Daily Devotional: (repost) Squirrels, Birds, and Eternity

Due to the death of my wife, I’m re-posting some old devotionals for a while.  This is one very relevant today, on All Saints Day, which also speaks to me on the loss of my wife.

Hope it helps you celebrate All Saints Day.  Remember, love is right with you, all around you, over you, through you.

Resting in the everlasting arms,


Squirrels, Birds, and Eternity

ImageThis morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting on my porch in Carrboro, I’m drawn into the presence of eternity.

My mother-in-law bought me a bird feeder for an early birthday gift. Today is one of the first warm mornings in a good while here in the Carolinas. And as I sit and sip my coffee, I am surrounded. I’m surrounded by the light which slides through the tree branches like a summer rain, falling as quiet around me as oak leaves in autumn, and wrapping around me like the blanket I put around my shoulders to keep out the early morning chill. I am surrounded by the rising music of bird-song, and the chitter of squirrels.

While I grab a bite to eat, a bird hops beside the table, a small tattered brown leaf in its mouth, and looks me right in the eye.

In moments like this I sense the nearness of my grandmother, who I shared about last year when I Imagewrote The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian . Grandma Myrtie is the only grandmother I remember, since the rest of my grandparents died when I was very little. After her husband, Charles, died she had a stroke and came to live with us. Our back window looked out into a wooded area and often the scene I saw this morning would play out through that large window – squirrels chasing and playing, birds singing and flittering, and the sunlight falling through the tree branches like a shower of light. I remember Grandma Myrtie sitting in rapt attention watching those scenes. She had a particular fondness for the squirrels. She would sit, her hand on my little fingers, and point out all the little in’s and out’s of the squirrels’ running, jumping, and dalliances through the window.

I think my life-long love of nature, particularly of sitting in the spring weather watching the birds build their nests and the squirrels at chase with each other, is something I in part learned sitting beside her on that grey tweed couch, watching the squirrels go by the window.

ImageGrandma Myrtie passed in my early teens, in a nursing home near my parent’s house in Fayetteville. Momma had taken care of her as long as she could, but Grandma’s dementia got worse, to the point she needed constant care. I always remember that the night before she died, momma pointed out to me – “Every night I could hear her praying to us, ‘God give me strength to be here one more day, to be here for my family’. Tonight I heard her say ‘Lord, I’m ready. Take me home’”. That next day Grandma Myrtie had congestive heart failure and passed.

Yet every time I see the squirrels play, I feel she sits beside me, her wrinkled hand on my little palm, whispering words of comfort and of strength. I remember it when I would go to a creek in adolescent distress, just to be alone, and saw the squirrels in the tree. I remember when I learned to pray by the lake side on my own as a teenager finding my own faith, seeing the birds dip into the water. I remember feeling that sense of not being alone one afternoon sitting outside the bookstore at Campbell University having just gone through a painful breakup and said bye to many friends who graduated. I looked up and two squirrels were circling my table, staring at BLT. Each moment when I sit with the squirrels, I am reminded of a truth of the faith Grandma Myrtie’s life was a testament to – I believe in the communion of the saints.

Anyone who grows up in a church that recites the creeds of the church knows those words. I did not grow up reciting them, but I have come to see the truth behind them and hold them close to my heart.Image

“The communion of the saints” is the Christian phrase used to describe the experience those open to things of the Spirit have found of sensing that all of us are connected and that even though we might be separated by miles or continents, if we both remain open to the Spirit, that same Spirit who breathes life into the budding flower and fluttering bird will connect us despite the miles. And that this connection continues even after we leave this earthly body, for death is not the end but the beginning of a new kind of life.

This has been an important reminder this past year, when I’ve sadly had to face many close to me pass. It can be quite heart-wrenching to say “good-bye” or, at times, to hear the news another has passed without the chance to say good-bye. But even then there are moments where I sense the fact they are ok, that their life continues in a way that I could not have expected, and that their love and care for me goes on.

ImageA few years ago, a dear friend from college passed, one who had been a true friend during tough times. Though she had been sick for a long time, her death was sudden and without warning.

Yet in the days before I got the news she passed, I remember having moments I felt a presence standing near me, one familiar and full of love. I remember once swearing I could hear her laughing. Then I got the call that next day that she had passed after falling suddenly. In my heart I know in some way, God had let me sense that she was alright; that this was not the end for her but the beginning of something beautiful I could only begin to glimpse. And in moments here or there that led to my friend’s funeral I could sense again that feeling of presence, peace, and love which told me she was entering into new and deeper life, a life where I was not forgotten nor any she cared of.

I wrote the following about one of those experiences:

On Golden Streets


The last time 

I saw you

a-twirl with 

a kaleidoscope of color

was it you I saw

or some phantasmic vision

of my desperate mind?

My heart knows.

Has always known.

Finally I saw you that day

as you’ve always said

you were

in your dreams.

As you have always been

though too few saw it.

Your crumpled form

I had been told fell lifeless,

and without warning

like some rag doll dropped

by an untidy and careless child

was such no longer,

but now you stood alive

before me,

more alive than ever.

You stood almost three inches taller that day.

But, how can I call it standing?

Your feet were ever moving

your body swaying like a ballerina.

You were dancing,

moving as always

to music you alone could hear,

dancing upon that marble altar

as if it was transfigured into some disco-balled club,

and no longer the altar before which cold preachers droned on

like the foghorns of Fort Fisher

mournful in the mist

announcing the coming of the night.

Your laughter chimed out its own song,

a thousand hand-bell choirs

in joyful unison

cheerfully echoing on the tin roof of my soul

like summer rain on my old home,

drowning out those other more ghostly voices.

I could have sworn this brilliant form

all crutches and wheelchairs layed aside


and you giggled

whispering of joys

that mournful company could not dream of.

Another secret you whispered

like the many we shared

as friends so long ago.

You were a gift to me, dear one,

a friend and big sister

when friends fled

and my own big sister forgot me.

Know you are never forgotten.

I can still remember our late night talks

stories and jokes

singing in my Chevy Sprint

en route to each visit our youthful loves,

and the whispered stories

we both shared of our romantic endeavors

on returning.

Nor can I ever forget

the wonder of

seeing in you

a person more alive

than I’d ever known,

never worried what the world would say

free to be herself.

Dance on, bright spirit.


And one bright morning I shall don my dancing shoes

and join you in moving again

to the music of the spheres.

Dance on, bright spirit, dance on!

Recently while reflecting on my life and especially the ways in which we take with us so much from our families, including some things we so deeply appreciate and also areas of brokenness we have to work with God’s help to heal, it dawned me another way we experience the communion of the saints: we carry with us all who are dear to us every moment of our lives, choosing which aspects of who they are to embrace as a gift. I carry my daddy’s love of fishing, of story, of good preaching, and I make that a part of who I am. Yet I also carry my dad’s temper, his tendency to be a bit workaholic, to drink more than he ought. I choose each moment which part of him that I have taken into myself I will be faithful to and how. So I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Prayer Home Companion, I preach my heart out, and I choose to find peace in my soul that doesn’t need a bottle nor flies off the handle. It is more than memories we carry – it is all those good qualities others have that we can let shape us, all the mistakes they have made we can learn from, and all the quirky uniqueness they have we can celebrate.

What is your point of connection to the communion of the saints? Who has been that point of light shedding the way for you, whose presence in one way or another continues to inspire you, though separated from you by distance or by the veil of death & the life after? What qualities do you choose to embrace from those who’ve touched your life, and what do you choose to take as lessons to walk another path?

May you sense the nearness and love of all who have gone before you, and hear the invitation of our faith – “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage … that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, Common English Bible)

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,


2013-07-10 07.19.16

Daily Devotional: Reaching Out While Preserving the Hard Call to Be Transformed

sermon on the mount laura jamesMatthew 8:18-27

I’ve always been struck by what a bad evangelist Jesus is in this text, if evangelism means what I have always heard it presented as: as some sort of ad campaign for Jesus & Christianity, promoting it in a way that will make it popular with the masses or at least accessible and easy to choose to take part in.   Both liberals or progressives like me and conservative Christians like folks in the churches in which I grew up and was baptized all talk about evangelism, often in this way. In conservative churches it is talk of “winning souls” and “spreading the kingdom”. In progressive or liberal churches we talk about “widening the welcome”, “embracing the outcast”, and “removing barriers”.

Sometimes this can mean the sort of beautiful radical welcome Jesus offers throughout his ministry, when he sets down at the table of fellowship both with the well-to-do religious or city leader and the outcast poor, including even sex workers and con artists. It can be like Jesus not waited for people looking for things of the spirit to come to us but going to where they are and reaching out in love, as Jesus does to the Samaritan woman at the watering hole and the many people with illness or disability whom have been ostracized by the community outside the city limits.

But such a focus can also lead toward reducing the very challenging teachings of Jesus down to their least common denominator: heaven when we die, God loves everybody, be good people.   Jesus didn’t get killed for telling people about love, about heaven, or to be good. Many other Jewish preachers said the same without having Rome become fearful of them and attempting to stamp out their teaching with ruthlessness.

Jesus’ teachings radically cut to the heart of our own preconceived ideas about life and how it works. He challenges our expected notions of fairness by painting images of a radical all-inclusive grace of God in his parables which upsets our notions of the well-to-do and acceptable or the gone to far and beyond help, of the hierarchies of power and vulnerability, of the victim and the perpetrator, … well of how our world and lives work.   His example upsets the power structures of his day by living out radical inclusive love in a way that ignores how society has set up its systems of power and demonstrates how another way, which levels unfair patterns of wealth, power, and privilege can happen. He questions the beautiful and pious practice of religion which can become a money-making scheme for the few but is empty and destructive when removed from compassion for actual people.

What Jesus is seeking is not converts but rather transformation — to transform our world starting with the community we live into places in which swords are beaten into plowshares, into a place living out the peaceful vision of healing and reconciliation, equality and inclusion, which the prophets of old dreamed and spoke concerning. For this to happen he does not simply need people joining a movement like one joins a club, signing their name on the dotted line and doing little else. He does not need either people who voice admiration for him with their lips as either a good teacher or as God in the flesh, thinking such voicing of faith in Him gives them a get into heaven free ticket, yet who do nothing at all else with this claim of having faith in Him. No Jesus needs people willing to be transformed, from the inside out, into people who live out these values of a new and different world built on justice, compassion, care for all at every stage of life, and of transforming communities and the earth into places that are life-giving for all people and all living things. And transforming are hearts is no easy task.

So Jesus meets the eager folks saying they want to follow him not with a “good job” or a “welcome home”, not with a big hug like one gets when they come up to the altar with “Just As I am” or an “all are welcome here” like we say in my beloved progressive churches. No, he begins by saying troubling, vexing things which speak right to what this path of following Jesus and transformation will mean they have to give up.   He says things that sound at first like actually setting up obstacles to being welcomed. Of course, I think it is more that he describes what following him *actually* entails.

I am reminded here of the great quote by C. S. Lewis on conversion in his classic book Mere Christianity:

“Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor– that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender–this movement full speed astern–is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person–and he would not need it.

“Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen…”

Lack of gender inclusivity aside (for this predicament he describes is not reserved to only male-identified folks but people of all genders), Lewis hits the nail on the head.   Jesus begins by describing the barriers that exist to following Him not because He is saying we should not as liberals do practice radical welcome or as conservatives do point people toward the path of salvation for their souls but because he is showing what we are radically welcomed into and what salvation for our souls entails. We are welcomed into a path of transformation that is painful, hard, and (though life-giving) entails a sort of death, a dying to our selfishness, our complacency, our indifference, our prejudices, and all the things that keep us from living as those making this earth as it is in heaven and from loving God, ourselves, others, & God’s good earth as Jesus modeled.

To me Jesus’ approach reminds me so much of other spiritual teachers in history who focused on transformation.   Particularly Jesus’ approach reminds me of the example of Christian mystics we know of as the desert mothers & fathers, as well the Buddhist mystics we know as Zen masters.

Both groups would have eager folks show up seeking deep meaningful spirituality but end up first being given hard, paradoxical challenges which could seem to be presenting barriers to the spiritual life but, later, they would find to be the very things that caused them to discover what barriers in their heart they needed with God’s help to remove before they could undergo the transformation which makes spiritual growth possible.

Jesus’ example shows us we need to make sure to remember that spiritual life involves dying to old patterns of thinking and acting in order to be transformed into new patterns. This dying and being raised to new life is the constant pattern of the spiritual life not just in Christianity but in all true spiritual paths.

To be true to this pattern Jesus is giving we need to be open to those voices in our life that question our assumptions, challenge our patterns of life, and push us uncomfortably to look at things we are overlooking. We also need to, yes, continue to practice radical welcome and radically reaching out but not do so in a way that we remove the scandal of the Gospel, for its scandalous nature is like the scandalous statements Zen and monastic teachers used to wake us up to where our hearts have become lax, complacent, or where we simply are not conscious of our barriers to growth.   Jesus again and again demonstrates in the Gospels that we can lovingly reach out without compromising this call to transformation.

For me a part of how I do this is to be honest about my own short-comings and areas in which I see barriers in myself. Admitting I have not arrived but, like everyone else, am on a journey while openly talking about the areas I falter allows dialogue with others about their struggles in ways that disarm their defensiveness (and my own) while opening up awareness to their areas where change or growth is needed.

Another approach I use is to take time to listen to my own questions and challenges in my heart. So often we fear our questions, push them down, and act as if they threaten our own faith. Yet in the Gospels it is often questions Jesus uses to push people out of complacency into real growth. Your vexing questions about your faith and life can be the voice of the still-speaking God calling you to deeper awareness. For an example of someone doing this, check out my wife Katharine’s blog http://www.questionsyoucouldntaskinsundayschool.wordpress.com/   In that blog she is openly exploring her doubts and questions about faith & life as a spiritual practice.

What are ways you are learning to open up to voices of others or within yourself that can challenge your preconceived notions? How are you learning to balance radical welcome, pro-active outreach, and also remaining faithful to the Gospel’s scandalous call for transformation?

I look forward to hearing what helps you on your journey.

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: A Faithful Companion for Our Whole lives

companion 4Psalm 71 paints a picture of God as One who is a faithful companion your whole life long.

When the world around us sends us the message “you are finished”, as the Psalmist has received the same message, we can know if no one else believes in us, God does.   This assurance that God is with them, God is for them, comes to the Psalmist not out of the blue in some Damascus Road moment. No, it comes out of a life of experiencing God. From their earliest days, the Psalmist has known God – not as some far off Judge or Law-giver, but as a confidant.   From those days the Psalmist has known God as One they could trust, turning to like some castle fortress in the storms of life.   And through every dip and valley, every storm and trial, God has proven God’s self faithful.

mother nursingThis experience enables the Psalmist to see God there from the start – the One standing with his mother at their birth, caring for this author like a nursemaid or as the Psalmist’s mother does.   They also envision this God of life and sustenance as being with them even into their second childhood of old age as their hair greys and they begin the slow journey to whatever follows: an image which had twice the meaning to them it does to us. To us this might be a reminder that in our greying years as memory and health begins to fail, we will not be abandoned.   God will be with us, whether in active retirement or in nursing home and hospital bed. We will experience this Presence continuing. But for the author and audience of this first Psalm, greying hair was less common than today, with old age coming more into one’s thirties than one’s 90’s.   So this also was a promise: only one very vital, with great resiliency, could live to be the one with greying hair.   The Psalmist’s experience teaches her or him that it this Companionship by the Sacred Friend grants great resiliency, exactly the kind of resiliency to life’s struggles which makes it easier not just to thrive in old age, but to reach it.   For the psalmist, old age is not something feared as they do not live in the youth-crazed age we do, but it is in fact an opportunity hoped for.

The hope and promise of this Psalm is beautifully pictured in the song “I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry”, a hymn written from the perspective of God:

spiritual companion 2On the one hand this psalm and hymn reminds me of the promise I am never alone. I can relate with finding in God a Companion, a faithful friend. My first real experience of spiritual awakening was turning to prayer as a teenager, and discovering in God One I could pour my heart out to, truly being myself, without judgment or fear. I remember being amazed, having been raised in a tradition that emphasized God as Judge and Law-Giver, in experience in prayer a feeling of being seen, loved, and accepted without judgment.   That experience has shaped my whole life and my perspective on the spiritual journey.

We can know that whatever we face, whenever we go through it, we are not alone but accompanied by this Sacred One, whom we can speak to from the heart in any moment.

But I also notice that for the Psalmist, as for the hymn writer, this is not something they simply see in their difficult companion 3moments.   A lifetime of spiritual practice, of turning to God regularly through prayer and meditation, has developed an awareness of God’s presence in their lives. As a chaplain and pastor I am with people so often through crises and trials. I see people turn to God and spirituality to find meaning. Often times there are folks who’ve never turned to Spirit who in trials find God and spirituality. But it is out of struggle, like the labor pains that produce a child.

What I’ve seen though is the amazing experience of those lives have been lived in Spirit. Many of them instinctively turn out toward where the Spirit is at work and present.   They are able to do so because of having kept a practice of daily prayer or meditation, or openness, to the Divine Presence as they understand it throughout their lives. This does not mean they do not struggle, but often times it makes it easier to find the paths they need to turn to more quickly.

So this text invites us to discover or continue a daily spiritual journey. It reminds us of its value.

woman_praying1To be honest, there are days though I do daily spiritual practice, it is hard to see. There are times that meditation just seems like going through the motions of the mind, without feeling peace or enlightenment or transcendence. There is times when I pray I am tempted to like the Congregationalist pastor in Stephen King’s book Under the Dome, to call God “Mr. Not-There”, because I feel like I’m talking to the air.   But continuing our spiritual practices especially when we are not having those moments of enlightenment, moments of spiritual awakening, a deep sense of God’s presence and a connection with all of life builds in us an awareness of the Sacred that will stay with us. We will know where to turn when it is needed. And what’s more, we will know that those moments in which the world seems silent to our prayers are normal, not a sign of abandonment, but just one part of the spiritual journey. For often even silence can speak to us, if we learn to listen.

It is like any relationship, really. My 12 years of marriage have moments of deep romance, moments of fear and loss, moments of heartache, but also moments that are quite hum-drum, uninteresting. What makes it work as that my dear wife and I keep at it.   That keeping at it builds a solid relationship that can last all the ups and downs of life. So with spiritual practice.   Continuing to build that awareness of God in your life, of your own self, and of your connection with others & all of life, cultivates a relationship with God that can buoy you and carry you through life’s darkest – and brightest – moments.

And I sure ain’t whistling any Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Leaving a Mark That Heals

jesus healing blindJohn 11:45-47

This text tells of the response of the many crowds who hear Jesus speak and see Jesus’ work and ministry. What strikes me is not the response of those who believe his message, trusting them in their own way, but instead the response of those who don’t believe his message: they are aghast, overwhelmed. They cannot reconcile their rejection of him with what they see: the signs, wonders, and pattern of life he lives which truly looks like something from God.

I think there is a powerful challenge in this example. We are called to be witnesses to that of God we have experienced in our life. We are called to be ambassadors of a new way of living in the world, one in which swords are beaten into plowshares and people torn apart by fear, prejudice, and anger are brought back together as one.   We are called to live as lights of the spark of God the Holy Spirit has breathed into our hearts and into all creation, so others might find that light of peace within themselves.   This will not make sense to everyone. Some people will be invested in the way things currently work, not wanting to examine their prejudices or patterns which feel safe but prop up structures of injustice and patterns of exclusion. Some people will be so busy about their day to day lives they have not yet had the time to stop and hear the silence that speaks volumes, so the thought of a sacred fire burning in their souls and in the heart of this world may sound like utter nonsense.   We don’t need to worry about that, but accept those people where they are and love them. What we need to ask, what I need to ask of myself, is do we live such lives that even if they have trouble believing our experience we live in witness to, they cannot deny our lives?   The goal of the spiritual life is to not just experience the living Christ within but to follow in Christ’s footsteps so that when others see our lives, they know we are people of blessing who like Christ leave a healing mark on this world.   When that happens, even if people may not be sure they can buy our experience or our words, they know there is something true to us.

If that is the case, even if others do not believe our words, we leave a mark: hearts opened, broodyspirit2relationships healed, the earth a little less wrecked. Others do not have to believe as we do or have had the exact same experience of Spirit we have had to see that and say “perhaps even if I do not buy this God stuff, I can be more compassionate. Perhaps I can be more caring. Perhaps I can help a hurting person, or try to learn what I need to put aside a little more prejudice”. At first it may not seem like much, but little by little we can make ripples that spread healing throughout our world one step at a time.

And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Learning to Read Scripture with the Eyes of a Mystic

coffee-prayer-scripturePsalm 78

I find it interesting that, as the Psalmist begins to recount the events of the Hebrew Scriptures telling the history of God’s people found among Israel and Judah that the Psalmist begins by saying “Hear my teaching, O my people; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. 2I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.”

Calling the story of Scripture “a parable” is suggestive.  This translation draws a parallel between the stories of the holy Scriptures often recorded as “sacred” history and the stories, extended metaphors, and imagery Jesus uses in his teaching ministry.  Though I am certain the Hebrew translated “parable” could be rendered in other ways, the fact the translators do so gives us some light on how our relationship with the stories of Scripture ought to be.

highland baptist bible studyGrowing up in a very conservative, almost fundamentalist faith, first in an Adventist group in the Adventist “Church of God” movement and then among the theologically conservative charismatics in which my own faith woke up personally, I was exposed to an approach to Scripture which treated these stories – even Adam & Eve with their snake, Jonah with his whale, and Moses with the Red Sea – as literally historically true.   I was told that the Bible contained all truth I needed to know to make sense of human history, of nature, and of my life.  In those churches very extreme, rigid applications of Scripture were justified based on this idea.   If what the Bible says is literally true, we need to follow it as literally as possible.

Yet if Jesus’ parables are our model for how to read Scripture, such an approach does not work.  Jesus’ parables are almost to a one not historical accounts but clearly Jesus using stories, rich imagery, and extended metaphor to imagine a world working by a different set of rules, with compassion, mercy, and justice at the center.  He constantly tells stories that everyone loves to hear because they are so different from the real world we live, yet they imagine a world as it could be and people as they ought to great cloud of saints behind preacherbe.   These stories, images, and metaphors are not actually literally true but they awaken us up to the ways in which our lives, our communities, our values both individually and as a society in the literal historical world we live in are out of joint with the rhythm at the center of life which causes life, people, nature, and communities to thrive.  Jesus calls this pattern of life “the kingdom of God”, saying it is already with us, within us, around us, and his parables are aimed at helping us begin to see it not with the eyes of flesh but eyes “born” (another metaphor) of spirit.

Read as parables, holy Scripture would not necessarily need to recount literal historical events or be interested in the laws of nature.  Instead like Jesus’ stories, the ways in which the story of God’s people found among Israel and Judah and found among the early Christian church are told aren’t focused on getting all the details of history, life, events lined up historically.  But, just like parables, they are aimed at being told in a way that shake up our status quo, uncomfortably push us outside of our expectations of how life ought to work, so we can see our lives and world with new eyes.    Read as parables, holy Scripture would not necessarily need to recount literal historical events or be interested in the laws of nature.  Instead like Jesus’ stories, the ways in which the story of God’s people found among Israel and Judah and found among the early Christian church are told aren’t focused on getting all the details of history, life, events lined up historically.  But, just like parables, they are aimed at being told in a way that shake up our status quo, uncomfortably push us outside of our expectations of how life ought to work, so we can see our lives and world with new eyes.   Reading Scripture in this way is mystical reading, reading Scripture to help us confront the truths of our own lives, our world, and how meaning exists in them we often fail to see.   As we let these stories call into question our assumptions about life, we are forced to change our relationship to how we have always lived.   Like Jesus’ parables, if we read Scripture mystically we let it challenge us, shock us, transform us.

That is the role of Scripture.

We are challenged by this Psalm not to cast aside the old, old story as irrelevant but to read it for what it is – an invitation to consider what life looks like when we see its relationship to the rhythm at the heart of existence, a rhythm which believers feel is a heartbeat that echoes due to the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit who is with, in, through, and under all things as the One who breathes life into every creature.    We are invited to see ourselves in these stories, and enter a living conversation in which the Sacred One can open our hearts, our eyes, our ears, our mind to a new awareness.

Read in this way, the stories of Scripture are like a floodlight upon our world, helping reveal things hidden in our hearts, our relationships, and communities.

I for one have grown as a person by reading Scripture in this way.  I invite you to find yourself in these Sacred stories and let them speak to your life, challenging you to a deeper level of humanity, one centered on compassion, lovingkindness, justice, and deep connection with the One at the center of all things, through whom you can discover a deeper harmony with all living things, all people, and all of creation.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Not Buying into the Lies of Empire

empire babylon2 Kings 18:28-37

Here we see the representative of empire coming to Israel, making the promise that empire makes: give up your freedom, your independence, your right to your community, your spirituality, and you will get so much. You will get wealth. You will get comfort. You will get numbness to the pain of the world.

In fact he describes them being brought to a promised land of sorts, with water, land, food, and wealth.

Yet the author makes it clear the offer empire gives us is a lie.

It is a lie for no amount of wealth can replace the twisting our soul takes under imposition of control opope consumerismver our freedom. It is a lie because land, food, and wealth is meaningless when devoid of community, enriching relationships. It is a lie because what is described as peace is in fact numbness and blindness, becoming inoculated against seeing the suffering of others all around us and losing touch with our connection with each other & the earth.

This text is challenging to me. To be honest, I know in many ways I buy the lies of empire all the time.

I sure do love my air conditioning, my internet, my electricity, and I do let it numb me to the experience of those without a roof over their head, those forced to work tirelessly in the fields in the heat so I can have my morning coffee, those whose hands are burned and scarred from working in sweatshops to build my IPhone.

stephen-barnwell-empire-of-america-moneyI do love the freedom my car, my internet, my cell phone gives me and some days the bright lights of those devices sure do make it easy to numb myself to the yearning emptiness that emerges as I let them pull me away from real face-to-face relationships and community with others.

I am finding I have to intentionally say “no” to these temptations. Though I cannot leave the empire of the American capitalist-industrialist system in which I am a part, I can change how I relate to it. I can pull back from the anesthetizing effects on me, changing my relationship to the constant noise and to the ways technology tempt me out of real relationship. I empire americaalso can think of ways that my purchasing can be more mindful, my eating more just, and my ways of interacting with life ways that connect more to other people and more to this good earth. I can also raise my awareness about the experience of those our American empire leaves out, and explore what I can do to be a part of changing that.

I am not there yet.   But I am learning.

How have you learned to see the ways you buy into the lies of empire? How are you beginning to say no to them?

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Jesus Didn’t Underestimate Women; Neither Should We

mary magdalene kinda native american lookingMark 15:40-47

It is interesting in this scene right after Jesus’ crucifixion to see whom among the disciples stay faithfully by Jesus: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome”, whom the Gospel writer calls collectively “the women”.

There is a practical side to this.  Except for ones like Nicodemus (who also stays by Jesus’s side, even contributing some land for Jesus to be buried) who is a secret disciples, all the men scatter.   A part of why the women disciples can stay by Jesus’s side is they are not viewed as a threat.   The Romans, with their machismo culture, cannot imagine a group of women taking up arms and threatening the status quo even though the Sacred traditions of Judaism describe just such acts – with powerful women of faith like Deborah who organizes the army of Israel to defend against their oppressors, like Jael who like a spy uses her feminine wiles to kill the head of the enemy army, like Judith who likewise uses her gifts as a middle eastern mary magdalenewoman to kill the unsuspecting man.  But just like many men of the Jewish culture these women are a part of and many men throughout history, the Romans only expect the male disciples to take up arms, to fight, to be a threat.

In fact, in truth, too often we ignore these female disciples altogether, acting as if the only people taught the way of Jesus by Christ are the 12 male apostles, and that only they go out with Christ’s messages as missionaries, teachers, servants in the New Testament.  But the New Testament and the early church is littered with accounts of women of faith who speak with power and authority, who serve with love and justice, continuing the work of Jesus in the world.  I think of Lydia.  I think of Mary Magdalene, remembered in many Christian traditions as a teacher and apostle in her own right.  I think of the “beloved mother and her children” that the black mary magdaleneelder John writes to in one of his letters, who appears to be a woman who pastors a church that meets in her home in Asia Minor.  I think of Priscila who, together with her husband, teach the Scriptures in the book of Acts.  Her name is listed first, a key sign that she is teacher and her husband follows her lead.  Her teaching helps Apollos, a Jewish student of John the Baptist, come to understand the role of Christ in his life.  God uses her to educate, inform, and correct a man.

Perhaps one of the most interesting accounts of such women is the Syrophoenician woman whos child Jesus heals in the Gospels.  Jesus adamently, perhaps rudely, lets her know his mission is to Israel and his own people.  She corrects him, telling her story.  Jesus appears shaken by this, heals her and then begins to go among the non-Jewish communities in Israel teaching and healing, just as much as he does the Jewish communities.   This woman’s words teach the ultimate Teacher, show God as man with men & women to dwell more clearly his path.   Seeing how Jesus is willing to be taught by a woman from a culture his community despises, shows me the ways in which our history of devaluing women dishonors the God who made them and the Jesus who both chose them as his disciples and was willing not just to let them sit at his feet and learn, but also to sit at their feet and learn from them.

And so these women stay by Jesus’s side, remaining faithful to this one who had believed in them in saint-mary-magdalenea world that did not believe in them.   Is it no wonder then that they are the first ones to experience resurrection, discovering his tomb emptied and his body no longer present and somehow witnessing Jesus transformed from dead teacher to risen, living, undying Christ.  They became the first apostles, which means ones sent forth with Good News.  Though full of fear they boldly will proclaim after that experience “He is risen!”

The male disciples will at first not believe, but later open up as those women had remained open, so that they too can experience resurrection and in their souls have the veil pierced enabling them to see too that the Jesus they loved has transformed from failed reformer, dead and buried, to risen Savior, living Christ, who is even now gone ahead of them continuing His work of transformation and inviting them and us to such work.

Growing up I was a part of a religious tradition that somehow overlooked this message.  It taught only men could speak and lead in the church.  It taught a woman’s place was in the home, submitting to her husband.  And instead of saying submission was a mutual practice of husband and wife putting each other’s needs on equal footing to their own, they taught submission was a woman quietly obeying their husband’s will.   They taught rules about what a woman could wear, how she could do her hair, how she could dress, which I imagine must have taught women to view their bodies with shame and fear.  I have since found this is all very common in conservative religious communities of all denominations and faiths, where the focus of religion is not spiritual communion with inner & social transformation, but adherance to rigid external rules.

African version of Jesus with Mary in GardenWhen I began to read the Gospels for myself, I began to see the liberating example of Jesus who continually broke glass ceilings, recognizing the value of women, their worth and power.  I saw the way the Holy Spirit, whose name “Spirit” in Hebrew is feminine and is pictured as a mother bird taking us like her chicks under her wings throughout Scripture, continues to liberate women, helping them discover their power, and causing them to shine.

And I remember my upbringing – and the heartache I’ve seen such abusive approaches to women experience.  I think of women I met battered emotionally, with physical scars from hands roughly beating them, when I worked at a domestic violence shelter.  I hear in the news of the horrible plight so many women & girls go through every day.  I see folks in power trying to clamp down on centers which protect women’s health, give women options, and support mothers, daughters, and children. And I realize Jesus’ work of helping women discover their worth, their power, their voice is not over.

I am reminded I am called to go forth with the risen Christ as He goes ahead with the Mothering Spirit’s wings about Him to cooperate with Jesus in that work.   We are all so called.  I also need to learn to shut my mouth at times, like the Syrophoenician woman shut Jesus’ mouth with her words, and like Christ listen to the voice of women, hearing their wisdom and not assuming I know their needs.  I and other men need to learn that humility.

Let us hear the Spirit and Her wisdom, no longer being barriers to each other, trusting the Spirit to be able to give women the wisdom, power, words, and strength Scripture shows us the Spirit always does.

Let’s do it together.

And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,

Your progressive redneck preacher,