Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Christian Purity: Is God’s Mission Possible When Purity Rules?

Photo credit: The Awkward Yeti.

Photo credit: The Awkward Yeti.

I had a really weird, somewhat distressing interaction this week, and it is still on my mind days later. It’s one of those uncomfortable encounters that you would like to press the “replay” button on and do over. Like a v-mail recording that you can erase and re-record.

This conversation, as someone privy to it fittingly put it, seemed like an abrupt and awkward break-up after a first date that seemed to be going well.


Only this “break-up” was with another Christian from a different denominational place who places a really high value on purity and on defending the Lord’s name.

I won’t indulge details. But I’ve been left feeling deeply sad about the way in which purity, or a need to defend God and/or God’s holiness, can so divide Christians themselves—to the extent that our division prevents us from coming together to work on issues that are deeply in keeping with God’s redemptive mission in this world.

This week’s incident reminded me of a time when Christian social activist Toni Campolo came to speak at the evangelical flagship institution Wheaton College and, in a talk there, used a four-letter word. Campolo’s use of the word was for effect: he wanted to shine a light on the fact that his audience was more concerned about his potty mouth—purity (by my interpretation)— than about the problem of endemic poverty in this country and around the world.


The problem, as Campolo illustrated, was that this obsession with purity (again my word) actually hamstrings our call as Christians to participate in God’s mission. We get caught up on less important flashpoints rather than the larger, more important task of, as the prophet Micah puts it, loving justice, doing mercy and walking humbly with God; and, in the meantime, the rest of the world sees what a sorry lot we Christians really are in our efforts to come together across political and denominational aisles. “Impurity” (or at least one Christian’s interpretation of another Christian’s inherent holiness) thus becomes an easy excuse to walk away in God’s name from another Christian—another human being made in God’s image—and to indulge in self-righteousness while God’s mission actually suffers. Meanwhile those who are not Christian can find yet another often good reason to reject (if not Christ) the church that is Christ’s “body.”


This impulse to uphold purity over all else is understandable to a degree, but it also troubles me and makes me very sad. Does God’s purity need a defense?, I wonder. Is it God’s purity that we are really defending when we react sanctimoniously to the “impure” language and/or actions of those around us? Or, is it the purity of the church we seek to defend? An important distinction, I suspect.

Purity itself (be it doctrinal or moral) can be a good and necessary thing, but its shrill defense can quickly descend into a lack of love for neighbor. So I wonder aloud here: when we as Christians seek to uphold purity at the expense of other human beings’ sense of worth, is such purity worth it? And if upholding purity is important, how do we uphold purity in a way that in the end draws people nearer to Jesus and to one another, rather than erecting further divisions and obstacles to working together in God’s mission to reconcile and redeem all creation?

No answers here, only questions for your input.




Jesus and the Rich Man: A Sermon on the “Hitler” of Passages.

It’s rare that I find myself thinking about Sunday’s sermon midweek. This Sunday our pastor Drew Ditzel preached on the familiar story of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10). The rich man, who says he has kept all the commandments perfectly and has lived a righteous life, comes to Jesus asking what more he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and to give all the proceeds to the poor. The rich man walks away sadly, convinced he can’t do that.

Drew takes this challenge to the rich man that so often confounds many of us—and in turn allows us to think we’re off the hook, since Jesus hasn’t called us to do anything quite so dramatic, extraordinary or (honestly) idiotic—and inverts that challenge. Jesus’ challenge to the rich man is really an invitation to all of us in the end, most of whom lead pretty ordinary lives and may or may not be financially wealthy: as moms, dads, spouses and friends, we go to work, parent kids, pay bills and maybe watch Sunday afternoon football.


And the good news in Drew’s sermon is that we don’t have to have extraordinary lives to do what Jesus is challenging the rich man to do. Right now, in our very ordinariness, in the absence of some spectacular call to go become Mother Teresa, we can give everything that makes us who we are (work, finances, relationships, kids, school, whatever it might be) to Jesus, so that Jesus can use our everything—our “wealth”—for His purposes.

And, I would add after further reflection here that while this point did not come up in Sunday’s sermon, it is explicitly clear in this passage that Jesus’ purposes include generosity to the poor.

You can listen to Drew’s sermon, “Is Taking What You Have and Following Jesus Worth It?,” here. It will make you laugh, think and maybe even change how you live your otherwise ordinary life.






The Lie of Invulnerability

This last week has been insane. Family sickness, repairs, car issues, multiple calls from school nurses, including one in which the nurse expressed concern my 7-year-old son had been bitten by a brown recluse spider…and just when I thought it couldn’t get worse…viral pinkeye. Two puffy, leaky, red hot swollen eyes and multiple doctor visits to get the same message: there’s nothing we can do to make it go away; you just have to let it run its course.

A canceled business trip…

I dunno how people with cancer do it.

But the insanity of recent days reminds me once again of an inherent lie we human beings often tell ourselves in the throes of daily life. The lie says, “I am invulnerable.”






Pinkeye that destroys any shred of vanity.

That won’t happen to me, we can tell ourselves—if not about pinkeye, something worse. Or, if it could happen to me, I can protect myself from it, we say, at least subliminally.

So top athletes take steroids, and politicians blame their party rivals for their own mistakes—to make themselves invulnerable to loss.

And doctors use medical euphemisms to prop up the lie that the modern-day patient is invulnerable to death. (Heck, I’m still waiting for that cure for viral pinkeye.)

And those who are rich tell themselves that the way they’ll save themselves from being poor and needy and insecure—vulnerable—is to keep acquiring more and more and more.


And nice, well-behaved, God-fearing types secretly make a bet with God that if they tithe 10 percent and are regular attendees in Sunday worship, they’ll be invulnerable to life’s most painful curve balls.

But of course we can’t protect ourselves really. We would just like to pretend we can. We would really like to believe that with a little hard work or lucky stars or whatever, we can be invulnerable. And worse yet, the more we try to tell ourselves we’re invulnerable, the more weak, insecure and disconnected from ourselves and others we really are.

If you haven’t yet watched social scientist, therapist and author Brene Brown’s TEDTalk The power of vulnerability, here it is below. In her endearingly lighthearted and self-deprecating way, Brown articulates how across years of studying issues related to human connection and alienation, the people who exhibited the most connection with the world around them were those who were willing to acknowledge their vulnerability and to live wholeheartedly in that space of vulnerability, loving those around them.


Strikingly, Brown has also suggested that we can try to make matters of faith invulnerable, too, which is one of the worst things we can do for awe-invoking things entailing mystery and wonder. Rigid Christian apologetics and church growth strategies are, I suspect, an extension of trying to make the church invulnerable, which is a pipedream, (and all pipedreams by definition are inherently false).

Besides, I can’t think of anyone more “vulnerable” than Jesus. Isn’t that what the three temptations in the wilderness are about? The devil is offering Jesus the chance to become invulnerable. Jesus chooses, instead, to be anything but that. He chooses vulnerability. He chooses humanness and the fragility of everything that entails—and then he lets himself be killed. Churches that reject or implicitly judge fragile human beings for the sake of being “more successful” or “bigger” are rejecting Jesus Himself.


Maybe one of the reasons AA is so successful is that AA doesn’t do this. You can come just as you are, however sick that may be, and you’re accepted in all your vulnerability, with the recognition that your vulnerability is what brings you there.

But…what do you think?

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Humor Relief for Religious Extremism

Once again, humor and satire are coming to my aid this morning, this time in response to the twisted and evil extensions of religion that seeks to coerce and control with violence and worldly forms of power (best embodied these days in the form of ISIS and its affiliates).

The Palestinian television satire show “Watan ala Watar” (the Arab doppelganger of The Daily Show maybe?) produced the following segment (originally found on The Huffington Post); the show’s short spoof on ISIS will make you laugh even as it lays bare the self-destructive myopia, hypocrisy and sheer senselessness of militant religion, leaving viewers with the both laughable and lamentable implication that ISIS’ war on the West and Israel is only really hurting the Arab people (in other words, the very population ISIS claims to be fighting for).


This parody comes with gratitude for the courage of the Palestinians who created it, and for the gift, once again, of laughter as an antidote to evil.

YouTube Preview Image




“AA” Recovery Groups—Spirituality for the Non-Religious, Hope for the Church?

Bill Wilson co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous with Dr. Bob Smith in 1935.  Their affectionately called "Big Book" is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies since its publication. (Photo credit: Hazelden publishing).

Bill Wilson co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous with Dr. Bob Smith in 1935. Their affectionately called “Big Book” is one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold more than 30 million copies since its publication. (Photo credit: Hazelden publishing).


This week I’ve been researching the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and getting up to speed on all things related to addiction and Christian addiction recovery—for that new book project I mentioned last week.  Funny thing is, my research interests seem to be once again relating to that demographic we know best as the “spiritual but not religious.”

It turns out that Bill Wilson and Sam Shoemaker, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, were Christians who cared a whole lot about helping people with addiction, and who believed the root issue for people struggling with the disease of alcoholism was ultimately spiritual in nature.  Their response (to what they believed was essentially a spiritual problem) was to put into practice some key spiritual principles for daily living that they believed would help to heal and restore broken lives.  The centerpiece of this embodied spirituality was the “12 Steps,” at the core of which is submission to a Power greater than oneself (God).  Since AA’s founding in 1935, these simple resolutions have helped millions of people find hope and healing from alcoholism and other addictions.


It is notable that much of this great work of healing transformation has come outside church communities (despite AA meetings often still taking place in the basements or fellowship halls of church buildings, or, even ending with The Lord’s Prayer): many of the people who attend AA groups would probably not darken the doors of an actual church worship service, and would prefer to call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  But this fact has not stopped one scholar from likening AA to a “Third Reformation” in the history of Christianity.

What is it about the AA that makes it a place of welcome and redemption?  And, what might the church learn from AA groups?  How might the church become more of an authentically spiritual community that is itself a place of transformation and restoration, not just for addicts, but for all broken people who are longing for a genuine, life-changing relationship with their Higher Power? These will be a few of the many questions I’ll be asking in the days to come, and as usual, you’re invited to weigh in.







Thoughtful Christians—They’re Around, Via Fare Forward

Peter Blair is editor-in-chief of "Fare Forward". (Photo credit: "Fare Forward")

Peter Blair is editor-in-chief of “Fare Forward”. (Photo credit: “Fare Forward”)

The cover story from the latest (July/August) issue of Christianity Today offers a refreshing antidote to all the gloom and doom that often accompany conversations around the future of the church in this country.  The article features a gallery of short bios of vibrant, young Christians idealistically taking on some of the hardest, most depressing and intractable issues of our day.


The story is worth a read; but, because of its pertinence to our interests here at this intersection between life and God, the work of one person in particular caught my eye: Peter Blair, the 24-year-old editor-in-chief of the two-year-old Christian journal Fare Forward, a “Christian review of ideas.”  Have you heard of the magazine, or Blair, or both? (Is this one of those times when I thought I was in the know and really was the last to know?)

But, the tagline “A Christian Review of Ideas” had me sold.  What a great way to dispense of the notion that Christians by definition can’t be thoughtful (in every sense of the term). I was even more sold after reading Blair’s bio, which includes groveling references—kidding on the “groveling” part—to the mutually idolized writers Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry.  (Oh, and the additional fact that Blair likes beer is also notable.)


But, more seriously, I am digging the articles at Fare Forward: they’re deep, thought-provoking, and catholic in their commitment to a “faith seeking understanding.”  Thank you, Peter, for your wise, youthful contributions to a Christianity that engages both the heart and the mind in the pursuit of The Way, The Truth and The Life.  Keep up the great work!


New Job, New Book

"Honey badger don't care..."

“Honey badger don’t care…” (Photo credit:

You may have noticed that I’ve not shown up at this intersection during the last week or so.  A new job, and, with the new job, the promise of a new book project, have conspired to keep me away.  Much of last week I was out in L.A. on a business trip meeting new colleagues—hence an extended absence from this intersection.


But I can’t say how thrilled I am to be taking a full-time writing job with Elements Behavioral Health, a California-based company with addiction recovery programs nationwide.  What I love about the company is that it exists not just to help persons with addiction find pathways to healing and recovery; it’s also committed to “Creating Extraordinary Lives” (the Elements motto).  (By way of a mini mental health break in this post: I also love the fact that one of my colleagues is the voice behind the now viral YouTube Preview Image; and, by way of a forewarning, the short video, while very funny to watch, contains an occasional F-bomb.)


While Elements’ current recovery programs feature largely secular, holistic approaches to treating addiction in its many and various forms, Elements is now brokering new relationships with a network of Christian recovery programs nationwide.

Enter me.  I’ve been asked to, among other things, contribute to an e-book that will equip churches for ministry to persons with addiction.  In addition to the book, I’ll be writing…writing…and writing…articles, blogs, white papers, Web copy, you name it, on all things related to addiction and mental health issues like post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

What this may mean for you and this fellowship of saints and sinners is:

  • that you’ll on occasion be asked for feedback on these sorts of issues.  I hope you’ll feel free to share your views and experiences freely, in the same vein that Rob Bell defines “church”—as “the place where you say the things that have to be said…with the most honesty and vulnerability and prophetic culture.”  In other words, I hope you’ll be able to tell the truth here, and that I can, too.
  • that I may not be able to post as frequently, but you’ll have even more opportunities to share your creativity with the rest of the bunch!  I’ll still try to post 2-3 times a week, but realistically, this frequency may not happen.  It’s possible, for example, that I may only post once a week, but focus on one solid, quality piece per week.  In the meantime, you’ll have a chance to feature your own guest posts or feature series.  Just shoot me an email and send me a sample of your work!



Mental Health Break—The Wittenburg Door

If you’re not already familiar with the online humor magazine The Wittenburg Door, now you are: think The Onion marries Reformed Christian theology and they have a wickedly funny child with an aptitude for making you laugh at most things religion-related in this world.  A “thank you” to saint and sinner James for introducing me to the magazine, which is now a gift that keeps on giving.

Be forewarned: if you take yourself and/or your faith too seriously, you will not like this magazine and could be offended.  You may even want to call me names, in which case your comments will no longer be tolerated at this intersection between God and life.


Here are some of the “most popular” blogs appearing at The Wittenburg Door in recent days:

Mark Driscoll Kicks His Own Ass

Noah’s Blog

Why Creflo Dollar Needs His Dollars

Why Benny Hinn Became Our Wacky Neighbor

Rob Bell on Sex, God and Sex Gods

**Actually, the interview with Bell here is really, really great—I love what Bell says about church as “the place where you say the things that have to be said…with the most honesty and vulnerability and prophetic culture.”

Lifestyles of the Rich and Religious



What You Are Saying Re: Driscoll

My last post generated some helpful, constructive input from fellow saints and sinners who read it.  Thank you, all.

Saint and sinner Bruce writes:  You know I respect you and appreciate your writing, but I think this is a pride issue, not an evangelical issue. The Catholic Church, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others all face scandals of moral failures from leaders. Their perspectives on the Bible are different but in each case pride sneaks in. Truly humble broken people can be great leaders – evangelical or not. I honestly think it is a human failing which knows no particular religious bent.


Saint and sinner Elizabeth, who at one point attended services at Mars Hill, gave me some eye-opening perspective on Driscoll’s background and how Mars Hill came to be, as well as how she saw it change over time in not so uplifting ways.

Saint and sinner Mark, whom you can find blogging at Joyful Exiles, pointed me in the direction of an exhaustive article that traces the story of Mars Hill and Driscoll: “Inside Mars Hill’s massive meltdown” is a helpful read. Thank you, Mark!

Maybe in the end my friend Bruce is right: maybe these disappointing developments belong to the larger story of the Fall that goes back to Adam and Eve, of human pride gone awry; and to be sure, evangelicals and their leaders don’t have a monopoly on human pride.  Still, I can’t help but think that evangelical churches like Mars Hill must find new ways polity-wise and culturally to allow for self-corrections in response to these sorts of abuses of power.  I suspect that a culture that sends the message that men are ultimately in charge, and that one senior pastor has the right to dictate how people on staff and in his congregation think, can only reinforce this human tendency on the part of our leaders to seek refuge in pride.

Bruce, Elizabeth, Mark, and those of you who quickly brought the error in an earlier version of this article to my attention, thank you for reading. Come back again soon…like tomorrow, when we’ll blow off a bit of this serious steam with some laughter. Stay tuned!



Mark Driscoll’s Fall: A Day of Reckoning for Evangelicals?

Mark Driscoll is the founder of Mars Hill Church and has been one of the most influential church leaders in his time. (Photo credit:

Mark Driscoll is the founder of Mars Hill Church and has been one of most influential church leaders in his time.

[CORRECTION NOTE: An earlier version of this article suggests Mark Driscoll has in fact now resigned; this is in fact not the case, and I’m very grateful to fellow saint and sinner Mark for bringing this error to my attention.  Driscoll is facing increasingly louder calls for resignation from within his own church and by way of dismissal from the Acts 29 Network—as this corrected version now states.  For my own part, I can’t help but wonder if Driscoll’s resignation from Mars Hill will eventually be inevitable…]


The news of increasingly louder calls for megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll’s resignation on the heels of a series of now public and inexcusable improprieties on his part, while not surprising, begs a question: whose day of reckoning is it, really?  After all, it would be easy to lay the blame squarely at the feet of Driscoll if this sort of scandal (a megachurch leader’s moral failings) were a first in history; since it’s not, I have to ask whether Driscoll is as much a symptom of a larger problem as he is a cause.

Sure, Driscoll has his issues (as we all do in various manifestations, if we’re at all honest with ourselves).  (My heart hurts for Driscoll’s family as they face a growing deluge of public embarassment—even as I am glad that Driscoll is receiving the grace of being taken to task for his improprieties and, hopefully, getting help.)  But anyone remotely familiar with Pauline notions of the systemic nature of sin—or with a basic knowledge of family systems, for that matter—should be asking what in the way of dysfunction causes evangelical churches to be particularly prone to these sorts of scandals.


Human sin and failing? Of course. That’s a no brainer.

But is it possible that there is something more unique to American evangelical church culture at play here, too—insofar as this particular way of being church is even more bound to set up its leaders for moral failure?  The bigger the pedastal, the higher and more painful the fall, it seems.  When a charismatic leader comes to be the first and almost exclusive form of association with a church—in this case, Mark Driscoll as Mars Hill—something has gone very wrong.

Ultimately, Driscoll did not come to equate himself with Mars Hill Church on his own.  It took a whole peanut gallery of admirers sold on his version of an in-your-face “Christianity with cahones” (my words, not Driscoll’s) to plant and build his church and to feed Driscoll’s pattern of ethics and boundary violations.  And it took a wife with a very traditional understanding of her place in the home to support her husband’s efforts (and a church culture that at least implicitly promoted this understanding of women as best fit for work as wives and mothers, rather than as gifted and true equals in ministry).  Such common expressions of American evangelical church culture in the 21st century warrant at least a healthy suspicion.


My own church background and ministry experience have caused me to take note of this phenomenon—one that, if my experience is not exceptional (and I suspect it is not), I find peculiar and sad at the same time.  As both a woman raised in conservative evangelical church circles and ordained for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church, and as one who would still consider herself evangelical (at least in Barthian terms), I’ve come to wonder why it is that an often latent chauvinism (and in some cases misogyny), homophobia and other forms of discrimination—against those with particular illnesses, for example— are more apt to be present in churches whose leaders exude larger-than-life savior complexes and an inflated sense of self-importance.


From my experience, a church bent on bigger, more attractional, more “evangelical” and, especially ironically, more “culturally relevant” presentations of the Gospel will be less welcoming to women in leadership and in some cases demeaning; that church will also be less apt to see itself as a true priesthood of all believers dispatched to the world in a myriad of adventurous ways; instead, that church will be more and more the creation of one senior pastor’s (usually, one man’s) expression of the Gospel,  for whom other persons are ultimately disposable.

In short, this sort of evangelical church culture has much to reckon for, Driscoll’s indiscretions notwithstanding.



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