Rich Earth

On a recent hike, I came across this beautiful, dark, rich soil. It had been living underneath a fallen tree now removed from the path. Gosh, this stuff is amazing! I picked it up and let it fall through my hands. It was almost spongy to the touch. It smelled so glorious – clean, earthy, and full of life. This soil can support tons of different life. It is just waiting for a seed to take hold within its embrace.

In order for soil like this to be created, something (or many things) have to die. A tree had to fall. Leaves had to be released to the forest floor. Probably many other living things expired here. Out of death comes a rich bed for new life.

As this soil trickled through my fingers, I thought about relaxing into the natural cycles of life. There is a rhythm and we can trust it. I thought about how important it is to cultivate the gift of every circumstance. What first appears to be a tragedy might actually birth something new. I thought about how we need to rejoice when something grows again. Loss or death is not the final word, but we often allow it to be simply because we refuse to rejoice when a new and different life returns in place of death.

I want my life to be like this soil. I want my soul to be the place where life is embraced out of death. It reminded me of the Parable of the Sower from Mark’s gospel. This illustrative story Jesus tells is really about the power of the soil. Soil that is packed hard can’t receive a seed. Soil that is shallow can’t support a seed. Soil that is cluttered can’t make room for a seed. But, soil like I discovered embraces a seed, holds it close like a mother’s womb, and offers the seed a chance to grow into the next iteration of itself. Yes, I want my life to be like this soil.

Coming across this rich earth redirected my attention. I often spend energy on searching for just the right seed instead of growing the right soil. Holy Spirit, grow the right soil in my life. I trust you to bring the right seed. I just want to be faithful in cultivating the right soil.

Wonders of Discovery

When I was a kid, I marveled at what we called “water bugs” or “skimmers.” Somehow these creatures could skim right across the surface of water and never sink. How did they do it – and could I do it also?

On a recent hike, I tapped into their ability. The sun was shining on the stream, striking the skimmers on their backs, and then showing up on the stream bed. Amazing! These bugs have a large, elliptical platform attached to their legs. Because it is transparent, I never would’ve seen it without seeing the shadow cast on the rocks in the stream below.

I love to know how things work. This has been a fascination of mine for as long as I can remember. During this particular discovery, however, I saw how much happens that we might never see. All these years, I’ve wondered how the water bugs do it. Sure, I could’ve Googled it, but it never rose to that level of urgency or curiosity. I just happened along when another force, the sun, was in the mood to reveal this secret to me.

In the spiritual life, I’ve experienced much the same. I want to know why something happens or how it is supposed to work? Sometimes, it does reach the level of urgency or curiosity for Googling, but I’ve not found the best results on Google for questions of the soul. I will poke and prod…God, show me the answer. Explain this to me. Or even better, make this work out for me. It still seems a mystery. I know God is at work, but I can’t see it let alone understand it.

Until one day, the sun happens to shine in just the right way and I just happen to be watching and I see it. Since it appears obvious in that moment, likely it has been revealed to me many times before but I wasn’t alert. Or maybe it hasn’t been revealed because I wasn’t ready to receive it yet. I can’t say. I just know that discernment happens on God’s time table, not ours. Nurture curiosity. Pay attention. Be alert when the sun comes out. God is faithful and will offer you the look you need to take the next right step – no more, no less.


You can’t be an expert at everything, so you trust a curator to help you. Typically, a curator is a museum employee – an expert in the museum’s collections, designing the displays, deciding what is shown (and what is not) and how it is presented. A curator, a good one, is such a resource. Beyond museums, we receive curated content all the time. The email I receive from my news outlet of choice with the morning headlines is curated content. The blogs I follow will often curate content for me, helping me find the trusted sources of information I need to receive. All the “end of year lists” you’ll be receiving soon is a form of curated content.

Beyond content, curation can be an experience in many areas of our life. For example, friendships curate the way you present to others, spiritual direction curates what is happening in your soul, and marriage curates how you navigate the world. In a world where expectations often exceed capacity, curation needs to make a comeback. Curators can assist us in many areas of life to be our best self.

I’ve started to wonder if curator could be a new metaphor for me, vocationally speaking. The job I have, being a pastor in the United Methodist Church, has changed drastically over the last 23 years. Living through a pandemic has changed it even more drastically. This is the question that has always directed my efforts, “How am I supposed to love the congregation entrusted to my care?” While the motions of this might change, I believe the underlying motivation and meaning will never change. As a pastor, I am always supposed to love the congregation entrusted to my care.

Curation is a form of love. It requires deep knowledge and appreciation for your subject. And beyond just knowing stuff, you have to live it and love it. You have to experience it as life-giving so you might bring it to life for others. I am becoming more convinced that as a pastor, I am a curator of the spiritual life for those in parish where I am appointed. I also believe that we desperately need curation in this place.

Most folk I connect with have so many questions about the spiritual life. How do I find my calling? How do I know if the internal nudge I have from God? What does it look like when prayer is a way of life, not a list of requests? Will I ever be able to surrender my will and trust God fully? Why doesn’t God come down and fix this mess we’ve made? How do you make sense of the Bible so it truly becomes an authority for my life? Is there more to a life with God than I experience…because this isn’t any different than what I observe from those who don’t believe?

They come to church (or watch online, in this new reality) expectantly. A curator would be of great benefit to them, I believe – someone who has experienced life, learned with God, and is faithful to the process of what we call sanctification (allowing God to perfect us through grace). Looking for parallels in other areas where we trust a curator: someone you trust, who is learning constantly, and can afford to pay deeper attention to detail and nuance than most. As a pastor, perhaps the most value I can bring to my parish (those in the congregation and those in our sphere of influence) is by being the best curator I can be.

With this vision in front of me, I find clarity about where to put my best energies. I can also see the obstacles more clearly. One obstacle is the endless treadmill of meetings and decisions. In our cultural context, most pastors are encouraged to assume the role of CEO. Much of our time and energy is devoted to leadership and management of the organization, keeping track of details so stuff happens (and we can justify our salary), and dealing with the urgent or crisis demands. Put succinctly, we are supposed to be “in charge.” While this provides stability and helps meet expectations so that people return the next week, it is a model with a short shelf life. Our youngest generations are not attracted by the way it has always been (i.e. stability). Even though many grew up under the tutelage of this “system,” they’ve chosen to walk away or drift away because it is not a source of life any longer.

Another obstacle is trust. Membership of local churches, at least in the United Methodist variety, are not readily trusting of their pastor’s direction. Likely, this is because they’ve asked their pastor to be CEO and those giftings are not usually compatible with the role of curator as I’ve defined it. Pastors don’t always make the best management decisions. They usually err on the side of taking a risk in order to reach new people. They typically have a prophetic leaning and speak more clearly about ethical and moral principles than most prefer. Therefore, it makes sense to me that I’ve always felt a wavering sense of trust from the congregation. “We’ll trust you, pastor, as long as you don’t get too far out there.”

Curation, if it works, requires trust. And, what I’m talking about is curation of the spiritual life. My calling, as I am coming to understand it, is not to run a business. It is to offer people the vision for a deep, abiding life with God, and then to teach them how to have it. This will require trust (not blind faith which is altogether different) that I really can help shine a light on this path. It also requires trust that the vision of the curate will generate the most life for the future of the congregation. This is a huge ask, I realize, but offering trust in any part of our life is a huge ask. From my seat, the responsibility of this trust would never be taken for granted.

Finally, if curation is the task, then others have to step up to the task of management and leadership. As a curator, the pastor plays a vital role, but has different priorities than a president or executive director would have. If curation is to bear fruit, time and attention are required. Preaching and teaching have to receive space in a pastor’s life, probably at the expense of other tasks. Pastoral care has to become less about chaplaincy and more about spiritual direction. Raising money has to become less about funding a budget and more about developing mature disciples who understand the discipline of generosity. Managing staff has to become less about supervision and more about helping them curate their own souls. Someone else should do the supervision. And, words of prophecy should be welcomed from the curate – even when they don’t fit long held beliefs. Welcoming doesn’t mean full agreement. But, if the curate isn’t able to open our eyes to a new way to experience the spiritual life, then they won’t be a curator for long.

I’m hopeful for this new vision of what it means to be a pastor. I can imagine the fruit of a congregation that is led by a faithful curator who invites lay leadership from those making the journey of sanctification too. What an amazing gift it would be to make this journey together!

Living Differently

I’ve chosen to accept the reality our world faces – we are living through a pandemic. This choice, I’m learning, affects so many parts of my life. This fall, it became obvious that I needed some time away, but where can one go…safely…on vacation? In my search, I discovered Yurts, fancy tents. I also learned that Yurts have coined a new term, “glamping = glamorous + camping.” You’ll now find Yurts now in many locations. The one I chose is located at Natural Falls State Park near Siloam Springs, Arkansas. More on that in a moment.

This is what the front of the Yurt looked like.

I’ve had other seasons in life where what I used to do just doesn’t work anymore. Before my back injury, I had a habit of taking a walk before I entered the church or my office. I would drive to church, but before I ever checked voicemails or emails, or even entered the building, I would take a 30-minute walk. Usually, I made several laps around the city block where the church was located. It was such a vital time to settle my soul, pray for those in the congregation, and set my intent for the day. Injuring my back meant that practice wasn’t available to me any longer. I learned to ask the following questions by being forced to change:
• What are the non-negotiables that must be preserved in the transition to something new?
• What has worked in the past that can be readjusted for this new season?
• What new discoveries might show up because I must adjust?

Back to the Yurt. This was a brand-new kind of vacation for me. When living through a pandemic, one must adjust. As I asked the questions above, I knew that I would need to be alone for a few days before my husband joined me – a non-negotiable. I knew that being in nature has always been renewing for my soul – worked in the past. Those two “knowings” guided the choice of a Yurt – close to nature and time by myself.

Yurts typically have some of the amenities of home. Mine had a mini-fridge, a microwave, a real bed, plus a unit that provided some measure of heat and air conditioning. Notably, it did not have running water. The Park folks had graciously provided a few porta-potties within a short walk. There were also showers and flush toilets provided for the campground at the end of a much longer walk. I knew this would be a different experience than I had ever had before – and indeed it was. However, some new discoveries did show up while glamping.

Amenities of a Yurt
All you’ll ever need in one small space!

The first discovery I made was how important it is to live where you are. Camping has never been my go-to for a relaxing time away. I could’ve spent those six nights wishing for my own bed, my own shower, and the list continues. But my home doesn’t allow the sound of the cicadas to lull me to sleep. My home also doesn’t have a fire pit right outside the door so I can enjoy long evenings in front of the fire. I decided to live where I was and soak it up. It was delicious. I took long hikes on all the trails around there. I read. I prayed. I listened to all the sounds of creation that I am usually too busy to notice. I also discovered that I’m really good without a shower for about 48 hours. It was a cue to me that I’m on vacation. I don’t have to take a shower because I don’t have to be anywhere or see anyone who will care. What freedom!

Fire Pit right outside the Yurt

Another discovery for me is that food doesn’t have to be my comfort. If normal patterns were followed, vacation planning for Kurt and me involves many conversations about where we will eat. We both LOVE food and we love experiencing new foods and places together. Food is always one of the highlights of vacation for us. The stories we tell when we return are often about what we ate. I wasn’t going anywhere to eat – and the microwave and fridge combo doesn’t encourage a lot of cooking. I still had a delightful time. My yogurt with blueberries never tasted so good. Heated up leftovers tasted better than the first time we had them. I learned how to eat because I was hungry, not because I wanted comfort. And that is a great lesson.

Lunch at the Yurt

Finally, I discovered how much planning is required for daily tasks in new environments. For example, in order to brush my teeth, I had to pour some water from my jug into a cup, put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, and grab a towel. Then, I had to go outside and find a suitable place to brush, brush, brush…rinse, rinse, rinse…and then clean the brush with the left-over water. This had to happen twice a day and I’d better not leave out any of those steps because I’d be caught without a good solution. Having to “work” at these daily tasks engaged different parts of my brain. Learning from my mistakes was really good for me. And, having a sense of accomplishment after I brushed my teeth was pretty neat.

You might make a different choice than me. You might choose to continue life without any adjustments due to the pandemic. Because of my choice, I think I will look back on these months where I had to live differently and treasure them. I don’t want this to last forever. I’m ready for life without a mask. I am so looking forward to face-to-face conversations and meals together with loved ones and friends. I really want the pandemic to be over. Even so, I don’t expect to go back to “normal” – whatever that even was. I expect that I’ll always live differently because of 2020 and I’m grateful to bury these lessons deep in my soul.

What I Learned as a Fundamentalist

Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon in several of the world’s religions that arose in the early decades of the 20th century. It is now reaching its century mark, meaning that most don’t know their religious tradition without this voice, creating a sense that it has always been this way. Actually, Fundamentalism is a relatively recent development for religions practiced over millennia.

Fundamentalism arose in response to the Enlightenment of the 19th century. The Enlightenment celebrated human powers of reason and placed hope in scientific discoveries to provide a future we could only dream of previously. It also threatened the world-view of those who would later be called, “fundamentalists.” They did not see modernism as hopeful, but rather as an undermining of assumptions that represented God’s will for them.

In response to this threat, this movement urgently called all faithful followers back to the “fundamentals.” Differing lists exist for Christian fundamentals, but these lists acted as litmus tests. Either you ascribed wholeheartedly and without question to the fundamentals, or you were a heretic. Lists of the fundamentals for Christians usually included: the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historicity of the biblical miracles.

When I encountered Fundamentalism thirty years ago, it was well-entrenched in most Protestant traditions. I had grown up in a mainline denomination where we were encouraged to think our way into faith. I’m sure it was more nuanced than that, but I recall a lot of emphasis on “learning” as the key to faithful living. We had “Sunday School” to teach us about our faith. We had the sermon to teach us about salvation. We went to church camp to learn about the spiritual life while in nature. I recall three experiences during these years that were formational for me: giving my heart to Jesus in the 3rd grade, receiving my baptism 6 months later, and recommitting my life to Christ in high school. All of these events lived outside my mind, convincing me through my inner knowing that God loved me and wanted a relationship with me. I recall feeling as though I needed to stop thinking long enough for my deeper senses to engage and help me reach the truth.

As I found my way to Christian community in college, I was ready to stop thinking about faith and start feeling it. I wanted doctrinal certainty so I could let go of needing my beliefs to make sense. I wanted the scriptures to mean just what they said so I could use them as a clear guide. I wanted truth to be true just because it is, not because I can prove it to be so. And, I found what I was looking for among the fundamentalists. I also found belonging by confessing the fundamentals because they were bedrock in our community life together. I recognized many couldn’t confess these fundamental beliefs so easily, but that just meant I was given the gift of a clear line between who is in and who is out. I held tightly to my beliefs, seeing anyone or anything that questioned them as a threat. I was willing to be ostracized by family or friends because I so deeply needed the emotional connection and intellectual certainty I found among the fundamentalists. I found much good there and remain grateful for practices I adopted while a part of that community: daily time with God, scripture memorization, group accountability, willingness to share with others about my faith, and intercessory prayer.

I am not a fundamentalist any longer. I do see its allure. I still wish (at times) for the certainty, the belonging, and security of eternal destiny that I found there. I admire the evangelistic fervor created when one is convinced of the right answer(s). The reason I can no longer live with all the benefits I discovered among the fundamentalists is because it doesn’t align with the character and nature of God that I discover in the scripture. This was a difficulty for me even when I fully confessed the fundamentals without caution or hesitation.

What should I do with a Jesus who was less concerned about religious rules and more concerned with making room for those cast out by those very same rules? What should I do with a God who remained faithful, even when the people did not? I knew grace was key, but I wondered when does grace end and judgment begin? That was a conflict I could never resolve in fundamentalism. We didn’t give much weight or credence to the Holy Spirit during my time as a fundamentalist, unless the leading of said Spirit aligned with the fundamentals. My experience tells me the Holy Spirit reaches beyond those limits and refuses to be tamed.

So, even fundamentalists struggle. No doctrine or set of beliefs is water-tight. What really made me incompatible with fundamentalism? I just couldn’t believe that saying yes to Jesus was it, that one’s eternal destiny was the first and last concern God had in relationship with us. I did believe in speaking persuasively about making a confession of faith in the saving act of Jesus Christ on the cross. I still believe that. Somehow, though, I thought there must be more. Surely saying yes to Jesus means more than assenting to a checklist and converting.

I found “more” as I took a deeper dive into the ancient traditions of Christianity. I discovered that grace, throughout the long line of Christianity, has been understood as more powerful than human will or choice. I discovered roots that could hold me through Christian community and keep me from my individualistic tendencies. I discovered the sacraments as a means of grace that will never bow to our explanation or understanding – or certainty, for that matter. I became more willing to embrace mystery, even as it meant that what I believed or didn’t believe was of much less consequence.

Now, I am in a much different place. Fundamentalism isn’t home to me anymore. Leaving home was hard; it always is. The loss I experienced when my community couldn’t receive me any longer will have to be the subject of another post. This post is about a fond look back at what was good while I lived in that home. Fundamentalism offered me gifts I treasure. There are days I wish I could return to the clarity I found among the fundamentalists. But, when it comes right down to it, I can’t define God that clearly and I struggle to trust those who do.

Pandemic Pastoring

Every once in a while, I’m asked to submit photos of me being a pastor. I always choose photos of me with the precious people in the church I serve. When I think about what it means to be a pastor, people are the first thing that come to mind. From every vantage point, pastoring is about people!

From the preacher’s vantage point, sermons are a conversation because I’m looking for the feedback of facial expression and body language. I watch faces that leave the sanctuary after worship, noticing heavy loads and smiles that are lighter. For me, preaching truly goes both ways.

From the leader’s vantage point, meetings are as much the conversations you have with those in the room while waiting to get started as what happens after we are called to order. I counted on lunch or breakfast together to talk things through with leaders. I used the table in my office as a space to dream with folks, both lay and staff, about where we were going. Many know of my love for the whiteboard on the wall next to that table because we’ve used it to dream together.

From the shepherd’s vantage point, those precious conversations of care happen when we are face-to-face. Whether folks are in a hospital bed or sitting at the table in my office, we look each other in the eye as we seek God’s blessing together. I reach for a hand as we pray. We hug at the end of a conversation to solidify what God accomplishes through relationships.

All of this is missing for your pastor right now. The feedback we get from a hallway conversation? Missing. The smile we see when you appreciate what we’ve offered to you? Missing. The gift of Holy Spirit goodness that happens when God’s people gather for worship? Missing. Your pastor is grieving right now. Our job just doesn’t feel the same. No wonder we question our call. No wonder your pastor thinks, “This is not what I signed up for.”

It isn’t what anyone signed up for – and I get that. I know that pastors aren’t on the frontlines (like many essential workers) risking exposure to a virus that might take their life just to keep the health care system running, food on the shelves of grocery stores, and medicine available at a pharmacy. Still, the losses pastors face are deep and deserve to be named. We vow to faithfully serve you when you lose a loved one, when you encounter a crisis, when you doubt your faith in God. How do we that from a safe social distance? We have our doubts too.

It is from that place of doubt that I chose to write this post. Yes, a pastor has doubts too. I really doubt that the number of people who sat in sanctuaries on Sunday morning will ever return to the levels they were before COVID. And, we should acknowledge, even those numbers were in steep decline. I doubt that the model of full-time, professional clergy whose only source of income is a salary from their congregation (which also includes a hefty benefit package) will be sustainable after COVID. I doubt that a top-heavy, denominational leadership structure can function to resource congregations in a quickly changing reality. I doubt that what my congregation wants, “to go back to normal,” will ever happen.

This is the conversation I wish we were having. What do those doubts really mean for all the pastors out there? Who does your pastor talk to when these doubts get the better of her? What does your pastor do when people choose to leave the church because she is too cautious and others won’t return because she is not cautious enough? Where does your pastor find the safe space that grief requires to run its course? Your pastor will tell you that you can’t avoid grief…that unfinished grief just shows up somewhere else. But, where is your pastor finding safe space, restful space, space to grieve?

I wrote this post to create conversation among the laity of our church. It is for you that I took my vows of ordination and continue to renew them every year. I love you. I believe in you. You are the most amazing part of my job and vocation. You are the reason that I keep getting up every morning with at least a spark of excitement. I pinch myself, sometimes, remembering how blessed I am to serve as your set apart leader – what an honor and privilege that is. I bet your pastor feels the same way. I hope you will be intentionally praying for your pastor right now. I hope you will tell her how her efforts to learn five new computer programs in less than a month is appreciated. I hope you will remind her that you still need her gifts, even if you have to receive them at a safe social distance. Support her while she grieves. Notice when she smiles and smile back at her – even through your mask. Your pastor really needs you to believe in her because pandemic pastoring is hard. On behalf of all the pastors out there…we appreciate any little step you make toward supporting us.


My daughter introduced me to the card game called, “Exploding Kittens.” Yes, that is a real game. I played it for the first time in Virginia Beach while visiting my college best friend and her family. We went out to eat and they showed me a long tradition of theirs, take a deck of cards and play a game while waiting for your food. They brought, “Exploding Kittens,” and I fell in love with the NOPE card. Again, it is real.

This card game reminded me of Uno in that play proceeds in a circle with each person playing a card on the deck in the middle. You can reverse the direction of play, make people take extra cards, and all manner of ornery directives – depending on the card you play on the deck in the middle. But, there is this one card that is unlike any other. It’s called the NOPE card. When you play this card, you set your opponent back on her heels. When you play this card, it like setting a beautiful and freeing boundary. Nope! Don’t have to do it. Whatever it was you were trying to make me do…don’t have to do it. Nope.

Setting boundaries is powerful. In relationships, boundaries are essential. Otherwise, we don’t know where I stop and you begin. Boundaries can actually restore life and health to relationships, allowing everyone involved to know they are honored, heard and respected. Boundaries are not easy, but they do keep us on the path to long-term sustainability with each other. Without good boundaries, resentment sets in and manipulation is not far behind. If people stay in relationships without good boundaries, it is usually because they feel like they don’t have a choice – also an example of boundary transgression.

It is good to set boundaries. It is good to keep boundaries. And, it is hard work, requiring constant vigilance…kind of like wearing a mask all day. The drift of most relationships is toward letting boundaries slide. She really needs me to do this for her and I really don’t want to fight about it, so I’ll go ahead and do it. I don’t want to make him mad because I know what he’s like when he loses his temper. She should appreciate how hard I work. Oh, and the list could go on and on and on!

That’s why I love the NOPE card. It is fun. It is disarming. It is actually hilarious. So, I started carrying around nope cards from the Exploding Kittens deck in my purse. That way, when it feels hard to set or keep a boundary, I can pull out a card and slap it down. Nope! I’m not going to do that right now. Sometimes, I even have to Nope myself. Nope, Charla! You’re not going to talk to yourself that way. Nope is a tool that is helping me find my way to better emotional and relational health. Maybe they should sell the nope cards in a separate stack…

Adulting in the Spiritual Life

Do you remember when you became an adult? For most, it happens on the sly. All of the sudden you turn 26 and you can’t be on your parents’ health insurance. What?! You have the sinking realization that you really are on your own. You can also eat Oreos for dinner. So, there is an upside. Becoming an adult usually happens somewhere in your 20’s, but not in a day.

My daughter has 21 in her sights with a birthday on Dec. 7, 2020. She’s really living on her own for the first time – buying her own groceries, paying her own credit card bill, scheduling her own oil changes. So, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about adulting, the affectionate term we use to encourage her in launching.

When she was young (probably too young), I remember telling her that our goal was to teach her how to be on her own. That was not the safety net she wanted. She was still young enough to imagine living with her dad and me forever. But, I intended to set her sights on independence, courage and agency. I told her, “We’ll always be around to support you, but we want you to be your own person and live your own life.” Now she is living her own life and I could not be happier for her.

This experience has me wondering about what adulting means in the spiritual life. The author of Hebrews alludes to spiritually growing up in the 5th chapter, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:13-14) What does it mean in the spiritual life to go from being an infant, both coddled and controlled, to being an adult with agency and responsibility? It probably doesn’t happen in a moment or in a day.

Tracing this movement so I can help replicate it in others is the grand passion of my vocation. I’ve long said that as a pastor, my job is to work myself out of a job. I want to preach, teach and lead so well that every person in the congregation is equipped to live a better, richer and more powerful spiritual life – for themselves. I want them to “launch.” I want them to go from milk to solid food. I want them to learn how to feed themselves. I want them to know of my support, care and love, but I don’t want them to feel dependent on me, on the church, or even on our life together.

A mature Christian should have a personal prayer life, a commitment to tithing, a regular routine of reading scripture, and an accountability group (without a pastor in it) to keep them focused and honest – no matter what church holds their membership. They should be committed to these inward disciplines, and their outward life should clearly reflect the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23) They should be adults with spiritual agency and responsibility. And, they should perceive that as a gift, even if it is a little scary. Being responsible for the health of their spiritual life shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should feel like a sacred trust…a natural response to growing up.

I have been chasing this passion for over 20 years now in six different congregations and I’ve never been successful. I’ve not been able to equip people to stand on their own two spiritual feet with long-standing success. I hunch that several obstacles are standing in the way. I really believe that a program-centered church is not able to produce spiritual maturity. Instead, it creates dependency on the next program or study to keep people engaged. I also believe good spiritual role models are hard to find. And, I believe we struggle with allegiances (idols) in our lives. Most simply aren’t willing to lay it down for the sake of the cross. It is also completely possible that I’ve not been competent in my role as shepherd of the flock. Likely, it is a combination of all these factors and many others.

During 2020, I’ve seen the high cost of this failure. Without the familiar routines of weekly gatherings, peoples’ faith has frayed. Without a commitment to accountability, apathy and despair have taken over. Without several equipped spiritual leaders to mentor others, there is no way for me to reach into the life of every single person and exhort them to keep the faith. Without a commitment to sacrifice for the common good, we are ready to accuse one another instead of showing grace and supporting one another.

We’ve all had our spiritual struggles this year. Grief is a hard task master. Despair and futility are the enemies of hope. This is a hard season even for the most mature believers. So, the conversation I hope to start with this post is – how can we help each other grow up during this season? Let’s set our sights on more than finding the next oasis of infant’s milk. Instead, let’s use this experience to confess what we need to learn, figure out how to learn it together, and welcome the spiritual disciplines: weekly corporate worship (even online), private daily prayer, confession and absolution, serving those most in need, giving generously, and being accountable with and to one another.

How do we get there? How can I help us get there? How can we help one another get there? I welcome the conversation.

Jackson and how he saved me

We took Jackson to Scissortail Park in OKC for a rare evening in July when you actually want to be outside

This is the face that makes me smile. His name is Jackson. He came to live with us over fall break in 2019. He was 17 weeks old – a rescue pup. His owners wanted to breed toy Australian Shepherds, but they failed. Jackson and his brother were rescued after the other pup in the litter starved to death. Even now, I have to take a deep breath and trust God to help me forgive. I don’t know how that happens. Because it did – Jackson became a part of our family.

Last fall was an intense period in my life. My plate was way too full. I was carrying way too much responsibility. Sadly, I convinced myself that it really all depended on me. I lost my way and I lost my abiding trust in God’s presence. It’s what Parker Palmer calls, “functional atheism.” Giving God a nod, but believing that it really all depends on me. After months of this heresy, I had lost touch with that quiet inner place – the place that roots me to who I am and who God is.

When Jackson came to live with us, he was my reminder. I didn’t really find that place because I was still stuck in my own hubris, but Jackson softened me somehow. He made me smile at a time when I didn’t smile much at all. He brought me joy. He made me get outside because puppies need to go on lots of walks.

This is Jackson right after he first came to live with us

At the end of February, I got sick. Really sick. All that I’d been trying so hard to hold together began to unravel and there was nothing I could do but watch it evaporate. When I couldn’t breathe, I was rather limited. I tried. I tried to push through. I tried to rescue. I even tried to apologize for my mistakes. Didn’t matter. I lost it all anyway. Jackson? He was growing into this awkward adolescent and finally learning to potty outside consistently. I had to stop and sit on the curb several times to catch my breath when I walked him, but he didn’t mind. He waited on me and even gave me a few licks.

Then, at the end of May, we had to say goodbye to Sox Shoes Gwartney, our dog of 16 years. He will be the subject of another blog. For days, I cried. And Jackson let me. He was always happy to see me when I got home and ready for a game of keep away. The grief of COVID and the other losses I suffered was so heavy that even as my lungs healed, I still found it hard to breathe some days.

Jackson is now just over a year old. He is the first dog I’ve ever really loved in my life. And, you know what? He loves me in return. I fail him all the time, but he just loves me. I’ve said many times over, “Jackson saved me,” because he did. His boundless love and affection made my physical and emotional pain bearable. And, his unconditional love made it possible for me to come back to God, to trust again.

I guess we needed each other. Jackson needed me to spot him and tell Kurt and Elizabeth it was time to say yes to another dog. I needed Jackson to see me flailing and help me find my moorings again. I will never get over my gratitude for the provision of my favorite little guy, Jackson Juneau Gwartney.

This is our sign of affection for each other

Fairy Houses and Happily Ever After

My daughter, Elizabeth, discovered a treat at the Will Rogers Garden, 3400 NW 36th St, OKC. Her dad and I had been to this park several times before she was born. It was just a few miles from our first home in the central part of the state. Once Elizabeth was born, parks with swings and slides topped the list and we kind of forgot about Will Rogers Garden. Elizabeth ran across the photos of the beautiful flowers and extraordinary landscape in an internet search. Now that she lives in Oklahoma City, she hunts the treasure of outdoor space better than her parents ever did.

In the intervening years, something amazing happened at Will Rogers Garden. Robert Trobaugh, employee of the OKC Parks & Recreation Department, starting adding fairy doors in the fallen trees, creating fairy houses.

Always look in the windows

They are small and often tucked away where you don’t see them unless you are looking. But, if you look, you’ll see them all over – and it’s a big park. They are fun. They are whimsical. They create stories and plotlines in your imagination. Some are solo and others are nestled together in little towns.

Notice the gnome in the window
A fairy village!

On a recent trip to see Elizabeth, she took us back to Will Rogers Garden. We told her about experiences we had there before she existed and she told us about discoveries she made that we missed. Her biggest delight was in pointing out all the fairy houses to me because we share this fascination with small things. We squealed with delight every time we found a new one. We told stories about the different fairies that lived in these mini castles. We marveled at how they used the natural structure of the tree to lend personality and architecture.

Notice the fairy storm shelter. It is Oklahoma after all.

And then, a few weeks later, her boyfriend, Kamren, took her back to Will Rogers Garden where he asked her to marry him. They made sure to get a picture of their rings in front of a fairy house, of course.

Thank you, Mr. Trobaugh, for seeing the possibility in a dead tree trunk. Thank you for letting your whimsy run wild. You said you did this so the kids would be able to find them, but I think maybe you did it because your imagination still thrives. Elizabeth and I are delighted by the gift you’ve given and want to share this sense of delight and joy with others. Guess that’s what the old camp song is talking about, “It only takes a spark…to get a fire going. And soon, all those around, will warm up to its glowing.”