It Works (Until it Doesn’t)

I was sitting in a workshop a couple of weeks ago learning about personality theory, and the trainer said something regarding self-awareness:

“Things work for you right up until they stop working.”

What she meant is, we all see ourselves in a particular way, we all move about the world with a particular lens through which we interpret and interact with the world. And we will continue to use our lens until the lens stops working. But when that way of being doesn’t get the love we long for, or a person or situation confronts us, pointing out the myopia of our lens, only then will we change our lens to allow for a more holistic picture, a new way of being in the world.

Here’s what this looks like in life:

You take a job at a new company. And you love the new job, and the new people, and the new company. But then, over the course of months/years, a series of things happen, you change, and the new job stops “working” for you, so you dust off your resume and start looking for another new job.


You have a relationship. And in the beginning, this relationship just worked. When you first started seeing each other, you loved every new thing you learned about the person. And then circumstances changed – sometimes quickly, sometimes like quick sand – and it didn’t work anymore. So you go through the painful process of breaking up.

Jennifer and I were talking about this a while back, and we came up with the analogy of pulling at the threads of an old sweater. Sometimes you start to pull at something – a belief, a idea, a major life change, a career path, a relationship – and the whole thing just comes apart and you have to get a new sweater.


With all apologies to my Baptist friends, this is what happened to me, starting in my final year of my undergrad at a Baptist college. I started pulling at the threads of my understanding of God, the Bible, and the church. Recently – over the past couple of years – I’ve been pulling at the threads of my own self, trying to understand the lenses I use to interpret and interact with the world.

At some point along the way, thinking about God as wrathful just didn’t work for me anymore. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it wasn’t “disobedience,” it wasn’t that I just wanted to believe whatever I want. Rather, it’s been the slow pulling of threads. One thought led to another, led to a book, led to a teaching, led to a reflection, led to an experience, a conversation with a trusted friend or spiritual guide, and pretty soon the sweater of my Baptist upbringing fell apart. What used to work, for the first 20 years of my life, didn’t work anymore. It worked, right up until the time that it didn’t.

This doesn’t mean I hate Baptists. (I know, if you’ve known me over the long haul, you know I went through a deconstructive stage where I was full of piss and vinegar…but that was only one stage of the process. A necessary stage, I believe, but only a throughpoint, not the destination.) I know a lot of people who are still Baptists – it still works for them, and that’s okay. And if they ask me questions about my beliefs, I’ll gladly have a conversation – but I don’t need to convert them, or make them see things my way. It still works for them.

And yes, there have been moments (probably all of them) when I’ve questioned the path I’m on. There are times I feel like I’ve let people down in my life because I’ve taken a stance different than their own. And at times I’ve been admittedly ungracious and unfair to my traditions as I “kicked against the goads.” But, I’ve come to believe that complexity, vagaries, dualisms and doubts — not certainty — ARE the essence of my faith.


I was listening to a podcast in the car yesterday, driving home from Chicago, and the guy talked about how he was a Baptist, then he was a Charismatic, then he was into Eastern Religions, and then he referred to his current belief system as “whatever the road I’m on now is.”

I like that.

Baptist worked for me (until it didn’t). “Seeker church” worked for me (until it didn’t). Calvinism, Pre-Tribulation Eschatology, Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, Dispensationalism all worked for me (until they didn’t). Progressive worked for me (until it didn’t). And now, I don’t know what categories to use. I’m pretty happy just being on “whatever road I’m on now,” trying to learn from all the traditions.

And I want to find God in the morning,

and in the tired hands of dusk.

At the mouth of the river and down by its feet.

Anis Mojgani, For Those Who Can Still Ride in an Airplane for the First Time


Here’s the point of this post: I frequently hear of people who are starting to pull at the threads of their faith and and are scared, because the sweater feels flimsy and they fear the loss of their childhood God and the rejection of their faith communities. And I just want to say it’s okay. It’s okay to pull at the threads. It’s okay to raise your hand and say, “This doesn’t make sense anymore,” it’s okay to read books that are outside your tradition. When you do, you’ll find a whole community of us happy to be on “whatever road it is we’re on now.”

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My Ego Riding a 10-Year-Old Arm

This comes a little late, as Father’s day was at least a month ago, but here’s what I’m learning about myself through parenting right now…


In the last week of the travel ball season, my 10-year old son was the starting pitcher in the first game of his final tournament of the season. He pitched nine straight balls to open the game. He walked the first three batters, threw a couple wild pitches and by the time the inning was ended, the other team was up 2-0 and they hadn’t hit a single pitch that he threw.

He came off the field with tears in his eyes, disappointed with himself and feeling like he had let his team down. I talked to him about resilience. I told him that one of the things about baseball is that even the most successful people fail – a lot. The best hitters in the MLB are successful only ⅓ of the time. The best pitchers give up home runs and walks. But what makes baseball players great is they have a short memories. They forget about the last pitch, the last at-bat and they move on.


Two days later, same tournament, he was the starting pitcher again. And again this time he started rough, but he settled down, found his groove, and pitched the entire game, knocking off the #1 seed. Over six innings, he only walked 4 batters, while striking out 10 and allowing only a few hits here and there.

For a kid of his age, it was a great outing. (And, to top it off, he tripled twice over the weekend and only struck out once in 6 games over the tournament. He had a great weekend!)

But here’s the key insight about fatherhood. I’m trying to learn to pay attention to myself and I’m trying to learn to pay attention to what I’m feeling and I’m trying to learn to be curious about why I think and feel the way I do. And I’m trying to do the hard work of naming what I feel. And here’s what I noticed:

When my son was pitching poorly, I felt bad about myself. I was beating myself up for not working with him enough in the back yard. I was questioning how good a Father I am to him. I was feeling like a failure.

And when he was succeeding, I felt good about myself. I thought about all the time we’ve spent in the yard working on pitching. I thought to myself, “I’m a great dad.”

I noticed that my ego was riding on the arm of my 10-year-old son.

Ugh. “This isn’t good,” I said to myself.


And so, on Father’s Day weekend 2016, out on the ballfields, I had to remind myself that my love for my son and my love for myself can’t ride on his arm or his bat. That’s too much weight to put on a 10-year old. And all the things I really want for him someday have nothing to do with his WHIP or OBP. The best thing I did for him last weekend in fact had nothing to do with his ability to play baseball, but rather was the speech I gave him about resilience and having a short memory.


On the Monday after Father’s Day, while I was at work there was some family discord. Brothers being brothers, normal stuff. And Jennifer had to punish them. And 10-year-old son, after the dust had settled came to Jennifer privately and said with tears in his eyes, “Mom, dad is teaching me to have a short memory on the ballfield. Can we just have a short memory about this morning? I’ll do better.”

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Empty Bucket Theory

Let’s pretend for a second you’ve never met me. You know nothing about me except my name. In your mind, the category of Charles Dean is an empty bucket in your mind.

Now let’s pretend you meet someone and they say to you, “Charles Dean is a HUGE Cardinals fan. He loves watered-down light beer and his idea of a good time is a tractor pull.”

If there’s nothing in your “Charles Dean bucket,” you will probably just accept everything that was said about me without question. Why would you question anything you heard? If there’s no filter, there’s nothing in the bucket that would cause you to be skeptical. Those statements — I like the St. Louis Cardinals, I love watered-down light beer and my idea of a good time is a tractor pull — are not beyond the imagination. In fact, you just might assume that all Cardinals fans love watered-down light beer and tractor pulls. (HA!)

But if you know me, if there’s knowledge about me already piled in the bucket, there are filters for new information. If your “Charles Dean Bucket” has sufficient information piled up in it, you know that I hate the Cardinals with a righteous fury, I prefer craft beers (bring on the IPAs and dark beers!) and I have almost no interest in going to a tractor pull.


Take the same idea and apply it to interfaith dialogue for a minute.

For example, if I know nothing about Muslims, if the “Muslim bucket” in my head is completely empty, and I see something on Facebook declaring that all Muslims are secretly trying to take over America and impose Sharia law on the rest of us, I might tend to believe it. (Especially if it aligns with my own religious impulses. Moral Majority anyone? Which is, I think, one of the reasons conservative Christians seem to be the ones most fearful about Muslims. But that’s a conversation for another time.)

If we are going to engage in meaningful dialogue with or about other religions, we have a responsibility to fill up our buckets first.


But how we fill up the bucket matters. If you want to fill up your “Charles Dean Bucket,” you won’t get a very objective sense of who I am if you only talk to my biggest critics, or even if you talk only to my closest friends. You’ll get the most quality information in your bucket when you allow me to fill the bucket.

If you want to understand Muslims, let them tell you what they believe. Read the Qu’ran, talk to a Muslim, ask questions. Listen.

If you want to understand Democrats let them tell you why they see the world the way they do. Read liberal editorials with an open mind, talk to your friends about their views instead of just assuming you know why they think what they think. Listen.

If you want to understand why transgender people are conflicted about which bathroom to use, ask them. Let them fill up the empty bucket called “what transgender people think/feel” in your head. Listen.

This is one of the problems, I think, with Christian education. To the limited degree that we studied other religions in my formal education, it was always Christians telling you what Muslims/Buddhists/Jews believe. And there’s no way to do that without skewing the information. (I’ll admit that may be an over sweeping generalization of Christian education, but it was surely my experience. For example, the books I read in my formal education about Islam were predominantly by Christians writing about how Islam is wrong.)


But all of this requires us to do the work. It requires us to get close enough to the people we consider other so we can ask them questions and allow them to fill the empty buckets in our head. It requires us to listen to other people with an open mind.

I’ll quote my friend, Stephen McKinney-Whitaker (I also quoted him in my last post, but it’s good, so you’re getting it again.):

“Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.”

So, who do you need to listen to today?

Maybe it’s an interfaith thing. Maybe you need to listen to a flesh and blood Muslim tell you what he or she believes rather than just believing the rhetoric you read on your Facebook feed.

Maybe it’s an intrafaith thing. Maybe there’s someone of your own faith who holds their belief in a different way than you do and you need to listen to why instead of just simply condeming or critiquing.

Maybe it’s a relationship thing. Maybe you need listen to a spouse, friend or family member and hear what they’re thinking or feeling.

So, go love well and listen to someone today.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.


The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.


If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.


And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!


So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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On Pain and Rising

“That’s the thing about truth and God: They will set you free but they’ll hurt like hell first. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising — again and again forever.”

Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebook Wall Post, 5/7/16


The other night, we had a couple friends over. The occasion was simply that we’ve been busy and hadn’t gotten together in a while, and they said they missed us. And our schedules aligned, which made it a good occasion to set up the deck furniture and grill the first pizzas of the year.

Late into the evening, we were sitting out under the stars playing cards, and I was chilly and  went inside to grab a sweatshirt out of my closet. And when I saw myself in the full-length mirror, I realized I had never styled my hair after my shower, shortly before they arrived.

I’m a vain man. I had stupid hair all night long. I looked like an unkempt Caesar. (Anyone remember when that was actually a style? Back in the ‘90s sometime?)

I put on a hat. Then I chastised my friends because “friends don’t let friends have stupid hair!”

We all had a laugh. It’s just hair. And good friends with whom I don’t really care if I have stupid hair. And it was easily remedied with a hat.

But there are other truths that hurt. There are painful truths that we need to learn about ourselves that will cause us to grieve and mourn and regret so we can learn and rise strong.


Initially the challenge is to become aware. Sometimes awareness comes to us whether we like it or not. Our boss gives us a performance review, our spouse lets us know how we failed, we make a mistake, we lose our company money. Sometimes the pain of truth seeks us out like a heat-seeking missile.

But, more often, we have to lean into truth. We have to seek it out. We have to choose to be open to truth, curious about ourselves and our interaction with the world around us.

I was golfing earlier this week with someone who is a much, much better golfer than I. In fact I’ve never played a round of golf with someone as good as this guy. And after shanking another drive (common to my golf “game”) I asked him, “do you see anything obvious?” He mentioned that I needed to bend my knees more. I crushed the next couple of drives.

Sometimes, in the safest places, with people who are gentle with us, we need to seek out the truth, even if it might cause us some pain.


A couple weeks ago two of my boys were cleaning up the kitchen and arguing the whole time. And I was annoyed with the tone they were using with each other.

So I barked at them.

And Jennifer, walking by, said, “They’re just speaking to each other the way we speak to them sometimes when we’re irritated.”


The thing is, once we arrive at truth, we have a choice. We can ignore it, bury it and to the best of our ability never face it again. Or, like Glennon Doyle Melton, we can numb it with alcohol, food, people — whatever we use to avoid dealing with our truth.

Or we can use it to transform us. We can rise. I can put on a hat, change my golf swing, change the way I speak to my boys.

“Universal Inner Work insight: Once we understand the nature of our personality’s mechanisms, we begin to have a choice about identifying with them or not. If we are not aware of them, clearly no choice is possible.”

Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 38


“That’s the thing about truth and God: They will set you free but they’ll hurt like hell first. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising — again and again forever.”

Glennon Doyle Melton, Facebook Wall Post, 5/7/16


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Some Rules for Interfaith Engagement

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A next Monday, May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. Please help us plan by signing up in advance. (And if you don’t sign up, please come anyways.)


Okay, so suppose a new family of a different faith moves into the neighborhood. And your kids are the same age, attend the same school, play on the same sports team and you find a great affinity with the new family. And now it’s an evening in the summertime, and you’re sitting on your back patio after having a great cookout and the subject of religion comes up.

What do you say?

What do you not say?


Here are a couple of ideas for Interfaith conversation and engagement that may steady your nerve. Of course, if you have more ideas, please add them in the comments below:

    1. The goal is not conversion, it’s relationship. So relax. In the tradition in which I grew up, there was tons of pressure to convert people. In my tradition, people from church would go door-to-door “soul-winning.” They would knock on the door and launch into a spiel about their faith, trying to convince people to convert.

      I suppose we could have an argument about the effectiveness of such strategies, but that’s not what you’re after here. You want to have an ongoing friendship. So stop stressing about getting people to “pray a prayer,” or “come to our church,” or go through “four spiritual laws.”

      Coming from a Christian perspective, your goal is to live out your faith in this relationship, to demonstrate love towards every human being. So relax, be yourself, and be loving. 

    2. Ask questions. Sometimes we convince ourselves that some questions are too dumb to ask, and so we choose to stay ignorant. Which is itself dumb. If you don’t know why your neighbor wears a headcovering, ask her. Ask kindly, and respectfully, but ask. I have NEVER been offended when someone asks me an honest, sincere question. And especially when it comes to matters of faith – where there are thousands of different religions, sects, denominations and viewpoints, asking why someone practices in a particular way isn’t out-of-bounds at all!

      (2a) Get curious. This is true of ANY relationship, but if you want to grow a friendship, get curious about your friend. Ask them about the things they care about. Ask them to teach you something about what they’re interested in. Do they have a great flower garden? Ask them about it. Do they fly the W? Ask them about why they love the Cubs so much! Ask them about their religion. Learn something new about their faith.

      A couple months ago I read a book just because I heard my good friend say, “It’s my favorite religious book.” I’m curious about my friend, so I read the book he was talking about. I recently listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, because my friend told me she liked it so much. And so I gave it a listen because I was curious about my friend and why she might like it so much. (And then I too, fell in love with Hamilton!)

    3. Don’t project upon your neighbor what you read in a Facebook article. In other words, there is no Christian that speaks for all Christians, Muslim who speaks for all Muslims or Jew who speaks for all Jews. So, just because you read an article online that said “Christians want to drop bombs in the Middle East,” you shouldn’t assume that represents the views of your neighbor. So, invoking rule #2, just ask the question, “I read something the other day online, what do you think?”

      (3a) You might need to stop reading online articles. To be honest, there’s a lot of BS out there – especially about Muslims. If you aren’t reading it on CNN, NPR or NYT or some other respected news site, you really need to be careful.

    4. Find things you agree upon. Even among my closest friends, we don’t agree about everything. And while we aren’t afraid to talk about those differences, we also don’t focus on those things either. Rather, we probably spend more time talking about the things we DO agree on, causes that we can all rally behind. And if this is a neighbor we’re talking about, you have things built in: common schools, the neighborhood, etc.

    5. Don’t back down from what you believe. In fact, a healthy relationship can tolerate and actually benefit from a degree of tension. Oftentimes we only grow when pushed. Having friends of a different faith, denomination or sect can actually strengthen our own beliefs. So, when the conversation “goes there,” don’t be afraid to say what you believe in the kindest, most loving way possible. As my friend Michael Danner said, in response to my last interfaith post, “I actually want my friends of other faiths – and of no faith – to try to proselytize me. Not disrespectfully. Not manipulatively. Not coercively or arrogantly. But through passionate, informed, loving persuasion.”
    6. Believe the best of your friend or neighbor. Believe that they believe the things they believe for good reasons. Believe that they are equal to you in intelligence, equal to you in devotion, equal to you in their love for their religion and the country you both live in. Believe that they believe following their religion is helping them become a better version of themselves.


Okay, that’s my list. I’m sure there are other great ideas. What are some additional guidelines for interfaith engagement?

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On 20 Years of Marriage, Becoming, and Continuing to Fall in Love

Twenty years ago today, I married my high school sweetheart. I know lots of people say “we were just kids when we got married!” — but that’s exactly what I feel when I think back 20 years. I guess we were technically adults (barely), but in our early twenties we knew nothing.

I frequently say to people about marriage, “Pulling off a wedding isn’t that major a feat. The real accomplishment is continuing to fall in love with the person you’re married to.”


When I look back at our wedding photos and I think about myself, I seem like a stranger. I was twenty-two and had just earned my B.A. in Biblical Studies from a Baptist college! Yeah, I had some misgivings even then about my Baptist roots, but they were still (very) unformed thoughts. I was brash, confident, loud. I knew everything. I had God, religion, and ministry figured out. I had marriage figured out. I knew I was marrying an amazing woman and we would show the world how good marriage could be. I think of the size of my ego at 22 and it’s embarrassing!


When I look back at our wedding photos and think about Jennifer then, I smile. She was as sincere then as she is now. Naive, to be sure — we both were naive about so many things. But she was disciplined and focused, organized and confident. All her best qualities, the ones that still attract people to her, were there.

And, despite the fact that it’s not really in her nature, she was willing to follow me into any adventure. I tell people all the time, “Jennifer didn’t marry ‘the pastor,’ she doesn’t love me because I’m ‘the pastor.’ She knew me, trusted me and loved me before all of that. And that’s one of the reasons I trust her so much.”


When I look back at our wedding photos, those two people seem like strangers. Oh, there are a lot of seeds of things and characteristics and patterns of relating that are still recognizable today. But both of those twenty year olds have changed so much. Life has happened. We’ve laughed and mourned and suffered together. Just a couple of years ago, I remember lying in bed one night crying together because of stuff that was happening around us but fully confident in us — that we were in it together.

I tell Jennifer all the time, “I love the woman you’ve become.”


It’s funny, we’ve often said that if our twenty-year-old selves could meet our forty-year-old selves, I don’t even think they’d really like each other much. I don’t know how much they would have in common. God, faith, religion would all be taboo subjects. Our 20-year-old selves would judge us for having too many kids, for being too liberal and for being too practical. (My 20-year old self would also be disappointed that I wasn’t ruling the known galaxy by now.)



But this is the way of things. The real challenge of marriage is not to put on the best reception ever (ours wasn’t… no dancing, no wine…boring). The real challenge is continuing to become a better version of yourself, and to continue to grow in your love for who the other person is becoming.

This is why we leave jobs, leave friendships and sometimes move away and change our circumstances. We become something else, circumstances change, people change, we make mistakes, we get hurt and we move on.

Love doesn’t discriminate // Between the sinners // And the saints // It takes and it takes and it takes

And we keep loving anyway // We laugh and we cry // And we break // And we make our mistakes

And if there’s a reason I’m by her side // When so many have tried

Then I’m willing to wait for it // I’m willing to wait for it

“Wait for It” – Hamilton

But our marriage — 20 years in, today — is a commitment that no matter how much we break, no matter how much we change, no matter how much it takes, we will keep becoming and choosing to fall in love.

(I’m sure, if we’re blessed with another 20 years together, I’ll look back at even this post and laugh at who I was. That’s just the way of things. LOL)

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18 Hours in a Hammock All Alone

I preach silence and solitude to people all the time. I tell them how important it is in an age of constant connection, iMessage, the 24-hour news cycle and the halcyon glow of nearly everything to slow down, to shut off, to get alone with one’s thoughts.

And I believe every word I say.

But I have a hard time doing it myself.

I have a morning meditation practice that I’m inconsistent with. And when I do, it’s a non-stop battle with my monkey mind. And, as soon as it’s over, I’m off to the races — writing, talking, responding, racing home, exercising (quickly, if I have time), then off to a boy’s baseball game or practice. I get home and it’s dark. And I’m tired. And I go to bed. Repeat the next day.


Last weekend, I went backpacking with my good friend Justin. We hiked 37 miles of the Ice Age Trail in Southeastern Wisconsin. One of my practices while backpacking is that I shut off my phone. I check in with Jennifer quickly in the evenings and mornings, but mostly I keep my phone off.

The first couple of miles, my mind is crazy. I think about things left undone before setting out. I think about relationships that feel “off,” I think about all my particular crazies.

But in time, the voices begin to quiet and I start to tune in to the steady rhythm of my feet on the trail, to my breath, to the moderate strain of quads and hamstrings as I carry my 30-pound pack up an incline, to my parched lips, to the soft, melodic trill of songbirds, to the rustle of chipmunks in the leaves along the trail.

And soon, thoughts of life outside of the trail drift away, and my thoughts become simple and elemental: When do we find water again? When do we eat? Where will we sleep? How does my body feel? How do my feet feel? Am I too warm? Too cold? Will it rain?

These simple, animal thoughts consume my mind, leaving room for not-much-else. Sure, occasionally, Justin and I talk about our lives outside — our careers, our hopes, dreams, marriages, books we’re reading, Hamilton — but most of the miles we walk in silence.


On this particular hike we dealt with rain. A lot of it. Cold, early spring showers. And on Saturday, after putting in a hard 13.5 miles in a sloppy, wet, marshy prairie in just over 5 hours, we strung our hammocks and rain flys and hunkered down to ride out the storm in a pine forest. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. We spent the next 18 hours curled into our hammocks trying to stay warm (except for the brief time Justin “had me over to his place for dinner”).

And I probably would have broken my rule about using my phone, but my phone was acting screwy and after a brief conversation with Jennifer mid-afternoon, it died.

18 hours in a hammock in a cold rain in the middle of nowhere. You would think all my crazy would set in.

But, not so much.

In that place, it was okay. I slept. I read my kindle. I watched the rain. I embraced the enforced silence and solitude.


Jennifer asked me when I got home if I had any epiphanies on the trail.

“Not really.”

She asked if Justin and I had any life-changing conversations.


But it was still so very good. I think silence and solitude is like changing the oil on the car. It clears things up, it’s good for engine maintenance, even if it doesn’t lead to an epiphany.

And the daily practice of contemplative prayer, meditation, or whatever you want to call it is good, but extended silence needs to be a part of the rhythm too.


Now, here’s the part where I get really honest.

I’d love to say, that I came back and just rolled in the bliss. I’d love to say that on Monday morning, my mind was clear and I was surfing on my good vibe throughout the week.

But the truth is, life comes right back at you. Sunday night, I stayed awake late wrestling with my demons, wrestling with my constant companions of insecurity, loneliness, unfulfilled desires and all the stuff I think about when I can’t sleep at night. (Or, to be more accurate, the stuff that keeps me from sleep.)

But I still believe in the goodness of the trail. I still believe that even though your life is waiting for you at the terminus, those three days of clearing the mind are worth every bit of effort. It’s still good to create that space, even if it can’t be maintained.


May you find silence and solitude. May you find spaces between the chaos of modern life to shut it all down, to tune out the world, to just “be.” And may you have epiphanies. And when you don’t, may you find rest in that, too.

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What I Hope to Get Out of Interfaith Conversations

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.


I’m a Christian. Let’s start there.

I affirm the Apostles Creed. I stand with traditional Christian orthodoxy. Engaging in interfaith dialogue is in no way a concession of my own set of beliefs.

However, when I talk to a Rabbi, there is so much I want to learn. How Rabbis have interpreted their Scriptures is of utmost importance to me. Of course, I’m going to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of Jesus, but knowing how Jews view their Scriptures has made my understanding of Jesus richer.

I don’t think respecting Judaism is difficult for most Christians.


But I can also say the same of Islam. Within the Quran, there is a high value put on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the penultimate prophet, and belief in Jesus as a prophet is required of a Muslim. Of course Muslims don’t believe that Jesus is God, but there is an engaging discussion among some Christians and Muslims about what it means to follow after Jesus. (Incidentally, the word muslim simply means “one who submits to God.” So Muslims, full of respect, consider Jesus to be muslim.)


From Buddhists, I am learning important things about contemplative prayer and quieting the crazy in my head. From Native Religions, I can learn something about living in harmony with the creation — surely a Christian value. (A puzzling sidenote: I find it strange that Christians who hold most tightly to a literal understanding of the Creation accounts, where God commanded the first inhabitants to care for the creation, are often the least likely to embrace Christian environmentalism.)


Yeah, I know. Sometimes interfaith stuff gets a little hokey. And sometimes not everyone is playing by the same rules and one group is trying to proselytize the others (The next post will be on “ground rules for interfaith engagement.”) But for me, interfaith conversation is about learning what I can learn from the other traditions that further strengthens my understanding of my own faith.


Here’s an analogy that shows how I view interfaith conversation:  I love my friends. And I love how their marriages work. I talk deeply with my friends about how they love their wives, how they work through hard times, how they navigate the joys and sorrows. I learn a lot from my friends.

But at the same time, I have my own marriage. I’m my own person. Jennifer is her own person. And we have our own ways of navigating our life together that aren’t the same as our friends’. So, I learn from my friends, I’m enriched by our conversations together, but I also have my own way of “doing marriage.” I’m better for having the dialogue with my friends about their marriages – there’s definitely some overlap – but my marriage is mine and theirs is theirs.


This is my hope for interfaith conversation (and interdenominational conversations as well) — that we will learn from others in the areas that overlap.

I’m richer for my dialogue with those of other faiths, but that doesn’t mean I’m exchanging mine for theirs.

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Why I’m Open

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.”   Psalm 34:8

Dark clouds may hang on me sometimes /// But I’ll work it out /// And then I Look up at the sky /// My mouth is open wide lick and taste /// What’s the use in worrying, what’s the use in hurrying /// Turn turn we almost become dizzy.

Dave Matthews Band, “Dancing Nancies”


A couple of months ago, I was cooking with my cooking club friends and offered my friends’ 7-year old daughter a bite of pickled beet (my contribution for the night being a pickled beet martini, a la Tyler Florence). She said, “ewww.”  Her mother said, “why don’t you not say ‘ewww,’ and just try it first?”


The first time I heard Catholics pray to saints, I said “ewww.” I said it was foolish to pray to dead people. I said it bordered on idolatry. I puffed myself up with religious pride and declared my own enlightenment, that my way was better.

In my college years, I read a book by a famous fundamentalist preacher who wrote that Charismatic Christians (those who speak in tongues, prophecy, etc.) are either in the midst of a grand self-delusion or they are animated by demons. “Ewww.” That seemed reasonable to my young Baptist ears.

At least it was reasonable until I interacted with Catholics and Charismatics. And then I learned that they were lovely, reasonable people who believed things differently than I did for reasons that made good sense to them and their understanding of faith and the Bible. And when I chose to adopt a posture of openness to the world, to taste before saying “ewww,” I found that people weren’t as dumb and misguided as I had assumed in my arrogance.


Over the last several months, we’ve been discussing the role LGBT people play in our church. In one of our recent leadership meetings, someone pointed out that rarely do people say to each other in the midst of differences, “Help me understand how you arrived at your position.”

Rather, we’re much more prone to express our opinion, to declare and defend our “rightness.” But a posture of openness means that I allow curiosity to lead. I often pray the prayer of St. Francis:

“O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love”

In fact, this idea of seeking to understand more than to be understood is so rare that, as the pastor of a church which people have left because of stances we’ve taken for LGBT Christians, I can’t remember a single person who has sat with me and said, “Help me understand your thinking on this topic.” (Okay, between the time of writing this piece and actually publishing it, one person asked.)


Being open doesn’t mean I’m wishy-washy either. I’m still not Roman Catholic; I don’t pray to saints. Nor am I a Charismatic; I don’t speak in tongues, and I’ve never been “slain in the Spirit.” But I’m open. I’m open to the idea that my brothers and sisters in other faith traditions may have a way of knowing/experiencing God that is meaningful and rational to them, even if I don’t completely understand their way of seeing things. And I can affirm and celebrate their expressions of faith, even if I don’t adopt them as my own.

To me, being open isn’t about one particular issue, but rather it’s a posture towards the world. More specifically, it’s a posture towards other people. It’s about cultivating a humility that says, “even though I’m committed to my own way of seeing, even though I think I’ve thought it through, I’m willing to listen to you.”

Recently, I was recounting a story I heard of a guy who had been slain in the Spirit. And as I told the story, I said, “I don’t even know that I believe in that sort of thing. But I believe in this guy. I believe in his experience of faith, even if it isn’t mine.”

And while most of the time having a posture of openness doesn’t change my position on any particular issue, it softens me to people. Being open creates a space for me to embrace people and not feel like I have to convert, argue, judge or otherwise manipulate people into being someone other than who they actually are.


But occasionally, it does change me.

Back to my friends’ daughter: she tried a bite of pickled beet. And she liked it. She opened herself up to a new experience and it changed her.

Who knows what new things, new ideas, new ways of being in the world, new friendships will come our way when we’re open?

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