Remembering George

I have done funerals for some incredible people in my life. I have officiated services for many friends. George Brightwell, however, was such a profound influence in my life as a friend … a founder Wellspring, the church I currently serve … and one who loved me as a friend and mentor. This is the sermon I preached at his service today, and it is offered here for the lessons George himself would teach us.

George, as he was known to do with so many of us, became my friend. Through my time here at Wellspring, he was someone with whom I would spend no less than 8 hours each week … either in conversation or meetings or leading worship together or doing worship planning. In my time here, I do not recall George ever taking a Sunday off until he finally just could do it no more. Every Sunday, George and Barbara would show up at 7:30 to make sure everything was unlocked, the walkway was swept, and everything was set for worship. They would not leave until after the late service was over, and even during the pandemic, they still were present for as long as it took to livestream the service and get everything put back in place. Then came the Saturday when George called and said, with this incredible sadness in his voice, that he was too weak to come to church on Sunday. He was apologetic and grief stricken as he saw his Sunday morning routine coming to a close.

I will tell you, however, that George is the only person I know who announced that he was going on hospice, processed into hospice, and then showed up to lead hymns and stay through both worship services the very next Sunday. He took the principles of hospice seriously … the belief that we are to be about living fully until we die. And that is what he did.

George’s stories would begin in different places. If you talked about family, he would tell you about his childhood and growing up in the First Methodist Church in Fort Worth. He would talk about his earliest recollection of clergy, and he could not stop talking about the great Gaston Foote, who served as the senior pastor of that church from 1952 to 1972. It is in the Methodist Youth Fellowship of that same church that George would meet his beloved, Barbara, and that set them on the trajectory that would culminate in 64 years of marriage.

If you asked George about his Christian journey, he would tell the story of a time that was truly transformative. George shared his testimony in this very chapel on March 4, 1993, and I promised him that I would share the main portion of it with you here. Listen to George’s words:

Graduate school.  Marriage.  The corporate world.  Uncertainty.  The Bomb.  Cool, calm, competent (outwardly); insecure, scared, angry (inwardly).  Doing all the right things (still active in the church, community, work life), but for the wrong reasons.  Using intellect, knowledge, humor, as a “nice guy” facade, while acting out ever more destructive behaviors because of the interior fear, insecurity, anger … as yet unnamed demons.  How does one lead such a double life?  By attempting to be in control.  By building a shell with little windows and peepholes and levers and wires for communicating with them, to manipulate them (and GOD) … to keep them out … to keep me in… to stay in control.  Turns out, that’s impossible.

One Saturday morning, during a week-end program at the church, a fellow whom he had only met the night before, a fellow whom he had not had a chance to manipulate into being convinced that he was really (on the outside) a “good guy,” a fellow from Mississippi, who looked like he could have played middle linebacker for the Packers, enfolded him in his arms and said, “George, God loves you and I love you.”  Love me?  God love me?  I, uh … I couldn’t possibly have earned enough brownie points yet!  But (a miracle!) the message came through, the shell cracked, the manipulative devices began to disintegrate, and I began to live life directly, not through an intellectual filter of my own devising.  I began to feel life, to deal in a real way with the trash inside me that I didn’t even want GOD to know about.  I began to love.  I began to live as a man of faith.  A flame extinguished more than twenty years before was rekindled.

That Saturday morning was twenty-five years ago this past weekend [which would have been the end of February 1968].  Tommy Giordano no longer lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and I was not able to find him this past week to tell him what GOD did for me through him and that the flame is still alive.  That grace never gives up.  That the spirit of GOD never keeps as strict a schedule as we do.  I thank Tommy and others like him, and I thank GOD for giving my life back to me.  It hasn’t been easy since that Saturday, but it has been wonderful.  The abundant life is full of love and joy, but it is not devoid of pain.  Yet the pain is not self-inflicted; it comes from the richness of life, full of human relationships and all the joys and sorrows involved in loving self, others, GOD, the world.  Loving self, the self which before I feared and hated.  Loving others, the wife and friends who before I feared and manipulated (in the name of love, for GOD’s sake!).  Loving GOD, who before could not possibly have loved someone like me … I wasn’t good enough!  Loving the world, that nasty old cruel world, which GOD loves so much, but I couldn’t.

To hear George tell it, it was the moment of rebirth. It was a true awakening, and it brought with it the truth that we learn from the mystics … great love and great suffering will always go together. It is about living and loving and suffering and dying, but the story doesn’t end there, and George knew it … great love and great suffering … life and death … will ALWAYS lead us to resurrection.

So George dared to love … not just to love, but to LOVE BIG! He dared to invest his life in the lives of others … into the care of all creation … no matter the cost. This is what led George and Barbara to be the incredible philanthropists they are.

With no biological children of their own, George and Barbara have invested their love in such powerful ways that they have hundreds of children … thousands of grandchildren … tens of thousands of great-grandchildren … so many descendants … because of this transformative power of love.

My own story of George began before we moved to Georgetown. As soon as word was out that I was coming to Wellspring, I got a call from George. Aside from Stef Schutz, who fully embraced technology and who friended me on Facebook the day of the announcement, George was the first Wellspringer who actually called me. He had served as a delegate to the annual conference for over 30 years, and he told me he would look for me at conference. And George’s humor was only enhanced when he could tell people that he finally found me for an introduction … in the men’s room.

And George had this custom every year at conference when the appointments were about to be announced. For those who are not United Methodist, you should know that clergy are appointed in our denomination by the bishop one year at a time. In June, I will be completing ten one-year appointments to Wellspring. So before the service of appointment making would begin, the members of the conference (both lay and clergy) would be handed the list of appointments. George would flip to the page listing Wellspring, and he would look for my name. He would slap his hand on it and would say, “Yes!” as emphatically as he could. He would then lean over to hug me (he almost always sat right by me), and he would offer some strongly affirming word. Then on the first Sunday after conference, George would take the microphone from me to announce that I had been reappointed for another year. He would invoke clapping as he then hugged me again.

It was the George hugs that defined him, and many of you are here today because that strong hug drew you in closer. George was also prone to whisper his truth in your ear when you got the hug. That hug and that truth was the one he received from Tommy Giordano so long ago: “God loves you, and I love you!” He would often shorten it to simply be: “Remember that you are loved!” But in every way, he was passing along Tommy Giordano’s hug … God’s hug … to everyone he could.

So love is finally what brings us here. Love is the basis of every single scriptural text represented here. It is the love of God for all creation in Isaiah that sends us out in joy only to be led back in peace. It is that love that sets the mountains and the hills bursting into song, and it is that love that makes the trees of the field clap their hands.

In John’s gospel, it is that love that prompts Jesus to prepare a place for his disciples … really for all of us … and it that love that sends Christ back into the world through people like Tommy and George to point us to a home that is both created here in this life and with God forever beyond this life.

It is that love about which the Apostle Paul speaks in Romans 5, as he admonishes us to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil, to hold fast to what is good and TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER WITH MUTUAL AFFECTION. Paul even makes it a bit of a contest to see if we can outdo one another in showing honor, and I think George was up for that challenge.

And the part that meant so much to George had to do with how we deal with those who persecute us … those who hate us … those who cause some of our greatest distress. George was one who dared to take stands that he was aware were not always popular. He stood with people in the margins, and he did not care if that meant that people would not like him or his views. He was faithful to the mandate of Christ to love ever single person, no matter what. As Paul challenges us to come alongside one another with empathy and compassion and to live in harmony with one another, he also challenges us to practice a unique kind of payback for our enemies.

I had to laugh when I realized that only George Brightwell would choose a passage that includes: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

George was all about social justice. There were many people whose actions and decisions that George opposed (whether individually or collectively … even when that injustice was enshrined as legislation). George and Barbara have spent their lives as advocates for the people in the margins. Their lives have been devoted to enhancing the lives of children. His life was devoted to advocacy for immigrants, for the poor, for those who were food and housing insecure, for people who were marginalized because of their sexuality.

George’s other key word besides love was how he ended most of his emails: “Courage.” Literally, “take heart.” While our world is driven by and defined by our fears, George knew that Franklin Roosevelt was right when he said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. He bemoaned how easy it is to take advantage of people if we could only keep them in the place of fear. His radical way of confronting that was simply to say or write the single word: “Courage.”

He often talked about the nature of our Methodist heritage as he would recount John Wesley’s journey as the journey from the head to the heart. He knew that when we finally got into the heart space, we would then find the courage to love big.

When we had a workshop of leaders working on recasting our vision, at Wellspring we determined that perhaps we needed to expand our motto. The motto of Wellspring was previously, “All Are Welcome, All Are Accepted.” For years, at George’s urging, we would verify that by saying, “And all means all.” But in this workshop, we began working on key words that might further our intent in the motto, and the word “love” was strongly encouraged from George’s table. I’m pretty sure it was George who made sure that we didn’t try to move forward without emphasizing love in the strongest possible way.

With that, we officially voted to modify our motto to read: “All Are Welcome, All Are Accepted, All Are Loved, and All Means All.”

You could not know George without knowing what love was, and if you ever had a question about what love was, all you had to do was just stand in his path with your arms open. There would inevitably be a hug and those words, “Remember that you are loved.”

But George had one last enemy to face. He had long since talked about cancer in his family. Every October, George wore pink every single Sunday in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month since he had lost both of his sisters to breast cancer. George now faced his own enemy … the cancer that eventually took his life.

But George did it his way. He followed the advice of his doctors and went through treatments in an effort to fight it, but then when that was unsuccessful, he opted out of very aggressive treatments that, in his mind, would not yield any better results. He went on hospice determined to do it his way, and his way was the way of love.

George was a mentor and teacher to me and so many of you gathered here. His last lesson for us all was clear. He taught us .. he taught me … how to die as a Christian.

It was in his last days that he opened his home and heart to many visitors who both shared their love and received George’s love. George and I planned out this service almost entirely before he died. I sat there as he told me that his favorite hymn had to have a central place in the service. That hymn is Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, and as he told me that, he looked at the love of his life and said, “It is also BB that wilt not let let me go.” That tender moment will forever be etched in my memory.

But there was one last thing to do … one last enemy to face. It was death, and in that moment, George (the quintessential teacher) taught me that last lesson. It was how to love death and transform it from something dreadful to something beautiful. He took the enemy named death and made it a friend. He knew that it was only by loving all … even the enemy known as death … that he would make it be the door that led him into the eternal chorus of heaven.

He knew that it was love that finally would not let him go.


A Compassionate Lord

As I have carried forward the theme of emptiness, I now come to the ultimate place of emptiness. Friday that is somehow called “Good Friday.” What is good about Good Friday?

There are many who continue to answer that Good Friday is good because Jesus died for our sins. They continue with this theme known as “penal substitutionary atonement” that comes to us from 16th century reformers who were taking Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” to another level. Basically, penal substitutionary atonement means that Jesus took on all the sins of the world as a sacrificial lamb, and then his death became the ultimate sacrifice that wipes away our sin. The Greek word for suffering is πάθημα (pathāma), from which we get the words like pathos and pathology. The notion is that Jesus suffered so we don’t have to.

Along with many other pastors and theologians, I am here saying boldly that penal substitutionary atonement is NOT the death of Jesus. When we look at the entirety of the message from the gospels, Jesus never claims to be the one who dies this kind of death. Jesus does forgive sins, but the forgiveness of sins is entirely relational. Jesus comes calling for repentance, which is “turning toward” God. Jesus comes inviting us into banquets and sacred spaces where those on the outside are reminded that they have a place because God has forgiven them. There is nothing any of us have done that can separate us from the great love of God, as Paul describes this in Romans 8.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is depicted as Emmanuel … God who is with us. And this God who is with us is not one who will finally condemn us. The condemnation and the hell we experience when we are separated from God is the hell from which Jesus comes to save us by reconciling us back to God.

And it this “With-Us God” who is in the person of Jesus who goes to the cross. This is God who is not willing to leave us alone in our suffering; rather, the cross is the place where God suffers with us. The word “compassion” is given to us from the Latin, and the word literally means to “suffer with.”

I learned years ago about sympathetic vibration, which is what happens when you take a stringed instrument and then begin to play a note that matches the pitch to which that string has been stretched. The string itself begins to create sound, not because it was touched, but because it was connected to the originator of the sound with sound waves.

Sympathy is the outer expression of this connection, but it is shallow and does not go deep enough. Compassion is the fullest expression of what it means to connect with one another at the place of our suffering … it is something that is a connection of the soul. This is the gift God gives us. God connects with us in our darkest places and our deepest suffering.

Jesus is the Compassionate Christ

Jesus then comes as God with us … in our living … in our suffering … and in our dying. The message of Good Friday is that we don’t suffer or die alone. God is always with us and finally will not forsake us in our darkest hour … no matter who we are or what we have done.

Along with many others in our church, I am grieving the dying of a strong leader in our church who nears death in his hospice bed. George has been a true friend to me and so many, and the grief in our church is palpable these days. On this Good Friday, my prayer is that he and Barbara … along with his church family … along with the community he loves so much … along with all who suffer and die and grieve … will know that we are finally not alone.

The message of Good Friday and the gift of Christ today is the simple ending to a creed from the United Church of Canada: God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!


I didn’t intentionally give up anything for Lent this year. I am an Enneagram 7, so I typically do Lent differently. This year, I decided to commit myself to taking something up. I decided to do a deeper reflection on wisdom teachings as I seek to discover further the interrelatedness … the integration … of some of my favorite wisdom teachers. Among them are Ken Wilbur, Fr. Richard Rohr, Ilia Delio, and Brené Brown.

Just as I began to take up this task for Lent, Lent began to take things away from me. We have lost members of our faith community who were dear to me, and then there are those who are in hospice care … and one dear friend who is going into hospice care. The grief is palpable for me.

Then amidst this grief, we lost our precious cat, Baxter, who, at the age of 18, finally came to the end of his life’s journey. He slept with us on what we nicknamed Pride Rock because Baxter and his late brother, DC, had claimed it as the locus of their daily living … and sleeping. The emptiness his death created is still breathtaking.

Grief is not new to us, but there is an added layer here.

I am now left experiencing this odd convergence of wisdom and grief that have come into my Lenten journey in a mysterious middle. The ultimate impact of this on my life and ministry are yet to be seen, but here are the things I am learning and relearning:

  1. Wisdom is a gift that only comes from loving well and suffering well, and the capacity to hold both of those in tension together is hard work. It is the work of the cross.
  2. Patience is key. Henri Nouwen reminds us that the word “patience” comes from the Latin word “patior,” which means to suffer. It is to be alright with not knowing where this leads, but trusting in the journey nonetheless.
  3. Wisdom isn’t about knowing more … it is about knowing less and trusting more. It is, as I have preached recently, the path of unknowing.
  4. Grief is not a process that we go through with a checklist nor is it done on a timeline. It just is.
  5. When I am willing to sit at the crossroads of wisdom and grief, I will discover the deep mystery of the cross.
  6. When I am willing to sit at the crossroad of wisdom and grief, I will discover the wisdom pattern of life, death, and resurrection.

As an Enneagram 7, I am terrified of emptiness and will often do anything to fill the void. I don’t always do this well, but I am learning to sit still and simply be in the liminal space where I might just meet God in a deeper way than I ever thought possible.

My hope here is that Jesus is right. Those who are empty will be filled. I am waiting for the fullness of that Christ!

Across the Valley

Last week, when I first walked out on the lanai of our daughter’s house in Hawai’i, I was startled by what was on the ridge across from me. I saw the flag, and as I began to get my bearings, I realized that the flag was that of Camp Smith, which sits atop the Aiea Ridge. The house that she has with her new husband, two children (with one due any day now), and their dog, is directly opposite that first ridge.

The weight of what I was seeing settled in on me. You see, the place she called home with our first son-in-law was on the Aiea Ridge on a street adjacent to Camp Smith. While there is much that the flag at Camp Smith symbolizes, for us, it is the symbol of our first real encounter with Oahu and military life here. It was the place where they fell in love with the island, and it was the place where they were growing their family.

Until … until the darkness set in that September day in 2016. That was the day the one they called Bull died. It was there that we were embraced … shrouded, really … by grief. It was the day our world radically changed. It was the day where the paths of great love and great suffering collided.

And now I see it from across the valley, and I am drawn to a truth that is greater than my own sense of fairness.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The psalm keeps rising to the surface. The valley between us, as beautiful and full of life as it is, is, for me, the valley of the shadow of death. When we were last on that ridge, there was a baby that was going to be born without a dad. When we were last on that ridge, the world seemed hopeless. All that lay in front of us was the valley of the shadow of death.

Fast forward five years, and I am sitting on the ridge opposite that first one. We have a new son-in-law, two grandchildren who talk about a dad in heaven and a dad here with them, and a new grandchild on the way.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

There is something about seeing life from the other side of the valley. Having walked through the valley, I can most assuredly testify to the power of presence … of a God who walks with us in our darkest hours and who offers us pathways of wisdom that can only be found at the convergence of great love and great suffering. The truth that is greater than my own sense of fairness … my own experience of darkness … is the truth of abiding presence.

So as I prepare to sit down to a thanksgiving meal with our Hawaiian family, I will remember and give thanks for the gift of presence and the many memories, both beautiful and tragic, we share. My prayer is that we might all experience that presence when we have walked (or are walking) through the many valleys that contain shadows of death. My prayer is that we might pause to take a look back across the valley through which we have trod and see where we have experienced the comforting presence of this one who walks with us.

It is then that we will sit down at a feast and experience a cup that is overflowing. We will be invited again to the place of great love knowing now what the Apostle Paul knew … that great suffering cannot separate us from the great love of God in Christ Jesus. In the midst of our thanksgiving, may we experience the power of presence.

So finally, I am led to another truth that is greater than my sense of fairness: Christ is on both sides of the valley yet fully present with us in the valley … always offering pathways of hope, joy, love, and peace no matter what we are facing. For this presence, I give thanks.

The Path of Grief

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

As I have continued reading and writing around the topic of integration and flow that are essential to wisdom traditions, I see more clearly what others have already seen. The journey to wisdom takes us from vulnerability to suffering to grief and finally to wholeness. I have written more extensively about this in previous blogposts and preached it in many a sermon; however, the emerging clarity of this pathway is important for my current learning.

Those who know me will know how easily distractible I am and how easily I can go down rabbit trails. Fortunately for me, this proved somewhat productive in my study in the past week. As I have read more of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Richard Rohr, and Elia Delio, along with books, podcasts, and lectures on both the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics, it occurred to me that much of what I was learning reflected on a key book in the Hebrew Bible: Job. So I followed the rabbit trail all the way back through Job for at least the fourth time in my ministry.

While I will save a further reflection on Job for perhaps a study or blog series, the key I discovered is that, on the journey to wisdom, there is a barrier that exists between suffering and grief. It is easy to say that we don’t live in a culture that allows us to grieve, and we quickly critique our institutionalized resistance to grief. I think, however, it is something much deeper. It seems, to me, to be something that is part of the human condition.

In reading Job, the challenge for Job, Job’s wife, and his three friends is that collectively, they get stuck with the flow through grief that finally connects them to God. Job’s wife is just ready to be done with it, and counsels Job to curse God and die. That is pretty quickly dismissed. Job’s friends are defenders of a religious perspective based on transactional dualism (which I have unpacked and will continue to unpack more in the future). This is harder to dismiss because it speaks to so much of religious life even today.

Interestingly, I have always been a defender of Job’s right to complain and speak of the injustice of suffering since we are told at the beginning of the epic poem in the heavenly courtroom scene that Job is righteous and has done nothing wrong. The problem Job faces, however, is that his own righteousness becomes a badge of honor … to the point that it ends up becoming “self-righteousness.” This is pointed out near the end of the book by the young Elihu and then finally by God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind.

While Job’s anger and complaints are justified and very much part of grief, he gets stuck there. He is not finally able to grieve fully, which prevents his capacity to see the emerging truth that our suffering has no meaning unless it connects us with God and one another. This is the very definition of compassion.

As we face senseless violence in our world that is both individually and collectively systemic, the temptation on our part (well, at least on my part) is to continue to unleash further violence into the world through rhetoric and derision of those who perpetuate the harm … especially those who refuse to revise policy at the state and national levels. While calling on elected officials to enact change that can help with such senseless violence, I realize that, if I do not grieve, I can get stuck in the place of self-righteousness, which itself creates more harm.

And it is so easy to get stuck as Job does. It comes, in part, from thinking of the world hierarchically. For those who know (or are learning about) Spiral Dynamics, this means we lack the capacity to see up or down the spiral, which is a first tier phenomenon. Only those who are capable to moving upward to the second tier in the development of consciousness are capable to seeing according to what Richard Rohr calls “third eye seeing.”

I have discovered some truths about myself when I conceive of reality hierarchically. When I am functioning in a hierarchical framework …

  • I am unable to make the leap from suffering to the fullest expression of grief.
  • I cannot easily give up my position of righteousness that places me in the right against my accusers and my enemies.
  • I cannot see value in anyone who does not share my same worldview.
  • I am incapable of seeing the fear (both theirs and mine) that defines our present dilemma.
  • I cannot finally move beyond suffering.
  • I am incapable of greater expressions of compassion and empathy.

As long as we see the world hierarchically, we will miss the opportunity to fully transform ourselves or our world.

So the journey toward wholeness leads us necessarily through grief … both individually and collectively. This is the nature of lament. It is the acknowledgement that our hope finally is only in God.

As we face the fear and terror that grips our human community, may this be a call to us to see the world in non-dualistic ways … as a 3D world. Perhaps then God may be able to use us as willing instruments to transform the world. And the path of grief seems essential to this transformation.

The Path of Vulnerability

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Helplessness. Vulnerability. Fear. Grief. Those describe the feelings that have cropped up for me in the wake of the massacres in Buffalo and Uvalde. Then there is the continued news about war in Ukraine and desperate situations of poverty all around the globe. It exposes me again to feelings I have had related to many other tragic events in my life. We do not know what to with these feelings … the vulnerability sometimes seems to be too much for us.

Perhaps you have felt the same thing. We feel helpless, and then we rail against the politicians and gun lobby. We rail against leaders, both foreign and domestic, who seem to be either actively causing harm or at the very least complicit or powerless to stop the harm. We point fingers and cast blame in all directions. It seems to help, for a time, this righteous indignation.

At the most basic level, what is driving us right now is the fight against vulnerability. None of us want to experience what others have experienced. Few of us can fathom the terrorization or the killing of innocents. It is hard to get our heads around the devastation that has befallen so many people at our borders as their hopes for a better life are shattered by closed borders, arrests, separation of families, and deportation that, for some, means certain death. Most of us can’t begin to comprehend the perpetual stench of death that exists in many of the poorest countries in our world.

And this doesn’t even begin to take in account the more than 1,000,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the USA alone, with millions more deaths globally. I read a fascinating PBS featured article about the challenges of getting our minds around that many deaths and emotional numbness. Ultimately, such numbness is the ego’s attempt to limit vulnerability.

As people who live (for the most part) lives of privilege, we often make the assumption that our primary task is to limit our vulnerabilities … to keep the fear at bay and to provide for greater security. When we have lived long enough, however, what we discover is that security is finally an illusion. The utterly secure world we seek simply does not exist.

How then are we to escape the vulnerabilities we fear so much? The answer is simple. We can’t. There is nothing in all of God’s creation that is not vulnerable … including God. (Yes, I’m aware it is heard as blasphemy to some.)

Fr. Richard Rohr, in his book The Wisdom Pattern: Order-Disorder-Reorder, says that Jesus did not do a great job founding a religion that most people would want to create. “Christians indeed have a strange image of God: a naked, bleeding man dying on a cross. Let’s be honest. If we were going to create a religion, would we ever have thought up this image of God?” (p.38)

Rohr then helps unpack something that I have long taught. Penal substitutionary atonement (our notion that Jesus died to wipe the slate clean and secure a place in some future heaven) is simply wrong. The purpose of the cross is not about Jesus taking our sin and suffering so we don’t have to; rather, it has everything to do with vulnerability.

It is on the cross that we are taught how to hold all our fears and our suffering without discharging that fear and suffering to others. It is about offering all of our fear and suffering to a God who is capable of both holding and then teaching us to hold our fear and suffering together. The death of Jesus is what finally lets us take suffering and death and use those as tools (not weapons) to connect us with the whole of suffering and dying humanity.

I say this carefully as I speak from a place of comfort and privilege, but I think it is true nonetheless: the only way forward is to walk the path of vulnerability. This doesn’t mean that we don’t work for reform to our gun laws or decline to speak truth to power about our unhealthy fascination with weaponry in our country. What it does mean, however, is that we take those crucial steps only by giving up the illusion of invulnerability.

What I have discovered is that when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I can have greater capacity for empathy and compassion for those who did not get to “choose” vulnerability. I can use my own sense of vulnerability to keep the conversation focused where it needs to be, which is beyond my own sense of comfort and control and on those who continue to be most at risk. It is through my vulnerability that I can connect with the ones whom Jesus called “the least of these” his siblings. It is through vulnerability that I can name my own egoic, sinful patterns (which sometimes comes cleverly disguised as that “righteous indignation” mentioned above) and offer them up to the God who chooses to be vulnerable with us.

Finally, I am discovering that the key to going deeper into wisdom isn’t by just knowing more and being more educated. The key to deeper wisdom is vulnerability, which implicitly is an education of the heart. My prayer is that, on this path of vulnerability, we might authentically meet each other and, if we keep our eyes open, we might just meet God on that same path.

The Crucified God

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme. Additionally, this post was being written when the world learned of another tragic school shooting … this one in Uvalde, Texas. This, along with recent unfolding violence around the globe, has added new hues and texture to this blog post.]

Fr. Richard Rohr, when he established the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987, had spent a great deal of his ministry and teaching focused, at various times, on both reflection and contemplation and then on transformative social action. As he tells the story, he put a great deal of thought into the name because he believed that contemplation and action were both part of one larger, integrated whole. I have heard him share on more than one occasion that the reason he lists “action” first is that he believes that action precedes contemplation, which, in turn, fosters greater action.

When I was doing my doctoral work around themes of brokenness among the clergy, I had been fully exposed to a theology that came from Central America known as Liberation Theology. It had been closely tied to human rights abuses in that part of the world. It was a theology that insisted that God was not a passive God living above the clouds; rather, the God of Jesus is a God who is actively living among us … upsetting institutions (including governments and churches) that are hierarchical in nature … and reminding us that the God of Jesus is a God first of the poor and powerless. Needless to say, this theology was rejected quickly by theologians and clergy whose job was defending the institutions they served.

What I discovered, however, was that key to Liberation Theology was the same truth that I would discover in the Center for Action and Contemplation. There is a direct link and cyclical nature between action and reflection/contemplation, and it rings hollow to think of theology or spiritual practice that is not fully connected with justice and mercy.

Today I heard with the rest of the world of the devastating school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and 2 adults lost their lives to an 18-year-old gunman, who also died. As I began to reflect on where this blog post was going (even considering simply abandoning this for the time being), I realized that perhaps this is exactly where I need to maintain focus.

Many people quote Micah 6:8 as it relates to the need to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” but I think we miss the mark if we do not read its larger context. I think it helps to expand the text to Micah 6:6-8, which reads:

“With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
    and to walk humbly with your God?

When we speak of thoughts and prayers for those who suffer unspeakable, yet very preventable tragedy, yet we take no action, our faith is hollow and meaningless. Like Micah, I think it is high time to name our problem, which is the use of the name Christian to provide a cloak around those who refuse to enact legislation or otherwise take a stand that will help protect our most vulnerable. It is time to call out clergy and others who are afraid to speak out on the matters around gun control for fear that we will have people oppose us in our churches or communities and perhaps not keep our jobs or get the next largest church. It is time to talk about what it means to worship a God who demands acts of justice and mercy from us.

Friends, it is time to see our God not as a mighty warrior king, but as a crucified God. This is to see the crucifixion as an act of ultimate solidarity with the poor and not as a sacrifice that simply wipes the slate clean so we can go on with our systems of injustice as though it never happened. When we fail to see the power of a corrupt theology, we will continually sacrifice our children and the most vulnerable among us on the altar of the for-profit gun lobby and big business.

As so many have pointed out, the word atonement is best broken down into three parts: “at-one-ment.” The truest image of incarnation is a God who is born into human likeness, who suffers along with the least of these, and who dies along with the poor and powerless … including the children and teachers in one of the poorer parts of our state.

Like so many churches, the people of Wellspring will gather for a prayer vigil within hours after this blog post is published. It will be a time to lift up the victims of the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School. It will be a time to share our grief and acknowledge the fear that atrocities like this stir up in us. While I am absent from my congregation, I will be in prayer with them and for them.

My greatest prayer is that we will take the narratives that continue to unfold before us and reflect more deeply on where God is in the midst of the suffering. My further prayer will then be that we take that deeper understanding of God into acts of justice and mercy as we seek to bring God’s kingdom here “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Journey From Ascent to Descent

[NOTE: During my 2022 Study Leave, I am considering various aspects of wisdom and the role of integration as discovered in tools such as the Enneagram and Spiral Dynamics. Blog posts during this time are intended to fold into the greater learning around this theme.]

Wisdom is often conceived as something to which we ascend. It makes sense to me as one who lives in this world as a Seven on the Enneagram. I am always looking upward to the expanse above me, seeking greater freedom with fewer limitations. So it makes sense that I would want to ascend to these greater heights.

As a matter of fact, it is easy for me to function in a world that is built on the notion of ascent. We want to ascend up the corporate ladder … we are perpetually looking for the next self-help, self-development tool for our career … we are looking for pathways to being better citizens, better partners, better spouses, better lovers, better parents, and (my favorite) better grandparents. If we are being truthful, we are looking for the pathway beyond being better … we want to be the best!

And that is the pitfall in seeking a deeper spirituality … in seeking a deeper wisdom. The pathway we most desire does not lead us where we think it does. Likely, it is the pathway we most fear that becomes the pathway that leads us to the deepest connection with God, with other people, and with all of God’s creation.

You see, the greatest spiritual wisdom is not something we attain by ascending; rather, it comes to us from descent. My deeper understanding of the life of Jesus is that he understood the path of descent as the path toward wisdom and the deepest possible connection with a God whose name is love and who seems deeply preoccupied with the divine task of provision.

What that means for me is that my desire to “ascend to God” is not the truest pathway to God.

This lesson, for me, is something that begins early in my education and ministry. While in college, I was assigned to write a thesis paper for a Hebrew Bible course, and the specific text I was assigned was Genesis 11:1-9 … the story known as the Tower of Babel. This story is the conclusion of the primeval story, which comprises the first 11 chapters of Genesis. In the story of Israel, the first historical figures mentioned are Abraham and Sarah, a story which begins in chapter 12. Because I believe God is always trying to show me something more, that study has continued throughout my ministry with a fascination for how this one story defines so much of what is happening in the world today.

So the story of the Tower of Babel is, at first glance, a story about how we got our multiple languages, but it is so much more than that. The story, you see, is the people who have one language and who are seeking to build the tallest tower with its top in the heavens. Their fear was being weakened and scattered abroad. They wanted access to all knowledge and all secrets at all costs. In verse 4, we are told: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'” 

Building the city or the tower is not the issue for God in this story. The issue here is that they are seeking to reach the heavens in order “to make a name” for themselves. They are operating from the egoic center that is focused on ascension. Whether it is construed as individual or collective ego, it is egocentric, nonetheless.

Using the model of the Enneagram, the ego is what keeps us focused on our fears and our limitations. It is what reacts adversely to stress, and it is what moves us onto the path of “dis-integration” as opposed to the path of “integration” [these are key words for my current research and writing, by the way]. What this means is that the ego is seeking to ascend to a safe place, yet it is doing little more than just entrenching itself into lower levels of consciousness.

What then is the best pathway forward?

So in my study of the Tower of Babel, I was soon drawn to another parallel, which even the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary have utilized. It is the connection between the story found in Genesis 11 with the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost found in Acts 2.

Luke (who writes both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles), shares a very clear image of the apostles who have remained in Jerusalem. I know that other gospels take at least some of the apostles back to Galilee, but this is not the case with Luke where we hear the story of Jesus’s ascension and hear Jesus say, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49).

Luke’s image of the apostles is one of what I would call “hopeful vulnerability.” They are told to stay in a place where they are extremely vulnerable … few followers of Jesus would feel safe in Jerusalem following his execution. But they have experienced this risen Christ, and they staying huddled together … we are told “in a house” … when the day of Pentecost arrives. Think of an open-air house with passersby all around.

Luke tells us that Jewish people from all over the various lands had returned for this festival of Shavuot, which is both a festival of the first of the wheat harvest and later the celebration of the giving of the Law (Torah) to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is directly linked to Passover, and it occurs on the fiftieth day after Passover. The Greek word for 50 is πενήντα (penānta), and the festival is Πεντηκοστή (Pentācostā).

As this day arrives, the apostles are gathered together, and we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on them. They then are moved to begin speaking and testifying to what they know about Jesus, and as they begin to speak, this incredible thing happens. No matter from whence the people had come or what language they spoke, they could hear the apostles (all of them) speaking in their own language. The language barriers were broken down, and there was again only one language … the language of Christ … the language of the divine.

But it began, not with the disciples seeking to make a name for themselves. It began with them huddled and vulnerable. It was not ascent in any form … if anything, it was descent. The complete giving up of themselves into whatever this thing was that the Holy Spirit was doing in them … risking torture and execution in the very act of opening themselves up to the power of this new common language.

By my thinking, it is the language of descent … of going down into the depths of God much as a seed falls into the earth and dies with the hope that it will bear much fruit (see John 12:24-25). In a world focused on ascending up ladders and using “power over” kind of language, these passages and this message make little sense. But in the language of descent, we soon find ourselves on a journey that leads to the greatest spiritual depth.

So I invite you to go with me … downward … to the place where we give ourselves up entirely for God. When we choose to give up the struggle to “make a name” for ourselves, we will find ourselves standing alongside Jesus, and we will discover the capacity to see … to function from higher levels of consciousness. If we then look closely, perhaps we will see … become conscious of … a new reality. It is the reality that our name is already made … perhaps even written … in the Book of Life!

A Tapestry of Love

My grandmother was a knitter, and she taught me as a child first how to crochet and then, when she decided I was ready for a real challenge, how to knit. For a time, I actually got pretty good at it, but it is a skill I would have to relearn (since I haven’t picked up a knitting needle in years and can scarcely remember the distinction between knitting and purling). But I remember the wonderful hand-knitted scarves and sweaters my grandmother used to make for my sister and me. I would wrap up in her work surrounded, not just by the cotton or wool yarn she used, but by the very love that was sewn in each stitch.

Then today, I read a devotional by historian, Diana Butler Bass, that really struck home. In it, she talked about the reality that creation is not hierarchical, as the church has often taught, but that it is a dance or a circle or a woven tapestry. Then she had this quote from Colossians 2 found in the paraphrase of the bible known as The Message:

I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries, or “the Secret.”

Colossians 2:2-3, The Message (a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson)

Since reading that passage from Colossians, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. You see, much of Christian theology has focused on distinction and hierarchy. Much of it is based on dualistic notions of otherness (think “us vs them”). This means that we know what it means to be this and not that. We know that we belong here and not there. Even heaven and earth cannot stay together in a dualistic theology … though Jesus seems to think they belong together.

Further, we have divided ourselves as people who are on either of two sides. We almost can’t help dividing ourselves into who is good and who is evil … who is in and who is out … who is right and who is wrong … who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. We use fear, worry, and anxiety to perpetuate these dualistic notions that are, in no way, connected with who God intends us to be.

The perpetual “othering” within human society rips at the very fabric of God’s creation, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Then there is the fear of death. I woke up one day several years ago to realize that I had more years behind me than in front of me, which is even more true today. It was then that I awoke to the fear of the unknown … of what happens to us when we die. We keep trying to craft images that are comforting and that help us overcome our fears … no pain or suffering or death … streets paved with gold. I proclaim everlasting life, but when pressed as to what that means or what that looks like, I tend to defer to mystery that leans more heavily on a faith that is more about unknowing than it is about knowing.

Here is the profound insight I have gained from reflecting on this text: whether we consider ourselves good or bad or in or out or dead or alive, we all belong to the same tapestry … what The Message calls a “tapestry of love.”

This is perhaps the greatest image of the communion of saints. It is what Paul means when he writes: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8) It is what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of God is among or within us! (see Luke 17:20-21).

It is this incredible notion that everything belongs … nothing and no one is left out … there is no “othering” in this tapestry of love. There is only us! In our harsh political climate from the local to the global level, we find ourselves cut off from one another. In our own United Methodist Church, we are experiencing a tearing of the fabric of a spirituality that is dear to my heart.

Those who insist on dualistic notions of spirituality or creation or human community tear away at that tapestry and end up being those who themselves are torn away … disconnected from its life-giving “wovenness” (yes, I know I just made up a word).

In times like these, it feels as if we are coming unraveled. Colossians tells us that the answer isn’t “out there” on some wild goose chase … it is “in here” … already woven into the tapestry made for the whole of creation. In here, everything is woven together. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our lives. Our enemies and our friends. Wholeness and brokenness. Life, suffering, death, and resurrection. All sewn together into something mysteriously more beautiful than we can imagine.

As I was learning to knit, I had been working on a scarf and had made good headway. When my grandmother sat down to inspect my work, she noticed that I had dropped a stitch several rows down. The dropped stitch was already beginning to unravel and would have led to the complete unraveling of the scarf. I thought I completely messed up and would have to start over. She calmly reached over and took the knitting from my hand.

With a technique that still baffles me to this day, she took two other knitting needles and dug into the mess I had created. In a matter of minutes, she had picked up the dropped stitch and made it look as if it had been done right the first time.

That’s what it means to live only in the shadow of grace. It is the grace of this woven tapestry of love that invites us to this all-inclusive creation where we are invited to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” (Micah 6:8) It is the place where all are truly welcome and where everything belongs. Even when our behaviors or choices harm others and ourselves … even when we violently tear at the fabric of God’s creation … even when we are coming unraveled, God’s grace tends to pick up the dropped stitches in our lives and restore the divine tapestry.

So as we face the harsh realities of life in our world … as we attempt to speak truth to power (sometimes with great risk) … as we attempt to give voice to those who suffer most in our world, may our work be that of knitting and being knitted in the tapestry of love that we might intimately be “in touch with everything there is to know of God.”

The Third Perspective

In 1992, when I was in the middle of my doctoral degree, I was privileged to hear Dr. Stanley Hauerwas deliver the Slater-Wilson Lectures, which was an endowed lecture series at Saint Paul School of Theology. The two lectures he gave were titled Interpreting the Scripture as Political Act. In the lecture subtitled Why Sola Scriptura is Heresy, he completely tore apart my theology.

It was in that lecture that he made the case that the Lutheran doctrine of “sola scriptura,” which is Latin for “scripture alone,” is inherently flawed. He further made the case that both fundamentalism and classical liberalism could not adequately prepare us to handle the sacred text to which we had been entrusted. In his lecture, he pointed out that both fundamentalism and classical liberalism posit that scripture makes sense all by itself. The fundamentalist notion is that we just need to open the bible, and it will simply make sense. The classical liberal approach was that the bible makes sense IF we have the right tools with which to read the text.

The latter was what had been foundational to my theological and biblical training. I had been versed in various forms of critical method; literary critical method and historical critical method chief among them. I had learned how to study the text for clues that might lead us deeper into meaning, and to this day, it still informs my preaching and my teaching.

I would often find myself arguing against friends whom I had known yet who were essentially fundamentalist. They believed that my mind was poisoned by the academy and that the mere use of the word “criticism” about the bible was blasphemy.

Then here comes Stan Hauerwas tearing down the entire house. He argued that these two ways of thinking were but two sides of the same coin, and that neither of them got at the heart of the sacred scripture of Jesus or the early church. He advocated for a third point of view that found its footing in sacred community.

And it was right around that time that I was also introduced to the work of Dr. Walter Wink. His 1998 work titled The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium contained a chapter called “Jesus’ Third Way.” I have quoted that extensively as I have talked about the teachings of Jesus as relates to turning the other cheek, giving ones coat when the cloak was demanded, and going the second mile. In that work, Wink highlights for us that Jesus is neither practicing violence nor pure pacifism. A close look tells us that Jesus is practicing non-violent resistance. (You can read Walter Wink’s work HERE, and yes, in the spirit of inclusiveness, I am sending you to a Baptist website).

It was here that I realized two things. First, an academic approach to spirituality and biblical studies was, in and of itself, insufficient. There was a deepening, sometimes elusive, wisdom that was continually being teased out in every sermon I preached and every single time I opened the scripture in search of something new. Second, the key to this deepening wisdom and spirituality is entirely imbedded in relationship.

While Hauerwas intended his argument to make a case for the church in the language of what is known as a “neo-orthodoxy,” I have found it in a deeper “creation spirituality.” It has been born out most recently by my discovery of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest who was also a geologist and paleontologist, in his book, The Phenomenon of Man. It was further born out by Ilia Delio, the Franciscan theologian, in her book, The Emergent Christ.

Their work is about the interconnectedness of all creation, which is then born out further by Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ.

In all of this, I have come to see that the third perspective that has been finding a deeper place in my life is most fully born out in the relationships implied in the two greatest commandments … love of God and love of neighbor. These relationships are what encompass all of creation, and they are the only way forward as we seek to overcome a world fractured by rampant individualism, selfish ambition, greed, and corruption. These relationships confound our dualistic mindset that is based in notions of black and white, good and bad, heaven and hell. These relationships are themselves avenues to a third perspective.

These are relationships that are about the fullest outpouring of self … God’s self-giving love in creation and redemption, and the self-giving love to which we are called as we seek reconciliation and restoration.

The complex nature of all this is then made simple in the creed we so often recite at Wellspring:

We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

So the answer to our dualistic world is finally this messy, loving, hard-to-follow, relational God of ours. Following this God and this Christ isn’t easy, but I am convinced it the journey that leads to life.