Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

New and Improved “About Me,” Thanks To Bigtime Blogger Michael Hyatt

John Hyatt is the former chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishing.

New York Times best-selling author Michael Hyatt knows a thing or two about blogging.  More than 272,000 people subscribe to his blog on “intentional leadership.”

Hyatt’s book, Platform: Get Noticed In a Busy World, contains all sorts of helpful tips for aspiring authors and other thought and small business entrepreneurs seeking a voice in today’s ginormous and buzzing blogosphere.

You can now read my much expanded and revised About Me page, all thanks to Hyatt’s tips on how to craft an effective one.  In other words, if you don’t like it, please blame Hyatt.  But seriously, will you read it and tell me what you think?


Augustine Tweets for Restless Souls

From Adam and Eve to Augustine to yours truly, we’ve been picking good- looking fruit just for the hell of it and getting burned.

I’m convinced that if he lived today, the early church father, Augustine, would like Twitter and I would be one of his followers.

Augustine once said of the God he worshiped: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”


I love that quote.  For one thing, it tweets.  For another, familiarity can breed endearment: I hear the quote all the time, even if I don’t really understand it and am not sure it’s actually true– or at least true for me.

Because it would seem that Augustine is saying here that he was at least once upon a time a restless soul, too, but then met Jesus and found not just a resting place but rest itself.

I have often wished this were true about my own life.  Some dramatic conversion that eliminates all doubt and uncertainty.  A crisis turning point of sorts that finally puts me on some straight and narrow highway of the kind that the prophet Isaiah talks about.

But here is the honest-to-God truth: I’ve “met” Jesus; I love Jesus; and, I’m still a restless soul.


Which is to say that there are some days when I’m not sure I buy this God stuff, don’t know where I’m going and feel very alone.

It’s not that every month I change religions.  You won’t see me shaving my head and joining the Hare Krishnas any time soon.  The Scientologists haven’t cast a spell on me yet.  (Do Scientologists cast spells?  This is the only explanation I can find for Katie Holmes marrying Tom Cruise.)

Like Augustine, then, I’ve found a resting place.  I’ve been a Christian since that fateful day more than a quarter century ago when as a little girl I invited Jesus into my heart, and to this day, Jesus remains the supreme lover of my soul.

I also catch glimpses of Jesus, albeit fleeting ones, every day.  In people.  In nature.  In music.  In the wide-eyed smiles of my children.


I see a crucifix pattern in this God-shaped world everywhere I look.

But my soul finds it hard to rest there- at this site where Jesus loves me and I love Jesus and I am caught up in God’s restoration of everything around me.

The other day my spiritual director asked if I had ever fully surrendered my life to Jesus.

God answers knee mail…sometimes.

I wish I could tell you that right then and there a light bulb went on and I got down on my knees and relinquished control to God, because it had never occurred to me to do this sort of thing ever before.


But that didn’t happen, because I had already “fully surrendered my life to Jesus” in more ways than one.

In several moments across my life with the passion of a lover I had asked God to ravish me.

“Do what you will with me, God.”

“Thy will be done.”

“I surrender.”

I had said all these things and more…but the “rest” Augustine speaks of remained- and still remains- elusive.

The more I think about it, I’m not sure total surrender to God is ever really “restful.”

But what do you think?  Is Augustine’s quote true for you? Do you identify with the metaphor of God as a resting place?  Why or why not?








The Uncomfortable Evangelist

Author Jana Riess, whose book, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor, is on my list of must-reads- you can find her regularly blogging for the Religion News Service at “Flunking Sainthood”- recently posted a review of the book, Dinner with Muhammad, by Marilyn Hickey.


Tellingly, for Riess, reading Hickey’s book was an exploration of Riess’ own discomforts with evangelism- many of which I, too, share.

We evangelicals- and I count myself among them, insofar as someone like Karl Barth might be called an “evangelical” (and we could have a whole discussion about whether Barth really qualifies here)- place a high premium on evangelism.  We have good reason.  Jesus’ so-called “Great Commission” to “go and make disciples” appears in all of the Gospels.  The whole Acts narrative of the apostle Paul’s journey to plant churches from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth” hangs on this command.

“Making disciples” may necessarily require our discomfort.  But it is also true that “making disciples” should never demand our own “superiority,” which we evangelicals can tend to ground in a kind of reckless abandon to “certainty for certainty’s sake.”


This is problematic, not too mention disingenuous.  There are very few things that as I grow older I realize I’m certain about.  I don’t think I’m alone here.

Yet in much of the evangelical world, certainty around a pretty narrow set of beliefs becomes a kind of credential for evangelism- and, I might add, for our own superiority in interacting with so-called “unreached people groups,” such as Muslims.

I applaud Riess for shining a light on the pitfalls of such approaches to evangelism.

Have any of you read Hickey’s book? Did you share Riess’ impression?  



The Blessing Attendant: A Lesson in Gratitude

Every week, as I pull out of the parking garage at one of the client companies I serve as a corporate chaplain, she is there in the little booth at the exit taking tickets, dispensing change, smiling and engaging in small talk.

All I really know about her is that she’s from Ethiopia- and she has a prominent, gold tooth that shines whenever she unleashes one of those great, big smiles.

She’s there in that little parking booth, come rain or shine, doing the same thing just about every day: taking tickets, dispensing change, and remarking on her life, which every time I meet her is a blessed one.

“I’m so blessed!,” she likes to exclaim.  “We are all so blessed!  There are so many blessings in our lives when we really think about them,” she says.


She says it every time.

Funny thing is that it never gets old, her blessedness and blessing.  Maybe that’s because I know it’s legit.  I don’t have to question whether she’s putting on a show. She’s not. It’s writ large across her face that she means what she says.

On the surface, it would seem this woman has little influence.  She’s not powerful.  She doesn’t have a lot of money.  She may not even have American citizenship.

But, if I were to do a little math, I would estimate she probably easily talks to at least a couple hundred people a day from her perch in that booth, telling them she’s blessed and they are, too.

A couple hundred people a day means more than a thousand exchanges a week of telling people she’s blessed and they’re blessed, too.

That’s a lot of people who, like me, leave that parking garage feeling a bit closer to God, thanks to a woman whose gratitude is real.










Zombie Batman and The Divided Self

If my son has to wear a mask, I’m kinda relieved he is settling for superhero status.

My son’s request to be a “zombie batman” tonight qualifies as most creative Halloween aspiration thus far- not to mention a tough act to carry off.  Somehow the two identities seem galaxies apart.  I mean, an animated corpse in a Batman costume?  Doesn’t that interfere with special Batman powers?  Isn’t it kind of hard to be the savior of Gotham City with an iron-fisted determination to stamp out evil when you’ve got no will of your own other than some voodoo-like subservience to evil in the first place?


Fortunately for two parents who were unsure whether to celebrate without reserve our son’s free-wheeling creativity, yesterday Cam traded in the zombie gig with a simple shrug of the shoulders.  “Okay, I’ll just be Batman,” he said matter-of-factly, with no hint of deep regret.  I breathed a sigh of relief: our only job this Halloween would be digging out last year’s Walmart-bought Batman costume from the recesses of my son’s toy chest, in addition to finishing the pumpkin carving that our teething dog, Roosevelt, had already begun for us.

Wearing separate, often warring identities is not just a Halloween problem.  Parker Palmer calls this sort of self-fragmentation or “divided life” an endemic issue in contemporary society.  If as Thomas Merton claims, “there is in all things…a hidden wholeness,” Palmer writes, “dividedness often seems the easier choice.”


Palmer goes on to describe this condition of “dividedness” as he has experienced it:  “A ‘still, small voice’ speaks the truth about me, my work, or the world.  I hear it and yet act as if I did not.  I withhold a personal gift that might serve a good end or commit myself to a project that I do not really believe in.  I keep silent on an issue I should address or actively break faith with one of my own convictions.  I deny an inner darkness, giving it more power over me, or I project it onto other people, creating ‘enemies’ where none exist.”

“Wholeness,” on the other hand, does not equate with perfection; wholeness means “embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”


It seems to me that Palmer is right.  We Christians especially waste much hot air on questions of right and wrong and conversations about sin, either in ourselves or the world around us.  This sort of interpretive lens for the world is, I think, not just insufficient but at times unhelpful and even damaging.

A better language is that of shalom, or wholeness.  The Bible in Genesis implies that at one point we all were whole: we all reflected God’s image with integrity, and lived in Eden at peace with one another, ourselves and our world.  You might say that our lives were once truly integrated.  Our decision to separate from that wholeness- our “self-division,” so to speak, when we were poor at arithmetic- led us down a path of fragmentation with devastating consequences.


Finding the hidden wholeness that resides within each one of us is, I suspect, the most important task for us as human beings.  If there were ever anyone in the world who lived a fully integrated life, and was therefore a person of perfect integrity, it would be Jesus; so following Jesus is really about seeking out the unique, hand-stitched signature of God Himself on our souls, and then learning to let that pattern our whole life, not just compartmentalized sections.

When that happens, we won’t have to choose between wearing various costumes.  We’ll be who God made us to be, regardless of the occasion.  That will be plenty creative- and plenty risky!- enough.

If you haven’t read Parker’s book, The Hidden Wholeness, I would commend it to you.





Christian Meteorology: A New Series

The New York City skyline, following last night’s black-out, shows only the Liberty Tower lit up. The verse for today’s daily devotional was this one: “Shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life.” -Philippians 2:15,16 (Credit: Alana Newhouse and David Samuels/The Telegraph)

The other day in class, someone made the following declaration: “That’s not theology.  That’s meteorology!,” he said.  I love it- hence the inspiration for a new series here at the intersection between life and God, titled “Christian Meteorology.”  We’ll feature the many and various, often ridiculous ways that we Christians take it upon ourselves to interpret the weather…but I need your help.  Any time you run across bizarre comments made in response to natural disasters in our world, will you please send them my way (    We’ll post them here, as a kind of “watchdog” clearing house of sorts.


Today’s feature are the latest remarks made by chaplain John McTernan, whose website, “Defend and Proclaim the Faith,” has been blaming Frankenstorm Sandy on gays, Obama and Romney.  Here is a blurb taken from Andrew Sullivan’s post, Christianism Watch, if you can stomach it:

“Hurricane Sandy is hitting 21 years to the day of the Perfect Storm of October 20, 1991. I write about this in my book as America Has Done to Israel. This was the day that President George Bush Sr. initiated the Madrid Peace Process to divide the land of Israel, including Jerusalem. America has been under God’s judgment since this event. Both of these hurricanes were cause by freakish weather patterns that came together to create [sic]


Twenty-one years breaks down to 7 x 3, which is a significant number with God. Three is perfection as the Godhead is three in one while seven is perfection.

It appears that God gave America 21 years to repent of interfering with His prophetic plan for Israel; however, it has gotten worse under all the presidents and especially Obama. Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!”

Sullivan notes the beautiful display of irony here- a “punchline” that McTernan himself seems oblivious to: “The storm is projected to come right over my house, so it might curtail the prayer meeting if the power is knocked out.”



Knowing My Audience: “Nones” On the Rise

As an aspiring author I’ve been getting better acquainted with my audience, and it’s an audience I find it easy to self-identify with (Christian ministerial credentials aside).  A poll recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has been helpful.

People without a religious affiliation- the so-called “nones” who represent a large proportion of the “restless souls” I’m writing for in Grace Sticks– are on the rise, the poll finds.  It also reveals some eye-opening things about the now one out of five Americans who say they are either “spiritual but not religious” or “neither spiritual nor religious”:


  • 42% of the unaffiliated describe themselves as neither a religious nor a spiritual person, 18% say they are a religious person, and 37% say they are spiritual but not religious
  • nearly half of the “spiritual but not religious” say they pray daily (as opposed to nearly three-quarters of those who are “religious”)
  • more than 90 percent of the “spiritual but not religious” claim a belief in God, but are less sure about that belief than self-described “religious” people
  • there are more women than men among the “nones”
  • the “spiritual but not religious” tend to be older on average than those who describe themselves as neither “spiritual” nor “religious,” and they are more likely to be living with a partner and/or divorced, separated or widowed than those who are neither “spiritual” nor “religious”
  • the unaffiliated when considered as a whole (both the “spiritual but not religious” and the “not religious or spiritual”) largely fall within the ages of 18-64
  • “about three-in-ten of the unaffiliated describe their religion as either atheist (12%) or agnostic (17%), while about seven-in-ten describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular’ (71%).”
  • the unaffiliated are more suspicious of organized religion, citing money and power, rules and politics as the basis for their suspicion; but they also express strong levels of conviction (only a bit weaker than those of religious people) that the church plays an important role in helping the poor and needy of society and building community; this said, they’re much less enthusiastic than the religiously affiliated to claim the church as a guardian of morality



My own sense, attested to by experience, is that you don’t have to be “religiously unaffiliated” to be a “restless soul.”  The equation is not exclusively one-to-one.  In fact I would venture to guess that there are many of us who, despite attending church worship services (if not regularly then at least occasionally) find ourselves on the margins of the church and/or reluctant to join the church for some of the same reasons that the religiously unaffiliated don’t ever attend (i.e., money and power, rules and politics).

We are restless souls because we seek the “More” that we have not found in our churches: more direction; more meaning and truth; and more real and abundant life.  Grace Sticks, I hope, will point us in the direction of an answer to our pursuit- to the One who called Himself The Way, The Truth and The Life.  If you’re a fellow restless soul, I hope you’ll consider coming along for the ride!




Reading, Writing and…Reviewing Books

“Doing what you’re doing- writing a book- is like running naked through the town square,” a friend of mine recently remarked.

Thankfully, we don’t have much of a “town square” where I live in downtown Atlanta; and, besides, in the gritty, adjacent neighborhood of East Atlanta, where I do much of my writing hunkered over bottomless mugs of Joe’s coffee, running naked through the streets is probably not as unheard-of as it might be elsewhere.  I’ve seen some pretty scantily clad individuals shuffle past the window on any given Saturday morning as I type away.


Still, the analogy resonates.

The more I behold the prospect of sharing my spiritual journey with the world, and doing so in print, the more vulnerable and self-conscious I feel.  The more I feel inclined to look for fig leaves.  Maybe you can relate.  When we write, we leave ourselves open to being criticized for what we say and do not say.  I’ve discovered this already at least to a degree when I meet you here at this intersection between life and God.  (Take, for example, the article I wrote on Facebook’s “Disappearing Mothers.”)

Nowhere is this vulnerability more evident to me than in the act of reading and reviewing books.  Just the other day I wrote a pretty critical review of Sandy Ralya’s recently released book, The Beautiful Wife.  Before reading the book, I wanted to write a stellar review- precisely because as an aspiring writer I’m discovering how much love, sweat and tears (not to mention rough drafts) go into writing a book.


In the end, I wrote a review that unintentionally took a bit of a mean-spirited tone- and for this I apologize.  Sometimes humor has its limits, and this was an example.  I began my review with an analogy to preparing to fly through turbulence, and in hindsight, took the metaphor of needing a sick bag too far; in actuality, the “flight” Ralya directs is often interesting and enjoyable, even if it leaves me feeling very uneasy in places.

So much of the time, the how of a project is as important as its aim.  In the interest of full disclosure, and having read Ralya’s book from cover to cover, I wanted my readers to know where I take issue with her approach.  It is beautifully ironic (and beautifully humbling) that I learned something about the limits of my own approach in the process.


My own best learning these days, when it comes to giving and receiving constructive criticism, has come in the classroom.  Listening to seminary students preach some of their very first sermons is a lesson in giving feedback that goes beyond the garden-variety exclamations that we preachers typically hear in the receiving line after Sunday morning worship.

“Great job.”

“Thank you for your sermon.”

“You have a gift.”

These sorts of comments may build up our egos, but they’re not ultimately going to further our preaching.

In actuality, some of the best feedback I’ve heard is the kind that causes me to rethink my approach in such a way that I am better able to hit my mark.  In the land of preaching, we call this mark our “focus and function.”  What do we, hopefully inspired by the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, aim to say, and what do we want our hearers to do as a result of our words?  These are the questions I ask when I prayerfully approach the writing of a sermon.


Maybe the same could be asked not just in the world of preaching, but in writing, too- maybe it could be asked of life itself.

For Christians, broadly speaking, our focus and function point back to God’s initiating love for us.  Our chief aim is to love God and love our neighbor.  To the degree that my review of Ralya’s book may have fallen short of this mark, I am genuinely sorry.  To the degree that it offered some helpful constructive criticism, I hope it can encourage Ralya in strengthening her approach to the worthy cause of repairing broken marriages.

On this note, I’m off to go bare my naked soul in the town square, in hopes that one day others will read and critique my finished product.  Until we meet again, have a great weekend, all!


Joel Osteen as Stand-Up Comedian?

NPR’s Teri Gross recently interviewed the comedian, Chris Rock, on “Fresh Air.”  A friend and fellow T.A. in Intro to Homiletics with Tom Long mentioned the exchange yesterday for its application to preaching (we preacher types are interested in these sorts of things): apparently Rock credits old-time preachers, from his grandfather to contemporaries Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes, for influencing how he approaches stand-up comedy.

You can read the transcript of this portion of the interview here.  I also stumbled upon some further, related reflections by American religion and culture scholar Dan Silliman, who teaches at the University of Heidelberg.  (Silliman is currently finishing a dissertation on how secularity as a construct and condition is imagined and represented in evangelical fiction, and I’m intrigued!)


Rock seems simultaneously both to scorn and admire the act of preaching.  (In this way, maybe he is like a lot of us.)  He can tell, he says, when he sees a preacher has “lost” his audience and needs to pull a “trick” out of his bag for the sake of performance.  Still, he credits his preacher grandfather and his grandfather’s bullet-point brainstorming in the car for how he, as a comedian, now approaches an act.

If you missed it, here was Chris Rock earlier this year on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” promoting Madagascar 3.





“The Beautiful Wife”: How One Woman Is Crusading to Save Christian Marriages

Reading the book, The Beautiful Wife, by author and speaker Sandy Ralya, whose agenda to save so-called “biblical marriage” seems a bit dubious from the start, feels like the times I’ve been asked to buckle up during a spate of turbulence on airplanes and find myself absent-mindedly checking for the barf bag in the seat in front of me (just in case I’ll need it).  For a funny lampoon of “biblical marriage,” see the article I co-wrote with John Spalding here.) In some places, I find myself pleasantly surprised by the smoothness of the ride and even enjoying the views; at other junctures, my stomach turns a bit and I reach for the sick sack.


Ralya directs the marriage mentoring ministry, “Beautiful Womanhood,” which seeks in ten years’ time to halve the divorce rate in our churches.  The goal is both commendable and ambitious- in places like the South, where I live, nearly one in two marriages fails (both in the church and out) with tragic ripple effects on the fabric of the society at large- and Ralya’s effort seems to be making an impact.  Churches are responding.  Marriages are healing.

Not surprisingly, in the same way that Ralya’s ministry focuses on women and what women can do to heal their marriages, Ralya’s book and its accompanying study guide and prayer journal are also geared for wives.  The implication can in turn be that we women, as wives and mothers, bear much of the brunt for our own marital success (and, conversely, our marital failure).  True to a degree, maybe, but also a bit of a canard.


Ralya at the outset rightfully acknowledges that there can be no one-size-fits-all recipe for marital satisfaction, even as she sets out her own loose rubric of sorts for how to inventory one’s marital health.  Chapters organized around topics like sex, romance, self-care and, my favorite, the “professionalization” of the job of wife and mother, offer some helpful, new insights.  They also survey some familiar terrain.

In certain places, Ralya’s coverage of well-glossed submission passages in Scripture leaves me pleasantly surprised.  Paul’s admonition to women in his letter to Titus to “be submissive to their husbands” does not elicit an accompanying order by Ralya.  Ralya takes Paul to mean here, among other things, that married women must “understand your role.”  Ralya goes on to elucidate her belief in later pages that this role is a four-fold one, that of “equal partner, friend, helper and prayer warrior.”


In other places, only a little reading between the lines has me wondering if Ralya maybe secretly harbors nostalgia for the bygone era of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver of “Leave It To Beaver” encapsulated wifely perfection in her beautifully coiffed, unruffled domesticity.  In a section on sex, for example, Ralya, in affirming six “God-designed” purposes (“creation of life, oneness, knowledge, pleasure, defense against temptation and comfort”), offers some indigestible views around the meaning of God’s call in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply.”  She appeals both to our fears and to our evangelistic sympathies with the following statistic released by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life- that by 2030, the Muslim population will grow twice as fast as the non-Muslim population.


“These are staggering statistics!,” Ralya writes.  Maybe we should take God’s command to be fruitful and increase in number more seriously.”  Ralya goes on: “As a follower of Jesus Christ, I love Muslims and want them to come to a full knowledge of Him.  But who will show them the way if the Christian population dwindles by comparison?”

In other words, a growing Muslim world in which women are largely oppressed and have no voice, precisely because their only role is one of bearing children and catering to men’s every whim, becomes the basis for a challenge to Christians to have more children!  This kind of reasoning is backwards in more than one sense of the term.  Here the turbulence becomes a bit unbearable, and I find myself grabbing the sick bag.


Author and speaker Sandy Ralya is on a mission to save marriages. Her organization, “Beautiful Womanhood,” mentors women in their roles as wives and mothers…The question is, how?

In short, Ralya’s crusade to save marriages is a noble one.  I applaud it.  I wonder, though, if the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is not at least a bit apropos here.  As a mother to two children, and as a wife to a man with whom I am an equal partner, and as a woman in what is traditionally a man’s world (ordained ministry) I often find myself exclaiming at the messiness of our familial life these days; but I wouldn’t trade this in for six kids, a pristine house and a life confined to domesticity any day- even if it meant more “orderliness” and a world with more Christians than Muslims in it.  Women should of course be free to make the latter decision, too, and be supported in their choice.  But to prescribe this sort of thing, I fear, does the very thing that Ralya abjures- offer a recipe; and, it is a recipe that, if followed to the tee, will take us back to another age, one that I don’t want to live in.










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