Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Mental Health Break—Sprawl II

My favorite band these days is Arcade Fire, and I’ve featured the Canadian indie rock group before at this intersection between God and life. The lead singer studied Kirkegaard in college and their songs, like this one, are often subtle but brilliant critiques of the least aesthetically pleasing things about Western (post)modernity: in this case, suburban sprawl and its tendency to strip human beings of their need for beauty and the aesthetics of truth, reducing them into often faceless, dehumanized puppets of sort (as the video below seems to suggest). But, in addition to penning meaningful lyrics, the band knows how to write some really snappy, get-under-your-skin tunes and (I’m told) are amazing in concert.

Here is Sprawl II:

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I Can’t Breathe and the Widow’s Cry—A Guest Post

Fellow saint and sinner Saskia de Vries is a neuroscientist in Seattle, Washington and has posted before at this intersection between God and life. She, like so many of us, is grappling with the tragedies of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the larger systemic problem they seem to reveal—namely, a pattern of police brutality against African Americans in this country.

And, on the heels of this week’s release of the U.S. Senate report documenting our country’s use of torture, I suggest that Saskia’s reflections have even broader prophetic resonance for the American church. How we treat people—no matter what they look like or the color of their skin—is a “litmus test” of our faith, according to Jesus.


Here is Saskia with some timely and profound reflections on the story Jesus tells of the persistent widow:

A couple years ago, I preached a sermon on the Faith of Christ. Looking at some of the healing stories in the Gospels, I talked about how the faith of Christ is not about believing things, it’s not accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it’s not about trusting that Jesus was the Messiah. The faith of Christ is knowing that all people are valued and actively caring for them. It’s knowing that a bleeding woman, a slave, or a Samaritan leper, are just as worthy as a prominent Rabbi. It’s valuing people, even people that aren’t valued by society.


One of the passages that helped me see this was the Parable of Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8):

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)


Luke tells us from the start that this is a parable about the need to pray always and be persistent. It is strikingly similar to the parable of the friend at midnight (Luke 11), knocking on the door at midnight asking for bread. Jesus taught, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door shall be opened for you.” (Luke 11:9). It sounds like this parable is more of the same. It is the gospel of the squeaky wheel: complain, and you will receive; whine, and it shall be given unto you. Yet, many have cautioned against this interpretation. After all, how many of us have found our most ardent prayers unanswered, despite our persistence. No, this is not a parable about persistent prayer.

This parable comes right after Jesus had been teaching his disciples about the “days of the Son of Man.” The days will be sudden and unannounced. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.” (Luke 17: 34) It will be obvious when it comes, Jesus tells them, but there will be no signs that it is coming. So you’d better be ready. Immediately he tells them about the widow and the judge, concluding “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The important question, Jesus tells us, is not when will the Son of Man come, but when he does come, will he find faith? This parable is not about prayer so much as it is about faith.


But where is the faith in this parable? There’s nothing in the parable about beliefs, no trust, and not even any mention of Jesus. Instead what we find is a widow who refuses to shut up. We all know a widow is a woman whose husband has died. However, the Hebrew word used in the Bible for widow, almanah, actually conveys something a bit different. It wasn’t just that an almanah was a woman who had lost her husband, but in the process she was left without financial support. There are women in the Bible whose husbands died who are never referred to by this word: Ruth, Naomi, Orpah, Abigail. While these women had lost their husbands, they had maintained a means of support. But the widows, the almanot, in the Bible, they had no support. They were poor, destitute really, and more than that, they lacked any social standing. Indeed, the word almanah derives from the root alam, which meant to be concealed, to be put to silence. Widows were women who had been silenced, who had no voice, had no standing in society. As such, women had not standing to appeal to a judge on their own behalf. So the fact that the judge refused her is not necessarily an indictment against him, not completely. I would even argue that the fact that he finally grants her justice is an act of faith on his part. It may be delayed, and it might not even be for the right reasons, but in the end he grants her justice. This judge, who neither fears God nor respects people, was finally faithful… and yet, will the Son of Man find faith on earth?


The Bible, from the Torah through the prophets and into the new testament gospels and letters, instructs us to care for widows (eg. Deuteronomy 24:17, Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 7:6, Zechariah 7:10). It’s not about bringing old women casseroles after their husbands pass away, or about making sure someone cleans out their gutters in the fall. It’s about not letting the almanot be concealed and left without a voice. It is mentioned so often that the welfare of the widow becomes a litmus test of the moral character of Israel. So from its outset, this parable in and of itself is an indictment for all of God’s people. A widow being denied justice is the very definition of unrighteousness, of faithlessness – not just for the judge, but for everyone. Whatever the situation is that she is begging for justice, it should never have reached this point. Someone should have intervened on her behalf long ago. Some one with standing should be pleading the judge on her behalf, and a just judge, someone who does fear God and have respect for people, should have quickly granted her justice. But instead, the widow is left to plead her own case, while everyone around her wishes she’d just be quiet.


In the past few months and weeks I’ve been stunned by the deaths of black men killed at the hands of police officers. I’ve been confused by the justice system returning grand jury decisions that I don’t understand. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know exactly what to do about the situation. I honestly haven’t read that much about the different incidents, only enough to know that Michael Brown and Eric Garner should not be dead. I’ve read enough to know that it’s about more than those two men, that the justice system works differently for black people in our country than for white. And I’ve read more than enough to know that something has to change. When I hear “I can’t breathe” or “hands up don’t shoot”, I hear the voice of the widow begging the unjust judge. “I can’t breathe” is quite literally the cry of one who has been silenced, an almanah. Justice is being denied. We are failing at faith.


We need to fix this. I have no panacea to offer. But I know that I must add my voice to those who cry with the almanot. Because black lives matter. I know we cannot wish that people would just be quiet, that the protests would fade away so we can get back to our lives. Because black lives matter. And I know we need to acknowledge and correct the racism that continues to pervade our justice system and our country. Because black lives matter.

We’ve been called to grant justice to the widow. Over and over again, we’ve been called to grant justice to those who are oppressed and those who have been silenced. This is our litmus test. Let’s get this right. So that when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith on earth.


Advent and Emptiness, Via Louis CK and the Prophet Isaiah

I’ve been making my way through the book of Isaiah. This morning’s reading was from chapter 6, where the prophet Isaiah receives his call to go to the people of Israel and proclaim God’s judgment of a people who have wandered away from God’s purposes for them. Isaiah asks how long God’s people will languish in a state of spiritual blindness, their senses dulled to right relationship with God and neighbor. God answers: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”

Until vast is the emptiness.

In other words, until the Babylonians have laid waste to the kingdom of Israel (technically Judah then), sending its people into captivity.


Physical emptiness, or the barrenness of the land, is a sign of God’s judgment, at least in Isaiah’s case. An indication that Israel has turned its back on life with God to pursue other gods. But what about spiritual emptiness? The gaping hole in one’s soul that only God can fill has become a bit of an annoying cliche. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it in sermons.) But the awareness that one is ultimately and existentially alone, and ultimately and existentially accountable for how one lives in the face of death, is a way to couch this emptiness that we tend to avoid as much as humanly possible until avoidance is no longer possible.

I don’t know: did God make us with this hole that longs to be filled, as the cliche often goes? Maybe.


Or, is this emptiness as much a a sign of our spiritual dislocation? A dulling of our senses for the things of God, things like truth, beauty and justice, and faith, hope and love?

Too often Advent can be a time when we ignore the emptiness. But what if we listened to it just for a moment? Where would it lead us? Certainly away from our cell phones and white noise on the radio. Maybe to One who will save us from ourselves and be with us in our ultimate and existential aloneness, in a way that only God can do. Maybe even to a child in a manger.

Here is Louis CK with some thoughts on “that forever empty thing”:

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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.


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