Five Evangelical + Inclusive Ways to Resist Schism in The United Methodist Church

I am a Wesleyan evangelical. My life has been saved and is (slowly) being changed by Jesus.

In my opinion, being evangelical means, at its core, living from an ongoing internal assurance of God’s love for you and therefore finding yourself freed to do everything possible to carry the Gospel to others.

Since the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop in The United Methodist Church, there has been an understandably intensified experience of conflict throughout the Church.

And that’s okay. We remember from Pastoral Care 101 that conflict is to be expected in human life, especially in organizations, and most especially in organizations made up of millions of humans who find their unity not in a uniform ideology but in a living God and a process of salvation based on undergoing that God. With a unity rooted in Something as dynamic as that, conflict is not a problem to be eradicated but a constitutional part of the thing itself and potentially even a means of grace.

Of course it’s how we deal with the conflict that makes it redemptive or toxic. So as we continue to engage the ongoing set of questions and concerns around human sexuality, let’s do it as maturing disciples of Jesus. For Christ’s sake, let’s be careful with the accusations we make and the metaphors we employ.

For example, let’s not assume, as some do, that because someone has a more conservative hermeneutic when it comes to sexuality or wishes that an openly lesbian Bishop had not been elected, they are a blatantly homophobic hater or a hard-hearted hypocrite. A good faith approach both inspires a genuine openness to hear how someone thinks and feels about the subjects at hand and expects that the other’s journey is as complex as ours.

On the other hand, let’s not assume that supporters of the election of Bishop Oliveto (I quite joyously am one) are petulant children chomping at the bit for church schism (I quite emphatically am not). Let’s not assert, as some have, that the Western Jurisdiction has willfully sent divorce papers to the rest of the Church. The aforementioned good faith approach of actually listening to the testimonies of others will probably dissuade us from such a simplistic charge.

N.B. It’s interesting to me that most of the voices accusing the Western Jurisdiction of triggering schism haven’t offered any similar critiques of Bishop Scott Jones and his unflinching willfulness to force a church trial of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer (for being a “self-avowed, practicing” lesbian and a clergyperson at the same time) despite the commitment of the Council of Bishops “…to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another — including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.” If some of the same writers who have taken to social media to express anger or grief or snark at the election of Bishop Oliveto — in the service, they say, of a moderate or centrist position —  had publicly shared similar sentiments because of the actions of Bishop Jones, perhaps their analysis might be received as more properly centrist and as more deeply sincere.

So I wonder: can we shelf the schism rhetoric for a while in order to remember that we are, in Paul’s language, the Body of Christ, which is not a mere metaphor but an ontological reality?

We are the Body of Christ. If that reality and the necessarily evangelical life that flows from it are kept central, I believe that we will be able to hold (not deny) difference and resist schism as we also commit to truly doing no harm.

That’s obviously easier proclaimed than practiced, so here are five suggestions for living into a more profound unity. I am committed to these myself, though I am no saint. I try, I fail, I try again, I fail again. I believe that God uses the trying and the failing: such is the process of continuing to be saved.

1) Pray silently.

Give an hour a day to God for meditation on Scripture and contemplative prayer. Particularly I recommend silent prayer, and even more particularly, I recommend silent prayer before you begin your day, before you begin your work, before your ego has a chance to fully wake up and begin to plan and plot. As someone with a huge ego, I speak as one with authority on this!

A receptive, or apophatic, prayer practice (as differentiated from an active, or cataphatic, practice) means that you’ll spend less of your devotional time telling God what you think is right. Personally, I’m a fan of Centering Prayer, but whatever medium you choose, the key is to give God time and space to work in you and on you. To let go of your own words, desires, concepts, truths, maybe even your own feelings. Not forever, but for an hour. See what happens when you let the Spirit do the work the Spirit wants to do, not the work you think the Spirit should do.

2) Spend 20% of your time in the community.

Change up your schedule to spend at least a full day of your workweek making and building relationships with people who aren’t part of your church or of any organized religion. For many clergy and laity, this will be totally new, as we are used to spending the bulk of our time with church folk. There’s nothing wrong with church folk. I love church folk! But see how your missional outlook changes when you regularly have coffee with unaffiliated folks (“nones” and “dones”) and listen to why they are where they are. Put this commitment high on your list of ministry priorities. Work intentionally to set up meetings with community leaders. Join a weekly group that’s not faith-oriented and hang out with those folks week in, week out.

3) Plan a new expression of Christian community to launch from your congregation.

Start a vision process now that has as its 2-3 year goal the emergence of a new way of being in mission. Pour a significant portion of your congregation’s energy, time, and money into that experiment. Think of it as holy R&D. Help people get freed up to build something new, compelling, and beautiful for God.

4) Clean up your own side of the street.

The temptation to judge and evaluate others is, at least for me, very real. In the 12-step recovery program I’m part of, I am told that I can treat that temptation by focusing on my own shadow side and by trying to clean up the mess on my side of the street. I think 12-step recovery got that wisdom from Jesus, who teaches that before we attempt to remove the sawdust in someone else’s eye, we first need to remove the 4×4 obstructing our own vision.

I can’t speak for all human beings, but if you’re anything like me, there’s an endless supply of personal ocular lumber. The other day I got into a Twitter argument with someone. The discourse stayed civil and I think my points were fair and sound, but when I finished, I felt this surge of self-righteousness and self-importance. Again, I can’t speak for you, but when I felt that chemical surge, I knew I was in dangerous spiritual territory. If you know what I’m talking about, the next time you feel tempted with that kind of energy, do some street cleaning. Look directly at the stuff that blocks you and warps you. Honestly confront the idols and drugs of choice that you use consciously and unconsciously to maintain your superior sense of self. After a couple doses of that treatment, I usually feel a lot humbler and a lot kinder toward those with whom I disagree.

5) Gradually rethink your boundaries.

I sat next to a really smart, really committed United Methodist Bishop at breakfast one morning during a theological forum in Texas last winter. We were talking and he asked why I thought the church I had helped to plant in Chicago had grown so quickly. When I responded that among other factors, it was because we were trying to be a third-way, inclusive Wesleyan congregation, he seemed to get defensive. He said, Well, if it’s growing because you have no boundaries or foul lines, that’s not good growth. I said, Bishop, with all due respect, it’s not that we disagree that there should be boundaries around or clear descriptions of what discipleship of Jesus looks like, it’s that we disagree about what those lines are. Do you think we might dive deeper than the obsessive foul lines around human sexuality we’ve set up denominationally and reclaim, say, the Wesleyan process of salvation and the traditional evangelical doctrines (repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification) as a way of clarifying what healthy, holy pathways are and what maturing disciples of Jesus look like? He wasn’t convinced of my take, nor was I of his, but this is a long-term communal project that we’ll have time for if we take the low-hanging fruit of schism off the table.

As I write these little suggestions down, I realize how fragmented and unsystematic they are. But I hope that you’ll receive them as I genuinely intend them: as little practices of hope that perhaps God will meet us in and use, in concert with many other offerings, to show us  — all together — a more excellent way.


Bishops, Politicians, & the Importance of Being a Sinner

On a cold February night some years ago in Chicago, I sat down with my mentor in his office, opened my journal, took a deep breath, and started to name aloud the sins of my life. Not only to name them but to describe them in detail – the stuff I’d done that I shouldn’t have done, the stuff I should have done but hadn’t, the stuff that had been done to me.

This face-to-face confession is a crucial step in the process of transformation suggested by the recovery community that I am a part of. In the weeks leading up to it, I’d spent many hours working privately on a list of all of my shit. A friend who knew what I was up to told me that I wasn’t looking so good. It turns out that writing down all of your shit can make you feel pretty shitty. It’s painful, after all, to stare honestly at the secrets that you’ve been ignoring or denying for years. And, for me at least, it was even more profoundly painful to acknowledge those hidden things to another living human being.

To admit them to a forgiving God in my prayer closet? No problem.

To whisper them into the night wind under a new moon? Poetic.

To divulge them to a scrap of paper destined for a meaningful fireside ritual? Burn, baby, burn.

But to reveal them to someone sitting across from me?

Faced with this kind of spiritual challenge, if you’re like me, your mind will try to convince you that such drastic measures are absolutely not required for healing. Depending on your personality, your ego will search for Bible verses or Buzzfeed lists or TED Talks in order to rationalize an easier course of treatment. A self-care spa day, maybe, or a punishing new workout regimen at the gym, or dusting off that Tony Robbins book you bought last New Year’s.

Telling the Truth Is Not a Carnival Ride

A friend of mine is a Catholic priest. He says that the confessional booths in his church stay dusty most of the year, until Holy Week, when there’s a bit of a pick-up before Easter. I’m not dissing on Catholics. Once-a-year-in-earnest seems more significant than the lackluster practice of my own Protestant tribe, which generally relegates truth telling about our condition to a tidy little unison prayer tucked in at the beginning of worship.

I get it. Real confession is not a carnival ride.

My mentor said, Are you ready to do this?

I said, Absolutely not.

He said, Let’s push in.

And so, with a metallic taste in my mouth from the adrenaline, I started with the tiniest of things, the stuff in my list that was true but didn’t affect me existentially all that much:

I littered occasionally as a child, I said.

I haven’t recycled properly.

I have an unpaid parking ticket from 1997 that the city can’t pin on me.

(We tend to stay on the surface of things when we know that deep down there’s a Ponzi scheme-level enterprise that we’ve been internally defending even as it kills us.)

My mentor listened to those little bits for a while, and then he said, Trey, why don’t you look through your list and tell me the 3 things that you are scared to death to tell me, the things you thought you would carry to your grave, but you’re going to tell me now?

And so, by some gracious courage that did not come from me, I did tell him those things, and everything else that I was aware of at the time. He heard it all and held it all. I remember him saying with such compassion, Yeah, that’s what happens sometimes. Welcome to being human. Wow, you’ve been guarding that for all these years. Now you can begin to let it go.

So Much More Is On Offer

That night was without a doubt the holiest encounter of my entire life. Coming clean about my shit in the presence of someone who didn’t look away, who didn’t collude with my ego’s desire to cover it over or point the finger at someone else, and who didn’t judge me – that experience began to unlock the armies of locks and to unclog the colonies of clogs that had been holding me captive and slowly cutting off my oxygen supply.

The freedom that I began to feel that night has expanded over the years as, fueled by that selfsame freedom, I began to make amends to those I had harmed, to forgive those who had harmed me, and to slowly – and I mean slowly – recover and rebuild a life built less on secrets and more on truth. The apostle Paul writes of undergoing Christ, It is for freedom that we have been set free, and that is the long-term offer: not just a one-time “cleanse” but a being-freed life powered by honesty, humility, and the unpretentious courage that comes from divine assurance.

A Politics of Confession

I started thinking of all of this afresh early last week when I took part in a conversation at a theology school about what’s needed for meaningful Christian mission and evangelism in the 21st century. Much of the time these conversations center on new techniques for changing psychographics, but we found ourselves talking about the importance, for anyone charged with carrying the Gospel to others, not just of knowing yourself as someone with a message to offer but also – perhaps before anything else – knowing yourself as someone in need of help. In traditional terms: as someone who sins and falls gloriously short.

My social media feed this week is filled with news of police brutality, Prime Ministerial and Presidential candidates, and – in my own particular United Methodist tribe – the election of Bishops.

I see some White people, many of whom are people of Christian faith, reacting to “Black Lives Matter” with equivocation, denial, and defensiveness. Not me! Not us! All Lives Matter! (I can see them because I recognize myself). And I wonder about the correlation between the absence of thorough, ongoing confession in our religious practice and the intensity of our racist or racialized self-justification. It takes practice to admit that you are a sinner and even more practice to allow that truth to be not a statement of paralyzing defeat but a potential acclamation of hope. As many have said in some form or fashion, the healing is in the revealing. We will only be able to chip away at the satanic power and principality of racism by confessing in detail how it has formed / is forming us – blinding us and lifting us up if we are White or silencing us and oppressing us if we are People of Color. Only by true confession can we be joyously freed for larger-scale truth telling and justice seeking into the future.

The Stump Speech I Would Love to Hear

In the spin of the battle for the Bishop’s Office or the White House or 10 Downing Street, I grow tired of the endless tallies of victories won and awards received and bits of vague or ersatz wisdom dispensed. That’s all fine and good, I guess. I get it. It’s all part of the political/PR process in both the government and the church.

But I just long for a candidate or current leader to stand up and tell the deeper truth. Can you imagine someone starting their speech or sermon not with their shiny c.v. but instead with their list of shit?

Let me tell you about a time that I really fucked up. Let me tell you how I am guilty of sin now and how that drives me again and again into a dependence on Someone-Who-Is-Not-Me. Let me confess some of my failures to you as a testimony that I am indeed someone like you, someone in need, someone who continues to undergo transformation and therefore can join you in the transformation of everything.

I would trust a leader like that.

I want to be a sinner like that.

Real Presence

A few years ago, we hiked the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon.

Oh, the Grand Canyon! The last 100 miles or so of the trip there, you’re driving through the Kaibab National Forest, which is this immense pine forest — mile after mile of evergreen — and finally, we arrived to the Canyon a couple hours before sunset. We walked down to the edge of the canyon and just stared. You don’t really see it coming: it’s pine trees and pine trees and pine trees and then, bam, something you’ve never encountered before. A panoply of striated color and extreme topography and the blue blue sky with puffy white Georgia O’Keefe clouds and you just stare.

While staring, I remembered that Charles Darwin had journaled in great detail throughout all of his explorations. Each day of his travels, he’d scribble down a ton of words to describe whatever he’d seen. But one day, wherever he was in South America or the Galapagos, he came upon some unexpected panorama so staggeringly beautiful that all he managed to write in his journal for that day was “Hosanna!”

That’s what seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time was like. Hosanna!


So we’re walking back to the car, and radiating out from the visitor center there’s this network of sidewalks all through the park. And just off the sidewalk we were on, like right off the sidewalk, there’s an elk in this little grove of pine trees. Five feet from us. And we’re staring again. And while we’re staring, she leans her head down to the ground, bites off a mouthful of grass, looks up at us and just stares right back into our eyes and calmly chews her food. Hosanna!

Up the sidewalk only about 15 feet away, but on the other side of this little grove of trees where the elk was, was another couple. Imagine the scene: We’re on the sidewalk looking at the elk. Then there’s the grove of trees. Then the other couple. We can see both the elk and the couple. But because of the trees they can’t see the elk. And the guy is standing there and he’s noticed some hoof prints in the dirt.

He points out to his girlfriend: “Look, I think these are elk prints.”

“Wow,” she says. “So cool.”

“They actually look pretty fresh.”

“So cool,” she says.

“And — Oh my God! — Look, you can see where the elk has eaten off this bush here.”

“Oh, that’s so cool,” she says.

The elk is right there behind the trees and they’re thrilled with the hoofprints.

So they walked away, in the other direction, back to the parking lot, and after I came out of my elk trance and realized they were leaving, I couldn’t bear to let them go. I dashed after them and finally reached them, breathless and chest heaving from my first day at high altitude. I felt like Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

Me, pointing wildly: “Elk!”

“I’m sorry, what?!”

“Did you see the elk?!”

“What? No? Where?”

I’d caught my breath enough to speak. “Yeah, just back there. I saw y’all investigating the hoof prints and if you’d walked just another few feet down the sidewalk you would have actually seen the thing that made the prints. The elk itself is right there.”

And they ran back, calling their friends from farther up the sidewalk. They all ran down and came into contact, into the real presence of the thing they’d been talking about, which was right there all along, only they hadn’t seen it. But when they did: Hosanna!

Sometimes we forget that spirituality is like that. Spirituality is about so much more than inspecting texts about God, or investigating the tracks of where God has been or predicting where God will be. Authentic spirituality invites us into that little grove of pine trees, into the real, actual presence of the God who is with us — right here, right now — only we hadn’t noticed.

What Is Good Soil for Starting New Churches?

Last week I visited one of my favorite spaces in the world: London’s Tate Modern museum, which is currently featuring an installation by artist Abraham Cruzvillegas, called “Empty Lot.” Cruzvillegas’s sculpture is a labyrinth of raised garden beds built from recycled wood and filled with soil from dozens of neighborhood parks across London.

Nothing has been added to the exhibit over its six-month life except water and light, and yet day-by-day, it changes. It’s a complex piece of living art. Some of the planters have become fields of green; others, scraggly tangles of brambles; a few show no visible growth at all.


As I pondered this weird micro-farm, I thought of the Biblical Parable of the Sower, in which Jesus describes four different kinds of terrain, three of which produce little to nothing when farmed, and one of which — the “good soil” — produces an extraordinary harvest. The traditional interpretation of the parable, stemming from Jesus’s own teaching, is basically that receptivity to God (that is, good soil) will yield increased manifestations of spiritual growth (that is, good harvest).

Abundance Rates & Failure Rates

I once heard a conference speaker use this parable to talk about starting new churches. He extrapolated a bit, noting that since only one in four terrains (25%) yields abundance, there is a 75% failure rate. Therefore, he advised, in order to be fruitful, we should not only start more churches, but we should also learn to focus our planting in the ideal terrain — in the “good soil.”

With the speaker’s first point, I am all in. I definitely agree that we should start more churches and faith communities. In my opinion, church planting — or pioneering, as it’s often called in the United Kingdom — should become standard operating procedure for every region of the Church. It should be as “normal” in the mission strategy and budget of a judicatory (conference, district, diocese, synod, association, etc.) as children’s ministry, property insurance, or the salary of the bishop.

That said, I thoroughly disagree with the speaker’s second point, particularly when it comes to denominational or judicatory planting strategies.  We should have deep reservations about directing our energy only toward the demographic “soil” we perceive to be the best. Such a selective focus not only potentially limits the diversity of people we might be in ministry with, but also reduces the options for church-starting models that might be employed. If the conventional wisdom is that “one soil is best,” then what usually follows is the conventional wisdom that “one planting model is best.” To my mind, that’s not real wisdom. (Additionally, it’s very boring.)

Moving Beyond an Either/Or Strategy

I’ve noticed this either/or tendency in my conversations with leaders and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic — and in myself, too. Large church planters say that good soil is wherever you can eventually grow a weekly worship attendance of over 500 adults. Niche pioneers say that numbers don’t really matter and that good soil is wherever you can have a meaningful conversation with someone. Some believe that an attractional model is the best way to grow a church; others disparage trying to attract anyone at all and lift up a missional or incarnational model as the most authentic, regardless of whether there is any numerical growth.

My sense is that, at the end of the day, most of us tend to go with what we know. That’s an understandable if unreflective human bias.

Don’t get me wrong: going with what we know is not necessarily a bad practice, especially at the beginning of a particular project, as long as we don’t superficially award the “most faithful” label to the model that is, if we’re honest, really only our personal preference or cultural default.

But a monocultural, “what you know,” “one-soil-and-one-model” practice is absolutely less than ideal, in my opinion, when the goal is developing a long-term, multiple-project strategy of church starting and church revitalization for a whole region.

Another Take on the Parable

As I pondered the “Empty Lot” last week, a museum guide told me that the installation would soon be taken down. The whole exhibit, made of found things, will be recycled again. I found myself thinking of the raised beds where there has not been any growth yet: “But it’s only been six months! What if it just takes longer in some places for something to sprout?”

It does sometimes take longer. Actually, these days, when it comes to starting new churches and faith communities, it often takes longer.

We’ve been so conditioned by the “only-one-soil-is-good” interpretation that we miss the truth hidden in Jesus’s parable that growth actually happens in three of the four terrains. The “success rate” for initial growth is actually 75%, not 25%, but long-term potential, according to the parable, is stifled by oppression and trauma or choked by greed and egocentric desire.

Towards a “Mixed Economy”

What if, instead of starting new churches only in demographically targeted patches of “good soil,” we broadened our scope of approach and model? Actually, what if, instead of defaulting to obsessive market segmentation, we began to see all soil as good soil and all contexts as good contexts for being on mission with God (and being missioned ourselves by God)? What if we acknowledged that in some contexts, an attractional model really works, in other contexts, an incarnational model really works, and in most contexts, some hybrid will work best? What if, in addition to planting in fast-growth places, we made it possible to minister long haul in places where growth is trickier due to materialism, unchecked white privilege and white supremacy, addiction in its many forms, or other contemporary versions of the thorny and rocky conditions that Jesus diagnoses in his parable? What if the rubric for evaluating the “success” of church planters included not only how quickly she or he or they are able grow a harvest in easy soil but also by how thoroughly committed she or he or they (and their church) are to engaging and dismantling the pernicious systems that restrain God’s vision of wholeness for all people?

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, uses the economics term “mixed economy” to describe such an orientation: a diversified portfolio of (even contradictory) attitudes, theologies, missiologies, models and practices that can be employed across a range of terrains for the common good and the common goal of starting new things to reach new places and new people. Williams’s prayerful, humble brilliance knows that it is always context — not your preferred model or theology du jour — that should shape mission.

Planting and pioneering strategies for a mixed economy are necessarily more complicated and more difficult to oversee and lead, which is why, again, we tend toward what we know. But flexible, future-oriented leaders will accept the challenge because they know that a mixed economy is actually both more faithful and, over time, more successful. So they put together a weird, counterintuitive, Gospel portfolio that in the long haul will mean fewer and fewer empty lots.

Just a Few Suggestions

My personal experience with a mixed economy approach comes from helping start Urban Village Church, a multi-neighborhood and multi-group project in city center Chicago, and from mentoring and coaching scores of church planters, residents, and interns across a wide range of contexts.

A few suggestions for a mixed economy strategy:

  • Make bold plans.

A mixed economy approach does not give permission for missional vagueness or entitled laziness. Placing a high value on a diversity of approaches should not be mistaken for laissez-faire oversight. Diverse planters and pioneers should be encouraged to dream boldly; challenged to contextually communicate those dreams in clear, compelling, vernacular (non-insider) language; and then coached to build practical plans to humbly try to bring those dreams into being.

“What are you doing to experiment with that idea or accomplish that idea?” “How are you moving from imagination into action?” “How will you involve people beyond yourself in that action?” These should be a regular questions and conversations in coaching and supervision relationships across the mixed economy.

  • There should always be metrics, but the metrics will be different for each context.

Please, let’s do away with the false dichotomy of “numbers mean everything” or “numbers mean nothing.” Benchmarks are important, of course, but make sure you’re measuring appropriate things. As a coach, I’m interested in how many folks turn out for small and large gatherings that a church hosts, but I’m equally interested in how many times the pioneer/planter AND members of their leadership team have met individually with neighborhood leaders and unaffiliated folks in their community or locality. And I’m even more interested in how lay leaders are being continually developed for real ministry.

One church plant I’m coaching is just at the very beginning of casting an intentionally multi-ethnic and anti-racist Gospel vision. Because of how racism works, though, building a diverse leadership team around that vision will probably require more time and more intentionality from them than building a mono-ethnic team would require. We absolutely must take current realities and power histories such as that into account when setting appropriate metrics and benchmarks. Context, context, context.

  • A mixed economy strategy is for local churches, not just judicatories.

I believe that every Christian community, both established and new, both inherited expression and fresh expression, should build into their five-year ministry map a risky experiment of starting something new in a different terrain, hopefully outside of their current building or default mission framework. This will help dismantle the suspicion that church planting or pioneering is something that only a certain type of leader or congregation does and will reposition planting as a normative practice not only of judicatories but also of local congregations.


With an increasing receptivity to the counterintuitive truth that abundance and failure are both integral parts of any healthy approach, the good news is that it’s a weird and wonderful time to be making plans for new churches and faith communities.

And the even better news is that God is always ahead of our plans: active in every city block, every village green, every empty lot, every square inch of soil in all of creation. Together let’s partner with God to see what will grow.

If you’re interested in finding out more about my ministry as a coach, check out the website of the Epicenter Group. Or email me at to schedule a free conversation about how I might partner with you in the future.


You May Fall Apart

Because I’ve always lived in big cities, scaffolding has been a regular fixture in my life – not only the pipes and decking assembled for new construction work but also the brackets and braces that hold crumbling buildings together during repair.

It’s not just buildings, either. I think that we all have scaffolding in place. Stuff that props us up, tricks that help get us through, temporary remedies to steady the tottering frameworks we have come to mistake for real life.

A Sabbath is a day to take down the scaffolding and to remember what it’s like to be human without all the props.

Depending on who you are and where you are, that will sound like the best idea or the worst idea in the world.

Cease producing?

Lay off the multi-tasking?

Waste time?

What will I do?

Who will I be, if I’m not working (or organizing or producing or fixing or managing or planning)?

If I stop moving, I may totally fall apart!

Despite its ancient roots, Sabbath is still such a culturally weird practice that even folks who have the privilege of having two days off every week may find themselves filling the time with stuff. A friend was recently describing his “weekend”: he went to the gym twice (trying to lose weight), did all his laundry, did his taxes, deep-cleaned the bathroom, painted his study, weeded the garden, washed the dog, planned a friend’s birthday party, and bought plane tickets for his summer vacation. If that’s a weekend off, I can only imagine what his “vacation” will look like!

Look: I’m not saying that his activity, or activity in general, is necessarily unhealthy. It may indeed be a normal weekend for lots of people. But it’s not Sabbath.

So, here’s an invitation:


Really stop. For a day. One day.

Take down the scaffolding and see what happens.

Crumbling may occur. You may even fall apart.

It will be worth it.

Spiritual Cumulonimbus, Depression & Another Way to Pray

Because Britain is a relatively small island over which the jet stream constantly oscillates, the weather changes all the frigging time.

A soggy morning might turn into an absolutely heavenly afternoon, which could then give way to a twilight drizzle, only to be followed by a cloud-free starry night.

That’s just how it goes. Rain is a periodic companion.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the children’s book “Hello, Moon!” Since I moved to the UK, I’ve been contemplating writing a companion book to be called “Goodbye, Sun.”

One of the things I love about Brits, though, is that they just get on with it, regardless of what’s happening outside. For example, a couple of Saturdays ago it poured down all day long, but six hundred runners still showed up in the morning for a weekly community race at the local park, and the afternoon storming was no match for the swells of cheers coming from the football field across the street.

They may obsess about it, they may whine about it, they may talk on and on about how “in Britain, you can have four seasons in one day!” but rarely do they let the weather stop them from living their lives.

Let’s just say that my cultural response to meteorological drama is still quite un-British.

I remember one time when I was living in Chicago when I had a morning flight to catch, and I woke up to an absolutely miserable weather day. I walked with my bags through the rain to the subway, got drenched even with an umbrella, made it to the airport, made it to the gate, found out that the flight was overbooked and, of course, delayed due to weather, eventually boarded the plane and sat down wet, frustrated, fluctuating between a low pressure system of vague depression and a high pressure system of slight anxiety, worried about whatever I was worried about. I looked out of the plane window from my cramped middle seat only to be greeted by abject gloominess.

Finally we took off, hurtled down the runway into the sky, and immediately we were right into the thick of the clouds, layers and layers of them, and the windows were an unflinching grey, like a Brutalist cement wall. And then, a couple minutes into the flight, there was a flash and the wall was suddenly gone, replaced by radiant morning sun. We had broken through the top shelf of clouds, thousands of feet above the ground, and what had felt so oppressive when we were in it looked so beautiful when we were above it. If you’ve ever flown on a day like that, you know what I’m talking about.

As the sun’s brilliance filtered into my cramped middle-seat lack-of-space, I felt the morning’s emotional doldrums lift a bit, and I thought: Which of these two conditions is more true? The clouds or the sun? The quasi-depression or the relief from it?

There’s a biblical proverb: “Do not rely on your own insight” (Proverbs 3.5). I wonder if its point is not that your insight is unimportant or necessarily bad or sinful, but that it is always provisional. Your insight is necessarily incomplete. Because you are one person. Because I am one person.

So, which “reality” is more true? Is it cloudy or is it sunny? Is it both? Is it neither?

Depression & Spirituality

Anthony deMello, an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who explored the contemplative resonance between the East and the West, wrote in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality: “Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed; after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. But there is a difference: I don’t identify with it anymore.”

(To any fellow Christians reading: please don’t skip over deMello’s wisdom simply because he uses a traditionally Buddhist metaphor. Either substitute in the Christian vocabulary word “salvation” or, even better, consider the places where the processes that the words refer to might meaningfully intersect. For example, what do you make of the Gospel according to John 1.9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world”?)

As we undergo God, the stormy weather does not disappear. I think that’s basically what deMello is testifying to. As we deepen spiritually, we don’t completely stop feeling sad or anxious or depressed. We are not altogether freed from doubt or uncertainty or fear.

As we grow in faith, we begin to understand that these conditions are not only a part of life; they can also become a part of faith, particularly as we learn how to receive them and treat them when they arise.

Instead of (on one end of the emotional spectrum) hyper-analyzing and agonizing about them or (on the other end of the spectrum) ignoring and potentially repressing them, we can learn to notice these conditions, to name them, and then let them be, even let them do what they do. We can learn to stop resisting them: “Ah, there you are again, anxiety. I know you that show up from time to time. Not gonna lie, I’m not thrilled to see you, but since you’re here anyway, welcome, I guess.”

As we learn not to freak out when these emotional weather systems brew, we become less “run” by them, whether they’re with us for only an afternoon storm or they sock us in for a whole monsoon season. Very slowly, we begin to let go of the idol that “being spiritual” equals “being sunny.” We realize that, while still in our depression or anxiety or fear, we are becoming enlightened: we are being saved. Whatever the weather, we are being freed to live.

Another Way to Pray

I love nature — some Christian mystics refer to the creation as “the first Bible” — and so my former spiritual director gave me a natural image for prayer. She said to think of God as a great mountain, and you’re on the mountain, you’re on God, you’re with God, you’re rooted in God. Some days on the mountain it’s luminous and feels like a perfect day. But on other days the clouds roll in with their rain, wind, sleet and snow.

Prayer is simply the practice of remembering the mountain beneath your feet. And while not ignoring the rain (or the sun, for that matter, which is no more divine than the rain), learning to see it for what it is, which is just weather. Weather that is temporary. Weather that will come and go, and come again, and go again.

Don’t get me wrong: when crappy weather rolls in, it sucks. It really does. Depression is not to be romanticized: it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and — in my past (and future?) experience and the current experience of many whom I love — often downright painful.

But in contemplative prayer, meditation, and conscious contact with God, we slowly receive more reliable insight than our solitary capacities allow: insight to perceive that the bad weather (or good weather) is not the mountain itself. And, since we are ourselves on the mountain, that the weather isn’t our truest reality either.

Whatever the forecast, our truest reality is the mountain itself.

As the old hymn sings: “Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.”

A Suggestion

To experiment with some different forms of prayer similar to the one described in this post, check out these resources on Centering Prayer. There are a couple of short videos and a detailed brochure about the method.

How to Recover from a Case of Control Freakery

I have always been a “type-A overachiever,” which is just psycho-business babble to describe, in me at least, a pretty severe case of control freakery.

For as long as I can remember, my default approach to tackling life has been to work on projects and to deal with problems by myself. A theology professor of mine once called me “the child who was always playing by himself in his own tree house.”

So in my late twenties, when I began to begin to own up to the truth that I had developed a complicated relationship with alcohol, my predominant thought was “I’ll sort this out on my own.” And for a few years I tried all kinds of solitary solutions for self-mastery: personal improvement books, combative mantras, prayer and journaling, cleansing diets, intense exercise, a self-styled replacement therapy of cigarettes instead of cocktails, and incessant resolutions to swear off, followed by periods of abstinence that would sometimes last the entire week, or month, or even the whole season of Lent (okay, once) — but not usually.

Since none of those solutions ultimately worked for me, in my early thirties I checked out a community-based program of recovery that helped me eventually get sober and stay sober, but with my raging case of control freakery, at first I tried to do the program without the community-based part. That is, I tried to do it by myself.

Veterans in recovery advised me to take it day by day, and step by step, and to seek a sponsor to guide me through the challenging exercises of discovery and transformation that are crucial not only for stopping drinking but for staying stopped, and for staying stopped with a sense of freedom and serenity instead of a “dry drunk” paralysis that is alcohol-free but anxiety-intense. I let them know that I would be fine to take care of everything myself. “Thanks for the information, though. It’s really awesome. Y’all have been so helpful.”

I took some of their recovery literature home and decided that I would set aside a whole weekend to work through the exercises, understand how it all worked, and sort out my alcohol problem. I figured an intense two-day silent retreat would do it. And so with very good intentions, first thing one Saturday morning, I started working through the book at a fast pace, underlining key concepts, making notes, and feeling in control. By the end of the morning, I was somewhat distracted, but I willed myself to carry on. By early afternoon I was fatigued and not a little overwhelmed. I decided that maybe I needed a little help after all. So I cracked open a bottle of gin, you know, to accompany my self-exploration.

I wish I could say that I wised up after that weekend, but I ended up repeating the pattern a few more times. Ironically, the idea that I could heal myself was the very thing that was preventing me from being healed.

Asking for Help

Lucky for me, a guy who I’d exchanged emails with at one of the first recovery meetings I attended reached out to let me know that if I ever wanted to talk, he was open to it. Meeting up with him was the beginning of the end of my independent study of sobriety. He quickly became my sponsor — a sort of combination teacher, guide, confessor, and fellow journeyer who interpreted the information for me, shared his own experience of alcoholism and recovery, and asked me questions that cracked me right open.

All these years later, one of the foundational things that recovery from alcoholism continues to teach me about life in general is that any truly transforming practice or discipline requires asking for help from other people. A set intention, an inspirational moment, even a divine mountaintop experience will rarely be sufficient for long-term change if there’s not a community of other people to help model, support, and integrate the change. Without a community base, any change will likely remain at only a superficial level. To learn anything well — or to unlearn anything well — requires other people, both teachers and fellow journeyers. And better yet if they are one in the same: if the teachers are fellow journeyers, if they themselves have undergone and are still undergoing the thing they purport to teach. This is true not just for long-term sobriety from addictions, but for most, if not all, life-giving disciplines, from yoga to crossfit, piano to painting, distance running to driving safely on the left side of the road in a foreign country, to prayer. The first followers of Jesus couldn’t figure out by themselves how to pray; they had to ask Jesus to teach them. It’s not that they were stupid. It just seems that for anything worth doing, help is required.

Don’t Go It Alone

Tomorrow, many Christians will observe the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of intense self-examination, fasting, and prayer, all with the goal of aligning more closely with God. I know from personal experience and others’ testimonies that Lent often devolves into just another season of solitary solutions for self-mastery.

What if, instead of going it alone, we sought out help from others and offered help to others who share our common problem? What if we found or formed mutual communities of recovery? You don’t have to observe Lent or be a Christian or an alcoholic to try this out, because the truth is, as Richard Rohr puts it, we’re all addicted to something. Our addictions, our control freakery, and our other freakeries “out” in different ways, but perhaps a common solution is to tell the truth about ourselves to other safe, trustworthy people who get it because they have the same “problem,” and to ask for help.

In my experience, this solution works in part because it moves the problem from the territory of secret shame — and the subsequent mentality of “if I can’t tell anybody about it, I’d better fix it myself or just repress it” — into the territory of honesty, which provides access to buried levels of the human heart, soul, and mind and therefore significantly increases the potential of true change and deep freedom.

Beyond “White Knuckling”

Perhaps because only a small percentage of people are alcoholics, there are lots of stereotypes about alcoholics, even alcoholics in recovery. For example, even though I’m now in my early forties and have been sober for some time, non-alcoholics often worry about having a drink in front of me. I let them know that it’s totally fine and they should go ahead and order the wine at dinner or the pint at the pub. “But I wouldn’t want you to be tempted,” they respond, which is super compassionate but reflective of a misunderstanding of long-term sobriety. “I don’t know how you do it,” they say, because they think that recovery is about increasing self-power to be able to repeatedly face off against the temptation to drink, and to win the battle at every restaurant, bar, wedding toast, or convenience store for the rest of your life. In recovery speak, that’s called “white knuckling” — depending on your own strength to resist temptation. Which, if you have a strong will, may work for a while — a week, a month, maybe even the entire season of Lent — but if you’re like most other human beings, the odds are that your willpower will break down from time to time. You can’t do it by yourself.

For deeper-than-superficial change, something else is needed. Increased personal focus and a new set of coping skills to resist your addiction are helpful, particularly at the beginning of recovery, but to move beyond the constriction of white knuckling, only an existential shift will do: something else (or Someone Else) to actually remove the compulsion to use. I can tell my friends that it’s fine to drink in front of me because I no longer crave alcohol. Our complicated relationship is over; it’s no longer a temptation; I don’t desire it anymore. I don’t technically understand why that is or how my compulsion to drink was lifted, especially given my obsession in previous seasons of life, but there we are. I don’t understand a lot of things. The only thing I do understand is that I didn’t do it. If I participated at all in my own healing, primarily it was that I finally realized that I couldn’t heal myself and asked for help.

Only the Beginning

Now before you think I’m trying to prove that I’m some sort of spiritual giant, let me confess that my being healed of the desire to drink has uncovered all kinds of other subterranean addictions that I hadn’t realized were there before: addictions to work, to body image, to what other people might be thinking about me, to abject lust for attention and success, to judgmentalism. The program of recovery that I follow says wisely that alcoholic drinking is but a symptom of a deeper, underlying condition. It turns out that what I’ve been healed of so far is just the tip of the iceberg, just the first symptom of a whopping case of control freakery. But the good news is that I’m not alone in my lifetime supply of things to let go of: there are others who share my predicament, others who I can ask for help, others who I can offer help — a community of people who share the truth in every sense of the phrase. There is more on offer than I could ever imagine.

A Suggestion

Maybe you’re starting Lent tomorrow or maybe you’re not but you’re still longing for wholeness, for honesty, for recovery, for internal freedom and joy. Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of a different rhythm than “do-it-yourself,” even than “super spiritual do-it-yourself”:

  • Take some time to admit to yourself what your “problem” is. Remember what Rohr says: we’re all addicted to something. Is your addiction a substance addiction — to alcohol, Tylenol PM, tobacco, prescription drugs, food, porn? Or is it a process addiction — to work, working out, judging other people, sex, gambling?  Maybe you have more than one addiction; maybe you have a whole troupe of addictions. Don’t fret. Welcome to being human. Just begin to write them down. Be gentle with yourself. It takes compassion and humility to begin being honest.
  • Take some time to find a group of people who share your problem, who are in it as fellow control freaks (or fellow doormats) and fellow journeyers, who will be with you and for you, and will ask you to be with them and for them, as you live into a new way of being. (There are many different ways to seek recovery, but you can start your journey by checking out this list of groups).

Remember: there is more on offer than you could ever imagine.

Teaching Christianity as a Second Language

In early January, I moved from Chicago to Birmingham, England, after my spouse got a job here. Since then, I’ve been regularly embarrassing myself during simple acts of conversation.

  • Sitting back in my chair at the end of a dinner party and saying, “Wow, I’m stuffed!”
  • Asking the cashier at a local bakery if they had a “biggie” version of the pastry I wanted.
  • Mentioning to a group of teenagers that I liked my crumpets buttered.

All of these earnest comments brought forth unexpected silence, disgust, or laughter from my conversation partners. You can check out Urban Dictionary to find out why.

It’s often said that the US and the UK are two countries “separated by a common language.” The “same” word might be spelled or pronounced differently depending on your location. A conversation-bubbles-illustration-970x450_28517standard phrase on one side of the Atlantic might make no sense at all on the other side, or might make a totally different impression than the one intended, as I continue to discover. So these days I find myself constantly trying to translate between one version of English and the other. And while it’s not as exhausting as the translating I’m doing from English to my barely conversant French for an upcoming talk in Paris, it still requires a heightened attentiveness.

First Language Speakers

Since I’m new to the UK, I’ve also been visiting a lot of different churches, in part because I’m personally searching for a community of people to share life with, but also because, as a pastor, church planter (in the UK, a “pioneer”) and ministry coach, I’m professionally interested in what I can learn from diverse expressions of church. One of the things I’ve been struck with in many of the wonderful places I’ve visited so far — from evangelical church plant to established high church liturgy to mainline worship to Pentecostal prayer meeting to fringe missional collective — is how thoroughly the words and practices of their services assume that Christianity is the first language of the people gathered there. Words like sin, grace, gospel, atonement, salvation, offering, tithe, communion, etc., are used, often with little or no description or interpretation. (This is certainly not a UK-specific condition).

On one hand, I know that many of these and other words are particularly beautiful and beautifully particular, and there are few adequate synonyms to convey the richness they point to. So don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that we should jettison our ancient vocabulary; instead, we should teach it compellingly and as early as possible — as a first language.

Linguistic studies demonstrate the tremendous advantage that children and young students have for learning languages. Apparently the brain’s plasticity to internalize new constructions and the mouth’s flexibility to make new sounds both begin to diminish after puberty. Learning the Christian faith is of course different from learning another language, but there are still resonances to pay attention to. For example, most Millennial (Gen Y) and Gen X people who attend church services today have had some point of contact with Christianity in their childhood. The early formation makes a significant difference. So when I meet with parents who are considering not raising their children in a faith community so that “they will be able to make their own religious choices when they’re old enough,” I compare learning Christianity to learning a first language and challenge them to give their children a deeply-rooted spiritual communication system that they will be able to employ intuitively throughout their lives. If at some point their children want to learn a second religious language — Buddhism, say, or atheism — or to abandon their first language altogether, then they will be able to make that choice then. (Interestingly, linguists say that knowing a first language really well — how it’s structured and how it works — makes it much easier to learn a second language later in life). But the risk of waiting until some future age when they can “decide for themselves” is that they won’t learn any faith language at all. So, again, let’s teach Christianity as a first language, and let’s teach it early.

Teaching Christianity as a Second Language

On the other hand, I worry that many existing faith communities don’t have the willingness to learn how to connect with people for whom Christianity is not a first language, which is an increasing supermajority of human beings. Unless the Church accepts that Christianity will be for most people a second language, and then learns how to translate Christianity into the secular vernacular, there will be little potential for real engagement with those who are investigating spirituality and faith with no prior religious language or experience. To be relevant requires at the most basic level the capacity to communicate effectively.

Of course, there will be some who are particularly gifted for ministries of translation — teachers, evangelists, and apostles, for example — but I believe that teaching Christianity as a second language is a missional calling of every Christian community and of every disciple of Jesus Christ.

Words Are Necessary

Teaching Christianity as a second language will require developing individual and congregational capacities to say something about the Gospel. Probably for most of us, this will mean learning how to say something about our own experience of the Gospel, which may be why some Christianity-as-first-language speakers are reluctant to embrace this ministry of translation, because it would require them to testify, in descriptive and narrative language, to what it feels like to undergo the Gospel in their own skin.

And for many (especially “mainline”) Christians, that is awkward territory. In fact, some of us find that prospect so uncomfortable that we have defaulted almost completely to non-verbal forms of communication and evangelism. “As long as we don’t have to actually say anything about God, we’re okay.” We’ve heard sermon after sermon, usually from first-language speakers, on that old chestnut incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” That’s a lovely quote and we should, of course, be concerned with letting the Gospel permeate all of our affairs, but in this day and age, especially when it comes to ministry with the next generations, words will be necessary most of the time. Quoting “St. Francis” as an escape from having to find words reflects not only a failure of nerve and lack of verve, but also potentially a kind of “first-language privilege.”

Tim Keller, one of the brightest contemporary church planters (and someone with whom I have significant theological disagreements) hits the nail on the head when he points out that nearly every time the word euangelion is used in the New Testament, it’s connected to a verbal expression of the good news. The Good News must be “en-worded” and not only that: it must be translated into a language that makes sense to hearers who don’t speak Christianity.

How Can We Practice Our New Language Skills?

Since corporate worship is still a primary gathering for Christians in many contexts, it’s a good place to begin to practice our new language skills and to shift the congregational culture toward a ministry of translation.

A few starter ideas:

  • Begin to fold in well-curated but non-pedantic descriptions of different elements in the service each week, such as a clear statement of the congregation’s relevant mission (reason for being), an explicit welcome to the communion table, some spiritual direction that actually teaches people how to pray, etc. (Don’t do this all at once; try maybe an element or two a week). This helps not only people who are just learning the language of Christianity but also some who’ve been sitting in the pews for years using language that they’ve maybe not fully understood.
  • When preaching, work hard to hold together didactic and narrative sermonic traditions. Dive deeply and intellectually into concepts and ideas and refuse to “dumb down” complex beauty and mysterious truths. But do it narratively, as Jesus did, pointing frequently to worldly things and weaving in human stories in order to convey the news.
  • Recover the practice of lay testimony. Please do this. (I’m looking at you, clergy: give up some of “your” speaking time in the service). There are very few panaceas in the ministry of church starting and revitalization, but for my money, this is one of them. Begin to incorporate the tradition of a different layperson standing up for five minutes in worship every week and sharing how God is moving (or not moving) in her or his life. Encourage people to be authentic and to tell true, unvarnished stories. See if things don’t start to change for the healthier in your community. As Proverbs 14.25 says, a truthful witness saves lives.

A Translation Homework Assignment

The mission of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is, in a word, recovery. Now that’s a big word that signifies many things, so AA translates it: “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.” Then, in its “Big Book,” AA goes on to offer a thick description of what that process looks like, in 12 didactic steps and dozens of true stories of human transformation. AA is excellent at translation. It realizes that its language is a second one for most people, and so it works hard to make it plain. Again, to be relevant requires at the most basic level the capacity to communicate effectively.

For those Christianity-as-first-language speakers who want some extra translation practice, here’s a homework assignment. Try it by yourself and with leaders in your faith community.

  • Translate “Gospel” into 10-12 words of compelling secular language.
  • Extra credit: In the tradition of AA, break down “salvation” (Christianity’s translation of “recovery”) into a series of 3-5 steps, again using compelling secular language.

I’d love to hear your translations! Email me at I may ask to include your response in a future blog post.

So, let’s practice together, first and second language speakers with a myriad of gorgeous accents, all testifying to what it’s like to undergo God.


*This post was doubly inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Teach Yourself Italian” in the 7 December 2015 New Yorker and Bishop Sally Dyck’s introduction of a “Spanish as a Second Language” curriculum in The Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church.