A Week in the Word: not the container

In my Week in the Word feature, I like to highlight progressive voices of faith here in the south-land.   Following the annual gathering of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ, the community of churches which I call my spiritual home, I heard this thought-provoking sermon by Pastor Dana Cassell, who serves both in a local Church of the Brethren in Durham, NC, and also who does work within its wider denominational life.

She speaks a voice born and formed in the Blue Ridge of Virginia, yet also a life long active servant of others in the peace church tradition of the Brethren.   Deeply rooted in the long tradition of her community of churches, which traces back to the radical reformation in Europe, she is also an outspoken progressive voice in that tradition, constantly calling her people to ask how they can re-shape their understanding and their expressions of faith to better serve, love, and work as healers in this changing, hurting world.

Pastor Cassell spoke at Peace Covenant’s 20th anniversary about the struggles of Paul’s churches, the choices her own church in Durham is facing, and also the struggles her denomination was facing as it approached its annual conference.  As I listened, I was struck by what amazing parallels these struggles have with ones that I heard other young clergy at our annual Southern Conference gathering voice: how the church is at a turning point, in which we must struggle how to make our faith our own for a new generation, yet how so much of the externals of our institutional life together are becoming barriers to expressing the fullness of who our communities truly are in Christ.   My feeling is this is a struggle going on not just among Congregationalists like myself or Anabaptists like Pastor Cassell, but across the Christian world among all communities and perhaps even in all faith communities of every tradition.

I hope her words also resonate with that tension in your own lives and communities, and opens up a conversation about how we can re-think the way we do church in ways to make them more relevant for our communities in this changing world.

Your progressive redneck preacher,



not the container

taken from https://danacassell.wordpress.com/2016/06/27/not-the-container/

dana preachingSermon 6-26-16

Peace Covenant Homecoming!

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

We are still lingering here in the book of Galatians, with our dear friend, the fiery and tactless Apostle Paul. Paul is one intense dude. He says some seriously offensive things – offensive both to our modern ears and to those of his first hearers.

The Galatians were no exception. Last week, we talked about how the Galatians were totally steeped in their identity as Jewish people – God’s chosen ones who belonged because they kept the law. And we talked about how offensive it would have been to hear Paul preaching such a destabilizing message as he does: that following the law alone is no longer sufficient for living an unblemished life of faith. Paul is just pummeling the worldview of these Galatian Jesus-followers, and he is not holding back.

Paul himself knows what it is to live by the law. He was, by his own admission, a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. He knew what it was to defend the law with a zealous passion, even to the point of violence toward another. Paul knew, intimately, what it felt like to be caught in the midst of great, systemic and cultural transition. He knew what it felt like to see your entire world and sense of identity crumbling around you. Raised on the ancient scriptures and rituals and practices of Judaism, Paul had been their fiercest defender until he encountered God on the road to Damascus, was struck blind and turned right around into the newness of life with Christ.

Which is why, even though Paul remains totally objectionable, tactless, offensive, chauvinistic and ill-equipped to broker compromise among the early Christians (or, for that matter, us here today), it’s also possible to hear in his strident message a word of unfathomable grace – made all the more unfathomable because he is who he is and has come from where he has come.

Paul, the former persecutor of any and all Jesus-followers, is now not only traveling the known world planting churches of Jesus Christ, fundraising and encouraging, circuit-riding and preaching the gospel, but also, at the very same time, committed to widening the welcome of this new body and ensuring that the essence of the gospel be carried on in new and surprising ways.

Paul is as objectionable a saint as there ever could be, but he is zealous in his insistence that anyone called by the Spirit to join this new fellowship of believers is to be admitted without any further test, requirement, background check or hoop jumping. The work of the Spirit, according to Paul, is more powerful than any work of law. He is utterly committed to the spreading of the gospel, the furthering of the message of resurrection, the continued growth and care of this world-shaking truth: that God loves us, calls us, and gathers us together into a life more abundant than any of us can ask or imagine. Listen to what Paul is preaching – and remember who Paul is, where he has come from, all that he’s witnessed and mourned and lost:

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.

Did you catch that last line, there? IF YOU ARE LED BY THE SPIRIT, YOU ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE LAW. Um, what was that, Paul-the-law-loving-people-persecuting-Pharisee?!

Last week, we talked about how crazy Paul would have sounded to the Galatians, people born, raised, formed and steeped in the knowledge that belonging to God meant living up to the law. We recognized how scary this message would have been for them, how it might have felt like their entire world was crumbling beneath their feet when Paul struck that blow to the law as the Way the World Worked.

But here’s another really interesting thing about the people in the church at Galatia. Paul’s preaching comes a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Scholars aren’t sure of the exact date of this letter, but we know when Paul lived and worked. This letter could have been written anywhere between the late ‘40s to the late ‘50s of the Common Era.

That means that these Galatians, hearing Paul’s crazy word, would have been just edging into the second generation of Jesus-followers. The first disciples and church-plants would have been maturing into communities whose survival had been won and existence had come to a place of firm rootedness. But now, having secured their place in the world, communities like the one in Galatia needed to address some of the stickier questions of what it was going to mean, for the long-term, to be sustainable communities of faithful followers of Jesus.

“Okay,” I imagine them saying to one another, “we made it. We’re here to stay. Now, what does that mean for these new people coming in without understanding all our history? Should we make them take a history course? Should we sit them down and tell them how hard it was for us? Should we require them to do some sort of hazing ritual? Do they have to get circumcised before they can really be a part of us?”

“Oh, and what about all the rest of the things? Do we need to build ourselves a new temple? Do we still keep all the dietary laws? How important are all those old commandments now that we have this new sense of being led by the Spirit into this new, abundant life? If anyone can join us, do we need rabbis or priests anymore? What about all those sacrifices we were making to please God? Can we do away with killing our livestock now that we understand God to be pleased with us?”

“And how about a new building? Should we start a fundraising campaign so we can have a respectable place to meet so that everyone knows that we are a religious group? Maybe we could put an ad out in the paper for a good rabbi who’s looking for something new and creative. Maybe our Torah teaching sessions could use a new curriculum update to include all this new learning from Jesus. Our infrastructure is really going to need some beefing up, here.”

Can you hear that conversation? Things have changed, drastically, and these were people formed and shaped by a religious system that had rituals, rules and practices to govern every part of their life together. If things were changing so much, can’t you imagine that some of their first thoughts would be how they could edit, adjust and restructure the institutional and legal boundaries of the tradition?


I can hear it, because I hear it all the time in the church of today.


13524536_10101286374417177_1042018237188663622_nInterestingly, Peace Covenant is also in the position of edging into second generation questions. Twenty years is quite the landmark! Generally, I think, a Homecoming Celebration is a pretty nostalgic time – a time to remember and honor those faithful people committed to the founding and care of an institutional, congregational structure. And man – am I ever grateful to those of you here and those of us elsewhere who caught the vision for a congregation of Brethren here in this place and poured your hearts, souls, time, money and effort into making it a reality. I am one among hundreds of people who have encountered deep and lasting blessing in this fellowship. We’ll have some time, over lunch, to tell some of those stories about how Peace Covenant came to be and what it’s been like over these last couple of decades.

But actually, on this Homecoming Sunday, I am far more interested in the kind of thing that Paul was talking with those Galatians about. I am far more interested in how we will encounter and engage the second-generation questions of what it is to be in community together. I can feel, here, in addition to deep commitment to the fellowship, a stirring among us, a curiosity about where the Spirit will lead us next. It’s here – we are here, God is here, and there is a deep calling here for Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren. I can feel it. Can you?

What I think we will have to bear in mind – along with all our sisters and brothers in the Church of the Brethren and the wider Church universal – is this message from Paul: just because you learned it that way, just because everyone expects it to look this way, just because there are rules and laws and unspoken requirements pressuring us to conform to this old way DOES NOT MEAN that the Spirit is calling us to maintain the old structures, the old laws, the old institutions, the old boundaries. In fact, Paul says,

If you are led by the Spirit, then you are no longer subject to the law.

What a scary place to be. And what a thrilling one, too.


I was listening, the other day to a podcast with a Jewish rabbi – Rabbi Sharon Brous – who is the leader of a new kind of Jewish community out in California. She grew up Jewish, went to Israel to understand her roots, came home convinced that she was called into the rabbinical work of leading a congregation, but could not find a synagogue that made sense to her. She could not find a spiritual home or community that understood the deep roots of Jewish belief and practice and at the same time applied all that force of spiritual tradition to the very real and pressing questions of modern life. She found synagogues that did one and synagogues that did the other, but had a very hard time finding a community engaged in both the deep rituals of tradition AND an alert awareness of the modern world.

So, she decided – with the help of lots of other Jewish people who felt caught in the same bind – to begin a new Jewish community. The growing fellowship doesn’t call itself a synagogue – not, she says, because it is NOT a synagogue, but because the people she connected with had such lukewarm associations with the word and the concept. Instead, their community is called “Ikar.” That word – ikar – is a Hebrew word that means “essence.” In fact, when Rabbi Sharon and her community sat down to talk about what, exactly, they wanted this new fellowship to be about, they made a list of words: essence, root, heart, foundation, core. And when they translated their list into Hebrew – a language that has far fewer words than English – every single one translated into this: ikar.

Here’s what Rabbi Brous says about why she and her community are doing this new thing. She talks about what most people call the modern rejection of religion and says that when she talks to people, she learns that:

They are not rejecting ritual – they love ritual. Not rejecting community – they desperately seek out community. Not rejecting the ideas of gratitude and humility and mindfulness…They love the idea of discipline around eating. They resonate with all of these things. What they reject is the twentieth-century iteration of religious institutional life that feels dead to them. They don’t like the container. They love the essence when they’re introduced to it…It’s not the container that’s holy. It’s the essence, the fire inside that’s holy.

This is also, I think, what Paul was preaching to those Galatians, and what he is preaching to us, here at Peace Covenant. It’s not the container that’s holy. It’s the essence, the fire inside, that’s holy. And Paul gives us some really particular ways of discerning what that holy essence is made up of.

If we are to live our lives dedicated to Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, then our lives and our life together will embody the essence of Jesus’ life death and resurrection, the ikar of it all:












If we live by the Spirit, Paul says, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Not bound by the law, forced to a lifetime of replicating old containers in the hope that something new will happen, but open to the surprising, troubling, terrifying newness of God’s Holy Spirit pulling us ever into something both new and utterly familiar, creative and also i13537626_10154837198504918_92072381411671860_nkar.

I don’t know what that looks like here at Peace Covenant, but I am heartened by the openness, the curiosity, the dedication and the creativity that live here. I am incredibly excited to be moving into this community’s second-generation, third-decade life together, led by the Spirit and guided by the essence of this life together in Christ.












Song of the South: River Song

Here is another poem I wrote while experiencing the presence of the cosmic Christ through meditating at the river at Wild Goose festival. 
May it bless you!

The stillness speaks

 in crevices of rocks, 

in whispered voices of rustling leaves,

in flowing streams that call out in wordless rhymes 

our hearts hear, as they interpret for us 

thoughts too deep 

for our conscious minds to know 

in cicada cries that set my spirit dancing 

in step with echoes of a knowing deep and true,

beyond all images, even language itself.
These thin places, o Cosmic Christ, 

are where I feel 

your hand taking mine 

like my own brother 

leading me up craggy cliffs 

as we climb beyond mist-filled valleys 

dim with shadow 

embraced by that Spirit 

whose song surrounds us 

in every greening leaf 

scurrying squirrel 

and heartbroken face 

now cracking with the dawning

of laughter, song, and story 

where the full-throated wail 

of sorrow, trauma, loss once reigned.

Song of the South: Cosmological Constant

Here is a poem I wrote some time ago about my experience of Cosmic Christ in Nature, which ties in with the reflections I have been sharing. I hope it blesses you. I would love to hear about your experience of the Cosmic Christ, present in all things, each person, and each moment.
Your progressive redneck preacher,

Cosmological Constant

“Split a log and I am there;

lift a stone and you will find me”

So, they tell me, you have promised.


soil worms

But I remember my little hands,

fingers growing blackened and dirty

from splitting rain-softened logs,

in which I found

but damp worlds unexpected

grubs and bugs crawling in tiny colonies

dug deep into ancient wood

which were as busy and full of life

as the exhaust filled asphalt streets

which are surrounded not by echoing bird song

or crunch of leaves

but the squeal of tire and honk of horn.

Stones I then lifted

only to feel damp earth beneath

full of red worms

that wriggled wrapping round my fingers

as tight as that red forget-me-not string

I once placed on my pinkie

to remember an upcoming birthday.



I cannot but wonder

had I heard you whisper those words then,

while gathering those night-crawlers, crickets, and grubs

preparing to ride with daddy

to the lake behind Uncle Charles’ old place

in search of bass, catfish, and brim,

might I have thought

that those insect eyes

I found staring back at me

were yours,

the very eyes of God?



I remember too,

while sitting with Cecil

in biology class


that drop of water, pressed into thin slide,

expanding under borrowed lens

into a world

where little galaxies

of amoebas, bacteria, and algae

danced as if across some newfound patch of sky

just like the schools of fish

daddy and I watched when, our chore done,

we sat pole, in hand, waiting for our first bite.

Those moments I would look up

surrounded by the song of owl cries and bobcat calls

mingling with the music of overeager crickets

who were unaware of their fallen brothers

hanging like victims of some forgotten war

upon our fishing hooks

and I would witness

the same dance there,

in pinpoints of light

circling a crescent moon

as bright and radiant as the lights

of Los Angeles were

when they gleamed beneath the lookout point

in the La Crescenta hills

where my love and I later sat

in soft embrace.



Richard Rohr and the Cosmic Christ

richar rohrIn a recent talk on the podcast “The Liturgists”, Father Richard Rohr shared his thoughts about the Cosmic Christ.    Rohr suggests that our emphasis on Jesus as personal Savior without emphasizing Him as Cosmic Christ, reconciler of all creation, can lead us to accept Jesus without accepting Christ.  He suggests this may be how we can have a society full of so many who say they have accepted Jesus but are unmoved on the ecological crisis, on issues of social injustice, and even about their own inner brokenness.  This point is an important one to explore in American Christendom in general and particularly here in the south-land, in which coming to accept Jesus is a constant challenge we are invited to, yet often by people whose Christianity leaves room for ignoring the oppressed, marginalizing women, propping up systems that put down the poor and minorities, and propping up homophobia.   To accept Jesus requires also embracing Him as cosmic Christ, who invites us to be those who work toward the liberation of all people, the full flourishing of all creation, the reconciliation of all creatures & types of people, and our own inner wholeness.

I invite you to consider Rohr’s words by checking out the podcast here:



Your progressive redneck preacher,


Song of the South: Trust Fall

As I discuss how being renewed and revived through experiencing the cosmic Christ in new ways while at Wild Goose, and how this calls me to continue to do the same each day, I am struck by how central stopping, pushing away the noise of the days I have faced, and just meditating and paying attention are to this experience.   While at Goose, I wrote a poem about such meditation.

May it bless you!


Trust Fall


I sit cross legged at the foot of the high mountain
whose greening presence looms over me,
its sunlit shape reflected off the waters
like one of momma’s oil paintings
that hang upon my home’s walls
crafted here not by momma’s skilled artist hand
but by unseen brush-strokes,
soaked with light itself
patterned into shimmering art upon water canvas
by mother Spirit’s ever moving fingers,
shrouded even in this golden morning light
as if by concealing cloud of mountain mist.


Its shadow falls over me like the comfortable blanket
which wrapped my beloved warm and safe
our last cold and stormy night.
All fear, insecurity, and shame of the past fade away
into the warmth of its unfolding.

My breath moves
in sync with the song of the stream,
a rhythm which stops the grinding wheels of time,
of progress,
of aging,
of loss.


Still and silent there,
my eyes lock with a green legged bright winged companion,
grasshopper meditating upon rock
around which foaming waters
roar in eddies and flows,
constant and unchanging as time.

french broad river

And, like me in this moment,
all of that flows, rushing down river.
While I am at one with river,
green hill,
and rock,
I am silent,
swept up in each note
of your siren song, Oh Spirit.


Encountering the Cosmic Christ

tent revival

Earlier this month, I was blessed to attend Wild Goose Festival, a gathering here in the south-land which is a type of contemporary camp meeting. It invites people to join in a type of revival. Though it draws on the tent-meeting revival tradition of the south-land, even down to folks camping in the mountains by a river, hearing speakers and musicians performing under giant tents, it does so with a progressive vision of life which, on balance, emphasizes God’s unconditional love & grace, our call to deep spirituality which holds no prejudice against other cultures & faiths, and with social justice toward minorities, women, queer folk of all stripes, and the outcast.
In previous years when I attended I was the most struck by opportunities to sit at the feet of great speakers and teachers such as the late Phyllis Tickle, Father Richard Rohr, Teresa Pasquale, Frank Schaeffer, Rev. Dr. William Barber, and many others.
Methodist-Camp-Meeting,-1836This year I found, after a year of much changes, a need for something different. This year I faced the loss of multiple people dear to me, including several mentors & friends and even an intimate life-partner of over a dozen years. In the midst of this I was engaged with emotionally grueling, constantly on-the-go work as a hospice chaplain. Then, my own process of healing involved renewing my connections with and commitment to very active patterns of life: becoming active in my church on boards, a Bible study group I now help lead, a hand-bell choir; becoming more actively involved in old and new friendships; becoming more involve in community activities that get me at work toward social justice and more eco-friendly lifestyles; and recently even exploring and finding romance again. All of that, even the painful days of loss, in the long run have led to positive changes and growth in my life. However taken together it has been a roller coaster ride at top speed. I arrived to the mountainside upon which Wild Goose gathered reeling, needing to stop for a moment.
So I found myself drawn away from the speakers at first, drawn to sit by the riverside, to hear its waters, to listen through meditation to my own heartbeat and the story of my own life. In fact, the first act I engaged in after setting up tents with the friend who asked me to join him at Goose was to take off my shoes and do what my current significant other calls “creek-stomping”: jumping into the flowing waters of the French Broad River, feeling the current move all around me.
At first I felt a little bit of guilt to be ducking out of hearing speakers or listening to music, simply to sit with the silence of the woods, hearing its song. Yet as I meditated, I felt broken pieces of my own heart begin to knit together in new ways. I felt a comfort lift me up and carry me.
This experience of comfort, healing, and renewal found in sitting in the midst of the greening presence of nature in meditation is reminiscent of the words of great Southern poet, Wendell Berry:

“When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

When I finally heard words that connected with my soul, it was when I listened to Matthew Fox talk of the Cosmic Christ, the living Christ who we saw embodied in the life of Jesus yet is now present in all of nature, all living things, and each person no matter how oppressed or outcast. I realized as I listened to Fox speak that when I was meditating by the river or writing out reflections that struck me as I listened to the song-like rustling of leaves overhead, I was not just doing nothing. No, I was encountering afresh the One who touches me in every story I hear told to me by a patient on my hospice line and their families – the same Cosmic Christ who calls out to us saying “I as hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick or in prison and you visited me”.

This is because it is the Cosmic Christ St. Thomas was remembering when he wrote in the ancient Christian writing bearing his name, “It is I who am the light that presides over all. It is I who am the entirety: it is from me that the entirety has come, and to me that the entirety goes. Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.” (The Gospel of Thomas 77). The Cosmic Christ is the one I experienced calling me away from the crowds into solitary places, as Jesus was so drawn in His earthly life, to be renewed and made whole.

RiverLifeI realize now as I write that each of the aspects of the Wild Goose festival which renewed my spirit so that it begin to lift wing and soar over my time there this year were experiences of the Cosmic Christ embracing me and restoring me in various ways.
I hope in the upcoming posts about my Wild Goose experience to talk specifically about who the Cosmic Christ is and some of the ways we experience this Christ presence in our lives, using my own experiences of this movement in my own life from Wild Goose as illustrations.

To close, let me share with you the words of a Mary Oliver poem, “By the River Clarion,” that Matthew Fox said perfectly depicts a personal experience of the Cosmic Christ to him:
“I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered the moss beneath the water.

“I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through all the traffic, the ambition.


“If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.

“Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God) would sing to you if it could sing,
if you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?

“If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

“He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?

“Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.


“Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?
And should we not thank the knife also?
We do not live in a simple world.


“There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.”


“My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest, she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.


“Along its shores were, may I say, very intense cardinal flowers.
And trees, and birds that have wings to uphold them, for heaven’s sakes–
the lucky ones: they have such deep natures,
they are so happily obedient.
While I sit here in a house filled with books,
ideas, doubts, hesitations.


“And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
—- – –
May we experience communion with the Cosmic Christ in our own lives and souls as well.
Your progressive redneck preacher,