, and What’s its Utility?

Walter Palmer is now wanted by Zimbabwean authorities and has gone into hiding after an international public outcry.

Walter Palmer is now wanted by Zimbabwean authorities.

In the ironic twist of a still unfolding story, Dr. Palmer has since gone into hiding — a vain-glorious predator now turned helpless prey, much like the beloved lion he hunted for sport. Some people might chalk it up to “karma.” I call it the “power of shame,” which is the subject of that next book I hope to write. In the world of addiction recovery and behavioral healthcare that I professionally inhabit these days, “shame” is indisputably a bad word: it’s the toxic force that keeps so many people bound in addiction and unhealthy, self-destructive behaviors.


In the Bible, from what little study I have done in preparation for that next book, shame often carries similarly negative undertones; but my preliminary hypothesis is that its biblical and theological treatment is more complex, with shifting cadences depending on the context.

This week’s news leads me to wonder whether shame does not hold at least some positive utility in God’s redemptive purposes. By shining a light on the human cruelty of those who prey on the defenseless for the sake of sheer enjoyment, and by holding up a mirror to those who commit injustices (in this case, Palmer and the booming prize-hunting trade he has come to represent), maybe shame can serve as an engine of redemption in this tragic world.

But, what do you think? Leave your comments below.


Naked Feet … and the Gift of Reverence

"Moses Before the Burning Bush," by Domenico Feti, 1613

“Moses Before the Burning Bush,” by Domenico Feti, 1613

When he slipped his feet into the tub of warm, herb-infused water, he did so almost apologetically.

“Thank you,” he said, tentatively, an edge of either shyness or embarrassment in his tone as she summoned a foot to her lap.


Derek, 46, was a drifter. He had been drifting most of his life like a minor character in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. As she massaged his feet with apricot scrub, he seemed to be telling her in between the lines that he still hadn’t found a main role…

The inability to turn down any drug on offer, from cigarettes to cocaine to everything in between — and try as he might, his incapacity to change his circle of drug-using peers. That, he said, had depressed him.

The occasional fights on the street, despite his “peace-loving” ways.

The run-ins with the law—and with a brown recluse spider that sent him to the hospital. He gestured to the two dark red indentations on his lower leg.


He was a surfer. Surfing was his love. He always ended up back near the ocean and his first home, the beach. But the birth of his now one-year-old granddaughter and the old childhood stomping grounds of his mother had lured him here, to Atlanta, Georgia.

“I don’t know why I’m still here — in Atlanta,” he said, as she explored the callouses and ridges on his feet, gently pressing them with her index finger or filing them away with a cheese grater. Those callouses were not as hard and impenetrable as others she had seen at the foot clinic — and if our feet can be metaphors for our souls, there was indeed something still refreshingly uncalloused, almost childlike, in this man’s way. The hard, unmerciful reality of living on the streets all these years and for most of his adult life had left a soft inner layer intact. You could press it gently and it would give way to something like fear or wonder.


“I think I’m still here because Atlanta is really more of a spiritual place with all its old churches,” he was saying now. “I’ll walk by them and read about them and about how some of them even survived the Civil War.”

Could it be that underneath those callouses there was a certain reverence — a reverence inherent in one restless soul’s awareness of that which it lacked? A certain inward falling on one’s knees before the transcendent Ground of one’s being, maybe only felt or intuited in the very wandering itself, wandering thus transfigured as gift?

He had been to court that day, too, after being cited for drinking whiskey in a public park after midnight—as if our great American judicial system had no greater injustice to prosecute than a poor, homeless man with little more than the clothes on his back drinking in a park with his chums. But he had gone to court to hear how he would be sentenced. And they had told him to come back another day.


So here he was, homeless as always, but this time in Atlanta; and unsure why he was here when the ocean was calling him back to it. His words were spilling out over the bucket in front of him like that ocean spray: the carefree, absent-minded giveaway of a deep, mysterious movement underneath, which upon its pent-up release seemed undirected at the surface, hitting her face with its cold, salty darts.

Some would call it misdirected. Run-off bearing witness to little more than a life that had not lived up to its full potential. An existence wasted by aimlessness.

But was it really any more aimless than the choice of a comfortable suburban life, with two kids, a nice-sized house, two cars in the garage, a generous-sized savings account and the pursuit of so fleeting a thing as financial security or the safety of mere convention? She wondered this as she clipped his toenails. No was the answer that came back.


None of us can purport to know the real contours of another human being’s soul. “Sacred inwardness,” is the term that the author Marilynne Robinson has used to describe this grace: “If the fate of souls is at the center of the cosmic drama, is it difficult to imagine that it will unfold, so to speak, in a place set apart, a holy of holies — that is, a human consciousness?,” she writes. “Where better might an encounter with God take place? If God is attentive to us individually, as Jesus’ saying about the fall of a sparrow certainly implies, then would his history with us be the same in every case, articulable and verifiable, manifest in behaviors that square with expectations?”


Would God’s history with us require that we be able to authenticate the state of another human being’s soul via some recognizable set of fingerprints or a qualifying spiritual DNA test of sorts? Would it enable us to proclaim — according to the following of a particular script or lifestyle choice or even outward religious affiliation — a soul’s eternal fate?

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Paul writes in Romans.

Such calls are barely audible beyond the inner vibrations of one sacred soul turning and returning to its Creator and Redeemer. They are not to be measured by the human eye. They are the stuff of fear and trembling and wonder and reverence underneath the calloused feet of wandering souls that feebly give pause to the Ground of their being.


Hadn’t the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning meant something similar when she put it more beautifully:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, And daub their natural faces unaware.”

Robinson writes: “Perhaps the real lack of faith in modern society comes down to a lack of reverence for humankind, for those around us, about whom we might consider it providential that we can know nothing — in these great matters that sometimes involve feigning or concealment, that are beyond ordinary thought and conventional experience, and that can in any case be minutely incremental, since God really does have all the time in the world.”


“Thank you,” he said again with the same self-effacing tone, as he unrolled the fresh pair of socks at his side, a gift from the clinic, and slid them gingerly over the balls of his ankles, appearing grateful for revived feet.

“You’re welcome. It was my pleasure,” and the latex gloves had prevented her from shaking his hand.

It really was my pleasure.

She had given one restless soul clean, manicured feet.

He had given hers renewed reverence.



Help End Loan Shark Lending and One Cause of Poverty with This Short Survey

When this video YouTube Preview Image recently went viral, I was rooting for the shark.

Not so when it comes to loan sharks, who are one contributor to systemic poverty and sharply growing income inequality in this country. Friend Bruce Strom, whose story we’ve featured here before, and who directs the Gospel Justice Initiative, an organization that equips churches to serve the legal and spiritual needs of the poor, sent along the following opportunity to help end loan sharks’ predatory lending practices (and in turn the cycle of debt and poverty that entraps so many of America’s poor). Bruce writes:


Each year, millions of Americans take out payday and car title loans at rates of 300% and 400% annualized interest. Often, these loans are targeted toward vulnerable individuals and marketed as a quick response to a financial crisis but result in long-term debt.

We partner with Faith for Just Lending, a coalition of denominations and faith-based ministries in seeking to address predatory lending.  They are taking a short 10-question survey which will help us in a national conversation….Please take a moment to share your experiences and questions with us through this short online Congregational/Ministry Survey.

The first round of survey responses are due by July 31.

Will you help by taking just a few minutes of your day to fill out the survey?


The Recovery-Minded Church Available for Pre-Order—and a Peek at the Cover!

It’s been too long! Vacation, a family lice infestation, sickness, and preparation for a home renovation—much of it occurring at the same time—fun, huh?—have kept me away from this intersection. But I couldn’t not share my delight at the news that The Recovery-Minded Church: Loving and Ministering to People with Addiction is now available on Amazon for pre-order (and, in turn, a lowest price guarantee) here. (And this classy book cover, kudos to InterVarsity Press, helps it stand out.) What this means is that you and/or your church and church leadership can have your copies of The Recovery-Minded Church just in time for Christmas and the New Year—and for thinking, dreaming and praying about new opportunities for spiritual growth and compelling ministry priorities in 2016. We hope one of these will be the needs of people with addiction, a hidden epidemic in our pews and just outside our doors. This book will help you know how to relate to, help and refer to treatment people with various addictions.


Thank you for your interest and support! This book would not be what it is without the help of those of you who undertook our survey of church leaders and provided your feedback regarding church leaders’ biggest questions about ministering to people with addictions. My colleague Jonathan Benz and I extend our sincere thanks.

The Recovery-Minded Church would also not be what it is without the commitment of the company we serve, Elements Behavioral Health (EBH), to extending much-needed clinical treatment to more Americans who need it. With its family of addiction recovery programs nationwide, EBH is a leading provider of both Christian drug and alcohol rehab and other non-faith-based treatment programs for drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, and sex and love addiction, as well as for their dual diagnoses (like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other mental disorders).


The Recovery-Minded Church, by Jonathan Benz, with Kristina Robb-Dover, equips churches and their leaders for more effective ministry to people with addictions.

The Recovery-Minded Church (December 2015, InterVarsity Press) equips churches and their leaders for more effective ministry to people with addictions.


Poverty vs. Privilege

"On a Plate" (Copyright: Toby Morris)

An excerpt of “On a Plate” (Copyright: Toby Morris). For full version, which is well-worth the read, visit the link in my post.

Lately, I’ve been learning about poverty and getting to know those in its grip, thanks to the”Open Door” community here in Atlanta. Open Door is a residential community in the spirit of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, whose mission is to care for the poor and for prisoners. And my education is really only just beginning, I’m learning, as I listen to the stories of those who show up each Wednesday night to Open Door’s free foot clinic and regale me, with their feet in a bucket of warm, herb-infused water, with their stories of life on the streets or in jail.


Which may be why this brilliant comic by Toby Morris, “On a Plate,” which is a meditation on the systemic nature of both poverty and privilege, hits so close to home. The headline introducing the comic reads “This Comic Will Forever Change the Way You Look at Privilege”—and it did. In a mainstream American culture that still largely celebrates the rugged, bootstrap pursuit of “the American dream,” Morris’ comic is a reminder of the obliviousness with which one can live in debt to little more than sheer privilege (the fact of being born into a white, well-educated, middle-class or affluent family), as opposed to the stand-alone merit of one’s achievements.


The take-home message for me? That privilege should elicit great humility and greater responsibility; (didn’t Jesus say that from those who have been given much, much will be demanded?) And that another human being’s poverty deserves compassion and an attentiveness to poverty’s deeply systemic nature, rather than quick, easy judgements about the character defects of the poor person in front of me.







David Brooks and “The Big Me”—A Critique

David Brooks' latest book is the subject of an edifying interview in the June 2015 issue of Christianity Today.

David Brooks’ latest book is the subject of an edifying interview in the June 2015 issue of Christianity Today.

In the midst of preparing for this major house renovation, for which mental health breaks have come in the form of way too many back-to-back episodes of the T.V. series “Breaking Bad,” and regrettably less writing at this intersection, the latest issue of Christianity Today (June 2015) arrived yesterday. It features an interesting interview with The New York Times columnist David Brooks upon the release of his latest book The Road to Character (Random House).


We Are More Narcissistic Today, Says Brooks

In that interview, Brooks critiques what he terms today’s “Big Me” culture, a culture that, as he sees it, is increasingly narcissistic, self-absorbed and self-promoting. In evidence of this claim, Brooks invokes results from a 2005 Gallup survey that asked graduating high-school seniors the question, “Are you a very important person?” 80 percent answered “yes,” in contrast to only 12 percent in 1950, when the same question was put before graduating seniors then. Additionally, Brooks points to a 30 percent rise in the median narcissism score as further support for his claim.

For Brooks, recent developments in social media technology have only encouraged individual expressions of self-importance (a case in point, the “Like” feature on Facebook and a growing trend in self-branding). I tend to agree with Brooks here, but I also wonder if his larger blanket critique of contemporary American culture is a bit unfair.


“We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves,” he says, linking this broad sociocultural shift to changing intellectual currents in the 1940’s. That is when, Brooks claims, “there were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.”

Talking More About Sin in America—A Cure for “The Big Me”?

The anecdote to this development then? A return to the common denominator that we are sinful human beings, it would seem, and more talk in the public sphere about sin and righteousness. I beg to differ for a number of reasons. One unanswered question here is how we might make that return. And here, while I wholeheartedly embrace this common denominator as true—human beings are clearly a sinful mess and in need of God’s saving grace—I wonder whether we encounter in Brooks a bit of unrealistic nostalgia for a time that will never again be, a time when the institution of the church, for example, exercised far greater moral influence, to the degree that the Christian doctrine of sin was more of a given and the church was widely looked to by greater America as a compass for moral formation. The likelihood of returning to that comfortable era of Christendom is next to none.


Moreover, recent public rhetoric by evangelical Christians in response to issues like gay marriage has already been laced plenty enough with talk of sin and, implicitly, self-righteousness. Brooks steers clear of this reality, at least in this interview. I want to ask him, “How do you think such muscular pronouncements about human sin (embodied, for example, in evangelicals’ rhetoric around Indiana’s religious freedom law and in response to gay marriage) are already working to serve the public good and promote virtue?” I would argue that such declarations about human sin do little to encourage moral character in society at large, and, if anything, serve only to disempower evangelicals of real, authoritative moral influence. (Whether or not such pronouncements are building the character of those who make them is a matter of personal discernment and the working out of faith with “fear and trembling” as the writer of Hebrews calls it.)


And I wonder if, in a society that since its first origins has been about rugged individualism, it is not at least a bit unfair to (at least implicitly) single out my generation and those following it as the embodiment of “The Big Me.” Yes, the defining mark of younger generations, social media, has become a venue for over-indulgent, narcissistic self-expression, so that this blog, it could be argued, encapsulates this very thing; but social media has also brought people together around important causes and solutions and, when used responsibly, has enormous potential for good. Studies of the Millennial generation, moreover, confirm their interest in issues related to social and environmental justice.

We Are All Bigger Me’s in the Kingdom of God


So yes, my brokenness and sinfulness are necessary to apprehending the Good News of God’s immeasurable love for me. But neither would that Good News be complete without the recognition that every person has infinite value in the kingdom of God—indeed, the “least of these,” among whom, on my good days, I count myself. Brooks combs history for examples of humility and self-sacrifice (counterexamples to today’s “Big Me’s”), citing Augustine and Dorothy Day among them. Their contributions changed the world, maybe precisely because they believed in a big God.

But the grace of that faith, paradoxically, was also the thing that made Augustine and Dorothy Day “big people,” enlarging their capacity to love their neighbor in ways that shaped the arc of history. What Augustine and Day apprehended was not just their own deep need for God’s grace, then, but the reality that they and their lives were of inestimable, infinite value to this God. In the context of this great, big God, their lives were bigger than they could ever have dreamed for themselves and to be treated as such. Maybe in a similar vein, Kierkegaard could write in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript that the category of the individual “remains the weight which turns the scale.” Augustine and Dorothy Day turned the scale of history. So can the “Big Me’s” of today, thanks to a great God who remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.




In the Clear: Meditations on Cleaning House

The last few weeks have comprised a massive de-cluttering initiative in preparation for a home renovation, as we clear out junk from our basement, attic and just about anywhere useless stuff has managed to accrue.

What Do We Throw Away?

The basement was our project one Sunday afternoon. And it is funny to see what you turn up after the years have gone by. Time can rob you of explanations for hanging on to some things (grief, old attachments and resentments included). Like the old chest of drawers I had found hanging out on the curb in a gritty west Atlanta neighborhood. I had managed to convince myself (and a kind neighbor with a truck who knew I was crazy but obliged me, anyway) that the piece would be fun to resurrect as a kitchen island in a brand-spanking new, remodeled kitchen dreamed for the following year.


That bureau belonged to an entire lawn of disgorged contents from a foreclosed house now overseen by a guy with an amputated arm. The items, he insisted, had once belonged to him—although it was clear he was without a home and had nowhere to go and nothing to do. But the care and motivation with which he helped me carry that bureau to the car, arm or no arm, as he told me a bit of his story—about how he lost his arm as a child in a gun accident, and about how he really lived (gesturing ambiguously) a few blocks away but could use a ride to the Walmart—seemed deserving of $20 for the dresser and for his help, even if he would still have to walk to the Walmart. The dresser would not fit in my car, so I had called my friend with the truck who had driven over to marvel at the stretch of ‘hood we had landed in and at my craziness.


That ugly, faux-painted dresser missing one drawer is now awaiting dumpster day. Does something similar await the seemingly senseless furniture of our lives—the mistakes, wrong turns and broken parts for which we have no explanation or use? “Chaff that the wind blows away,” the psalmist says of “evildoers.” What of the things in our lives that may not be so much evil as lamentable, tragic or merely useless? Are these mere food for the dumpster, or do they, too, have their belonging somewhere, and if so, where? If my soul’s new-found sense of freedom and spaciousness in the aftermath of a basement clear is any indication, I would like to think such things are tinder for a great big, mischievous bonfire.


My house cleaning had been merciless with other things, too. College books now mildewed from years of storage in a dank basement. Baby clothes from our children’s first year of life. Old files and papers from seminary. (If at the end of his life a great theologian like Thomas Aquinas could call his life’s work “straw” for the fire, then I could let go of notebooks filled to the brim with my scribbles on seemingly useless theological squabbles about God.)  All of these things had been taking up precious space for far too long and would now be carted off to our local thrift store or become fodder for a line of garbage bags.

What Do We Keep?

There were also the serendipitous and sometimes inexplicable discoveries of things that still meant something to me, as evidenced by their capacity to elicit a smile or chuckle. Like the box of quirky, humorous postcards my husband had written me during our dating years. I had chucked the old casette tapes of music he had made for me in that period of young love—they were now too defunct to be worth salvaging—but those postcards were another story. And there were the VHS videos from our wedding, and other sentimental paraphernalia, like the graduation Barbie doll I had received from not one but two family members on the occasion of completing college. I had kept only one, but somehow Barbie #2 went on to survive even the second cull.


There was even the old uniform I once wore as a child in primary school growing up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That ruffled, green-and-white checkered dress had seemed too much like an innocent bystander bearing witness to the ruthless pruning at hand, so I kept it. Funny what we choose to hold onto and why, despite the transience of a life that will one day depart by wrenching everything we claim to possess from our clutches.

Letting Go and Embracing Reality

By strange coincidence and as if in tribute to our recent house clearing measures, Marilynne Robinson’s book Housekeeping has accompanied me during this process of unloading junk. The book’s narrator is Ruthie, a girl whose story of family tragedy and loss, relayed in surrealist tones, unfolds against the backdrop of a remote Idaho town, “Fingerbone.” There, Ruthie, her sister Lucille, and their only living relative, Sylvie, the girls’ flighty and rootless guardian, struggle to “keep house” with the clutter they have inherited; and the stuff of their home environment, in the form of old cans, newspapers and detergent boxes (the last of these are recycled as makeshift dinner plates), is richly metaphorical—a metaphor for human baggage, maybe, like unresolved grief, broken relationships, and the impermanence of human love. Ultimately, that house of clutter will go up in flames, its demise releasing Ruthie and Sylvie—Lucille chooses to stay behind—to roam freely in the world beyond Fingerbone, and it is as if the conflagration of “home” sets these two free to live in reality rather than from among the ruins of a dream.


I am not sure that our recent sort and clear can achieve anything quite so ambitious. Has my remarkable capacity to collect useless things at yard sales and on random street curbs finally been put to rest? Probably not, despite my best efforts. But home now feels less cluttered—and, with the freeing recognition (however fleeting it, too may be) of the impermanence of all possessions, my soul feels not just lighter and more spacious but alive to a desire for what matters more. And the desire itself, as Robinson’s novel seems to suggest, is worth holding onto.


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