On getting your feet washed

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Maundy Thursday
Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


It’s Maundy Thursday. In the tradition I follow, it’s the day we gather and wash each other’s feet.

[Aside] I pray that my church is well stocked up on Purell because I’m much more of a germaphobe than Jesus was (though, if he had Purell in his day, who knows…). I digress…

If we haven’t got the message about the one-way direction of love from God to us up until this point, this story should drive it home.

Here we have God personified in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples — some of whom he knows will blatantly betray him.

God’s Love…
One way. 
One way. 
One way.

(Sorry, I have to repeat this to get it under my thick skull and into my heavy heart.)

From the gospel reading of John

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

That last part there, Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. In other words, unless you open your heart to my love and grace, nothing you do matters — no matter how self-righteous it may seem (my translation, of course).

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Though God’s grace only goes in one direction, it never stops with us.

The fruits of this grace are multiplied through the faithful souls that receive it (‘faithful soul’ doesn’t mean ‘someone who goes to church every Sunday’, it means ‘one who grasps for abounding and steadfast love from the Divine Other at the ground of their being even when they feel they don’t deserve it’).

So, my prayer for you is this…

May you allow your feet to be washed.

May you have enough faith to set aside all the reasons you’ve cooked up about your unworthiness. And may you humbly excuse any reservations based on rationale.

God’s love is never about value or merit. God rushes straight towards those whose hearts are weakened by not-enoughness and guilt. This one-way grace of God is the only force in the universe that brings new life out of nothing and for no good reason.

May you be washed clean.
And may you see how clean God washes your world through you in response to it.

Happy Maundy Thursday.
Amen.

A lament: On the shortness of time

Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

Our time here in these bodies is short. Why do we spend so much of it peacocking, posturing, and one-upping? Why do we fill our precious minutes comparing, positioning, and straining?

I know my culture tells me that I have to differentiate myself from you. My survival instincts and the cultural collective — they command me to play chess with my personal relationships and focus on coming out ahead. Or at least capitalizing on every interaction.

I pray that I can become free of this curse. 
May I never forget that this very breath is a gift. 
Help me to love. 
Help me extend comfort and joy and caring.

Why is this so hard to do?

We are beloved children of God. We have been free and forgiven since before our first breath.

Our harmless flaws and imperfections are beloved and our hurtful transgressions are unnecessary.

Only human senses and the voice of the accuser — Satan — can define us by these things.

But God only sees the anointed one in us, no matter how much damage we inflict or how far we think we stray.

God, help keep me turned to you. And help me remember that this is impossible if I don’t turn towards my siblings here on Earth.


This lament was first published in The Jonas Letters.

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Be the created

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

I want to add some nuance to the email I wrote last night about ‘being good’.

When I say being good, I’m not talking about self-righteous piety. I’m not even necessarily talking about ‘being nice’ or having ‘good behavior’ (which is entirely subjective, btw). That stuff is all a slippery slope towards the curse of perfection.

Here’s a better way to explain it. (Let me grab my Bible here, one sec…)

There’s a psalm that lays out all the different things and creatures that praise God. What’s curious is how humans are waaaaaay down on that list. It goes…

Angels
Sun and moon
Stars
Skies
Waters
Sea monsters
Fire and hail
Snow and frost
Stormy wind
Mountains and hills
Fruit trees and cedars
Wild animals and cattle
Creeping things and flying birds
(And then) Kings of the earth and all peoples

Yep, we’re at the very bottom of the list of things and creaturelings that ‘praise God’. So, why? What is this psalm writer getting at? This is, as written, the heart of it (from that same psalm)…

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
 for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
 he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

We are created.
Our bounds are fixed.
They cannot be passed.

We can find bondage in this, or freedom. I prefer to go with the latter.

Nature can teach us so much about praising God. The rest of creation (outside of humanity) is simply what God created it to be. The rest of creation does what God created it to do. In merely being itself, it praises the source of its being.

The rest of creation isn’t self-conscious or striving to put on airs of self-righteousness. Cows don’t seem to worry too much about their weight and dogs don’t seem to stress out about improving themselves.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the waters, snow, frost, wind, fire, hail, mountains, and hills are simply what they are: The created manifestation of God in their own specific form.

I don’t think fruit trees have existential crises or anger issues. The rest of nature doesn’t look outside of God for its self-worth.

So what keeps us from this?

Well, if we could rest in our createdness like the rest of creation, it would imply that you nor I am God. You are not the creator and I am not the creator.

The story of Adam and Eve characterized a humanity that was comfortable in its naked createdness until it experienced the inversion of consciousness where it wanted to be in control of judgment. When the individual ego took the wheel and claimed itself to be the final judge of what is good and what is evil.

God said it was good, but the serpent said, try harder.

I know. Being conscious of our limitations as the created isn’t glamorous. It isn’t powerful or motivational in the Western sense. But I’m finding so much liberation in this notion.

Because EVERYTHING is a gift. From my first breath to the breath I’m breathing now — all of them a finite string of gifts. My health, the paved streets outside my apartment, the educators in my daughter’s school, my pastors, my friends who remain my friends even though I’m horrible at keeping in touch, my wife who somehow decided it was a good idea to marry me — all of them and countless more, gifts.

I am the created. I am nothing but a receiver and a transmitter of divine grace. None of it comes from my individual ego.

Of course, I don’t think that the point here is to just sit around and graze like a cow. It takes effort to do that. We humans are moved towards creation. But not in an individualistic sense. It’s when we discard our creator and try to go it alone that things get wonky.

I believe we were created as co-creators of the divine. This is where I think we fit. Securely in the divine trinitarian flow as the created but intimately plugged into the creator. This takes profound trust in the unseen.

And so, as the psalm suggests, maybe the highest form of praise is to, like the rest of creation, relax. Be the created. Rest in that you and I are created good.

Being the created means consciously assuming our divine role. 
Trying to be perfect is usurping power from God.
Because if you’re perfect, why do you need God?
Why do you need anyone?
You’ve won…
Right?
*Makes evil grin*

Relax in the presence of God as you would in the presence of someone who totally digs you. Not your ego ideal. But you. The you who has always been you — created as such.

Christ brings God to us and us to God without any effort on our part.

Rejoice in the gift of your createdness.

Amen.


This post was begotten and made on my private email newsletter, The Jonas Letters. Dip into the archives and subscribe here.

Subject-to-subject

Photo by Baylee Gramling

I’ve long heard of this spiritual/mystical concept of relating to each other ‘subject-to-subject’ vs. ‘subject-to-object’.

Every time I’d come across this concept, I’d nod my head in agreement, but couldn’t quite grasp what it even meant. Doesn’t everything we relate to become an object? Like, it’s over there, I’m over here, I look at it, and thus, it’s an object. Right?

It’s probably because I’ve robbed myself (up until now) of any formal philosophical education. But after dancing with this concept off and on throughout the years, the perfect mental image just happened to jump into my brain palace to show me what it ‘means’…

(If you already grasp this concept, close this post now because you’re way ahead of me.)

Subject-to-object is what happens when I look at a sushi roll. I’m going to devour this object and every single other one that floats down that lazy sushi river within my grasp (btw, why do the sushi rivers seem to be going out of style these days?).

Subject-to-subject is what happens when I notice an incredible sunset and I run over, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you to look out the window at THAT! As we look at the sunset, we’re standing subject-to-subject. This is the most harmonious way to relate to each other, subject-to-subject (though we are humans who are handicapped/blessed with object-making lizard brains, so there’s that).

Now let’s take this concept into our relationship with the divine…

Yes, I can (and do — often) try to objectify the divine. But, as is written in Exodus- we can see God’s back, but God’s face shall not be seen. That’s because an objectified God isn’t God. God can only be experienced subject to subject.

I like to envision God appearing with God’s back turned to me and me stepping into God’s presence and looking out through God’s eyes.

Might be worth it to enjoy this short human experience relating subject-to-subject with each other and with the divine.

(It’s just really hard to get my mind off of sushi now.)

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Emptying and restoring

Photo by Wesley Balten

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Ash Wednesday
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I haven’t attended an Ash Wednesday service in 25 years. This morning, as I sat in the pew next to my wife, I realized I was participating in a seasonal religious ceremony that dates back to the beginning of time.

The service was stripped down to the bare essentials. The accents of green from ordinary time were swapped out for the purple of the Lenten season. There was no choir and no grand entrance procession like usual. The hallowed word allelujah has been stricken from all hymnals until Easter.

The tone of the sermon was solemn. The confession was more pronounced. Much like advent, this is a cycle of somberness. One where we bear witness to our frailties and fragilities as mortals. One where we take notice of the fact that these bodies of ours will return to dust.

During this Lenten season, we take a stark look at the shadow side of our humanity. Naming our transgressions is never easy, especially in modern-day America where we’re all so enabled by our confirmation biases and cheered on by the digital applause of whatever algorithm we’ve found ourselves in.

It’s a season of self-emptying kenosis. One where we give up the gluttonies that we use to blanket and silence our inner moanings and groanings wrought from our imagined (albeit indelible) separation from our divine source.

As today’s Psalm says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

The psalm continues, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

Emptying and restoring.
Emptying and restoring.

This is the divine pattern. And it’s what I’ll be meditating on this blessed Lenten season.

I mean, I should also give up chocolate too, but…

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This small city

Photo by Max Bender

The other day, we took the L train downtown to go museum-hopping. Rory was on winter break and a lot of the museums were free to Chicago locals, so we took advantage.

At the Merchandise Mart stop, this young lady got on. She was tall with dark skin and broad shoulders. Her hair was plastered back and styled as if to be intentionally dynamic. She was wearing a red jacket and was having a ‘power conversation’ on her phone posturing about how she was getting things done and making heads roll and all that dynamic, powerful kinda stuff.

She was a force of nature, that one. On a mission.

We got off the L a few stops past that point and went about our evening. We went to Potbelly subs and had dinner (yes, classy) and then headed across the street to the Art Institute (for real, classy). After doing our thing there for about an hour and a half, we decided to jump back on that beautiful L train and head back north towards home.

As we approached the platform, I glanced up at the sign to see when the next train was due. The next natural place for my eyes to transition to was the platform straight across from us. And what did my eyes behold?

Red jacket-donning, tall, broad-shouldered power-woman. Still on her phone. Being powerful.

I couldn’t believe it. She could have gone anywhere and done anything. She could have hopped a helicopter to Washington DC or taken a different Metra train to Indiana. The possibilities were endless. But there we were. Walking up to the same platform at the same time.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened here in Chicago. Stuff like this blows me away. And it makes this big city really, really small.


This post was originally begotten and made at www.jonasellison.com.

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God isn’t in the perfection business

Photo by Jake weirick

Before bed the other night (it’s amazing how many fascinating and terrifying conversations take place before bed), Rory was talking about people who are born stuck together — conjoined twins. She mentioned how hard it must be for them to walk. “It’s sad that God would make them that way,” she said with zero apprehension.

I truly think we ask all the hard questions about life and the divine when we’re five before our parents scare us into submission due to their anxiousness.

I sat with her inquiry for a moment. Because she was right. How could we call God a loving one if people are going through such misery? I can’t imagine what these conjoined twins have to go through just to get through each day — and night.

“You’re right. It is sad that God creates them that way.” I just left it at that. But then, as I do, I strained and obsessed about that little conversation for three days as she likely totally forgot about it. Here’s where my reflection got me…

It’s easy to think of God as solely the God of humans. Especially as Christians. It’s like nothing ever existed until Jesus was born (well, maybe a few thousand years before that, riiiight?). But as Fr. Richard Rohr recently wrote…

The first Incarnation of God did not happen in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. That is just the moment when it became human and personal, and many people began to take divine embodiment as a serious possibility. The initial Incarnation actually happened around 14 billion years ago with “The Big Bang.” That is what we now call the moment when God decided to materialize and self-expose, at least in this universe.

Seeing God as the creator of all creation, we see a much larger picture.

Since the dawn of physical creation, how many plants, leaves, flowers, and trees have shriveled up and died before they reached their fullness of stature? How many rivers have dried up? How many floods and tsunamis have laid waste to plants and animals with zero notice? How many galaxies have crashed into and obliterated each other? How many stars have burned themselves out before reaching their apex? Just one look at a National Geographic special about the safari will reveal how cruel life can seem to be.

But I don’t know if God has ever been in the perfection business. I think perfection is a human construct — an impossible expectation that we hold life to.

I don’t know if God has ever been in the perfection business. I think perfection is a human construct — an impossible expectation that we hold life to.

And so, I don’t really know how to reconcile it. I’m not sure if anything was ever meant to fit the illusory human construct of perfection (which changes from person to person and from season to season).

Perhaps, if we release our grasp on perfection, we can cease trying to get life to fit in that impossible box and instead hold all of it with deep reverence. Because it truly is a miracle that I’m breathing. And you’re breathing. And we can even wonder about this.


This post was begotten and made over at JonasEllison.com.


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Ode to the nude

Photo by John Doyle

In the locker room at my gym, I often see older men hanging out, shooting the breeze… Naked.

I never see anyone younger than 65-ish years old doing this (my wife tells me that there’s this same phenomenon happening in the women’s locker room).

I always awkwardly/begrudgingly walk by like, c’mon now, guys… No one wants to see that.

But the other day, something shifted.

I was walking through the locker room and there were two old birds walking to the sauna with it all hanging out. One of them was as skinny as a rail with long gray hair. The other one was taller and more stout. And they were just chatting away like no biggie talking about the grandkids and their wives and what have you.

And I realized I had to give kudos where they were due. I was the weird one here, not them.

“Who told you that you were naked?”
 — God

Seriously, why do we carry such shame around our bodies, particularly in the US? If we could only be more comfortable in these God-granted skinsuits of ours, I think a lot of the toxic dynamics around sex might fizzle out.

And so, kudos to the older people for showing us how to be naked. I’ve got a lot of American prudishness to get beyond before I’m comfy doing that, though.

Maybe when I’m 65:)

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Blessed be the inner-poor

Photo by Jonathan Borba

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


This week, we have Jesus’ most profound sermon — The Beautitudes. This sermon is accounted for in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, it’s more extensive and it’s called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. But this week, we have Luke’s account, which isn’t quite as extensive and is called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’.

I think this is fascinating. Same event. Two writers. One (Matthew) has Jesus up high on a mountain in glorious splendor. The other (Luke) has him on level ground with ‘the people’.

These writers blatantly take creative license over how they portray the story. I take it that Matthew was an accountant and Luke was a physician turned social activist (from what little I know about them).

So, focusing in on Luke’s account, we have Jesus on level ground with the people, not on a mount of any sort. I love how this brings this ‘newborn king’ down to Earth (quite literarily). He stood with them, not above them. Very strange for such a highly esteemed social influencer of his time. For some, it was refreshing. For others, offensive. Either way, it was de-centering.

From a contemplative approach, this sermon is pure gold. Jesus is dropping non-dual wisdom that makes Yoda look like a schoolboy.

Here are some things I scribbled down as I was taking notes on this sermon…

Poor => Kingdom of God
Hungry => Filled
Weep => Laugh
Hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed => Blessed
Rich => Woe
Full => Hungry
Laughing => Mourn and weep
Spoke well of => Possible false prophet

At this point, it’s important to talk about Jesus’ use of the words ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. And I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface here…

There were no ‘conscious capitalists’ in Jesus’ day. There wasn’t anyone creating a successful lifestyle brand on Instagram selling cupcakes. If you were rich, you were likely a slave owner, part of the domination system, and overall horrible, murderous person.

So there’s that.

[Please don’t feel bad if you’ve become financially well-off while adding to the world (or even making cupcakes). We can actually do that these days. Thanks be to God.]

Contemplatively speaking, when Jesus talks about poverty and richness, we can see him as talking about inner poverty and inner richness.

This ‘inner poverty’ that Jesus points to acknowledging how poor we are, in and of our small selves.

This ‘inner richness’ that Jesus describes someone who thinks they have everything they need, in and of themselves. They disregard the forces surrounding them — human and non-human — that has aided to their worldly success (know anyone like that)?

The former — the inner-poor — have humility and can laugh at the fumbling experience of being human. They’re open to being integrated into the body of Christ (human community) and acknowledge the health of the planet for allowing them to live and breathe and eat and whatnot.

The latter — the inner-rich — think they’re self-made successes. They did it all themselves. Their duty stops at the boundary marked by their skin. Anything outside of this boundary is fair game.

We, as petty ego-driven identities go, are poor AF. We got nothing. All we can do is put out our cup and receive.

Everything is a gift. This very breath is undeserved. This very beat of our heart is as well. There is no guarantee that the water is drinkable or remains drinkable. But it is.

All we can do is acknowledge, cherish, hold it sacred and receive.

Amen.

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When you realize you’re ‘just’ a dad

She wanted a Hatchimal (like, a deluxe one), but I’m not spending $60 or whatever, so I made her this out of newspaper, masking tape, and wood glue (decorative elements credit: Rory Ellison — which looks more like the Joker than a Hatchimal, but is cute nonetheless).

I remember reading an interview (which I can’t find for the life of me) a long time ago with Guy Kawasaki, one of Apple’s original evangelists (in the marketing sense). The interviewer asked him to tell the audience a little about himself. I was expecting some bloated answer about Silicon Valley entrepreneur extraordinaire, blah, blah, blah, but his answer was short and shocking.

“I’m a dad,” Kawasaki said. 
Straight face. 
End of sentence.

I was reflecting on this the other day. I’m in a season where I’m trying like crazy to answer my vocational calling in midlife (or, maybe, slightly pre-midlife). I feel like I’ve wasted some time (give or take a decade or so) and have all these lofty plans and schemes and goals to catch up and ‘make my mark’ (whatever that means) in the short amount of time I have left.

(Listen to that… Me, me, me.)

Anyhow, I was reciting these things to myself the other day when one thought led to another and then another (as they do) and I eventually found myself thinking about how my daughter is doing in school and her upcoming play date and how I wonder if she’ll remember to bring home her water bottle today and…

Holy hell…

After all these lofty goals and expectations I have for myself and ego ideals I strive to match up to...

I’m just a dad. 
Period.

Now, that’s a big JUST. It’s, like, everything. Maybe I should put quotes around it…

I’m ‘just’ a dad. 
(There, that’s better.)

I wrote the other day about how many past lives we have. As I reflect on the concept now, I realize there were really only two lives: Pre-kiddo and post.

No matter what kinds of awesome things I may think I’m up to for my own sake, truth be told that all of it boils down to one thing.

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No happy ending necessary

Photo by Artem Sapegin

False hope is a huge industry. Like any narcotic, it provides a temporary high as one is consuming it and shortly thereafter. But then sobriety returns and crashes the party.

This is the brand of optimism that bypasses reality. It holds to the miracle while turning a blind eye to the suffering under its nose.

And we eat it up. Because as vulnerable beings, we can’t bear to face that stuff. Nope.

Blind optimism puts God in the business of producing happy endings.

[Note: As with any case, you can substitute ‘God’ with ‘life’. So blind optimism puts life in the business of producing happy endings. The happy ending becomes the thing we hold our lives hostage to — namely our relationships to self, others, and the world around us.]

Meanwhile, we’re alone with the mess of the world.

This way of looking at the world conflicts with lived experience. Happy endings come so naturally in television and movies, but human life is much more complex.

False hope bypasses reality. True hope acknowledges and transcends it.

Pure hope doesn’t override pain. It acknowledges and transcends it. Its focus is more on sustaining than escaping. It says, Lord, sustain me through these times. If I’m in pain, I pray this ends, but I need you with me in this mess. If I’m not in pain, bring vibrancy and color to the mundane moments.

True hope invites the divine in no matter how far from our ego ideal our lives have gotten. And when we invite God in — in time — we’re healed and restored.

No happy ending necessary.

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Is it right or wrong?

Photo by Harrison Moore

In the Q&O I hosted the other day, someone asked a question that I almost shrugged off as too simplistic. They asked if I thought it was wrong to take something that isn’t yours.

I typically avoid these kinds of questions. It makes me feel morally pious and pious, I am not. But I felt drawn to the question, so I stayed with it.

The first thing that came to mind was that it was conditional. If you’re stealing out of harm, then it’s wrong. But if you’re stealing to feed your family, it’s okay.

But what I’m learning is that, when it comes to the radical grace of this faith, the answer is never so simple. It’s never yes/no, true/false, right/wrong.

Asking whether it’s wrong or right has to do with law. And law is a human construct. Necessary, maybe, but limited.

I’m glad there are people who can legally put people in jail for trying to harm me, my family, and neighbors. I’m all for it. But the thing is…

Humans don’t tend to transform when you take a hammer to their heads.

Yes, it helps the victim or would-be victims. But as for the ‘offender’, it typically takes a lot of hammer blows to cause even the smallest change (if any) and then, the only hope is that they see the one thing that will change them at the heart-level.

This is grace. The universal grace that comes from life itself (some of us call it the love of God). It’s the cosmic download that speaks to us in language deeper than words that we loved in such a palpable way that no moral transgression can affect.

What I’m interested in is what happens after said moral violation. How do we respond to life after we’ve done something ‘wrong’ (yes, we’re all ‘guilty’ of these things to some degree)? What then?

If we’re closed off to grace, odds are, we’ll keep running into the human rule of law and the hammer blows will continue. Maybe not even in a legal sense; it could be the law of being ostracized by family and friends, etc.

But eventually, hopefully, something opens us up to this indwelling grace beneath all of our human self-judgments.

That’s when the transformation happens. Because theft or murder or harm or [enter any moral transgression here] doesn’t happen in an interior place of feeling eternally loved. The fruits of that tree are much different.

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So many past lives

Photo by alexandra munoz

I’m 39. So I’m not incredibly old (in human years), but I’m also no spring chicken.

The other day, I was thinking back to a point in my life about 12 years ago. I’d first met Alex (my wife). I was a golf professional living in rural Nevada who was politically conservative (though starting to have reservations), day-trading FOREX on the side, and training heavily in the Japanese martial art of Aikido working towards my black belt with the hopes of one day opening a studio of my own.

Being a dad wasn’t even a thought in my mind. Living in Chicago wasn’t on my radar. And if I told that person that he would someday consider the seminary or blogging about contemplative matters, he’d think I was insane.

When I close my eyes and put myself in that person’s skin, I feel like an intruder. I’m not that person anymore. Sure, there’s a resemblance of him at my core, but it’s really like a past life.

I can rewind even further to when I was a Junior in high school. My mom had passed the year before and I was mostly living with my heroin-addicted aunt (unbeknownst to me at the time) who was doing her best to support me when my dad was out of state working for weeks at a time.

Totally. Different. Life.

I’ll go even further back to when I was five. It was the first birthday party I have a recollection of. I remember eating the cake batter my mom was making in our kitchen on River Road in Modesto, CA. My friends were coming over soon and we were going to have my party at the neighbor’s house (they were a retired couple who had a huge swimming pool and my birthday is in August, so that worked nicely).

Waaaay. Different. Life

Life seems to be about constant deaths and resurrections. We have so many past lives…

Which ones lay ahead for us to live?

It’s amazing how little (and how much) control of that we actually have.

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From sacrifice to sacrament

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer

We humans used to focus our worship on offering things to god(s). Plants, animals, delicacies, gifts — even fellow humans in our darkest seasons. It was all about sacrificing something to appease whatever god we were worshipping at the time. This is how status with the divine was established.

That’s how a lot of Christians in modern times see Jesus. As a form of human sacrifice to a bloodthirsty God. Now, maybe it’s my layman’s naivety and ignorance, but I think this misses the point (hugely). I think Jesus came around and flipped this entire principle on its head.

It seems to me that he took the opportunity in the last supper to showcase that it was time for us to accept God’s sacrifice this time.

Jesus offered his body and blood via bread and wine to us. Now, instead of having to feed God through sacrifice, we were being fed by God through sacrament.

This meant that the sacrificial status game was over. This God that Jesus represented needed nothing from us. All this God wanted was for us to receive Godself into us. To stop the obsessive feeding and become fed. To step away from the spiritual ranking system, sit down at a table together, eat, drink, and be merry.

From sacrifice to sacrament. What if this was the paradigm shift that Jesus ushered in?

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40 Things I Love

Photo by Ksenia Kudelkina

I’m late to the game here, but I was so inspired by Jon Carl Lewis post, “40 Things I Love as well as Tre L. Loadholt’s post, 40: “These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things,” that I decided to take up the challenge and list forty things I love, in no particular order and with a minimum (I hope) of thought.

  1. Alex (my wife): She was born on the day I was baptized, so there’s some seriously weird voodoo going on there, at least.
  2. Rory (my daughter): I mean, she’s my female mini-me. My little sage. And she drives me crazy. Which is good for me.
  3. The rest of my friends and family (no, I will not list all of you).
  4. Coffee: The dark old-school stuff. Not the newfangled hipster kind. I want bold and burnt, not orangey and raisiney. (This is not me macho-signaling. On the contrary, it’s because I put a lot of cream and sugar in my brew and actually want to taste the coffee.)
  5. Oatly oat milk: I used to buy cartons of it in bulk, but now it’s not available to non-commercial customers. So I mostly go with Trader Joe’s soy creamer, which is delicious but isn’t very healthy.
  6. German beer: Preferably bock beer or Oktoberfest. We live in an old German neighborhood in Chicago, so I’m in German-beer heaven.
  7. Open fires of any size: From a candle to a bonfire, doesn’t matter.
  8. Cabin porn: My Instagram feed is full of the work of cabin pornographers. I wish I could be one myself. Gotta figure out that business model.
  9. Books about hygge: Yes, the hygge craze these last few years has got me good.
  10. Contrast: Warm inside spaces with cold weather outside: Or cool inside spaces with hot weather inside.
  11. Early American Hymns: It’s one of the things I love so much about our particular Lutheran church. Chamber music and early American hymns. Just puts me there.
  12. Bach Sonatas: Especially via Chris Thile on mandolin.
  13. A certain subset of modern bluegrass musicians: including, but not partial to all musicians in the following bands — some of whom overlap: Punch Brothers, Hawktail, I’m With Her Band, Nickel Creek, Crooked Still, and The Wailin Jennys.
  14. Traditional Liturgy: Candles. Robes. Incense. Scripture. Stained glass. Bowing. Kneeling. Bread. Wine. It’s a tradition that’s in my bones. Brings me home every time.
  15. Good conversations: If you talk about sports or politics, you’ll be talking to yourself.
  16. Sarcasm: If done well.
  17. Mountain lakes: I prefer these to oceans because I like to be able to see the other side. Again, I like contrast and the mountains and smooth water bring it in a big way. Tahoe is my favorite and closest to my heart.
  18. Learning new things: Because there never is enough.
  19. Being wrong: Because this is the only way I actually learn.
  20. Being right: Because it feels so good, yeeeah!
  21. Ireland: Perfect climate. Great pubs. Fantastic storytellers. Kind people. History. Ahhhh…
  22. Pubs with no TV’s: Again, Ireland.
  23. Playing golf with friends: Walking, not riding in carts. Golf was my first life, and it’s fading from my current one, but it’s still a part of me.
  24. Hiking: Alex and I used to hike a lot when we lived in Nevada. And then we had Rory. For the first year or two, we could throw her in the hiking backpack. But then she got too big to fit but too small to walk for more than 20 feet without complaining. She’s almost big enough to start hiking, so I hope to be back at it soon.
  25. Skiing: I learned at age 37 and am not very good, but I love it.
  26. Writing: Obviously.
  27. Reading: Mostly non-fiction. But this year, I’m FORCING myself to read fiction consistently. Nothing helps my writing more than reading fiction.
  28. Good sermons: I used to like sermons that made me feel awesome, but these days, I love sermons that make me feel small (but that make me see how awesome God is).
  29. The audacity of humanity: kindness, courage, and compassion that’s beyond human reason is God in motion.
  30. Jesus: Of course. But a different Jesus than a lot of Christians in America worship (I write about this A LOT, so I won’t explain here).
  31. Chicago: Stormy, husky, brawling — this is the city of big shoulders. Classy. Hard-working. Big-hearted. Architecturally astute. Well-planned. I could go on. This place where I live is incredible.
  32. Lake Tahoe: It’s still home to me. Driving around that lake never gets old. Swimming in it never fails to cleanse the soul. And there is no sky like the sky above Lake Tahoe.
  33. Lutheran Theology: Luther was a maniacal genius and I love him for what he did with the gospels focusing on grace through faith rather than works. I’m not crazy about some of his personal opinions, but this is where I exercise my faith in the grace he spoke of by knowing he is a flawed, forgiven human — perfect in his imperfection.
  34. Cubs home game days: Not that I watch sports. I only know two of the players' names (one happens to live down the street from me). And the games are super expensive. But there’s something about Wrigley Field and the buzz of a Cubs game day that I love being around (we live 1.5 miles from the park).
  35. Family gatherings: I have a (very) small family, but my wife has a big family out in the suburbs that I love hanging out with. Even though it makes me a bit neurotic to have dinner with that many people, I always wanted a big family and it’s nice to have been brought into one through her.
  36. Laughing: I mean, right?
  37. Crying: Even better. And something straight, white, cisgender males don’t allow themselves to do nearly enough. I learned that you can only cry when you feel safe. And they produce healthy cleansing hormones in the body. So unlike many of our fathers may have suggested, tears are good news.
  38. Good stories: Again, Ireland. The Irish tell the best stories, hands down. I can’t stand it when people’s eyes dart away when I’m telling a story, so it’s something I’m constantly working on. I can write one, but speaking one is a different — well — story.
  39. Poetry: It shows me that I can be loose with my words. Writing poetry is extremely therapeutic. You can let the words take over and do their own thing. Reading a good poet reveals the color and richness available in the human language.
  40. Hot springs: When we lived in the Sierras, we had access to a number of natural, inhabitable hot springs. There’s nothing like sitting in a bath of mother nature’s bubbling brew surrounded by snow and staring up at that wide sky.

Now… What’s your fav-40?

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What humans say about the divine

Photo by Mario Purisic

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Presentation of the Lord
Click here for Lectionary readings.

NOTE: See, this is why this is called the LAYMAN’S Lectionary Series. I totally used the wrong readings for this week’s entry (below). I blame the Vanderbilt Divinity Library website because I clicked the right link, but it sent me to the wrong readings. I should’ve used this one (which they’ve just updated)…

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Click here for Lectionary readings.

Enjoy the post anyhow (based on the wrong readings here).


I used to look at biblical texts as coming from a certain direction. I saw them coming from God to us. The question I’d ask myself while reading them was What is God saying here? How does God want us to live?

But then, I grew confused. Because when reading this stuff each week, I realized how many different versions of God were referenced in the text. And how many different — conflicting — ways God was acting in the world.

Then it hit me... These texts can’t necessarily be seen as God speaking to us. These are human accounts and testimonies of the divine. They show us what humans were saying about God at the time they were written.

Maybe the question is, “What is God making known about Godself through us at the time this passage was written?”

Things came to life when I flipped the direction. These are human accounts. That doesn’t discredit them for me — if anything, it makes them more holy.

Moving into this week’s readings — particularly from the Hebrew Bible in Malachi and the Psalms — there’s a lot of talk about a triumphant God. About God refining us like gold and silver. God is mentioned as a sun and a shield.

When I think about the humans who wrote this, I realize they lived under drastic conditions. The writers of these poems didn’t live in urban sprawls with WiFi, GrubHub, and indoor plumbing. They were undergoing one military invasion after the other.

And so, when I see the writer speak of refinement, this makes sense. Because we refine gold and silver through harsh heat and cold. Just the kind of conditions they were living through — quite literally — at the time.

Sometimes I think some of us need more refinement in our modern Western world. Yes, we have our issues. No, we’re not all living in extreme wealth eating cake off a frozen platter (would that be luxurious? — I dunno). Some of us can fully relate to the refinement process mentioned in this text.

But in general, we’re soft these days (especially if you’re of a certain demographic such as myself). Even a generation or two back, our ancestors were solid. Yes, they had their flaws just like anyone, but they were steeled. They were more refined through the hardships they faced as a culture. (Again, huge, sweeping, general terms here.)

Sometimes I think that we need this. But I’m also terrified of any kind of discomfort. I can’t stand to not have WiFi and when my shower isn’t hot enough, I get cranky. It’s ridiculous.

As I read these texts the other night, I could see the desperation and hope of the writers. This is not to be shunned or discounted. This is real. THIS is where the human mind goes when it’s facing obliteration.

As the Psalm says, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.” Leaning on God as a supportive supernatural force makes sense in this context.

Being a thinking human is hard. Because we, unlike other species, can consider the following — what if we’re insignificant? What if none of this matters? Am I just a bacterial infestation that’s slowly rotting away on the inside, only to perish at some undisclosed time?

Do you know what kind of life this existential black hole leads to? (Oh, yes, you do, because you’re human.)

This idea of a God who might love us — a God who steels us and provides us sun and a shield, wow… Suddenly, our eyes light up. Things change as our eschatology changes from horror to hope.

Is. There. More?
Or should I just lay down and curl up now?

Questioning whether these texts — or even the Bible — is ‘true’ or not is a modern luxury. Yes, it’s one that I’m glad we have, but it’s a luxury nonetheless. When you’re comfortable, it doesn’t make sense to even consider the divine. You’ve got it covered.

Now, again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, it’s just that you’re living in a different paradigm than those who wrote these texts.

This is why Jesus went to the margins — to the sick, the ostracized, the oppressed, and the broken (and even the wealthy tax collectors who no one likes). Because it’s they who are sincere about their consideration of the divine. When people in power write about the divine, it almost always comes out toxic because it’s almost always focused on manipulating people in order to maintain power and secure their level in the hierarchy.

I digress…

In the accounts of Hebrews, we see the story of God told in a fascinating way (for its time). God… As a human. Not for the angels, but for the people. A god who swoops down into flesh and dying to the one who holds death over our heads.

This was Jesus’ eschatological middle finger to the powers that be. A compelling twist to the human narrative of how the divine shows up in our experience.

And yes, he was circumcised. So there was that.

(I didn’t get into the gospel reading this week much — besides the middle finger and circumcision thing — because this Hebrew Bible stuff is just that good… Please forgive me.)

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Discernment

Photo by mari lezhava

I’m currently going through the discernment process to enter seminary and eventually serve as clergy.

Note the word discernment...

In today’s day and age where anyone can take a 4-hour online course in something and become a ‘certified expert’, I’m really liking the slowness of this process.

There aren’t many professions around today that carry this level of intense apprenticeship and peer participation. It’s a process that involves my family, congregation, synod (the Lutheran version of a diocese), and seminary.

It’s not necessarily a yes/no kind of thing. It’s a constant conversation between myself and these parties to discern whether this path is or isn’t for me.

The end result is yet to be determined. I could write to you four years from now announcing my ordination or I could write to you next week or next year about how it all went haywire. My fate in this vocational path lies in so many bigger factors than my small, feeble ego which thinks it knows what’s best for me.

Discernment. Intention. Careful consideration. Scrutiny. Apprenticeship. I don’t know if it’s my age, but I’m really enjoying these old-school attributes of this vocational discernment process.

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Perennial wisdom is not ‘practical’

Photo by Wells Chow

Following perennial wisdom of any sort is really (really!) hard.

My preferred brand of it comes from the teachings of Jesus and just a small dose of it is enough to break my brain…

  • When they strike you on one cheek, give them the other one also.
  • Forgive those who persecute you.
  • Lose your life in order to gain it.
  • The meek shall inherit the earth.
  • God loves the spoiled son more than the obedient one.
  • The rest of the flock is abandoned for the one idiotic sheep who got lost.

I mean, what do we do with this?!

Unlike practical spiritual advice, perennial wisdom sets out to obliterate the ego, not pander to it. The latter doesn’t sell books like the former.

Practical spiritual advice makes me feel good inside. Perennial wisdom makes me want to crucify the one who gave it to me.

But this is why I’m drawn towards it. It’s so different and more radical than any other way of living I’ve ever followed.

I have to say, though — I miss you, Law of Attraction. You were so much more comforting to my ego.

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Time is running short — love hugely

Photo by Jedd

This one’s short — a little reminder, if you will…

It can seem that there are so many wrongs to right. So many dragons to slay. So many minds to change.

But just like the length of this post, our lives are also short. Therefore…

Life is short. There’s not much time left to love others.

We humans can do this. We can love, purposefully and deeply, with no reason at all, against improbable odds.

Don’t rob yourself of this sacred opportunity.

Time’s a-wastin’.

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We find our significance when we lay our individuality down

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Click here for Lectionary readings.


It’s easy to get caught up in our small, individual identities — especially in today’s connected world fueled by social status and individual persona. Our digital footprints follow us everywhere. Most of us mere mortals haven’t figured out or wanted to escape them and they’re on display for everyone to judge and condemn (just as we do — to some degree — to everyone else).

This week’s readings are profoundly practical in this light. We’re at a pivotal moment in time. We can live in a way where the ego runs rampant using our digital tools as weaponry to tear others down (either to their face or not) in order to bolster our individual image… Or we can realize just how interdependent we actually are and use the tool of the social web for good.

I want to focus in on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this week. (I’ll include the Message translation in its entirety below because it’s just that good. If you don’t feel tingles down your spine as you read it, I don’t know what to say.)

This letter gives me such profound hope for humanity. Because if we can come to realize the perennial root of wisdom that Paul points to — in whatever way we come to it (no, it’s not exclusive to those who read his letter or even who call themselves ‘Christians’), we might just fulfill the prophecy of the great John Lennon and come together, right now

Okay, cheesy Beatles references aside, this letter is profound now, but back then, it was paradigm-shattering. People in first-century Near-Eastern culture were used to a hierarchical religion. One based on certain people ranking higher than others in the eyes of God.

Paul lays waste to this notion in this letter...

In it, he points to the spiritual truth that we find our individual power in God when we lay our individuality down.

We find our individual power in God when we lay our individuality down.

Like a body that has many different parts and pieces, the human race makes up the body of Christ. Each part is significant and crucial to the whole. An eye doesn’t wish the ear wasn’t around. The foot doesn’t become envious of the hand with all its rings. All live and function fully as themselves while serving and living amidst the ecosystem of the whole.

Yes, we each have different roles, but no one is more significant than the other. Every part needs every other part.

In Paul’s depiction of this Christ-body, there is no more ranking. We are all forgiven, healed, and restored in the eyes of God. Our role is to recognize this in both ourselves and each other so that we can live as such.

Speaking of living as such, what would that look like?…

Maybe we could see each other flailing through this life and — instead of holding each other to impossible, ridiculous standards of perfection — release each other from it.

Everything works together. Yes, things can get sick and out of balance just like in any system. But when this happens, the rest of the system moves in to support those areas for the whole to begin functioning properly again.

It’s not about getting everyone to look and live the same way. This goes for the church as well. Whether it’s a room in the suburbs full of silver-haired people in button-down shirts and Dockers or a stadium in NYC full of hip young people donning Supreme and skinny jeans.

We see that we are brought together in the Christ consciousness. Life becomes bigger and more integrated. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves — labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free — are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

We can take this societal approach and turn it inwards on ourselves as well. When we do this, we notice that we have inner elements that we deem good and bad, pure and impure, healthy and sick. But in the body of Christ, all of it is used. In fact, as Paul alludes to, the hidden and shameful parts are the parts where God is working the most intently. We can’t try to hide or suppress those parts.

The awareness of our unity in the body of Christ makes us more significant, not less.

Here it is, from Paul to the Corinthians…

You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts — limbs, organs, cells — but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain — his Spirit — where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves — labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free — are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way — the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

You are Christ’s body — that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in his church, which is his “body”:

apostles
prophets
teachers
miracle workers
healers
helpers
organizers
those who pray in tongues.

But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.

But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.
 — 
1 Corinthians 12:12–31 The Message (MSG)

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