A Reader Writes: I’m not going to quit

A reader writes:

Faith after Doubt... I can’t thank you enough for the clarity you have given me.  You have helped describe my journey and give language to so many things I am experiencing and seeing in the church.

I am the lead pastor of a large (2000 member) church in the south.  As you can imagine, our people are all over the map theologically. Yet, I think we are emerging as a community of harmony through multiple levels of crisis and deconstruction.  The road has been so challenging.

But we are holding. Even more, people like Charis keep finding their way to us. You reminded me not to quit because of her and those like her.

So, I wanted to let you know that you have given me encouragement to hang in there so that there are communities like the ones you describe and envision in your work.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to thank you in person but for now please accept my sincere gratitude.

Thanks for this encouraging note, and I'm so glad you're hanging in there. We need you and we need churches like yours! I can only begin to imagine how hard it has been - with the pandemic, denominational challenges, and all the rest. I'm so glad that Charis's story (in Chapter 11) gave you hope. I look forward to meeting in person someday soon so I can thank you - for your important and needed work at this critical moment in history.

If you're interested in Faith After Doubt, you can order it here. 

 

 

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Q & R: How do you respond to people who try to evangelize you?

Here's the Q:

Thanks very much for your part in presenting, with Luther Smith, at the Companions on the Inner Way retreat. A lovely example of generous and soulful inter-racial dialogue.

Like you, I was born into a Plymouth Brethren home (exclusive) and have been on a journey of increasing inclusion over many years. I appreciate the ways that your presentations and books have informed and nourished this journey.

My siblings are very fearful that I’m hell-bound and taking others with me.
One in particular keeps trying to convert me back to the dualism of our youth.
So far I’ve abandoned any attempt to explain my position and so respond simply “Thanks so much for your loving concern. … Warmest love, [my name]”

How do you respond to such attempts to “evangelize” you?

Here's the R:

Thanks for this question, and yes, what a joy to be (virtually) with Dr. Smith and the Companions. I think your response is gracious and appropriate, and I don't think I can improve upon it at all.

I just received one such email this morning (not from a sibling, though). Here it is:

Your intellectual talk might sound like an option to people that don’t know that the Bible is the Word of God and is to be taken literally!  You want to reframe, deconstruct, re-imagine, discredit and redefine what God addresses in His Word.  You say we need a ‘new kind of faith leader’…..is Jesus Christ YOUR faith leader…I don’t think so.  What do you do with Luke 1:1-4.  How about Galatians 1:6-10 and John 20:30-31.  While I agree that we as Christians should address the earthly needs of people, the most important need is for a person to realize they are a sinner and ask Jesus Christ to forgive them for their sins because THIS is the ONLY WAY to HEAVEN.  The Bible states you don’t get to Heaven with ‘good works lest any man should boast’.  Your doctrine is making people feel good that they are helping society but your doctrine is sending them to Hell.  I pray that you and your organization and followers will actually read the Bible as the WORD OF GOD that should be taken literally.

I normally don't have the bandwidth to respond to people who simply want to send me a message, as with this dear woman. I can imagine that I might have written such a letter when I was a zealous young Evangelical! I realize that the writer is trying to be a good soldier, doing the duty she has been given by the authority figures she trusts (who taught her, among other things, that the Bible is supposed to be taken literally and that getting to heaven is the point of the Bible).

I normally don't have time to respond to people who ask a question that I assess is not asked in good faith. But I do try to respond to questions that feel sincere, non-combative, and non-accusatory.

With relatives or dear friends who are concerned about you, sometimes you can help relieve their anxiety by offering reassurance. For example, with the email I received above, I might say,

"Dear sister, thank you so much for your concern. I want to assure you that I love Jesus with all my heart and have been learning to follow him for over sixty years. I am no less passionate in that commitment today than I was years ago. And although I am eager to "reframe, deconstruct, and re-imagine" some of what I have been taught (or hear others teaching), I do not want to discredit or redefine anything that is truly from God. Very much the opposite, in fact. I have come to see many things differently from the way I used to, and from the way you see them now. If you would ever be interested in hearing the story of how that came to be, I would be glad to share it. But please understand that I don't want to get into a win/lose argument with you. Those kinds of arguments generally result in people just digging in their heels and getting defensive or aggressive. I understand that your current understanding brings you great comfort and reassurance, and I understand that hearing me differ must be very unsettling or disconcerting for you. I appreciate you telling me of your concern, and I sincerely honor you for your commitment to do the right thing as you understand it."

But that's a lot of words to say what you said equally well in under a dozen!

 

 

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Faith After Doubt, a Personal Story

A reader writes:

Good day Brian,

I know you may not get a chance to read this. But in case you do or have a moment where you need to hear a story about how your work is helping people, hopefully this can serve that purpose.
I wanted to thank you for your most recent book Faith After Doubt. It has helped me work through my bewilderment as a recovering conservative evangelical.
Ironically, this is all happening during one of the most difficult times for me and my family. [He explains deep grief that struck his family, including the death of his mother.]
I started your book in early January during a bit of a lull in this crisis during a wilderness trip with a good friend. I was thinking a lot about doubt, and simplicity, and deconstruction. And grief.... I was trying to make sense of the fact that the simplicity and even complexity of my evangelical roots had barely anything REAL to comfort me right now. At its core that is. People who are within the camp, so to speak, set aside the core message of the "gospel centered" conservative message to comfort through empathy and care. But what the hell could substitutionary atonement have to do with the bewilderment of me and my family's current suffering? And when I peeked back into the evangelical sphere from time to time on twitter or blogs etc, all I saw was fear and hypocrisy and petty, bitter fights and "battles for the faith". How could I possibly come to find true affinity with a group that believes a sociological theory (CRT) is the greatest existential threat to their existence? Not rampant incidences of sexual abuse in the church and failure to care for victims. Not white supremacy and christian nationalism. Not a complete disregard for marginalized people. Not hatred and rejection of LBTQA+ people. Not building a church culture of consumption with no regard for the future of the planet or the species. CRT. Liberals. Thats the problem....
I sat in the silence of [the wilderness] looking out into the beauty and frozen wilderness, and thought, "this moment is teaching me how to grieve and to suffer more than any sermon or pastoral counseling I ever received. Why is that?"
Your book stepped into the void of that questioning to give me hope and a feeling of community with others who are asking these questions of faith and trying to make sense of our lives. My deconstruction started 5 years ago with both anger at the tradition I grew up in as well as a hopefulness of, "there MUST be more than this!". Yet as the feelings of anger and frustration grew, the wonder of what might be AFTER this waned. It left me in full on stage 3 perplexity. I have been there for a little over 2 years now. But as suffering and grief grew, so grew my craving of the wonder and awe of what COULD be in the ability to find harmony in my faith. I needed help charting these waters. It was scary. Knowing others were trying to do this too and that what I was feeling was felt by so many others was more helpful and hope inspiring than I can even express in words. For that, I thank you, sincerely. You have helped me move forward and "make the road by walking" through grief and doubt.
It's so strange. I feel a tension as I try to find God in this place of suffering. I kind of wish I could go back to the simplicity of "God is sovereign" or "God took my mom because in his divine providence, this is for all of our good". Maybe that would make this easier. And yet, now here in the dust and ashes of grief, like Job, simple answers do not work. They actually feel repulsive in a way. At the same time, just tearing down the structures of fundamentalism as a response to suffering feels wrong too. I need a hope, a promise to hold onto. Where does that come from? Faith expressing itself as love. Seeing this in the very heart of God even when I cannot wrap my mind around the mystery of his ways is about all I can do. Seeing it in the hopefulness of others like yourself or other guides like Father Rohr, Diana Butler Bass, and many others who refuse to work to lead and inspire others. Inspiring us to walk forward in fearless expectant hope of what we cannot totally predict or control but what is a loving more beautiful future.
Anyway, I have probably written too long an email. But I felt a need to say thank you since your book and your perseverant ministry has helped me more than I can express. Regrettably, I remember reading Generous Orthodoxy and Secret Message of Jesus 10-12 years ago to understand how to craft argumentative apologetics against the progressives seeking to distort the gospel. I remember mocking a friend who was a part of your church as a theological lightweight if he went to a church like yours. I have many regrets from that time as a young stupid youth pastor. But I am grateful for the patience of others and of God who let my world crumble in the best way possible. And I am thankful you pushed forward in faith and did not cave when cruelty came for you and those you were close to. My respect and gratitude for how you continued forward, even without judgement or noticeable hate or resentment of those who rejected you is a great inspiration to me. For that I am eternally grateful. May you be encouraged that even some who at one point spoke ill of you, at some point began looking to you as a sage and a guide.
Thank you for persevering with this wandering email if you have read it! No expectations on a response, just a hope that it might bring you joy at some point. Take care and be well daily walking out faith expressing itself as love.
Thanks for these kind words. My prayers are with you and your family in this time of grief.
For all who are exploring new territory in their faith and who are experiencing criticism, rejection, or even persecution, I want to pass on to you this reader's encouragement to me: May you be encouraged that even some who at one point spoke ill of you, at some point began looking to you as a sage and a guide. 
If you're interested in Faith After Doubt, you can order it here. 

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A Friend of a Lifetime: Bill Duncan

My life has been richly blessed with extraordinary friendships. When I think of the amazing people whose lives have become intertwined with mine, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. 

Some have been mentors. Some have been creative colleagues, entrepreneurial partners, co-laborers. Others have been family friends, parents of our kids’ friends who became our friends, church friends, friends with shared interests, or simply people whose company was a joy and with whom I felt safe, accepted, understood, and alive over decades.

One person -- Bill Duncan -- has overflowed every one those categories in my life. He died yesterday, Friday, March 5, 2021 of COVID-19.

Over the years, when I tell people about Bill, I habitually say, “He and his wife Shobha are among the very best humans I’ve ever met.”

We met back in the 70's. Shobha and I went to the same church as kids. I remember one Tuesday night prayer meeting (I think it was) when I looked across the aisle and saw this new guy sitting next to Shobha, and I thought, “There’s a smart guy, if he’s dating Shobha.” I must have been under twenty years old at the time, and Bill was a few years older. Later we were introduced, and I found in Bill an engaging conversationalist. I was especially drawn to him because, although I was not nearly as politically awakened as Bill, I was drawn toward people who cared about social justice. Whenever I’d see him, I’d look forward to chatting. I was honored to be asked to play guitar and sing at Bill and Shobha’s wedding.

But it wasn’t like Bill and I saw each other regularly back then. I stopped attending the church Bill and Shobha attended when I became involved with a young church plant in the Jesus People days. That church lasted a few years and then (as a lot of groups did back in those days), it ended in a painful implosion. “I’ll never get involved with anything like that again,” I told myself.

Grace and I had gotten married, and we started attending an Episcopal Church, so I would only see Bill or Shobha occasionally, at a wedding or funeral or something of that sort.

During those years, Grace and I hosted a little dinner group that turned into a weekly fellowship  group that was on the verge of becoming a little church. “Oh no,” I thought. “I said I’d never get involved with anything like this ever again.” I remember it as clear as day: I was standing in the dining room of our little fixer-upper house, and a thought popped into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. “If Bill Duncan would help you, you two could start something and it would go really well.”

I literally took three or four steps to the wall phone (remember those?) and called the operator (remember them?) for Bill’s number. I wasn’t even sure he lived in the area any more. When the operator gave me the number, I called. After a little small talk, I got to the point of my call: “Hey Bill, do you want to help me start a church?” “Let’s talk,” was his reply. 

That was a life-changing moment for me. Over the coming months and years, this new church became our joint venture. Eventually, it became my part-time job and then a full-time job, and then the main work of my pastoral career. And at every step, Bill was my (slightly) older brother, partner, and friend.

I am certain that without Bill’s friendship, Community Church — which was later renamed Cedar Ridge Community Church — never would have survived. Back in those days, I thought every problem could be solved by a wild new idea. Bill valued continuity. I was incautious about taking risks. Bill preferred taking only necessary risks. I was inexperienced regarding raising and managing money. Bill made sure the books always balanced. I was overly trusting and gave people way too many second chances. Bill was deeply compassionate, but he also had wiser boundaries and better instincts about people than I had. I had a big vision. Bill had deep roots.

We made a great team.

We had children of similar ages, and they became fast friends. Both of our families took refugees into our homes, so we shared in that adventure, immersing our lives with Cambodian, Vietnamese, Iranian, and Ethiopian families and cultures. 

All the ideals people have about Christian community — we experienced them.

In our little church, we were walking at the intersection of social justice, the charismatic movement, and mainstream Evangelicalism … a rare integration in those days, and without Bill, I wouldn’t have been able to hold those different streams together. These days, a lot of people know me as “political,” but Bill was always much farther along than I was, and it was his deeply ethical, compassionate, and just integration of faith and politics that mentored me, gave me courage, and eventually nudged me out of the “play it safe” rut I walked in for too long. Back in the 90’s, Bill made sure I was paying attention to Gordon Cosby, Rich Sider, Jim Wallis, and Tony Campolo, not just Rick Warren, John Wimber, Francis Schaeffer, and Bill Hybels. For Bill, poverty, race, and LGBTQ equality were important issues before they were for me. He brought me along.

For many years, Bill and I (and later, new members of our Leadership Team like Kevin Barwick and Mark Buckingham) would meet once a week at 5 or 5:30 a.m. for planning and prayer. We met so early because we had young children and jobs and needed to be home in the evenings. We went through a lot of eggs, toast, and coffee refills at a Denny’s in Greenbelt over the years, and as we became a team of leaders, we also became a band of brothers.

Because we were so different, Bill and I sometimes experienced “creative tension.” But never for even a second did I doubt the goodness of Bill’s heart or the wisdom of his perspective. Our mutual respect grew through the tensions we experienced. Honestly, I think he had to forgive me of a lot more than I ever had to forgive him.

When we were going through a tough time in our marriages, or when one of our kids was struggling, or when we were having theological questions and doubts, we were there for each other. When our son Trevor was diagnosed with cancer, Bill and Shobha were major supports for us, along with our whole church community. 

We literally did life together, with all of its laughter and tears.

One of the many gifts Bill gave me was his example, the example of being a good man, a good husband, a good father, a man of character. Being a few years older than me, he would hit predictable bumps before I would. I remember when Bill bought his first sailboat. I watched the delight he took in being on the water, “messing around with boats,” and it gave me permission to rediscover some of my own interests and passions — parts of life that often get moved to the back burner in the demands of parenthood and career. 

When I left the pastorate at Cedar Ridge to write and speak full time, Bill and Shobha became a stabilizing force at Cedar Ridge more than ever. When Grace and I moved to Florida, although we saw each other less, we felt like we picked up where we left off every time we got together. When Bill retired and he and Shobha got a van to sail around the country in, they became like a thread, visiting friends around the country and keeping them woven together. So many of us are still in touch today because Bill and Shobha were our glue.

(Here's a photo of a visit a few years back - thx, Melanie Griffin.)

 

 

In recent years, we’d meet up each summer at Wild Goose Festival, share a meal and a beer, take a walk, and a lifetime of memories would catch up with us, reminding us how much we loved each other.

Bill caught COVID-19 a few weeks ago. He and Shobha had been so careful to wear masks, avoid crowds, wash hands, and all the rest. He was healthy, fit, active. But the virus ravaged his lungs beyond recovery, as it has done to over half a million in this country and over two million around the world.

Like thousands of people who knew and loved Bill, we have been praying and holding Bill and Shobha in our hearts over these weeks of his sickness. We're grateful to Shobha, pastor Matthew Dyer, and all the others who have been keeping us updated from a distance.

Bill’s absence will be felt deeply by thousands of people his life has touched, but especially by Shobha, by their sons Tim and Jon and their spouses, and by Bill’s grandchildren, who have always called Bill “Captain” because of his love for sailing.

Bill Duncan was a truly good man, a true Christian, a Christ-like man, in whom the light and fire of Christ burned bright. He showed his faith in his love for neighbor, where it counts most. I have been a recipient of that Christ-like love for over four decades of my life.

I only went sailing with Bill a few times, but I remember seeing his great happiness when he was on the water. In the management of keel, tiller, and sails, the Captain was a master of managing risk and speed, wind and water, and that was one of his many great strengths as a leader in our work together. He always set a steady course.

All of us who have known and loved Bill know the profound and unique shape that his absence will leave in the world -- and in our lives. We bless him as he sails out beyond our sight, into the mystery, with strong and favorable winds, exploring wider seas, and breathing free. May the humble, genuine, authentic beauty of his life live on in us all.

God has blessed my life in so many ways. But among the greatest blessings of my life is the friendship of Bill Duncan, one of the very best humans I’ve ever met. No words can express my love and gratitude for him, and my grief that he didn’t get to enjoy a few more decades of this precious gift of life. I offer these words as a gesture toward honoring this good and honest man who was to me the friend of a lifetime.

+++++

I came across this poem this week, and it expresses both my grief and hope.

O Blessed Spring 

Susan Palo Cherwien

 

O blessed spring, where Word and sign
Embrace us into Christ the Vine:
Here Christ enjoins each one to be
A branch of this life-giving Tree.

Through summer heat of youthful years,
Uncertain faith, rebellious tears,
Sustained by Christ's infusing rain,
The boughs will shout for joy again.

When autumn cools and youth is cold,
When limbs their heavy harvest hold,
Then through us, warm, the Christ will move
With gifts of beauty, wisdom, love.

As winter comes, as winters must,
We breathe our last, return to dust;
Still held in Christ, our souls take wing
And trust the promise of the spring.

Christ, holy Vine, Christ, living Tree,
Be praised for this blest mystery:
That Word and water thus revive
And join us to your Tree of Life.

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Update on Cory and the Seventh Story

I'm delighted to let you know that our beloved children's book Cory and the Seventh Story is now available as an ebook, along with the book of essays The Seventh Story: Us, Them, and the End of Violence. People tell us that these books have made a real difference in the way they think about how to understand, live in, and make the world better for all of us. You can get the ebook of Cory exclusively at www.theseventhstory.com.

BTW - if you loved Cory and the Seventh Story, here's some additional news. We're seeking a publisher for Cory along with two sequels. Stay tuned for updates.

And I want to recommend another children's book by Laura Alary and Sue Todd: Mira and the Big Story. It's a "kindred book" to Cory and the Seventh Story. More info here: https://www.amazon.com/Mira-Big-Story-Laura.../dp/1558966935.

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