Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Advent Resurrection

It may seem strange to pair Advent with resurrection. Usually resurrection comes more naturally at Easter. But at heart the labor pangs of all creation giving birth to the Christ child are a longing for a new start.

Advent is a longing to be born again.

Neuroscience now teaches that every minute is pregnant with almost unlimited possibility: one neuron (or brain cell) can have an average of twenty thousand synapses (connections between neurons that allow them to communicate); add to this some 30 different neurotransmitters each encoding a different message; and these combinations give rise to a breathless array of potential human interactions, experiences and behaviors; each of which in turn can affect other people and entire communities…






This jaded soul of mine.

No real resurrection will end with our own self, as the protagonist Neklyudov in Tolstoy’s Resurrection reminds me. Neklyudov finds spiritual and moral regeneration when he makes amends to a woman he has deeply wronged. This movement in turn sets off a whole chain of human interactions that place Neklyudov in an entirely different mode of relating to his world.

Just one genuine resurrection can mean a world of difference in our delicate ecosystem of sin and grace.





Birthday Cred—Ecclesiastes Via David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace was an American novelist, essayist, short story writer and professor of English and creative writing, and is best known for his novel Infinite Jest.

David Foster Wallace was an American novelist, essayist, short story writer and professor of English and creative writing, and is best known for his novel Infinite Jest.


Today I’m still (barely) on the left side of 40, and bearing apologies for being away too long. “Life” can sometimes be enough to put out the creative spark—but never permanently: I want to believe that eternity in God’s presence will be full of creation. Eternity without creation would be absolutely dull.

On this birthday,  I am remembering the following blurb from David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published The Pale King and am thankful to Andrew Sullivan and The Dish for introducing me to it:

“Maybe it’s not metaphysics. Maybe it’s existential. I’m talking about the individual U.S. citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than ‘die,’ ‘pass away,’ the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday— …


And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what—a hundred years? two hundred?—and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1864, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are…”


Lessons from the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Just over six months ago, a member of our congregation announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: Steve Hayner, the outgoing president of Columbia Theological Seminary, and his wife Sharol, have come to be most associated in my mind with joy; yet Steve’s announcement could not have been sadder. Still, and miraculously, over the last six months I have been “surprised by joy” (to borrow the expression from C.S. Lewis), insofar as Steve and Sharol’s capacity for faith, hope and love even in the midst of great sorrow and pain has touched many of us with a foretaste of heaven’s joys. This gift can only be a sign of God’s grace; I can think of no other explanation—and this morning I give thanks for it. Here is Steve sharing spiritual lessons from living with a terminal illness, via his latest post on CaringBridge:


This past week I was asked by World Vision (a large world-wide relief & development non-profit on whose board I have served) to prepare a devotional for their staff about what I have been learning spiritually during my illness. I know that many of you who have been reading about my journey on CaringBridge do not share my faith convictions, and I respect that. But for me this is definitely a journey of faith so I thought that many of you might want to hear this part of my story, too.

Over the last six months my life has completely changed.  I haven’t been able to go back to my former job. I have had several surgical procedures, and I’m on a chemo-therapy every two weeks. On the weeks that I don’t have chemo, I currently feel pretty good and am able to carry on with a good schedule that includes time with people and projects.  But I don’t know how long any of this will last, and I seldom know from day to day how much I can plan to do.  The only certainty that I have related to this world is that someday, sooner than I had planned, I will go home to be with Jesus.


Facing death has a way of clarifying life.  So let me tell you a few things that I’ve learned in the lasts months.

1.     When Jesus is all you have, you soon discover that Jesus is all you really need. One of the creeds of my denomination opens with the phrase, “In life and in death we belong to God.” God created us …Jesus has redeemed us … and the Spirit transforms and gifts us for life everyday. It is Christ who gives us meaning, purpose, worth, and security.  We look for these things in a variety of places: in our families, in our jobs, in our churches, in our convictions, in our health, or wherever we think it can be found. But only in Jesus will we find Life with a capital “L”–abundant Life which we experience now and will last forever.  I’m in the process of losing everything that I have known on this earth, but I will never lose what God has given me in Christ.


2.     As long as I have life on this earth, I have a call.  God has given me work to do and continues to give me work to do.  Over my lifetime I have had many roles to play and many jobs to fulfill.  But it is not the particulars of being a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a seminary president, a World Vision board member, or anything else that ultimately matters so much as the underlying call to be faithful. God has called me to follow Jesus in everything I do: to love the way Jesus loved; to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings; and to be obedient to God’s commands. Every day no matter how sick I become, I still have a call.

3.     God will never give up in his work to transform me into the likeness of Jesus.  I fail every day at being and doing what God has intended. But God has promised to use everything in my life to continue the process of helping me to become more like Jesus in my thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. At this stage in my life God is using my disease to teach me. It’s not easy and I don’t like to change.  But God loves me too much to give up on me. Therefore, God uses my circumstances, whatever they are, to continue the process of transformation.


4.     Joy is not about my circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love.  Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God–not suffering, not want, not abundance, not sin, not anything.  God loves us from beginning to end and through every circumstance. If there is one thing that I can trust, it is God’s love for me in Christ Jesus.

There is nothing new about any of these lessons.  But God continues to remind me. And I continue to be grateful for every reminder. On Halloween an unexpected reminder came from a trick-or-treater, who was about 8 years old and was dressed like a little sheep. Surrounded by a flock of siblings, who were also dressed as sheep, he blurted out that they knew I was sick and were all praying for me.  “Thank you,” I replied.  And then with big sincere eyes, he looked at me, smiled and said, “Heaven is going to be wonderful, you know?” All I could think to say was, “It already is.”

May God continue to bless, encourage, sustain, and energize you for your call, too. Who you are in Christ and what you are becoming really matters in this world—as well as the next.


The Prodigal God—Inspirations from Tim Keller’s Book

timkellerI’ve missed you! The challenge of writing for a full-time job is that it can relegate recreational writing to a distant backseat. But I want to keep coming back to this intersection, because I find that when I’m away from it, my capacity to carve out space for reflection and find spiritual breathing room suffers, too. That you sometimes show up is another incentive to keep writing…

The New York Times bestseller, The Prodigal God, by Tim Keller, has been bedtime reading lately. Keller, who pastors the 6,000-membered Redeemer Presbyterian Church and has planted churches all around the world, starting in New York City, rightly points out that the parable typically called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” really should be called “The Parable of Two Lost Sons,” and that the story is ultimately about a prodigal God, One who recklessly, lavishly, and without regard to Self, loves both sons until it hurts. If you’ve not read the book, I highly recommend it.


But what intrigues me most in reading the story again through Keller’s eyes is the uncertain fate of the older son. The older son’s angry self-righteousness not only causes him to miss out on the life of the party, but is the very thing that condemns him; and the story ends leaving no real indication as to whether he will swallow his pride and come in to the party—or, stand outside with clenched teeth, letting the steel bars of the cage he has erected for himself become his all-consuming Reality.

It would seem, though, from the story’s ending, that the harsher judgment here is reserved for the older son who is estranged from the father by his own goodness, self-gratification and blindness. Whereas the younger son is able to apprehend his separation from the father and return from that “far country,” the older son cannot: he has convinced himself that he really is undeserving of God’s grace, by virtue of the morally upright life he has zealously cultivated all these years.

The inspiration to so many of those wonderful Flannery O’Connor short stories is felt here. So is a prophetic utterance for the church today.


The Neuroscience of Temptation

Credit: Jon Huckeby

Credit: Jon Huckeby

It’s been too long. I hope you’re enjoying God and life.

That next book I’m working on is now evolving into a book about addiction and mental illness—and how churches can and must learn to love and welcome people with these far-too-often hidden afflictions. My research has taken me into the realm of neuroscience; and here I credit fellow saint and sinner Saskia (who we interviewed in 2012 as part of a series on the brain) for connecting me with the work of Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden and his book The Compass of Pleasure.

Here’s an article I wrote the other day, asking if our brains are to blame when we saints and sinners (all of us) succumb to temptation…enjoy!




Brokenness—as Creative Tension?

(Credit: Doug Savage, Savage Chickens)

(Credit: Doug Savage, Savage Chickens)

This morning a meditation from Paula Ripple’s Growing Strong at Broken Places sparks some thoughts about embracing brokenness as the very site where God seeks to form us, like a master potter, into the people we can become.

Ripple draws out her analogy from the words of one woman potter, who uses her work as a metaphor for life. The potter explains that she uses both her hands to shape the pot, and that for shape, texture and form to materialize, “tension” is necessary—both from the outside (the external force of the pressure applied) and from the inside. The potter goes on to reflect that her own life is the product of this tension between the external forces (the love of friends or life’s inevitable losses) and those inner resources, like faith, personality, and one’s interior life; and this tension is actually where new life bubbles up, where the questions (as opposed to easy answers) emerge that will reawaken us to Life Itself.


Creative Tension and Avoidance Issues

Of course this tension may be painful. It may seem completely unnecessary or, as most of us prefer, avoidable. It’s possible in some cases that this tension is avoidable, at least for a time.

So we walk away from a marriage that, while not abusive, has become entrenched in dysfunctional ways of relating to one another.

Or, we pretend that we are okay on the outside when on the inside we’re dying.

It’s an easier life in some ways to avoid places of brokenness…

…so we turn the channel when those heartbreaking pictures of emaciated children appear on the screen.

…or, we practice our politeness just enough to say “hi” to the homeless person as we go on our way without a second thought.


…or, we point out all of our colleague’s flaws rather than looking at our own places of deep brokenness.

“There is a tendency in us to want to live tension-free,” Ripple writes.

Jesus Wants Us To Be Fully Alive, Which Isn’t Always Comfortable

But a tension-free life is only for those who are not broken, or can easily pretend they are not. A tension-free life is for those who have decided to live their lives and their faith at the surface, in false, skin-deep appearances. Those who follow Jesus to the cross will embrace tension as even a gift— “a gift that sometimes will not permit us to escape its presence,” as Ripple puts it.

Here is Ripple again:  “I believe that our creative energies are activated by just that kind of upsetting tension. It is in responding to this gnawing discomfort that we have the possibility of giving shape to dreams that are at once faithful to who we are and who we can become.”

No, I suspect Jesus’ desire for us is not that we be comfortable—but rather that we might have abundant life.

Living in and embracing the creative tension of our today is one pathway.



Mental Health Break—The Worship Service To End All Worship Services

It’s been a while since we’ve had a mental health break. As a little bit of comic relief at the start of another work week, this clip from a worship service somewhere in America comes from saint and sinner Paul. The comments from readers are just about as funny as the weird break dancing routine in the middle. Hee-lar-ious. Really, can it get any worse? If it possibly can, send me your favorite cheesy worship clip; and we’ll make it a competition.



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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