Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Ground Upon Which I Stand

When I was in my early 20's, I became a Christian. My conversion occurred apart from any church or evangelistic activity. Quite the contrary, it happened while I was on the road playing in bars as a member of a heavy metal band. I had been raised in a non-religious home and prior to becoming a Christian--as well as for some time afterwards--I knew almost nothing about Christianity. I barely knew who Jesus was as a historical figure: some guy who the Romans crucified and for which I was supposed to feel guilty for some inexplicable reason. I had no awareness of my state as a sinner or my need for a savior.

Yet, despite all of that, God initiated a series of encounters with me. God came to me not with flaming portents of wrath and dire warnings to repent, but rather as a kind, patient voice in the quiet of the night.

In the same way that a building's shape is determined by its foundation, these early experiences with God have shaped all of my subsequent theology. Despite my unbounded doctrinal ignorance and lifestyle of utter depravity, God came to me in love and kindness.

It was loving-kindness that changed me and it is loving-kindness which has ever since been the ground upon which I stand.

As I began to read the Gospels and learn about Jesus, I recognized that same loving, kind, patient, compassionate personality that had reached out to me.

In subsequent years I have been shunned and dis-fellowshipped from churches--a casualty of political power-plays. I have had brothers and sisters in the faith break off fellowship with me because of doctrinal differences. I once lost my home and business and credit-worthiness to bankruptcy and foreclosure. Through all of these trials, God's presence has remained--especially if I choose to dwell in that quiet place where I can feel and hear God. It is during those times in my life when everything else has been stripped away that I have invariably become more aware of God's presence. It is a constant, quiet, unshakable presence. It is the ground upon which I stand.

In the 30-odd years (some of them very odd years!) since I became a follower of Jesus, I have sometimes felt led by God to re-evaluate my doctrinal views on various topics ranging from Eschatology (the End Times) to Hell to Homosexuality to Biblical Inerrancy. This has often been personally challenging; to step out of my comfort zone and ask difficult questions; to intentionally deconstruct and examine my beliefs. What has given me the courage to do it is that when I strip everything down to the ground, what remains is God's presence. Nothing can threaten that. Nothing can take that from me.

This foundation has also shaped my understanding of how God sees people in general and, therefore, how I should see people. God's default position towards humankind is not anger, wrath and separation. Men and women are surely alienated from themselves, from one another and from God--but God is constantly reaching out to us all; calling us home. God is not freaked out by our sin or deterred by our doctrinal shortcomings. God will not ultimately be thwarted by our ignorance. As Philip Yancey once wrote, "There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. There is nothing you can do to make God love you less." This is because God's love is perfect and, ultimately, it's not about us--it's about God. And, as the Apostle John wrote, God is love.

Accept that. Embrace it. Surrender to it. Let it soak into your being. Let it become the ground upon which you stand.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Don't Bang the Drum

"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Shakespeare’s description, voiced by Macbeth, of the futility of life reminds me of how we in modern times live our lives enveloped in the continuous noise of TV and music and talk radio and email and the web and social networking and advertising. There is lots of sound and fury; much of it signifying nothing.

I’ve been learning, over the last few years, to embrace silence and emptiness instead of filling in the spaces with “sound and fury”. It is in the emptiness and the silence that I sense God and--sometimes--hear the "still small voice". It can be challenging. I’ve been conditioned over a lifetime--perhaps even addicted--to stimuli. But as time goes by I find myself more and more drawn towards silence and emptiness.

I read recently that if you count the rests, more than half of Beethoven's music consists of silence. In a commencement address to the Berklee School of Music, Sting said the following: "I'm wondering whether, as musicians, the most important thing we do is merely to provide a frame for silence. I'm wondering if silence itself is perhaps the mystery at the heart of music? And is silence the most perfect music of all?"

In the Quaker tradition, worship gatherings are built around silence. Silence plays a central role. Robert Lawrence Smith describes a Quaker meeting thusly:

“The traditional Quaker form of silent group worship has no parallel in other religions and has changed very little since the seventeenth century. What others call a religious “service”, Friends [Quakers] call a “Meeting for Worship”, emphasizing that there is no liturgy and that worshippers come together as equal participants … Quakers are unique in their appreciation of the spiritual power of group silence … Quaker Meeting uses shared silence as a medium of group discovery, as a way of sharing ourselves with others – and with God.”

How different a one hour Quaker "silent" meeting is from the one hour church services that I used to attend where every moment was filled with something. There could be no silences; no dead air. The services were a whirlwind of songs, an opening prayer, announcements, a sermon, a closing prayer, a closing song and “see you next week”. There seemed to be an almost palpable fear of allowing any emptiness to encroach.

Emptiness and silence bring uncertainty. What will happen? Will God speak? Will someone fall asleep or fail to be entertained? Will someone do something inappropriate? When we embrace emptiness we must relinquish control.

Lorraine, the pastor of the Quaker meeting I belong to, tells the story about the time she showed up to church on Sunday morning with laryngitis. She didn't realize she had lost her voice overnight because she hadn't spoken to anyone until she got there. It was no big deal. Rather than scramble for someone to fill in, the meeting just embraced the silence. In silent worship we wait and listen. If God prompts someone--anyone--to speak, they are encouraged to do so. But everyone is also encouraged to not speak unless they feel strongly that God is prompting them to. Better to have holy silence than words spoken for the sake of filling space. It reminds me of a great worship song by Scott Underwood that says, "We will stand back and let you move, stand back and see what you will do."

I was in the car today, not embracing silence but listening to The Waterboys. One of the songs jumped out at me. I have no idea what the songwriter was referring to when he wrote this, but to me, “Don’t Bang the Drum” is an apt metaphor for letting go of all the sound, the fury and the busy-ness to instead embrace the emptiness, the silence and the uncertainty.

Don’t Bang the Drum
(by Scott / Wallinger, © 1986 Ensign Records Ltd.)

Well here we are in a special place
What are you gonna do here?
Now we stand in a special place
What will you do here?
What show of soul are we gonna get from you?
It could be deliverance, or history
Under these skies so blue
Could be something true
But if I know you
You'll bang the drum
Like monkeys do

Here we are in a fabulous place
What are you gonna dream here?
We are standing in this fabulous place
What are you gonna play here?
I know you love the high life
You love to leap around
You love to beat your chest and make your sound
But not here man, this is sacred ground
With a Power flowing through
But if I know you
You'll bang the drum
Like monkeys do

Here we stand on a rocky shore
Your father stood here before you
I can see his ghost explore you
I can feel the sea implore you
Not to pass on by
Not to walk on by
And not to try
Just to let it come
Don't bang the drum
Just let it come
Don't bang the drum
Just let it come…

(This was originally posted in December of 2006 and has been revised somewhat)

Quaker Wisdom

"Religion itself is nothing else but Love to God and Man. He that lives in Love, lives in God. Love is above all; and when it prevails in us all, we shall all be Lovely, and in Love with God and one with another." -- William Penn

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Presence of God

"For the experience of Presence is the experience of peace, and the experience of peace is the experience not of inaction but of power, and the experience of power is the experience of pursuing Love that loves its way untiringly to victory. The one who knows the Presence knows peace, and the one who knows peace knows power and walks in complete faith that that objective Power and Love which has overtaken him will overcome the world." -- Thomas Kelly, 'A Testament of Devotion'

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


I have a good eye and a bad eye. When I was a kid they said I had a "lazy eye". My good eye gets about 20/30 (I said it was my good eye, not my great eye). I don't recall what my bad eye last tested at, except that it was depressingly weak and cannot be corrected. I cannot read with it, for example, unless the fonts are huge.

When I was 14 years old I almost lost my good eye. The only thing that saved it was... a blink. A neighborhood kid fired a BB gun towards me and, by pure chance, it was perfectly aimed at my eye. An instant after he had pulled the trigger, again by pure chance, I happened to blink. The BB struck near the center, but rather than go into my eye, it hit my eyelid. I did still lose sight in the eye for a while and there was some question about if there would be permanent damage. I had to spend two weeks immobile on my back to allow it to heal. Ultimately, there was no permanent damage and I went on my merry way.

Tonight, as I was taking a walk, I remembered this event that occured almost 35 years ago. I closed my good eye for a while as I walked, taking in the Monet blur that might have been my only view of the world. How different would my life have been if not for that blink? I probably would not have been able to qualify to drive with my remaining bad eye. Certainly my career options would have been more limited. Would I have met my wife? I wouldn't have seen her across the room that very first time.

Then I got to thinking... How many "blinks" have happened in my life that I'm not even aware of? How many disasters might have been, but for some miniscule providential deflection? Even if someday something does come out of the blue to radically alter my life for the worse, I am grateful for all of the good days I've had. Life is a gift. Every moment of every day is a gift. Appreciate it. Relish it. Give thanks for it.

It can all change--or not--in the blink of an eye.


Silence on the outside.
Stillness on the inside.
Nothing is happening.
Everything is happening.
Stripped to the bone.
Settled as a stone.
Yet exposed like a leaf to the wind.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I finally got around to seeing 'Of Gods and Men'. What a beautiful and deeply spiritual film.

Dear Church, | Ten Insights on the glbt Christian Dialogue

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Welcoming in the Gentiles - Keesmaat

This is perhaps the best thing I've ever read on the topic of how churches should approach the question of inclusion of people who are gay and lesbian. It was written in 2004 by New Testament scholar Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat, who is a colleague of N.T. Wright.

You can read it, in PDF format, here:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A "Silence" Story

I'm reading the book Holy Silence by J. Brent Bill, which is an excellent contemplation on the Quaker practice of quietness. In the portion I was reading this evening, St. Arsenius is quoted:
"I have often repented of speech, but never of silence."

It reminded me of an experience I once had:

Twenty years or so ago, when Carla and I were part of the Vineyard (a charismatic Christian movement), we signed up to be members of the "ministry team" at a multi-day conference. These conferences were a combination of extended musical worship, lectures and "ministry times" during which the Holy Spirit was invited to come and touch people. Our job as "ministry team" members was to watch during these "ministry times" for signs of the Holy Spirit resting upon people. If we saw this, or simply saw someone who looked like they needed prayer, we were to go to them, lay hands upon them and pray. The Vineyard prayer methodology that we had learned was very practical: It involved not only asking God for guidance but also dialoguing with the "prayee" to determine what to pray for and how the prayer was working for them.

Being an introvert, I was never very comfortable with this process, but here I was as a "ministry team" member in a room of several hundred people who were standing with their hands raised, asking the Holy Spirit to come and touch them.

I saw a middle-aged man standing alone near an aisle with his head bowed and his hands held out before him. His eyes were closed and his brow was furrowed in deep concentration. Feeling a "nudge" from God, I reluctantly walked up, stood beside him and put my hand on his shoulder. At this point I was supposed to begin to pray, hopefully "nailing it" by getting a "word of knowledge" from God about the man's situation. The problem was, I wasn't getting a thing. I had no idea what to pray and the man looked so intent that I didn't want to distract him from his revery by asking questions.

So I just stood there next to him, feeling like an idiot, with my hand on his shoulder. After a while I slunk away.

At the close of the meeting the man found me. He asked if I was the one who had been standing next to him. I admitted I was and was about to apologize for being such a lousy "ministry team" member, when he reached out to shake my hand and earnestly thanked me. He explained that he had a son about my age, who even looked a bit like me, and that they had been estranged from one another for years. This is what he had been praying about. He told me that my standing next to him with my hand on his shoulder meant so much to him because it almost felt like his own son was standing there. It gave him hope that someday soon he and his son might be reconciled. He told me he really appreciated that I was discerning enough to know to just stand in silence and not say anything.

I accepted his thanks and kept my mouth shut.

The Economics of Following Jesus

Here is a link to a terrific lecture by Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat & Dr. Brian Walsh--associates of N.T. (Tom) Wright and authors of 'Colossians Remixed'--on the economic meaning of following Jesus. You will never read the story of Zacchaeus and the parable of the Talents in Luke 19 the same way again.

Monday, July 11, 2011

As Holy As A Day Is Spent

Holy is the dish and drain
The soap and sink, the cup and plate
And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile
Showerheads and good dry towels
And frying eggs sound like psalms
With a bit of salt measured in my palm
It’s all a part of a sacrament
As holy as a day is spent

Holy is the busy street
And cars that boom with passion’s beat
And the check out girl, counting change
And the hands that shook my hands today
And hymns of geese fly overhead
And stretch their wings like their parents did
Blessed be the dog, that runs in her sleep
To catch that wild and elusive thing

Holy is a familiar room
And the quiet moments in the afternoon
And folding sheets like folding hands
To pray as only laundry can
I’m letting go of all I fear
Like autumn leaves of earth and air
For summer came and summer went
As holy as a day is spent

Holy is the place I stand
To give whatever small good I can
And the empty page, and the open book
Redemption everywhere I look
Unknowingly we slow our pace
In the shade of unexpected grace
With grateful smiles and sad lament
As holy as a day is spent
And morning light sings “Providence”
As holy as a day is spent

by Carrie Newcomer (C) 2001
From the album A Gathering of Spirits

Feisal Abdul Rauf (the Imam of the "Ground Zero Mosque") speaks about compassion.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

And now a word from our sponsors...

To End All Wars

Adam Hochschild, the author of the best-seller "King Leopold's War", has just released his latest book, "To End All Wars". I just finished reading it and it was excellent. Even though it focuses on people and events of nearly 100 years ago, so much of it is relevant to our times today. Hochschild has a knack for bringing out the fascinating stories of individuals who were caught up in massive events and exploring how those individuals reacted to those events.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Are God's Hands Tied by God's Protocol?

A very thought-provoking post over at

"Does God exist in an eternal state of cognitive dissonance, desiring everyone be rescued from sin and death but having His hands tied by His own protocol?"

Friday, July 08, 2011

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Into the mystery...

"Being a Christian is more about relationship with God than beliefs about God; more about the presence of God than the proofs of God; more about intimacy with truth than the tenets of truth; more about knowing God's activities than knowing God's attributes. It is time to move from a religion that seeks to comprehend God to a relationship that seeks to encounter and be a home for God--to move from points and propositions and moralisms to mystery and paradox and participation in the divine life." -- Leonard Sweet

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Why sexual orientation will ultimately be universally accepted...

“A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” -- Max Planck, Nobel Prize winning Physicist

Monday, July 04, 2011

Untold Truths About the American Revolution

From The Progressive
Untold Truths About the American Revolution
By Howard Zinn, July 2009 Issue

There are things that happen in the world that are bad, and you want to do something about them. You have a just cause. But our culture is so war prone that we immediately jump from, “This is a good cause” to “This deserves a war.”

You need to be very, very comfortable in making that jump.

The American Revolution—independence from England—was a just cause. Why should the colonists here be occupied by and oppressed by England? But therefore, did we have to go to the Revolutionary War?

How many people died in the Revolutionary War?

Nobody ever knows exactly how many people die in wars, but it’s likely that 25,000 to 50,000 people died in this one. So let’s take the lower figure—25,000 people died out of a population of three million. That would be equivalent today to two and a half million people dying to get England off our backs.

You might consider that worth it, or you might not.

Canada is independent of England, isn’t it? I think so. Not a bad society. Canadians have good health care. They have a lot of things we don’t have. They didn’t fight a bloody revolutionary war. Why do we assume that we had to fight a bloody revolutionary war to get rid of England?

In the year before those famous shots were fired, farmers in Western Massachusetts had driven the British government out without firing a single shot. They had assembled by the thousands and thousands around courthouses and colonial offices and they had just taken over and they said goodbye to the British officials. It was a nonviolent revolution that took place. But then came Lexington and Concord, and the revolution became violent, and it was run not by the farmers but by the Founding Fathers. The farmers were rather poor; the Founding Fathers were rather rich.

Who actually gained from that victory over England? It’s very important to ask about any policy, and especially about war: Who gained what? And it’s very important to notice differences among the various parts of the population. That’s one thing were not accustomed to in this country because we don’t think in class terms. We think, “Oh, we all have the same interests.” For instance, we think that we all had the same interests in independence from England. We did not have all the same interests.

Do you think the Indians cared about independence from England? No, in fact, the Indians were unhappy that we won independence from England, because England had set a line—in the Proclamation of 1763—that said you couldn’t go westward into Indian territory. They didn’t do it because they loved the Indians. They didn’t want trouble. When Britain was defeated in the Revolutionary War, that line was eliminated, and now the way was open for the colonists to move westward across the continent, which they did for the next 100 years, committing massacres and making sure that they destroyed Indian civilization.

So when you look at the American Revolution, there’s a fact that you have to take into consideration. Indians—no, they didn’t benefit.

Did blacks benefit from the American Revolution?

Slavery was there before. Slavery was there after. Not only that, we wrote slavery into the Constitution. We legitimized it.

What about class divisions?

Did ordinary white farmers have the same interest in the revolution as a John Hancock or Morris or Madison or Jefferson or the slaveholders or the bondholders? Not really.

It was not all the common people getting together to fight against England. They had a very hard time assembling an army. They took poor guys and promised them land. They browbeat people and, oh yes, they inspired people with the Declaration of Independence. It’s always good, if you want people to go to war, to give them a good document and have good words: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, when they wrote the Constitution, they were more concerned with property than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You should take notice of these little things.

There were class divisions. When you assess and evaluate a war, when you assess and evaluate any policy, you have to ask: Who gets what?

We were a class society from the beginning. America started off as a society of rich and poor, people with enormous grants of land and people with no land. And there were riots, there were bread riots in Boston, and riots and rebellions all over the colonies, of poor against rich, of tenants breaking into jails to release people who were in prison for nonpayment of debt. There was class conflict. We try to pretend in this country that we’re all one happy family. We’re not.

And so when you look at the American Revolution, you have to look at it in terms of class.

Do you know that there were mutinies in the American Revolutionary Army by the privates against the officers? The officers were getting fine clothes and good food and high pay and the privates had no shoes and bad clothes and they weren’t getting paid. They mutinied. Thousands of them. So many in the Pennsylvania line that George Washington got worried, so he made compromises with them. But later when there was a smaller mutiny in the New Jersey line, not with thousands but with hundreds, Washington said execute the leaders, and they were executed by fellow mutineers on the order of their officers.

The American Revolution was not a simple affair of all of us against all of them. And not everyone thought they would benefit from the Revolution.

We’ve got to rethink this question of war and come to the conclusion that war cannot be accepted, no matter what the reasons given, or the excuse: liberty, democracy; this, that. War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate.

Once a historical event has taken place, it becomes very hard to imagine that you could have achieved a result some other way. When something is happening in history it takes on a certain air of inevitability: This is the only way it could have happened. No.

We are smart in so many ways. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.

July 4th, 2011

" order to form a more perfect union..."

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Thailand has just elected their first female Prime Minister. Meanwhile, about half of all Christian denominations still won't allow women to be pastors.

Quaker Wisdom

“The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and God’s heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us….And our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion. And holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire—which the Life kindled in us—to serve the Lord while we had our being. And mightily did the Word of God grow among us and the desires of many were after the Name of the Lord. O happy day! O blessed day! And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.”
-- Francis Howgill, Quaker (1618–1668)

Quaker Wisdom

“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” -- William Penn