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Somewhere Out there

Somewhere out there is a person who knows this story is true.  Truth is a big deal to me because I grew up as an exquisite liar.  When I came to faith I found that truth shifted big into my priorities.  It’s been more helpful than not.  This is a true story.

I was told this story over a couple of beers in a little bar in PA by another pastor.  The story didn’t actually take a couple of beers, but it was told and we were sitting there… yeah, you get it.

So, my fellow pastor decides he needs a new suit.  That’s a big deal for a pastor.  New clothes are immediately noticed by parishioners (you know who you are).  Comments to many pastors, even complimentary comments, are received as judgments.  There are pastors who wonder what everything said to them means.  If you notice his or her new suit… perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, I guess we’re paying her pretty well.”  Or, “Hmmm… wonder if he bought that before or after the last fundraising campaign.”  Many if not most pastors are thin skinned in receiving comments.

I realize I’m not like that, but, I will admit that my son is 35 and I have a picture of him as a nine-year-old and I’m wearing the same jacket that I still wear today.  So, maybe I’m just avoiding the comments by wearing clothes until they just fall apart.

I had a man in one church offer me $250 to go out and buy a suit.  I had 3 suits that I just didn’t wear that often, but I was advised to accept the money.  Then I went to a 2 for 1 sale at a nearby men’s shop and did just that.  I have a friend who is an interior decorator, like a “let us fly you to Japan so you can do the interior of our yacht” kind of interior decorator.  When I told him about the initial offer he said, “Did you tell him ‘add $750 and then we’ll talk!’?”  I didn’t mention the sale to him.

So, anyhow, my fellow pastor gets a new suit that has to be fitted, etcetera, and so he goes to pick it up.  Since he has a meeting just after the purchase he wears the new suit out.  He arrives at a office building, parks and makes his way through the lot.  As he does he realizes there is something cutting at that soft skin in the back of his knee.  It begins to plague him as he walks and, of course, he shifts as he is walking, pinches at the material, thinks if may be a pin and stops to examine it all, walks and shifts and shifts and shifts.  All the time it is getting worse.  He can’t find anything.  There’s no lump, no pin, just the little jabbing, gently slicing feeling that gets more and more irritating.

Finally, he’s through the lobby of the building and into an elevator and heading up to the meeting.  Now, you should follow his emotional experience of this moment.  After all this frustrating irritation, he’s feeling like he’s suddenly in an enclosed space, all alone and with a few minutes to himself when he can probably take care of this issue.  He unzips his pants, hunches just a bit and jams his hand down his pant leg to right behind his knee.  As soon as his fingers touch it, he knows what it is.  It’s one of those “inspected by #3” stickers.inspected

But just as he is able to get it between two fingers, the elevator stops and the doors open.  Two women are right there, who suddenly stop their conversation and step back, staring wide-eyed at the hunched man with his hand jammed through his zipper hole.  And, of course, my friend says the worst thing he could possibly say at that moment, as the doors close, “Wait!  It’s okay!  I’m a pastor!”

Pastors will think about what other people think… forever.


P.S. See… didn’t think about the election the whole time you read that, did you?


The New Purity

The Cult of Purity developed by the Christian church over the centuries is showing its fractures from the devastating blows of our present Election season.  It is time for Christians to renounce purity as an objective of faith, to remove it from any form of expectation in spiritual growth and to denounce it as having anything to do with devotion to God in Jesus.

We are in the throes of an effort to retain the most exquisite practice of created purity and seeing it as our means of acceptance by God.  It’s a lie of our own making and we’re teaching it to our children.

Because we have worshipped our own efforts and rejected God’s free gift of righteousness, we have created everything from music to jewelry to trinkets as representative proof of why God should love us.  We claim it makes us pure when it really only separates us from others.  It isolates us from other human beings.  And, because of this, we have come to the place of shouting at each other over a fence about who’s right and who’s wrong.  This “fence” if examined objectively should be comparable to the plastic part of a child’s farming toy set.  There’s nothing actually there that couldn’t be stepped past or knocked over with the merest effort.  But we’re acting as if it is real, as if there is a real border between us when the truth is that it is completely and only our choice that separates us… a “more pure than thou” perspective, that is little more than air.

Neither of our two major candidates is worth defending. Neither should be attacked.clintontrump We should not be tying our name to theirs because they do not represent who we are nor what we believe.  Also neither one of them is going to achieve a future that will make a lasting difference to our lives or faith.  Their choice of Supreme Court justices, their decisions on insurance and the economy will not create heaven and it will not be of any effect on the will of God.  God is going to use whatever we throw at him to make things work according to his own ultimate design.  We will not find or be able to follow the will of God.  The best we’ll ever be able to do is acknowledge it is working, usually after the fact.  We cannot accomplish good or pure.

“Why do you call me ‘good’,” asked Jesus of a young man and then he made things perfectly clear by saying, “No one is good but God.”  Not you, not me and not by our vote.  The leaders who are suggesting you can get there are only trying to retain their own power.

You will not secure the future through trying to be pure because purity is not achievable.  It is a gift from God and cannot be earned any more than God’s love.

The way into purity is through peace with God.  It’s found in the wholeness that God creates in our souls.  We need to step back from the people who are shouting.  We need to step back from the posts on Facebook.  We need to step toward our brothers and sisters, and also toward all those who are ashamed at how we look on the world stage at this moment.  We need to become the community of Jesus because the new purity he brought us is ours because of his efforts.  This will require us giving up control of the future and trusting God.

Once, I was in a gathering of Christian leaders when one of them made a seriously racist statement.  The room went silent.  The single African-American in the room spoke about that later, that no one spoke up, no one challenged the statement.  I don’t know if they, as a young person, had ever experienced a cold plunge into unexpected shame before.  One voice actually clarified the situation that sparked the original remark, and that actually challenged the perception that led to it.  But the speaker wasn’t addressed again that evening.  He was shunned spontaneously because he had shamed the room.  He came back repentant the next day.  He came to see a new purity.

Step back from the keyboard and the keypad. Step toward faith.



I’ve been kicking around, with a few people, the idea that money is the closest thing we experience to the power of God.  Weaponry was (and still is for some) the thing we leaned on and even philosophy held sway at one point, but today as we face living in our society the thing that will make a difference, that will change the course of life, that will make things easier or give us answers is money.  The spiritual power of money has never been so effectively on display.

Power, the ability to wield change regardless of others’ choices, is thoroughly integrated with a high level of financial stability.  So, money is trusted and respected and worshiped even when we act like we’re talking about power as primary.  Power is built on the presence of money today.  Anytime effective power is expressed without money (civil disobedience, e. g.), it is experienced as remarkable and even surprising.  It makes the evening news.

The stark contrast of true power, that which doesn’t rely on the presence of money, is such a part of everyday living for most people that we almost don’t notice it.  People who use it well dismiss its presence sometimes and certainly state that they have no claim to responsibility for its strength.  It’s referred to as “just what you do,” or “the right thing” or “what anybody would do.”  Its worth and truth are so deflected that it is generally experienced as if it doesn’t contain the strength on which we all rely daily.

This is love.  We narrow it down sometimes to call it kindness, patience, joy but the essential element we’re talking about is love.  This is the nature of the world, how it actually works.  What is a marvel to me is how much Christians do not get that.

The immanence of God, that recognizable presence, is sometimes misconstrued by Christians.  It’s as if we act like it comes and goes.  That it was here at the time of creation or Jesus or as the Spirit touches one’s life, but that otherwise it is, perhaps not far away, but, not here.  But what if it is?

What if the presence of God is what we rely on for everything?  What if every element of every day is inhabited by God – Creator, Son and Spirit, as we experience and explain God?  This is not to be confused with pantheism where God is holed up in every feature of nature.  It is the living power that keeps everything happening, and we experience God’s presence through the mediation of the Son and the enlivening of the Spirit.  Then God’s otherness than us is always in touch with the reality we inhabit through the work of Creator, Son and Spirit.

So, dropping it down a bit… the lady feeding the cats out her back door is living in relation to God.  The protestor who is shouting for equality for the voiceless is living in relation to God.  The friend who picks up the tab at the diner and slaps you on the back with a smile as you leave is living in relation to God.  Our weakness, frailty, and the limitations of who we are, or what we can accomplish individually, do not separate us from God.  God infuses them with the power that sustains the world… love.





As a person who has dealt with serious depression I recognize triggers that can lead me into the whirlpool of disconnection.  I use that word particularly because I feel like it expresses my experience.  Disconnected.  I recognize when the plug is pulled from life and what is life-giving and how I begin to live as if I am untouched.

It’s been hard for me to write my blog for a period of time now because of the internal wrestling.  So, if you look at the last few with that in mind you’ll recognize that they speak of light, life, hope, relationship.  But you’ll also notice that they come sporadically and that’s because of the wrestling.  I make no excuse for it.  I don’t feel bad about it.  I don’t worry over having it.  I recognize it.  lonelyAnd then I work against it.  In following that direction, I discovered that depression gets me in touch with real life and real hardship in mine and others’ lives.  I also discovered that it is a feeling and not reality itself.

I can’t tell you why the feeling arises.  I can and do reflect on my life and what kinds of trauma may have led to the power of the triggers later in life.  But the triggers, themselves, are just happenstance.  They are just comments or memories or bit of worry.  They just happen along at a particular time.  And that’s the thing, the particular time is one that includes an atrophy, a decline in effectiveness because of underuse or neglect.

You see, that “particular time” is already upon me.  The trigger just takes advantage of that.  It’s an aspect of spiritual warfare.  Our spirits are supposed to be connected with the source of life.  We are supposed to be living in relation with the fullness of reality – we are creatures in the same way that trees and streams and bees floating through lavender and dandelion seeds in a breeze are creatures.  When we forget that we lose touch with the sense of being created.  That sense, that connection with the source of life is what provides our way forward.  It is that voice speaking behind us that guides us into the future.  “You have come from somewhere and you are going… somewhere.”

The ancients used to describe God in these terms.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  When we lose touch with the ends we wander into disconnection, doubt and we are left to make up our best bets on living without guidance from behind or direction ahead.Life

Maxfield Parrish painted a cover for Life magazine and they held a contest for the best caption.  The winner was something like “He is a scoundrel indeed who robs life of its ends, leaving only doubt.”

When I wrestle I realize sometimes that I’m not wrestling with depression.  I’m wrestling with God.  I’m wrestling with the one who wants me to know that I don’t have to do this on my own, I don’t have to worry myself into oblivion, Jacob angelI don’t have to think the stresses and travails of life are biggest and only things that matter.  There is more.  He is wrestling with me to release my claim on power, my claim to be able to handle whatever life throws at me.  He shows me my weakness without removing my dignity.  He reminds me I am Israel… which means “one who wrestles with God.” He is wrestling for my heart.



23 hours and 15 minutes

Crawled out of bed at 2:15am, got washed, shaved, dressed, kissed my sleepy wife good-bye and headed out on the trip to the airport.  Parked, went through security with no bags except my briefcase and made my way to the gate.  Flew to Nashville, TN and, even with having lived in FL for 10 years, felt like I was suddenly, really in the South.  Rented a car and drove to the address I was given with GPS.

When I got there I stopped short because I was suddenly at the right number on a semi-busy road and backed into the driveway.  There were three young adults on the front stoop.  I hopped out and asked, “Are there Cloningers here?”  They all smiled and nodded and so I hopped back in and backed up the driveway and behind the house, got out and came in.

There was grown-up Lilly who said, as she came across the room and hugged me, “I’m Lilly.  Gosh, I haven’t seen you in soooo long.”  I said, “I know, yeah, but I’ve seen pictures of you right along.”

And so I was in Nashville, TN at a brief stop on my way to Franklin, TN to be with my friends Curt and Tish Cloninger as they celebrated the life of their son, Kappel.  I caught up with them at the house, met Lilly’s friends and their friends, the ones helping with the service, and then we drove on to the church in Franklin.

The place flooded with young adults.  There were older people.  I was there.  But, it was filled with young people who had come to touch something other than death.  One person made the comment, ”Look at how many people loved Kappel” and they were corrected with, “No… look at how many people Kappel loved.”  Both true.  These people had come to touch love again.

All the best stories are about what we do for love and Kappel’s life grew into the Best of Stories… what Love did for us.  The shared experience of this day was love.  It was sisters and brothers, friends and family, mom and dad, God and his people.  It was a joyful, deep celebration of how high, strong and eternal is Love.  Death is not stronger than Love because Love’s strength is light and the darkness of death has no defense.  The celebration was amazing and beautiful.  It shared, re-created the experience, of how Kappel’s darkness was flooded with the light of Love and how it pervaded every relationship and moment he had.  It was so much about what a mess he was and his life was and how it was from out of the mess that the light now shone into the lives of those who also recognized the mess they were… or who found permission with him to admit it.

Said my good-byes and gave and got the hugs.  Hopped back into the car and rode the GPS back to the airport.  Came through security, still with just a briefcase and found my gate.  Flew to PA, found the Jeep, drove back home, kissed my sleepy wife and climbed into bed and fell asleep at about 1:30am.  All for love.



Singing in the Run

As I left for work today a young boy crossed the driveway ahead of me, walking along the sidewalk, on his way to school.  Backpack on his back and swagger in his step and song in his mouth.  He was about 9 years old and he was into his song.  And the song was into him.  It was in every corpuscle and working its way out into the sunshine.  I couldn’t understand the words, all in Spanish, but I could understand the joy.

Phrases were conducted to the empty porches.  Treetops were signaled to pay attention with pointed fingers for particular words.  Sections of sidewalk were dance floors flowing one to the next for the bouncing, tapping, shifting sneakered feet.

As I walked behind him I couldn’t help but smile because it felt like the sunshine of the cool morning had found a second source.  Maybe it was just reflective, but it seemed to be generated from this little heart, shining into the freedom of his walk to school.

As I came up alongside him at the corner where the light was against him, the beat and melody subsided into humming, tapping.  His head bobbled as he checked out the street, the light, the traffic, me… but then it connected with the tune that percolated throughout.  Occasional tiny half words popped with the gentle pressure that permeated his frame.  He had a small, tan burnished face and squinting eyes in the morning sun,

The traffic dissipated and the light changed and I was ahead of him for a few steps, but the music returned, now filling the air around me.

And then it shot past, as we came to the next sidewalk, like something had signaled that it was time to really move.  He went into a run, but the song didn’t change in pace or flow, except to grow louder.  Before it stopped, if it did, he was clearly out of earshot, running in his song.  I heard his singing run until it just faded from being too far down the block and mixing with the car and people and morning air noise.

I walked on considering this marvel and recognizing my desire to be part of it, to do it myself.  I wanted to run and sing.  I was part of this grand, good day as well.  I know life and God’s good grace and peace in my heart.  Sing and run!  I walked on, smiling and whistling and came by the school where this warrior harpist had rushed so valiantly to face the challenges that would come.  I walked on and felt this confirmation in my soul.

I am singing and running.  I felt this verified thoroughly, throughout myself, down to my toes.  I am doing it in different ways.  But I also realized, for this to be true it must be evident to anyone who might catch sight of me.  I pointed to the top of the tree I was passing and said, “Do it.”  And whistled and slid and tapped the rest of the way to work, ready to face the challenges to come.



Why I Love this Week

Every Sunday people make their way to church hoping something will happen, some encounter with the holy will take place.  They ache for a moment when the stuff of the deeper truth of the world surfaces.  They watch, with a slight holding of breath even, seeking to experience something within the patterns of the day that reveals, pulls back the curtain.

In ancient times, people spoke of thin places, times and locations when the physical and spiritual world grew close to touch.  This week is that for me.  This is when the tangible and the conceptual and the spiritual and the emotional converge like Van Gogh’s paintbrush.  This is when the colors of the week’s events I see are mixed by Parrish but the lighting is focused by Rembrandt.  The breath I breathe feels like constant prayer.  And while I probably seem like I have something else on my mind to others, the truth is that I feel more attuned to what is going on.  I’m paying attention more than usual.

“God’s grace is the most incredible and insurmountable truth ever to be revealed to the human heart…” wrote John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress).  This is the time when I feel closest to reality. It’s like nothing is too far away or isn’t included.  God is very present and it is because of the humanity of Jesus.

I find the hope of the world in Jesus because I find the presence of God in him.  Every expression of doubt or challenge that I am offered or find growing within myself, continues to be confronted by the act of grace and love in his sacrifice and the proof found in the resurrection.  I cannot account for the change in myself or the promises I find fulfilled in life outside of his work, teaching and life.

Many years ago I sat in a diner with a friend who said to me, “I bet you’re the kind of person who believes that there is something in everyone, something they have to offer.”  I agreed.  He went on to ask, “But, what about the person who has nothing, who brings nothing because there is nothing inside them?”  I said, “Everyone has something.”

Having spent time talking with coke-addicted prostitutes, impoverished and self-centered welfare recipients, entitled and wealthy and thoughtless teenagers, hard-working practical atheists, faithless priests, simple believers, sexually consumed child abusers, exhausted fathers and mothers just trying to do their jobs, those who admit no pain nor connection with others and those who can’t get enough of others… I still find the same thing.  Everyone has something.

The worth I discovered in my own soul and find now in others’ souls stepped up from the empty tomb.  This week of Jesus’ was given over to making that worth fully realized and I find that tangible expression of love insurmountable.  This is the week I touch holy.