Friday, October 23, 2015


Oprah Winfrey's Belief TV series (on her OWN network) opens with an intriguing story of a teenage Christian girl who has come to a crisis of faith after a horrifying trauma. She joins hundreds of other teens at a high-energy, emotionally-charged Christian retreat and regains her spirit, her energy, her purpose, and a renewed sense of God’s loving presence. This segment ends with a poetically beautiful outdoor mass baptism ceremony for all retreat attendees as they surrender to God's cleansing power and they embrace the new life ahead.

Like this touching personal story, the other segments were shaped from the perspective of the individual adherents of various faiths. It is personal, it is beautiful, it is intimate, and far more compelling than any kind of lecture or academic examination of religion. The cinematography is strikingly elegant, with breathtaking images from around the globe sucking you into the story. Oprah, as one of America’s media powerhouses, has the budget to create a television series on religion that is aesthetically worthy of an IMAX theater.

The opening episode ("The Seekers") makes me anticipate the rest (now being stored on my DVR). The show appears to be what a TV series on faith should be—an examination of how religious faith makes a difference in the life of an ordinary person. I understand that Oprah takes a different view of religion than I do, and I don't expect the series to be unbiased. There is no such thing. But the series highlights everyday people telling their own faith stories on their own terms, which gives the project a feeling of fairness and authenticity. My favorite story thus far is about young Mendel, the eager son of an orthodox rabbi, preparing for his bar mitzvah, ceremonially transitioning him from a Jewish boy to (as he says) a Jewish scholar.

Instead of parading the talking heads of religious experts giving us their professorial interpretations of faith, or journalists giving us detached reports on faith, ordinary believers tell us what the faith-life is like for them, and that's what matters. Hence, I applaud Oprah for focusing on personal stories as opposed to the History Channel approach (which has it’s place) of close-up interviews of theologians sitting in darkened rooms with stained glass over their shoulders (smiling in gratitude that Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code phenomenon has made rock stars of obscure religious scholars). I care little for what an academic tells me my faith is or ought to be. What matters for me is what my faith truly is, what it can be, and what I’ll make of it. Ultimately, that’s what matters for all of us.

Oprah critics will be quick to point out her desire for everyone to see every faith as valid and “true” in its own way. But I don’t listen to Oprah Winfrey for religious instruction, and I don't encourage others to do so. As a conservative Christian, I don’t expect the series to change my faith. However, I can respect and appreciate people I disagree with, which is a central point of the series.

Despite the unseemly actions throughout history done in the name of “Christianity,” countless followers of Jesus have lived with courteous respect for people of other religions for two thousand years. They’ve had to, because they’ve often been the religious minority in notoriously hostile areas. But I’ve always believed that Christian faith is strengthened when we have honest conversations with those outside the faith. After all, that’s how Christianity has spread all around the globe.

We do not--and cannot--grow in isolation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


I am a member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church of Charleston, South Carolina.

Me, a fair-skinned northerner and long-time minister of non-creedal, nondenominational churches, I am also a member of the predominantly black southern church, with all its liturgy and ceremony, unfamiliar to people of my simple tradition.

Having sprouted my spiritual roots in a subdued little church nestled in the cold Cascade Mountains, with hymns sung slowly and reverently to the sound of windblown drizzle, I am yet part of that vibrant congregation that meets in Southern swelter to stirring songs of passionate praise, Magnolias and Palmettos swaying in the breeze.

A church that claims God as Father, Christ as Redeemer, the Holy Spirit as Comforter, humankind as our family, a church that cares about the social and spiritual and physical needs of all people, that is my church.

More than that, a church that welcomes the quiet stranger, putting a Bible in his hands, giving him a seat in the sacred circle of study, that is my church. 

A church that loves the outsider despite the twisted confusion of his past, the vileness in his heart, the soiled spirit he brings, a church that sees only a soul in need of a Savior, a church "so nice" it makes even a killer think twicethat is my church. 

A church that forgives through tears, stands strong in sorrow, that honors the wounds of the past by moving forward in hope, a church that is not crushed by grief but pushes through pain, a church that declares justice and love as both legitimate responses to evil and suffering, that is my church.

I am a member of Emanuel A.M.E. Church of Charleston, South Carolina...

...if they would have me.

Monday, July 28, 2014


Just days ago, on July 25, militants of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) destroyed the traditional burial site of the biblical prophet Jonah, a holy site to both Christians and Muslims in the region.

The city of Mosul, where the shrine has stood for 800 years, is next to the remains of Nineveh, where the Bible records Jonah’s prophetic ministry after his whale-sized adventure. Unfortunately, many important religious and historical sites have been destroyed or defaced by Muslim extremists in adherence to strict traditions that cannot be found in the Koran, their holiest of books. Below are a few other examples of the destruction of Mideast sacred sites.

Jannat Al Baqi, the tomb of Mohammed’s wife (and several other sacred sites) was destroyed for fear that such sites would tempt Muslims into a kind of idolatry of such buildings. Other related structures nearby continue to be removed as Saudi officials declare a need to make room for an increase in annual religious pilgrims.

In the summer and autumn of 2012 many centuries-old religious shrines of Sufism were intentionally destroyed by the Muslim extremist group Ansar Dine, which claimed the sites violated Muslim teachings. They also burned many ancient irreplaceable manuscripts. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is working with the Mali government to help restore the historic sites.

Two gigantic statues of Buddha, carved from a mountain of sandstone, were completely destroyed. The statues had stood for 1500 years and survived previous attacks, but in March of 2001 Taliban leadership declared them idols and blew them up. I recall learning about the event on radio news, and it was the first time I'd ever heard of the "Taliban" -- the radical Islamists of Afghanistan. Today, in a post-9/11 world, the destruction of the two giant Buddhas certainly seems a haunting foreshadow of the devastation of two other massive twin structures just six months later in New York City.

Huffington Post: "ISIS Destroys Shiite Mosques And Shrines In Iraq." 

Saturday, July 26, 2014


It's nearly county fair season in America. People will soon be showing off their prize tomatoes and fattened pigs. Kids will eat too much and get sick on the rides, and folks will run into people they haven't seen in a very long time -- like I did.

I was browsing the art exhibit when I saw him on my right just a few feet away, and I knew I couldn't avoid him. After all, we had some unfinished business.

I turned to say hello. He looked up and gave a courteous nod. He didn't recognize me under my sparse beard and shorter hair, so I gave him my name.

"Oh. Hello, Don." He smiled politely. He still wore the same beige trench coat, looking more at home in the city than our lumbermill town.

"So, Lyle, you're still the juvenile officer here."

"Not for long," he said. "Moving to Olympia in the fall."

"Oh," I said. "Congratulations on the new job." I looked down, searching for my next words.

"I'm going to college now. It's my second year. I'm studying counseling and Bible." I watched for a sign of approval in his solemn face.

"I'm thinking of doing social work – maybe with teenagers." I shuffled my feet. "Or working as a counselor in a church."

"Oh, really." He raised his eyebrows and nodded.

I didn't want to bring up the past, but I had to. My palms got sweaty. I cleared my throat. "About what I did in high school, Lyle." I looked about cautiously. "You said there'd be some community service. Maybe a fine."

"Yes," he said, ignoring my nervousness.

"Well, it's been three years and nothing's happened. It's just that," I took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes, "for whatever reason you decided not to do anything to me, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you very much."

Hands still in his pockets, he nodded and said, "Sounds like we made the right decision." He smiled. I wished him well in his new job, clumsily shook his hand, then went to find my parents.

I don't know how much Lyle struggled over his decision to waive the penalty for my teenage crime, but I am grateful he did, especially considering he had no guarantee that I would straighten out my life.

I didn't know Lyle to be a religious man, so it surprises me how much his actions remind me of someone else.

Christ had no guarantee I would take his mercy to heart. Even so, he made the risky and generous decision that canceled my penalty by paying it himself. Believe me, it had nothing to do with worthiness. If spiritual merit were a bank account, my balance would be zero. The apostle Paul said it best:

"While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8; NIV).

Since Jesus offers us such generous mercy, we would do well to accept it, repenting of our blunders and placing our lives in his hands. Then we can spend the rest of our lives giving humble thank-yous to the one who gave it all.

As a grateful receiver of Christ's mercy I want to live in such a way that, when I finally see him, he'll smile, nod his head, and say, "Well done, Don. I knew I made the right decision."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Last Sunday Christian missionaries from Africa visited our church. Kevin Borror and his young American family work with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) in the tiny nation of Lesotho, which is entirely enclosed within the nation of South Africa.

Lesotho has the third highest rate of AIDS/HIV in the world with nearly a fourth of their population infected. Kevin, a pilot and plane mechanic, oversees the entire MAF program in Lethoso (with four aircraft), flying doctors and patients out of dirt airstrips to clinics and hospitals, working with at least 35 partner agencies. In the last twelve months they made nearly 3000 flights, delivering over 215,000 pounds of food, medicine, and other cargo.

As I listened to Kevin share about what MAF does in Lesotho, I recalled the aggravating words of a TV talk-show panelist. When someone mentioned the threat of militant Muslims, she could not help but respond by saying, "radical Christianity is just as threatening." It was the first time I had ever sent a letter to a TV network to complain about their TV hosts.

"Radical Christianity is just as threatening."

When those words awkwardly tumbled from her mouth, I tried to think of the "radical" Christians I knew, and I couldn’t think of any that threatened the welfare of the world. I did, however, quickly come up with a list of "radical" Christians that were making a positive difference.

Here are just a few examples:
  1. Clean water for Africa. Some "radical" Christian college students began digging water wells in Africa, providing clean water to communities who would otherwise be devastated by disease and dehydration. They also train rural Africans how to dig and construct more wells. Their efforts have received praise and support from internationally known public figures. More importantly, since 2006 they have helped over 700 communities to have access to clean water. That is the work of "radical Christianity."

  2. Nigerian Christian Hospital began in 1965 with one missionary doctor, and now treats over 20,000 patients each year. They are part of a wider effort (International Health Care Foundation) that serves at least seven different points in Africa and Haiti with medical care, education, career training, and orphaned children.

  3. Samaritan’s Purse is one of the more well-known Christian charities around the world, providing disaster relief, emergency food, medical care throughout the world and in the U.S. They are also known for coordinating "Operation Christmas Child," sending shoeboxes filled with toys, candy, toothbrushes, and school supplies to children the world over.

  4. In our little city, churches and organizations come together to support the Klamath Falls Gospel Mission (KFGM), which feeds, houses, and counsels homeless men, women, and children everyday of the year. They provide work opportunities, substance abuse recovery, life training, and countless other services to people who have fallen between the cracks of our welfare system. This is one of hundreds of such missions around the nation.

  5. "Night Strike" is a ministry that began in Portland, Oregon in 2003 when several Christians would take food and washing supplies to the homeless under the Burnside Bridge. One of the trademarks of the ministry was washing feet. Several days wearing the same unwashed socks made for painful foot problems. The ministry grew into a broader work called Bridgetown Inc. Each week volunteers serve a hot meal to around 300 people, bringing blankets, sleeping bags, shoes, socks, and cleaning supplies to those who live on the streets of Portland, and sitting down with them, face to face, just being friends. That is "radical Christianity" at work.
All around the globe "radical" Christians are "threatening" the world by caring for children orphaned by AIDS, bringing food and shelter to homeless people, sending doctors and dentists around the world for free healthcare, sending tons of food and medical supplies to disaster victims, building schools and hospitals, building homes for poverty stricken families, and all this is done in the name of the one who taught us to "do to others what you would have them do to you" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 7:12 and 22:39, TNIV).

I'm grateful I live in a world where people from many faiths and backgrounds are helping others, and making powerful differences where it is needed most. You don't have to be "religious" to help. But in a culture where Christians are becoming more maligned and mocked and misrepresented, many can easily (conveniently?) forget what Christians have been doing all along.

This is "radical Christianity," and it rarely makes the evening news. But it’s out there nonetheless, "threatening" the world with hope.

Monday, March 17, 2014


I really like the articles in CNN’s Belief Blog, and I’m grateful that the good folks at give a space to intelligent discussion about faith.

But the intelligence usually ends with the article. What I mean is that the end of the article marks the beginning of some of the most caustic comments on the web.

Feeling securely masked behind random usernames, internet posters (those who “post” comments) are boldened to post any angry, salacious, inflaming words that come to mind. It is the modern equivalent to the anonymous prank phone calls of yesteryear. Technology has taken that joy away from telephone users (via caller identification), but has given it back in a different shape: internet forums and social media.

The freedom to "flame" robs us of the freedom to discuss.
The strong connection between anonymity and hateful internet comments is the very reason why is now working to get people to use their real names, knowing it will curb much of the online vitriol on their site.

While most internet rabble rousers enjoy posting their digital poison in blissful anonymity, many do not care if their face, name, or even their email address is shown to the world. The digital distance of the internet is enough to give them the courage to say things they would never say to face to face.

This is why “cyberbullying” became a major issue with teens, a poisonous practice with a growing list of fatalities.

The phenomena is so common it has been given a clinical name – Online Disinhibition Effect – and has been the subject of serious academic psychological study for at least a decade.

What does this have to do with faith? 

While the web has given us a fantastic tool to discuss with people worldwide the issues that fascinate us, confuse us, and (yes) divide us, it has also given us a tool to allow the worst within ourselves to digitally vomit venomous messages upon whomever we wish, whenever and wherever we wish. One sad consequence is that, where there was opportunity for thoughtful, open dialogue between those who differ, the openness (and anonymity) of the internet invites just the opposite, forcing any engaging and enlightening dialogue into closed groups, which means they will by nature be less engaging and enlightening as we feel compelled to discuss among like-minded folks just to ensure a friendlier, safer environment.

And that is sad.

A recent post on CNN’s Belief Blog is a well written article about Jesus, written by author and Jesuit priest, James Martin. Sadly, with all the hatred and cynical crudeness habitually left by internet users, I don’t expect James Martin to even attempt to respond to questions or comments on his article.

A couple years ago I made the mistake of trying to dialogue with the hatemongers who left comments on the Belief Blog. I asked why there was such animosity toward those of faith, and the reply given to me was, “because you all have been coddled too long.”

If being “coddled” means respecting others by (at minimum) withholding crass, meanspirited comments about their beliefs, then I’ll take coddling any day. And if that’s how one defines coddling, then lets generously coddle everyone, whether Catholics or Charismatics, Baptists or Buddhists, atheists or agnostics, Mormons or Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews.

If “coddling” means treating one another with respect, biting our tongue (or fingers) when tempted to communicate crassness, and talking with kind, civil words, despite our differences, then, by all means, let’s all coddle!

Anyone care to start an internet "coddling movement"?