Keep Hope Alive

As I type this I’m watching America’s Team (and also God’s favorite team), the Dallas Cowboys, play the AZ Cardinals. I have been a Cowboys fan from birth, through the good years (the 70s and 90s) and the lean years (the last few). This season I’ve had more reason to hope than ever, because they’re at 6-2 and the next few games are against pretty easy opponents (I just knocked on wood, because, football). I’m not sold on the idea that they’ll go all the way, but I do think they’ll get further into the playoffs than they have in the last few seasons.

You know those stupid internet quizzes that are supposed to predict the future or buttonhole your personality? Yeah, I’m a sucker for those, too. Yesterday I took one entitled “What Emotion Guides Your Life?” Since I’m in INTJ, I found the idea that there’s an emotion guiding my life intriguing, so I took it. Apparently the emotion guiding my life is HOPE. I LOLed at that because that the thing I’ve felt like I’m lacking most over the last couple of months.

I’m tired and in a pre-vacation malaise, so everything I say right now should be taken with a grain of salt, but I’m feeling stuck in almost every are of my life. Coupled with my coping skill of choice being CHANGE, LOTS OF CHANGE, NEED CHANGE, you can imagine how easy it is for me to lose some hope. When I’m in this place, my circumstances tend to dominate my view and I lose sight of the bigger picture of life, God, everything. I know in my head that God is bigger than my circumstances, but sometimes I need my circumstances to improve so I can be reminded of that. That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request. I know. Shut up.

This weekend I started to get kind of sick of myself and my mopey-ness. Pretty sure that’s a word. I began to feel like God was telling me to go to church. I’ve been completely uninterested in finding a church for a long time because I feel like I’m still in the process of grieving the loss of my SF church and the idea of finding something similar seemed like trying to find a very cool needle in a very uncool haystack. But today I may have found that needle.

This morning I got my ass out of bed and visited a church downtown that I’d been intending to visit for almost the entire time I’ve lived here. God really wanted me to go, so I did. At first glance, it met most of my checklist. It’s progressive, yet biblically based, contemporary music, liturgical elements, extremely friendly, skews younger, but a mix of generations, casual, involved in the community and the preacher said “shit” during the sermon. I know! I thought the same thing. This exists? In Phoenix? I was amazed. It felt very good and home-like. I tend to rush into things, so I’m trying to measure my response, but this might be “the one.”

I always go into a new church service with a consultant hat on. Are the signs professional/helpful, does the physical environment reflect the personality and passion of the community, do they assume that I should already know what’s going on, or are they hospitable enough to explain things, etc. They met all of that. Everything I want a church to say to new people was said. I totally knew what to do at all times.

The great thing about this church is that they don’t need me at all. Not that there’s no opportunity for me to contribute, but rather, any contribution I would make would be a bonus. They’re not desperate. Desperate is so not cute. I don’t need to roll up my sleeves. I can ease in an contribute where necessary.

Today I have hope. Yeah, the Cowboys are behind the Cardinals, but they can still pull it out. I have some career stuff on the horizon. I’m about to take an amazing vacation. And I may have found a church. Everything will be alright in the end. And if it is not yet alright, it is not yet the end.

Why Yoga is Better than Church

Recently I’ve gotten back to yoga after almost a year away and given my current ministry sabbatical, I couldn’t help but compare the yoga studio community to the state of the church. Not surprisingly, I found the church lacking. In this particular context, I’m talking about “church” as in my experience with more evangelical church and some mainline churches as well. I feel like this may be true of the majority of churches, but there are definitely some out there for whom this does not apply. Still looking for one of those.

1. The focus is on what you’re doing, not what everyone else is or is not doing. I was very fortunate to have Dr. Paul Hiebert as my uncle and got to spend time with him as a great guy who would play on the floor with me before I ever knew that he was kind of famous. In his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, he proposed the idea of the “bounded” set vs. the “centered” set. In their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, Alan Hirsch & Michael Frost use this analogy:

If you are a farmer with a 3-acre ranch so to speak, you can build a fence to keep your cattle in and other animals out. This would be a Bounded Set. But if you are a rancher say with a huge amount of land and acreage you wouldn’t be able to build fences around your whole property. Instead of building fences, you dig wells. It is assumed that animals won’t go too far away from the well because their life literally depends on them not wandering too far away from their water source. Visually, it looks like this:
Bounded vs CenteredSet
Most churches are a Bounded Set. They are very clear, both explicitly and implicitly, on who is in and who is out. Many churches are all about looking externally at other peoples’ behavior. And if they don’t fit the list, they’re out. I guess since they can’t see the Holy Spirit (and, let’s face it, probably haven’t heard from Her in a while) they’ve decided She needs some help. Not so in the yoga studio. Everyone focuses on their own progress and development. The instructor will go around and help and make adjustments

2. It’s an environment of unconditional acceptance. Students are appreciated for where they are and the phrase “if it’s available to you” is used often. Everyone engages in each pose where they can. Pushing yourself too hard results in injury.

3. It’s a safe place to try stuff and to screw up. Doing things outside your comfort zone is encouraged. Perfection is never expected because it’s actually not even a goal. Each pose has another level, and then another level, and so on. All you do is move through each level and it’s just expected that you won’t get things right the first time.

4. It gives energy rather than taking energy.  The point of yoga is to give energy to those practicing it so that they can go out into the world to contribute positively. I know that churches say they want to do that, and many do. But many of them don’t actually do it because they’ve made it so culturally necessary to pretend to be more together than you are in order to fit in, and that’s exhausting.

5. Instructors participate alongside the students. Other than moving through the space to make adjustments to students who are risking injury, the instructor is practicing with everyone else. The instructor is ahead of the students, of course, but doesn’t make that a focus in the classroom. We’re all students, we’re all practicing.

6. Instructors encourage rather than condemn. All progress is applauded because all progress is positive. No one is asked to leave because they get something wrong. No one is publicly shamed. As a result, we all want to work harder. Study after study on positive reinforcement shows that when you offer positive reinforcement to someone you are guaranteed to get back positive behavior 100% of the time. When you offer negative reinforcement, you can get anything from the same negative behavior all the way over to positive behavior. You have no way of predicting the outcome. Churches should really read these studies.

7. The focus is on the benefits of yoga in all areas of life, rather than the benefits to the physical studio by you being there. Yoga instructors clearly tell us that what we’re doing in the studio is all about positively impacting our lives outside the studio. Churches rarely give us the tools to make a difference in our lives outside because they are so busy using all their energy and resources to perpetuate their weekly event and keep their buildings running. Churches need to make a real connection between saying you follow Christ and what it means to live like a follower of Jesus.

8. The encouragement is to make your life bigger. I’ve mentioned before that my spiritual journey has led my view of God to continually expand. So many churches don’t want their people’s views of God to expand because if it did, they might realize that what their church is teaching is crap. The need to make God small and manageable and dignified is rampant in all denominations, from conservative to progressive, Pentecostal to Presbyterian. In my opinion, you should run from anyone who claims to know how God behaves in any situation. God is good, but God is not safe. It comes back to the bounded vs. centered set. We don’t get to say, “God only acts this way, therefore you can only believe this about God.” Let God get bigger and things will get bumpy, but they will also be awesome.

But We’re Disciples of Moses

As we know, I’m currently between churches and I’m trying to figure out where exactly I fit in the ministry scheme of things. Yesterday I was reading the lectionary passages and the Gospel passage was from John 9, a story of Jesus healing a blind man. This is the one, if you’re familiar with Bible stories, when the disciples ask who sinned that this man was born blind.  Jesus made the paste of mud & spit and smeared it on the man’s eyes and he could see. BTW – this is my biblical justification for spa treatments.

Here’s the part of the story I find particularly interesting at the time in my journey:

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c] to be the Messiah[d] would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

I’m interested here in the view of the man’s healing by the religious establishment. First, they don’t believe it’s possible. Then when they are proven wrong, they denied Jesus’ authority. How many times has Jesus intervened and brought healing into someone’s life and we are either surprised or incredulous and definitely skeptical. Then our next thing is to force them into established religion to make sure we can exploit their experience to get more butts in seats or we decide it wasn’t from God because it didn’t fit our view of how God acts in the world?

Right now there are two biblical films in theaters and a lot of the Christian community is trying to drum up support for those films so Hollywood will make more films that support their world view. What bugs me about this is that what they’re saying is, “We only see a story as valid if it matches how we see the world. If your story is not palatable to us, we don’t want to see it.” This view says that God can only be seen and appreciated in a certain, sanitized context. The truth is, God is in all life. There is no sacred/secular divide. It’s all sacred. It’s all God’s territory. The challenge is to see God in everyone’s story.

The same Christians who read this story and pity the Jews are the same Christians who behave exactly like the Jews. They have a narrow view of how God can be seen and act in the world and if someone dares to contradict that they are not welcome. This is my issue with church. And it’s on all sides – progressive and evangelical. For example:

Churches that are theologically conservative have more contemporary worship and are more open, in some contexts to getting out in the world. However, there is no full inclusion of women, LGBTQ people, and they’re pretty white.

Churches that are progressive theologically often have more traditional worship services and are structurally in their own way so that it’s very difficult to get them to move out of their comfort zone to get into the community. But you get some pretty full inclusion.

Both sets frustrate me in completely different ways and both suffer from Pharisee syndrome, in that there are some things that must always be done in a certain way or you’re not welcome. Do you see my issue here? Sometimes I just want to start my own thing, but then I’m pretty sure it’d be just me.


Matthew 11:25 – 30, The Message

25-26Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.”

27Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.

28-30“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

This weekend I visited Foothills Christian Church, where I will probably end up attending. The pastor, Erin Wathen, began a series that will run through the end of October on living a different way. I gather that the series will largely be about incorporating spiritual practices into our routines. Erin is a winner of the 2010 Craddock Award from the DOC church, and I can see why. Her content is creative and thoughtful and her delivery is engaging and creative.

The topic of this week’s sermon was Rest. Erin used the NRSV and the Message translation, but leaned more heavily on the Message, which I appreciated in this case (I like the Message for some passages, not every passage). There are a couple of things about this version that resonated with me as I listened to her share, so I wanted to share them here. You’re welcome.

1. The traditional version of this passage has Jesus telling us to take his “yoke” upon us and learn from him. I only know what that is because I grew up in church and they explained the agricultural imagery somewhere around the 3rd grade. One of the elders of the church is a retired pastor and he talked about the yoke being intended to evenly distribute the burden so the oxen can easily bear the weight. We aren’t alone. We not only have Jesus helping us evenly distribute the weight but we have others who can take some of the weight from us.

2. “Get away with me and recover your life”. There’s a difference between rest and a veging on the couch. Both are necessary. Rest is pulling away from things that are draining but it’s also about refueling. When we have time make time for rest, we have a choice about how we spend the time. Sometimes watching TV and not thinking is great. Sometimes we need to be more intentional about how we spend our down time, doing things that are more nourishing. When this subject comes up I always remember the song Doug Eats Dirt by everybodyduck, a band a friend of mine started back in the 90s. Here are the lyrics:

Doug is in the garden, It’s his third time there today
With napkin tucked under his chin, He bows his head to pray.
thank you’s said he turns his full attention to the soft brown clay
and Starts to scoop fistfuls of dirt into his mouth.

Well his family, quite perplexed, have done all they can think to do
No plate of decent food distracts Doug from the soil he’s partial to
And he otherwise seems normal when his feeding times are through
Still there’s something not quite right with mud-stained teeth.

Cuz while on one hand we’re glad that eating dirt’s not something you die from
When there’s healthy food available it just seems sort of dumb.

Doug eats dirt! Lots of dirt!
Breakfast, lunch and dinner Doug only eats dirt!
Mud and clay and silt and sand, Doug just didn’t understand
That it doesn’t become good for you because it doesn’t hurt.

Sure if Doug was drinking poison there’d be much cause for alarm
But despite the brown ring round his mouth dirt can’t do Doug much harm.
So we tolerate his swallowing like pigs out on the farm
Still it doesn’t change the fact we wish he’d stop!

Cause if he’d eat healthy food not only would it help him grow
It would help improve digestion which has become rather slow.
It’s a proven fact that dirt clods make it really hard to grow
That decided would really clean him up a lot

Cuz while on one we’re glad that eating dirt’s not something you die from
When there’s healthy food available it just seems sort of dumb.

We’ve all got a choice between the bad, the neutral and the good.
Choosing death by drinking poison clearly no sane person would.
Still we don’t choose that which grows even though we know we should.
We’re satisfied with that which doesn’t hurt or help.

All these awkward minutes that don’t contradict God’s will
But not all things benefit us yet we choose do them still
And how can we ever hope to be like Jesus was until
We start refusing that which doesn’t help us grow.

Cuz while on one we’re glad that eating dirt’s not something you die from
When there’s healthy food available it just seems sort of dumb.

We eat dirt! Lots of dirt!
Breakfast, lunch and dinner we only eat dirt!
Mud and clay and silt and sand we just don’t understand
That it doesn’t become good for us because it doesn’t hurt.

3.  “I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.” I’d never thought of this before, but this is a great way to measure things in my life that are uncomfortable. We all know when there are things that just aren’t right going on. We spend time with people, join a group, do something at work, and something about it just rubs us the wrong way. It’s not from Jesus. He doesn’t do that to us. I’ve definitely stayed in things too long even though they felt wrong because I thought they were the right thing to do, and they may have been. They  just weren’t right for me.

4. “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” This goes hand-in-hand with #3. The rhythms of grace are unforced, not ill-fitting or too heavy. They’re also learned, not automatic. That’s the real discipline of rest. Slowing down and taking time to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn the rhythm.

Can it really be this easy?

I was all set to write a whole series of posts on my church shopping experience in my new/old home town. I was coming up with a rating system and everything – e.g, they get 4 Amens or 3 eye-rolls or something of that nature.  I know – I would have come up with something better given time.

One thing I’ve wanted to explore in the church scene here is my Mennonite roots. I’ve always felt drawn to my Mennonite heritage but have never regularly attended a Mennonite church. There’s one small one in SF and I met with the pastor, but never visited a service. Here there are several, one large one in particular I’ve wanted to visit. A couple of years ago I read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and it was great to read someone who knew the food and language of my family’s faith. There’s something very appealing about worshiping alongside an entire congregation who know what zweiback, kielke, and pluma moos is. I’m drawn to the Third Way theology and practice of the Mennonite Church.

When I first decided to make the move back to AZ I did a little online church shopping. I thank Al Gore every day for the gift of the interwebs. Anyway, I started with a search for gay-friendly churches. My thought was that if a church is a welcoming and affirming church (church-speak for “we love the gays”) then I wouldn’t have to ask the question about women or anyone else being in leadership and I could focus on the other things, like Jesus-centered, Bible-opening, decent music, etc.

One of the churches I found is Foothills Christian Church. It is a Disciples of Christ church and it seemed a lot like Mission Bay Community, the church I was part of in San Francisco. The pastor’s name is Erin Wathen and she’s been recognized in the denomination for her preaching. She’s been there since 2006 and is married with 2 young children. She’s from the south and has quite an accent. The website includes a note from her which reads in part:

“Our church founders took a “no creed but Christ” approach to faith in community, and so do we. That said, you might feel at home here if:

  • you want your faith journey to engage your intellect, rather than suppress it
  • you have friends who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist—or whatever—and don’t think that they are going to hell
  • you think it is backward and toxic to silence women. Anywhere.
  • you think that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are fully human, and should be treated as such
  • you are any of the former, and want to be treated with respect and dignity
  • you have more questions than answers—and you are ok with that
  • you think that discipleship means concern for the poor, more than memorizing scripture
  • you think that Democrats and Republicans should be able to worship together
  • you further believe that issues like immigration, racism, abortion, and gun control are complex and painful struggles of the human family; that none of our politicians has all the answers; and that a true community of faith should approach these matters with prayerful discernment and sensitivity…

If you are nodding agreement on even a few of these points, then I’ve got good news for you: you are not alone. Your neighbors at Foothills have a place for you at the table. Even if—heaven forbid—you disagree with us about some things.

Come on over and see what God can do with your questions, your doubts, your intellect, and your sense of adventure. You might change your mind about church.”

So far so good. I went to their Saturday night casual service and really liked it – the vibe, the building, the people, everything. I went this morning. Liked it even more. Can it be that I’ve found a church? Should I shop more?

The overall theme of this move has been ease. Everything has fallen into place rather seamlessly – why should the church shopping part be different? I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop on this whole move thing. Then again, I’ve not yet made it to the DMV,…

Church Shopping Begins

Church shopping sucks. Let’s just get that out of the way now. We all hate it. It’s especially awkward for someone who’s been to seminary and has done a lot of music professionally because people don’t know your previous level of church engagement, and they ask lame questions. It’s not that the people themselves are lame – they’re just trying to be nice. They’re just socially awkward, as most Christians tend to be, and they say, “Wow, you have a great voice. Have you ever sung in church before?” Ummm..kinda have a Master’s in singing in church. I know, they have no way of knowing that, but their expression and inflexion is such they think they’re telling me something about myself that might surprise me. You can also tell that they desperately want to ask if you’re a Christian or have Jesus as your Lord and Savior but don’t quite know how to do it. I like to just stand there and see if they can figure it out. Mean, I know, but I need to be entertained somehow.

I’ve decided to write down my church shopping experiences here and I’m going to have a rating system and categories for them.

1. Pastoral Humanity/Normality. This one is going to be all about how the pastor presents his/her self to the community. Are they real? Do they have to dress up? Do they have a different voice when they’re on the platform than they do in the lobby? Do they speak English or Christianese?

2. Creative Arts. This one is about how any art form is used – visual, music, whatever. I will be judging the music on whether or not it’s a distraction. Music can be a distraction if it’s too good or too horrible. Hoping for a middle ground. I also want a church that has put thought into the space and is providing an experience that appeals to all the senses.

3. Sermon quality. I’ve been ruined by seminary, I admit, but I think I can be a pretty good judge. First, it needs to be biblically based. It doesn’t have to be a verse-by-verse exegesis, but there needs to be a pretty straight line. Something between fire & brimstone and Osteen.

4. Overall friendliness. Don’t be all up in my grill but don’t ignore me, either.

5. Online Presence. I come from a fairly plugged in church, using a lot of social media to stay connected. I realize I’m no longer near Silicon Valley but I’d like somewhere that recognizes we’re in the 21st century. I read my Bible on my iphone and I want a place where that’s normal and people aren’t scowling at me like they think I’m on facebook.

I realize these are all subjective and personal preferences, but this is ME church shopping for ME so I get to pick the standard. Here goes.


After a couple of friends’ comments on FB, I need to add some more criteria.

6. Fully Inclusive. I need a church that recognizes that nowhere in scripture is there a list of spiritual gifts differentiated by gender. Women are to be valued and nurtured as much as the men and our gifts are to be honored along with everyone else’s. I also need to be in a community that includes my LGBTQ friends in all aspects of ministry. It needs to include all the ethnicity represented in the community as well.

7. Social Justice oriented. Faith without works is dead. I need a community who is striving to be formed in the image of Christ and who recognizes that one of the natural results of living like Jesus is helping the people Jesus cares about. God’s care for the poor is mentioned over 2,000 times in scripture. Seems like it should be a priority to the church.