A Poem for the Bewildered

Robert Thiefels wrote the following poem in response to Chapter 16 of my book Naked Spirituality. He generously allowed me to share it here. You can learn more about Robert here.



In the season between green and gone*

When the circle breaks

And the loose ends point downward

And upward at the same time, we

Enter a dance of a different sort.

How necessary this breaking

Our closed circles of certainty,

This opening of spirals,

Of never again returning

To the same starting place.

To ascend to Spirit

Given new eyes.

To descend to Soul

Finding welcome.

In dreams we fall while rising,

Rise while falling.

How baffling this giant

Urging of everything into

Darkness, this beckoning

Of all toward the light,

This journey through


Yet, how seamless when

We sense the arms of darkness

Embrace us, and feel

the kiss of light

on our cheek.

What faith it takes

This dogged trek to new heights

This enduring pilgrimage to deeper depths,

This answering the great pull of life,

Never looking back.

*Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011) 142.

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Pastors Retreat: January 22-26 in New Orleans LA

Pastors Retreat :: Transforming Leadership
Four focused days with Brian McLaren & Jacqui Lewis
January 22-26, 2018
St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
New Orleans, LA

Our week will combine fun and respite with study, worship, and conversation – all in the heart of the Crescent City. Each day, we'll consider one or more From/To transformationsin pastoral leadership, such as:

• From organized religion to organizing religion
• From pastor of the congregation to pastor from the congregation to the community
• From service provider to messenger/motivator/model
• From expectation meeter to expectation setter
• From money-avoider to money-addresser
• And more!

Additionally, our retreat occurs just prior to the beginning of Mardi Gras, therefore it is important that you book your accommodations as soon as possible. St Charles Ave. Baptist Church is located right on the St Charles Ave Streetcar line.


4 p.m. on January 22 -
12 p.m. on January 26, 2018

St. Charles Ave. Baptist Church
7100 St Charles Ave.
New Orleans, LA


Your retreat fees include 4 intensive days of study, worship and conversation.

Use the code NOLA2018 to receive a $250 discount off the cost of your retreat fee, making your cost only $750*.

*does not included travel, lodging or meals

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When Patriarchy Is the Problem (Not the Solution) …

We human beings have a lot of problems, and one of our biggest is men.

Male humans often become violent rivals for status, prestige, sexual satisfaction, money, land, and power. Fueled by androgen, testosterone, and social conditioning, men form and use gangs, political parties, nations, religions, and empires to play out their aggressions, and sadly, women and children are caught in the crossfire.

Many millennia ago, societies devised a response to this problem of male aggressiveness. They elevated one alpha male to a position of power above all the beta and gamma males (and all the women, too), creating hierarchies of dominance and submission. It was a deal: in exchange for keeping all the unruly men under control, a dominant father figure is rewarded with extra power, privilege, prestige, and perks, including financial and sexual perks.

What kind of man would be elevated to such a position? In order to cow any potential rival into submission, he must be willing to deploy violence and lies faster and more ruthlessly than anyone else. And he must be willing to “display,” not just once, but constantly - to remind all potential upstarts of his physical prowess, his sexual prowess, his prowess at violating ethical standards to maintain power, and his financial prowess, so they’ll remember just who the alpha male is.

The name for this system is patriarchy. It can exist in a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation, or an empire. Beginning about five centuries ago, European patriarchs (popes, kings, and their cronies) extended their patriarchal regimes globally, so that since the colonial period, patriarchy has expressed itself globally as white Christian male supremacy.

Since patriarchs inevitably age, weaken, and die, transitions must happen each generation. Father-son succession didn’t always work well, so transitions were often bloody. In response, societies developed a kinder and gentler form of patriarchy called democracy, which gave privileged men the right to vote to elect their next patriarch. As a result, patriarchs could rise to power using displays of words, wealth, and charm rather than weapons.

Of course, men were still running the show, but that began to change significantly in the 20th century. Democratic patriarchy created the conditions in which women achieved greater and greater equality. In the US, for example, Walter Mondale (D), John McCain (R), and Ted Cruz (R) decided to choose women as their vice presidential running mates. Such a move kept the patriarch in the lead, but acknowledged the rising power of women. In 2016, women ran for president in both party primaries, and Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a majority of votes to lead the nation (although she lost the election via the electoral college).

If Clinton had won, it would have done far more than break a “glass ceiling.” It would have signaled a tipping point in global shift beyond patriarchy. We stand, we might say, on the threshold of a post-patriarchal culture, a culture that seeks new qualities in leaders. When male aggressiveness is being effectively managed through cultural and professional norms, education, and laws, leaders can move beyond traditional patriarchal displays, and embody post-patriarchal leadership qualities such as intelligence, honesty, trustworthiness, moral authority, curiosity, humility, compassion, personal integrity and example, long-range thinking, systems thinking, both/and or non-dual thinking, nonviolence, coalition building, exemplary service, generosity, and collaboration.

Even this brief overview of patriarchy can help us understand some of the underlying dynamics of our current political anxiety - from Donald Trump to Roy Moore to Harvey Weinstein to Bill Cosby to Al Franken, etc., etc., etc.

One one level, we might say that people are less likely to risk something new when they are under stress, the “devil you know” being preferable to the devil you don’t know. So the risk of moving farther in a post-patriarchal direction proved too much for America’s stressed-out electorate in 2016. Made chronically anxious through a mix of real threats and media-generated anxieties, voters in key swing states chose the strongman devil they knew.

Trump auditioned perfectly for the role of authoritarian patriarch-in-chief. In the primaries, he was willing to use threats of violence, outrageous insults, displays of wealth (including threats to sue) to either cow his rivals into submission or drive them from the field. He even employed physical posturing and braggadocio about his genital size to prove on a subconscious level that he was the fittest alpha male to be trusted. One of his favorite - almost messianic - expressions, “Believe me,” invited people to put concerns about moral character aside and revert to confidence in a more primal patriarchy. Even his ridiculous lying engenders a twisted confidence among those who have been formed by patriarchy to desire above all else the maintenance of order through dominating power. (One recalls Pilate's question, "What is truth?" - with its implied completion - "in comparison to brute power?")

Trump is very conscious of appealing to primal urges, as he explains in a 2007 book. After boasting that he has “had” all kinds of women - “beautiful, famous, successful, married,” he explains:

We may live in houses in the suburbs but our minds and emotions are still only a short step out of the jungle. In primitive times women clung to the strongest males for protection. They did not take any chances with a nobody; low-status males who did not have the means to house them, protect them, and feed them and their offspring. High-status males displayed their prowess through their kick-ass attitudes. They were not afraid to think for themselves and make their own decisions. They did not give a crap about what other people in the tribe thought. That kind of attitude was and still is associated with the kind of men women find attractive. (Think Big)

We might expect sexual braggadocio and “kick-ass attitudes” to turn off religious people, but actually, traditional theology reinforces the primal lure of patriarchy. After all, God in traditional monotheism is most commonly imaged as a Zeus-like super-patriarch, ready to smite with violence those who defy his omnipotence. With an all-powerful patriarch at the top of the great chain of being, the whole universe is rendered eternally and absolutely patriarchal.

In this light, we shouldn’t be so surprised that so many traditional white Protestants and Catholics - including women - voted for Donald Trump and remain his base of support. His strong-man persona and patterns of demagoguery felt less threatening and more familiar to believers in a patriarchal universe. Their patriarchal orientation actually made it easier for them to forgive Trump's p*ssy grabbing, punch-him-in-the-face pugilism, racial innuendo, unself-conscious arrogance, and habitual prevarication as long as Trump played the familiar patriarchal role. After all, patriarchal boys will be boys.

The same dynamic plays out in the Roy Moore situation, where a young DA cruises malls and high school football games to groom potential girls for molestation. The police, instead of confronting him, try to protect him by staying between him and his prey. Absolutized patriarchy relativizes the rights and voice of his female accusers - no, more than relativizes, it negates them so they simply don't count.

Patriarchy also explains why progressive Christians like myself found Trump so unacceptable. For us, Christmas is not the birth of an alpha male who plays by the old set of patriarchal rules, but rather, it is the celebration of the omega male: the model of a new humanity for both women and men. The way of Christ, as we understand it, is not a way of eye-for-eye revenge, but a way of nonviolent resistance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is not a way of domination, but service. It is not a way of leading through displays of physical, sexual, or financial prowess, but through displays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self control.

From our vantage point, the majority of our white Christian counterparts who voted for Trump followed the lead of those in the gospels who said, “We have no king but Caesar.” In other words, the only leadership they could recognize and follow was modeled on the old way of patriarchy.

In that light, a recent book by a courageous Evangelical woman takes on added significance.

Carolyn C. James’ Malestrom (a play on maelstrom) demonstrates how the Bible, far from endorsing patriarchy, actually subverts it and proposes a better way of being human for both men and women. “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message,” she says. Rather, it is the shadowy cultural backdrop against which a brighter post-patriarchal message shines. The minority of white Christian voters who rejected Trump in the voting booth would be wise to read Malestrom and pass it on to their Trump-supporting religious relatives, friends and fellow churchgoers.

Patriarchy may have addressed the problem of male aggressiveness back in the days of swords and spears, but in a world of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, patriarchy is not the solution: it is part of the problem.

If we believe that, those of us who attend church will find it harder and harder to be bathed in exclusively patriarchal images of God Sunday after Sunday. That's why a recent edition of the Liturgists Podcast featuring theologian Christena Cleveland - here  - is so timely and important. In an hour, it leads listeners deep into reflection on the power of theological metaphors, and the need to de-absolutize patriarchal metaphors for God.

The podcast includes a beautiful, powerful poem by Allison Woodard, "God Our Mother." It begins like this:

To be a Mother is to suffer;

To travail in the dark,

stretched and torn,

exposed in half-naked humiliation,

subjected to indignities

for the sake of new life.

To be a Mother is to say,

This is my body, broken for you,”

And, in the next instant, in response to the created’s primal hunger,

This is my body, take and eat.”

I have not encountered a more powerful insight into the meaning of eucharist, or the life of Christ, in many years, if not decades.

Finally, speaking of Christ, although he frequently refers to God as Father, I believe Jesus is a deconstructor of patriarchy, not a defender. Consider:

  • His fatherly metaphor decenters the dominant kingly metaphor of his day, toning down kingly patriarchy to familial patriarchy.
  • The familial patriarchy of his parables and aphorisms (If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more ...?) emphasizes kindness, compassion, and love, not power, domination, punishment, and revenge.
  • He exposes the inherent dishonesty of patriarchy with powerful political insight when he says, "Call no one Lord ... Call no one Father." (Matthew 23)
  • He turns patriarchy upside down and inside out when he washes his disciples' feet. Peter's negative reaction can be seen as Peter's (and the church's?) resistance to Jesus' radical rejection of patriarchy.
  • And as Allison Woodard's poem illustrates, Jesus' self-giving on the cross is the most powerful rejection of patriarchy imaginable. Instead of seizing and holding power by killing others, Jesus lays down his life and offers his broken, torn body as a life-giving gift, feeding the world as with a mother's milk. Jesus is, we might say, the anti-Caesar, the antithesis of patriarchy.


This is an adaption and expansion of an article I wrote a year or so ago.


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Today’s Gospel, Contemporary American Congress Edition

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the interest groups will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his far right hand and the goats at the center and left.

Then the king will say to those at his far right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a refugee and you built a wall and passed travel bans to keep me out, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. For in so doing, you punished those losers for not being competitive, and you upheld the sacred patriotic desire to win and prosper as a sovereign individual in a free and unregulated market."

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and protected you from becoming a lazy parasite, greedy for handouts?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me, saving me from socialism, communism, globalism, and political correctness.”

And then the king will say to those on the center and to the left, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was one of the elite 0.2% and you did not repeal the estate tax that oppressed me; I earned more than $500,000 per year and you opposed my tax cut; I made billions by plundering the planet and you tried to regulate me, I was a successful white person and you dared to question my white privilege, I was healthy and wealthy, and you tried to make me care about poor sick people's health care, and I was a corrupt politician and you said I should be in prison.”

Then the non-right will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we opposed unfair tax breaks for the 0.2%, or put the needs of the middle class above those of the one percent? And when was it that we supported environmental regulation, or challenged white privilege? And when was it that we proposed that you care for your less fortunate neighbors, or that you should be held accountable for your actions just like the rest of us?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, as you did it to my rich white male cronies, you did it to me.” And these leftists and establishment types will go away into eternal punishment, but the alt-right into eternal life.’

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Q & R: Christian atheist?

Here's the Q:
My wife and I used to go to Cedar Ridge when you were pastor there.  As I'm sure you've heard many times, we badly needed what we found there.  Since then, we've moved ... And again we're in a place where there seems to be no church community whose core objectives don't involve a hardening of us/them boundary demarcations.  This leaves us adrift - we'd rather not go to church at all then raise our kids like that.
I'm writing because we drove out to hear you speak a while back when you were in our general area.  It was great to hear your words again and to remember what Christianity could mean.  But during the question and answer time, I did have a few questions I wished I could have asked one-on-one.
The main question relates to the prodigal son discussion and the issue of belief in God. There seemed to be an assumption that when a Christian faces a crisis, if a community of believers comes around that person in their doubt, that eventually they'll some back - different from where they started, but still believing in God.  My question is whether there's room in your vision for an atheist Christian -- as much as I would like to believe in a Knower who knows me, is there room for someone who believes in emergence and negentropy and gestalt but not in a Person/Creator outside of the system.  What if it's more Atman than Jehovah?
I guess you're probably way past engaging with questions of the head and instead focusing on the heart.  And I get that.  But it would be a comfort to feel a part of the migration again, and not an oxbow lake.
I hope your home survived Irma.  God bless you and your family.
Here's the R:
Thanks for your note. With so few churches changing ... and the few who are, with most changing so very slowly ... many people are in the same bind as you ... thank God for places like CRCC (and a growing number of other congregations) who provide a safe place ...
As an aside - one reason I wrote We Make the Road by Walking was for families, small groups, and circles of friends who are church refugees to use it as a curriculum for a year of gatherings. Maybe it would be helpful?
As to your question ... Can there be an atheist Christian?
I want to answer in two ways. First, a less helpful, somewhat grouchy way.
As we see with the Trump/Moore/Evangelicalism saga unwinding, the whole "Christian" label is so discredited. So I don't see any great advantage in someone who is an atheist keeping the Christian label, not because of the atheism, but because of the Christianity. When "Christian" increasingly means "right wing tribal republican/white supremacist/Christian nationalist" ... why keep the label?
OK - for a more helpful response. If we let Jesus define Christianity rather than Trump/Moore/Graham/Falwell et al ... Jesus welcomed doubters, skeptics, and questioners. He didn't turn them away. Neither should we. If Christian faith is (as I try to argue in Great Spiritual Migration) a way of life rather than merely a system of beliefs, then the key question is whether someone wants to live in the way of life Jesus taught and embodied. It becomes less a matter of what one believes and more a matter of how one believes ... and lives, and loves.
That's especially true now, when inherited notions of God - big old white guy on a throne with a beard, cosmic dictator obsessed with his own glory, external-separated-from-creation-occasional-intervener, etc. - are failing. God with us ... God suffering with us ... God inherent in all creation ... God expressed in creation ... that understanding is only beginning to become more graspable, and I'm sure that God understands and accepts people who are struggling to find an honest and credible way of having genuine faith.
Tennyson's lines still stand:
You say, but with no touch of scorn,
         Sweet-hearted, you, whose light-blue eyes
         Are tender over drowning flies,
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
         In many a subtle question versed,
         Who touch'd a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
         At last he beat his music out.
         There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

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