If last week’s United Methodist General Conference taught us anything, it’s that there is no victory but total victory.

That, at least, is something conservatives and liberals were able to agree on, and no wonder why. For those who view full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons as a matter of civil rights, anything short of universal acceptance is unjust. For those who view the inclusion of any such person as a collective sin, anything short of universal exclusion is a rejection of holiness.

I really don’t know how anyone deals with such absolutism.

Don’t get me wrong. I have strong feelings about full inclusion and have for many years. The strange thing, however, is that my views have flipped. As a young man raised in the South, I thought in the same traditional way that virtually everyone around me did. Then I made the mistake of taking the Bible more seriously. When I did, realized over time that my assumptions were based on using scripture to affirm my prejudices, rather than on letting scripture guide and shape what I believed. It took awhile for me to be comfortable with the shift, and still longer to speak it aloud. Once I did, however, I’ve held that conviction strongly.

What has been consistent over both phases in my adult life, however, is a certain pragmatism that makes me a poor match for zealots. My default setting is to find workable solutions even amid deep disagreements.

Unfortunately, in church as well as contemporary politics, such pragmatism is in short supply. Zealotry was on clear display in St. Louis. For many–especially the traditionalists–there could be no victory but total victory. Compromise was seen not as a sign of altruism, but of weakness. Besides, as one former colleague put it to me at a previous GC, “Why would you compromise when you know you have the votes?”

The fallout from GC2019 has continued in largely the same spirit. My conservative friends have taken some muted victory laps. They congratulate themselves and dismiss pain from the other side as nothing more than their opponents being sore losers. My progressive friends have expressed anger and outrage, variously advocating for fight with or flight from the UMC.

I can understand both sets of emotions. Twenty years ago I would have felt the former. Today, I feel the latter. But neither response moves us forward. To do that, we need a virtue that we’ve largely abandoned, both as a church and as a nation.


I’m not suggesting that everyone is okay or that we simply bless every viewpoint, no matter how misleading or illogical. Nor am I suggesting that anyone who throws a conniption fit about not getting his way should be allowed to hijack the better judgment of an organization.


Hands that are open to give are also open to receive.

But I am suggesting that the no-victory-but-total-victory mindset is toxic and unnecessary. It’s hubris to think that we are the defenders of God’s holiness, and equally so to think that we can right every wrong in the span of a few decades. It’s exhausting to approach every disagreement as a high-stakes battle. We’ve grown too used to it, though, to realize the toll it takes on us.

A give-and-take solution may not satisfy anyone, but it keeps the carnage to a minimum. Plus, real compromise is perhaps the highest form of respect. Days of prayer and calls for civil dialogue may be well and good, but they only pile on words. Actual compromise, on the other hand, says to supporters and opponents alike that we value connection with people above purity of ideals.

Perhaps it’s too late for renewed generosity to make a difference for the UMC. No matter. God has also started over with his children more than once, and God will almost certainly do so again. If we want to be a part of that reconciling work–both for the once and future church, and for our nation–we have to lay aside our dreams of conquest. We have to discover a mutual generosity–courageous, unafraid of loss, deeply committed to one another as children of God.


What I meant to say was…

         I’ve stayed mostly silent through the latest Methodist debacle that was General Conference 2019. I didn’t want to contribute to the noise, and I still don’t. But the vote to reject a progressive approach to LGBTQ+ persons is something that I still have to address with my congregation of college students. Unfortunately, my opportunity to do that in chapel this morning was interrupted by a medical emergency with a student. Thankfully she seems to be fine, and that event did put the silliness of the Methodists’ posturing into stark relief. 

         Rather than shirk the larger discussion, however, I at least wanted to make the thoughts I was going to share available for those who might be interested. Below is the text of the sermon I would have given.

There’s an old kid’s song I used to sing for children’s sermons: at a time like this, I need the Lord to help me. Those of you who know anything about being Methodist probably know why.

For those of you who don’t know or who have forgotten, the United Methodist Church—the parent church of Dakota Wesleyan and the denomination in which I am a pastor—has been debating human sexuality for fifty years and out-and-out fighting for about the last twenty. Earlier this week, the official policy-making group of the Methodist Church voted to affirm traditional standards, meaning that the official church position is that LGBTQ+ persons are not compatible with Christian teaching.

As you might expect, this has thrilled some people. To say it disappointed others—myself included—would be an understatement. The process has already been ugly. It’s not likely to get better.

What does this mean for campus ministry at Dakota Wesleyan? I hope nothing. For a lot of years now, we have welcomed everyone who has walked through the doors. We have not disqualified people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of us have more conservative beliefs and others are moderate to liberal. But we’ve managed to find a way to love one another and hold together through a lot of difficult stuff. We’ve managed to remain friends. And I think that puts us in company with Jesus.

Among the first things Jesus did when he began his earthly ministry was to gather friends around him. He called his disciples, but they were more than pupils. In fact, he tells them directly that he doesn’t think of them as servants, but as friends. He needed people to walk alongside him, to encourage him, to challenge him, to make him laugh, to remind him he wasn’t alone. On every step of the journey right up to the cross, Jesus kept his friends close to his side.

It’s no surprise, then, that as the cross drew near, Jesus would spend his last precious hours with his friends.

The story begins in earnest in John 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that their friend Lazarus is sick and that he wants to go see him. The disciples try to talk him out of it. Lazarus lives with his sisters Mary and Martha in Bethany, which is near Jerusalem. The city was then as it is now—in a state of perpetual unrest. And Jesus was not a welcome figure. The religious leaders viewed him as a heretic and troublemaker. Word on the street was that they would kill him if he ever showed his face again. So in the disciples’ view, there’s no real need to visit Lazarus. Why not send a card? Maybe flowers.

But then Jesus explains more fully. Lazarus is dead. He has to go to Bethany, and he intends to go, whether he has any company with him or not. His friends look at each other, trying to figure out what to do. If they go with Jesus and Jesus is arrested, they likely will be arrested also. They could be killed. No one wants to do this.

When someone finally speaks, it’s Thomas. The room gets a little more tense at this point, because Thomas is not known for his tact. He’s the kind of friend who will tell you straight up if your fly is open or there’s a booger hanging from your nose. Thomas is the one who, when you ask if that girl is into you or not, says, “No, dude, she’s out of your league. Aim lower.” He’s the one who, when you ask if those jeans make you look fat, answers, “Yeah, mainly across your butt.”

We don’t have a record of Thomas ever saying those exact things, but when he does speak in John’s gospel, he’s always that kind of blunt. He’s the one who, when Jesus asks if what he just said makes any sense, replies, “Nope.” He’s a skeptic, maybe even a doubter. He’s certainly a guy that could use a better filter. So when he opens his mouth to respond to Jesus’ crazy idea of going to Bethany, no one knows what he’s going to say until he says it.

“Let’s go. If we die with him, we die with him.”

That’s the kind of friend you want to have—someone who, for whatever other character flaws they might have, including a big mouth—is ready to stand beside you, come hell or high water. He’s the kind of friend who doesn’t let outside pressures get in the way of his friendship. He’s the guy that has your back, and a good thing, too. Because before long, Thomas is going to need someone to offer the same kind of friendship to him.

The most famous story about Thomas happens later in John’s gospel. Jesus has been resurrected and appeared to his disciples, but Thomas is not with them. They tell him the story, but he says, “Guys, no. I can’t go there. Unless I see Jesus for myself—unless I reach out and touch him—I’m not going to believe what you’re saying.”

“Doubting Thomas,” we call him, but that’s not really fair. Honest Thomas, maybe. Loyal Thomas, absolutely. Why would we linger on his doubt instead?

Maybe because that’s what really scares us. We’re afraid of doubt. We’re afraid of being wrong, of losing face, of being hopeless. We’re afraid that, when the world falls apart around us, there won’t be a God with us who really cares. We’re afraid of losing faith, because that means we’ll be alone. It’s easy to throw shade at Thomas because he doubts. We’re just condemning the thing in him that we fear in ourselves.

But if Thomas embodies our fears, he also gives us the best example on how to deal with doubt. Because he does his doubting among his friends.

Not long after he tells the other disciples he needs to see to believe, Thomas does see Jesus. In fact, he does more that see. He makes a declaration—a political statement. He kneels before him and calls him “my lord and my God.” That was a title reserved only for the emperor. At this point, however, Thomas isn’t afraid of powerful men with the trappings of wealth. He’s ready to proclaim Jesus as the one true king, and to pledge himself to him.

Don’t miss the context in which all of this happened. Where was Thomas? Not out in the desert sulking in solitude. He was back with his friends. Even though he doubted, he didn’t do it alone. He hung around people whose faith carried his until he got it back.

Feelings are great liars. They tell us that what we experience is the great truth of the world, when in fact our feelings are only a reflection of the way we perceive the world, and sometimes even that is colored by the chemical workings of our brains. Sometimes—especially when our feelings threaten to overpower us—we need to put them in their place. As friends, we can help one another do that.

At a time like this, we need the Lord to help us. And we need each other.

Those at GC2019–some of them very powerful people–handed down a decision early in the week that they think the entire UMC will live by. But I have no intention of letting someone else’s doctrinal agenda scare or injure the flock I’m entrusted with. So let’s not allow other people’s passions to tear us apart. Let’s love one another. Let’s keep praying, even if it feels like no one is listening. Let’s keep gathering for worship, even though we are afraid of what the future holds. Let’s keep waiting for the Lord to reveal himself to us.

In time, I trust that he will–not to any bureaucratic gathering, but to his friends.

Review: The Advent Mission

A few weeks ago, my friend Omar Rikabi sent me my first Christmas present of 2018. Inside was a small book of 37 advent devotionals, one per day beginning the first day of advent and running through the twelve days after Christmas. It’s a simple enough gift–only 120 pages–and not terribly expensive–$12.95 on Seedbed’s website. I looked it up.


Every author starts somewhere. On my desk, at least, Omar is at the top of the stack.

What makes The Advent Mission such an extraordinary gift, however, is the name on the spine. Omar Rikabi.

Any writer worth the oxygen he or she consumes will tell you that it’s a thrill to see a friend’s work in print. Those of us who write books–even books that remain unpublished on our desktops–know the effort and discipline it takes to order thoughts into sentences, then to hone each word so that it says exactly what you mean to say. When Omar finished his manuscript, that was cause enough to celebrate.

To see that manuscript published is more than just icing on the cake. It’s another cake on top of the cake. With ice cream. And the best coffee you’ve ever had. And someone else picks up the check and leaves you a $20 tip.

But there’s another inevitable response to picking up a friend’s book. You don’t want to even admit the fear, much less vocalize the question.

What if it’s terrible?

I’ve read enough of Omar’s work to know he’s a good writer, but a lot can happen in the production process. What if the printer got a few paragraphs out of order and turned the devotionals into nonsense? What if Omar accidentally turned in an earlier draft of the manuscript that called Herod a poopy-woopy dopeface and referred to Mary as momsies? It took a week for me to get the courage to crack open the book.

Thankfully, The Advent Mission holds up to the best of my expectations. Omar writes with   candor and insight that I expect from him, but that is still anything but typical. He never lacks for raw honesty–the New Year’s hangover that showed him the need for advent–and for interesting stories–Christmas at a mall in Mecca. He balances advent themes such as justice, redemption, action, and waiting. He acknowledges that the message of advent is personal, but does not allow the reader to be self-absorbed.

My first reading of The Advent Mission was a mixture of relief and admiration. I’m proud of the work Omar did and happy it made its way into the world intact.

My next reading is going to be more fun. I’ll start over on Dec. 2, the first day of advent and the beginning of the new Christian year. I’ll approach this reading slowly, a day at a time, less focused on craft and more on content. Because Omar is right–we need advent, more than we know. I’m grateful for the reminder The Advent Mission gives us.




A Humble Reminder

The difference between humility and humiliation is choice.

I’m reminded of this every time I go to the polls to vote, proverbial blue dot that I am. This year was no exception. Whatever strides progressives made in other parts of the country, that once again got destroyed in South Dakota. I did not vote for a single winning candidate on any level–state, local, national. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve voted for a winning candidate since 2010, unless you count Barack Obama in 2012, who won the presidency but lost the state in which I lived by 24 points.

By one measure, my losing streak is a humiliation, an electoral shouting-down of my political beliefs. I’ve encountered plenty of people willing to couch it in those terms. In the age of no-victory-but-annihilation, and with a barely literate man-child as president, it seems a natural thing to humiliate your opponents.

And feeling humiliated seems like a natural response, for those of us on the losing end. The taunts of Will McAvoy’s The Newsroom rant echo in my head. “If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?”

Thanks, Will. Duly chastised.

Most days, I think Jesus is just as offended by all of this as I am. And I think I have pretty solid biblical ground to stand on there.

Where Jesus and I differ is on how to address the situation. I would really have liked to have seen an unequivocal repudiation of Trump and his ilk on election night. I wish my conservative friends would chase this band of militants and racists out of their party and back to the compound from which they sprang. I wish God would drop thunder from the sky–maybe send a few Exodus-style plagues–and say, “Enough!”

I have no hope that God will give me anything I wish.

I base my pessimistic assessment on God’s big intervention into human history (according to Christians, at least). The messiah showed up on the scene at a time when things were desperate for the Jews. They were subject to the whims and corruptions of Roman rule, and they wanted God to do something about it. Send a king. Send a general. Send someone with enough influence to make real change.

Jesus was none of that. He never even tried. Jesus was playing a different game altogether, infiltrating small spheres with big messages of love and forgiveness and healing. His powerlessness wasn’t an obstacle to overcome. It was an essential tool in his work, a way to model how the kingdom of God comes to us, how we get in on it.

All of this has unnerving implications for those of us who want to face down a tyrant, from Nero to Trump and each of them in between. We can resist and sometimes revolt. We can speak against them and vote against them. But our best approach is not to try to beat them at their own game. It’s to love our neighbors in tangible ways, to think big and act small.

Seen in this light, no defeat–electoral or otherwise–is really a humiliation. A setback, to be sure, but also a reminder that God chose to fight the tyrants of Jesus’ day not with power, but with humility.

If that’s good enough for Jesus, then I suppose I should trust that it’s good enough for me as well.


Old Stuff

Few things will chip away at your happiness than the thought that you should be happier.

This morning I moved a Word file from my “In Progress” folder to the “Old Stuff” folder. Most of the time, when I move such a file to such a place, it’s an occasion for mourning. It means the project has been abandoned, along with an idea that I’d once been excited about–one that I’d spend hours trying to shape into a coherent narrative that other humans might derive meaning and pleasure from. But whether by my own judgment or by a a string of rejection notices, these pieces have been deemed lacking and so relegated to Old Stuff. Alas, most of the words I write end up in this file, never to see the light of day. Most of them never should.


The first page of my essay in Sport Literate. It’s a thrill to see your work in print, but also a reminder of all your work that sits unused in the files.

Today, however, I had a much more auspicious reason for opening Old Stuff.  I moved an essay called “St. Anthony and Buddha Bike Through the Desert” into a tiny subfolder labeled “Wins.” With its appearance in Sport Literate‘s fall edition, it joined a dozen or so non-church related pieces that I’ve published in different venues. The Wins folder is my modest literary trophy case, and “St. Anthony” is the newest and highest quality entry to date. I should be ecstatic.

I’m not.

The problem is that my Wins folder pales in comparison in both size and scope to the rest of Old Stuff. The other subfolders represent various categories of failure. Novels ranging from partially written to fully polished but not in print. Columns published as a pastor, dating back to the era when I thought–naively, as it turns out–that determination and well-formed ideas were enough to steer my religious tribe away from self-destruction. Short stories and essays that were never any good to begin with, but which help me trace my maturity as a writer, such as it is.

If my estimations are close, I think I have in the neighborhood of 500,000 words of material in the Old Stuff file, representing about 25,000 printed pages and untold thousands of hours of work. When I add up the old church-related columns with the Wins folder, I can see that about 10% of the words I’ve written have been read outside of my immediate circle.

With numbers like that, no wonder most of the writers I know focus more on their failures than their successes. I’m no better. But I’m trying to be. Ironically, the clan that has made me more determined to celebrate the wins is not literary, but athletic.

As it does in much of American life, sports has an outsized place at the university where I work. Since most of my students are also athletes, I’ve had to learn a fair amount about what makes them tick. And one of the clearest and most overwhelming lessons is that athletes on almost every level hate to lose more than they love to win. This trait, called the Krauthammer Conjecture by the late columnist of that name, is every bit as evident in an NAIA cross country runner as it is in Max Scherzer or Lebron James.

In fact, I’d go so far as to postulate that most of us spend far more time thinking about our regrets and failures than our successes. If I tell a student she did a great job at the choir concert, she’ll talk about the notes she missed. If I tell an actor he nailed a role in a production, he’ll inevitably mention the lines he dropped. Something in us is wired to remember the negative and to confess our failures, even in the face of success.

So it’s my mission today to let the Old Stuff go. The failures of the past will collect their dust whether I mind them or not. In the meantime, I have a new story out in the light of day. That may not represent wild success, but it is an accomplishment. The Old Stuff isn’t going to get in the way of my enjoying this victory.

I hope you can find a similar happiness today in your own successes. And I hope you are surrounded by people who care more about those than any failure you might also carry.


All Hallows

I’m finally starting to get Halloween.

For most of my life, I’ve been mystified by this quasi-holiday, in large part because I’m not naturally wired for it. I don’t believe in ghosts or vampires or immortal killers without faces. I don’t like scary movies or gore. I’ve never looked good in orange, and I detest the smell of pumpkins. Tell me, then, exactly what is there for me in Halloween?

Not much, truth be told. While every year brings some bright spots–fall cookouts, gatherings with friends, free candy–I still have to duck my head and grit my teeth. In a few days, all the ghoulishness will be gone. Even those who love Halloween don’t seem excited to let it linger.


My children playing in the leaf pile. Although parenting teenagers is indeed terrifying, their version of Halloween fun is one I can live with.

Among the litany of baffling things about Halloween is how little we think of what’s on the other side of it. Its name–contracted from Hallows Evening–suggests that we are on the edge of something, but not there yet. Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas. New Year’s Eve isn’t the new year. Hallows Eve isn’t…what?

I’ve known for some time that the real answer is All Saints Day (formerly referred to as All Hallows), a Christian celebration of those who have died and, as the saying goes, joined the church triumphant. Many Christian tribes–including my own– take the first Sunday of November to read the names of those who have died since the last All Saints’ Day and to remember loved ones we have lost at any point in the past. For most of my career, this seemed like a nice and pastorly thing to do.

My feelings have changed since I came to at Dakota Wesleyan. On our first All Saints Day together, my new congregation and I were grieving along parallel paths–I for my friend Jason and they for their associate pastor Brian, both of whom had died far to young the year before. In the coming months, we would hold three more funerals–Hali and Beau, two freshmen students who died nine months apart, and Pam, a beloved professor.

Wisdom may come with age, but so does loss. I’ve talked with countless people in recent years about the deaths of grandparents and siblings, uncles and friends, classmates and neighbors. My father died in February and was incapacitated long before his heart stopped beating. I have friends with cancer, with diabetes, with dementia. I found out last night that the mother of two of my college classmates–a delightful woman who treated Susan and Nancy’s friends as her own kids–is preparing to enter hospice care.

I’ve decided that I’ll never quite get over most of these losses–that most of us don’t, and that’s okay. They remain part of my life’s canvas, and even though they take up less of the picture as the years go by, they will never quite go away.

All Saints Day gives me a chance–more than that, a mandate–to remember. It reminds me of my faith’s hope that a person who dies is not lost, but welcomed into the hands of God. It allows me to grieve, but leaves no room for despair.

So today I am in full Halloween-be-damned mode. The fascination with ghosts and monsters and unrequited suffering misses the point. Today I’m living in remembrance, and in anticipation. The two are not so far apart as I once supposed.


A Minority Report

Last weekend, the Area Community Theater opened a production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, a murder mystery in which I portray a jealous innkeeper who plays host to a cast of oddballs and charlatans, all of whom are suspects. It involves a lot of deception and finger-pointing, sprinkled with a fair amount of righteous indignation, In this way, the play is not all that different than contemporary political or theological discourse.


Here I am as Giles Ralston. Yes I had to shave my beard. No, this pose is not really acting.

Being onstage, though, is easy. The lines are scripted, the character interaction fixed. I have to try to embody what my character thinks and feels–including how I relate to other characters. But I don’t get to choose what I say or how I feel or who I offend. Those things are already set. I just have to bring them to life.

The difficult part is in the dressing room, where the dialogue isn’t set and the relationships are not defined. On show nights, actors and crew spend hours together getting ready before the curtain opens. We wait in close quarters, with plenty of time to talk. To paraphrase one of Detective Trotter’s lines, it’s great fun.

Mostly. This past week provided a few thorny conversation topics, especially around the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. True to Midwestern Red State form, the four other men in my dressing room felt victorious, to varying degrees. They enjoyed the win for their political persuasion, and they enjoyed watching their opponents–or at least the most radical of their opponents–lose.

I can empathize with where they are coming from. Nearly twenty years ago, I was a political moderate and a social conservative myself. I voted for George W. Bush in his first term, mostly because I was worried about pending Supreme Court vacancies. When I hear my fellow actors stating their conservative views, I hear echoes of how I once thought.

I think differently now, of course. A thousand different factors moved me away from my young-adult assumptions–the most important and surprising of which was a shift in my understanding of the Bible. My theology and my politics have moved a great deal, and the transition has been neither neat nor tidy.

All of which leaves me as the minority among my dressing room colleagues, and as such left with a quandary. How do I hold my convictions authentically, express them genuinely, and still keep peace among fellow actors than I now consider friends?

One answer is that I can’t do all of that. Keeping peace is out of my control, not just in this but in any situation. We live among free individuals who get to choose their own responses. If someone wants to fight, it doesn’t matter how considerate I try to be.

But that’s not the way most of us want to live. We want to get along, to work together, to build a better world for everyone. Or at least not to punch each other in the face all the time.

I think many of my friends are wrong in their conclusions, but that doesn’t make them unworthy of respect. We need each other, if we are going to address big problems like climate change–the greatest current threat to human thriving by almost any measure. For that matter, we need each other, even for small things like putting on a play at the local ACT.

And it’s in such settings that national healing starts–not at caucus meetings or strategy sessions, and certainly not on the troll playgrounds that social media platforms have become. Our public discourse has no hope of improving until we humanize and converse with those who are so easily vilified for thinking differently than our tribes.

So the way I deliver my minority report matters. I don’t have to sacrifice conviction or content, but I do have to pay attention to other people’s feelings. If I want to be heard, I first have to listen. And when I speak as either the minority or the majority, I have to do so with understanding, if the show is to go on–and if the show is to go anywhere.


The cast of The Mousetrap at Mitchell ACT.