Face to Face

Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
– 2 John 1:12 (NRSV)

I love the written word. Love the written word.

Some of my favorite images for Christ expand upon the Gospel of John’s Word Made Flesh: the Word Made Verb, the Word Made Ink, the Word Made Verse. Wordplay is my happy place.

The Word that becomes verb is active and adventurous.

The Word that becomes ink is purposeful, pointed.

The Word that is stylized in verse is beautiful and elusive.

The Word when written can swell or break hearts, uplift or devastate lives, comfort or isolate the soul.

The Word is a wonder.

My love for the written word not only extends to my relationship with the Holy but also to my relationship with you. I’m content—delighted, even—to relate to you through the written word. A text rather than a phone call. An email rather than a meeting. A well-crafted, edited, typed-out thought rather than whatever jumble of words might fall off my tongue during an in-person conversation. I will lose sleep over those face-to-face words if they are inadequate in the moment.

Nevertheless, all the written words in the world cannot substitute for the poignancy of personal interaction. The humility of breath in shared space. The interpretation of body language. The fragility of disagreement; the relief of affirmation. The hopes, the fears, the possibilities that cannot be realized unless we are in the same space.

The written word can only describe it. Coming together completes it.

“Here, o my Lord, I see thee face to face.” (H. Bonar) May words never come between us.

written for the Daily Devotional


It’s not even a prayer, O Wild Whisper. It’s merely words strung together, bumbles of syllables and sounds, mutterings and half-finished thoughts, vain longings and (when I’m not careful) a snippet of heart truths that I prefer to keep to myself. I press on to meet you this way, to reach you this way, but what are nouns and verbs and punctuation compared to Life and Spirit? Of what usefulness are tongues, of what meaning are enunciations when all heaven sings your praises and every holy whim is more wise than my very best effort? Ah Sweet Mercy, bear to wade through my words and call me to the prudence of silence.

Sacred Habits

In addition to my experience of Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, as part of a larger conversation on Church & faith in the 21st century, recently new to the same conversation is a collection of essays entitled Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy.

sacred-habits-clergyEdited by my colleague Chad Abbott, Sacred Habits (Noesis Press 2016) features personal, professional & practical reflections on the roles of clergy in the 21st century. The essays are written by ministers who serve in local churches, academia, institutions, and entrepreneurial ventures. My own chapter in Sacred Habits is “Disrupting Sabbath.”

If the book’s subtitle — The Rise of the Creative Clergy — implies new revelations in the rise of its essayists’ practices and perspectives, I might temper such a hint to emphasize that Sacred Habits represents creativity more than discovery, not so much a new wheel but a new set of voices. In seasons of change & upheaval such as the 21st century Church is experiencing, it can be tempting to claim newness in all things, to perceive the changing climate as completely unique (it’s not: change is ongoing), and to see ourselves as uniquely positioned to save it (we’re not: theologically & practically speaking, ours is not the task of saving but of faithfully engaging).

It’s possible that I’ve stepped on the “Let’s save the Church!” soapbox a time or two, which is why I offer caution.

Sacred Habits is a useful book for clergy who seek to engage faithfully, not to save but to participate in change with intentionality and authenticity. The book is rich food-for-thought for ministers, ministry settings, and those training for ministry. It could serve to support a brainstorming session between a pastor and the leaders in her congregation. It could prompt a monthly series of ministerium conversations. It could encourage a minister whose theology for ministry has become disconnected from his practice of ministry.

Reading Sacred Habits as a colleague in this ongoing conversation about ministry in a changing Church and faith in the 21st century, I tumble with questions for my fellow essayists:

Are we aware of how many dead white men we quote and cite as central to our theological compasses? And, if we’re aware of it, how are we responding to it?

Have we adequately discerned our own critiques of Church from the wider world’s critiques of Church? Maybe that’s an unrealistic or unnecessary distinction, but in our essays I hear the occasional conflation of ideas that suggest (to me) that we have borrowed others’ critiques without much reflection: systematic theology, for example, is not synonymous with doctrine; the latter tends to get a bad rap (understandably) but the former means a way of thinking about faith — which I hope we’re doing! Also in the category of words not currently in vogue is “institution,” which the book’s chapters occasionally lament even though each clergy essayist serves as a representative of the Church as institution.

(There are more questions to be asked. The book’s provocation to conversation is one of its assets, and I would buy the first round of drinks for the above and additional conversations.)

Questions noted, I am proud to be a contributor to Sacred Habits and I am impressed by my colleagues who are so thoughtful, resilient and faithful in their ministries. I commend Sacred Habits to readers who seek a nudge of inspiration for their ministries, who are looking for a tool by which to reflect on their ministry calls & contexts, who might be encouraged by a vision of creative ministries and by a community of conversationalists who are earnestly & faithfully engaging change in the 21st century Church.

King Cat

Every writer starts somewhere: The itch begins with a book that makes our spirits soar, or a teacher who affirms our creativity, or a spirit within us that insists on crafting stories. I have my own list of writing influences, but my first taste of publishing itself came at the encouragement of my 6th grade English teacher, who submitted a piece of my creative writing to a young writers’ publishing contest.

Contests and publishing moving at the pace they do, it wasn’t until 8th grade that the winning pieces were published in a book: Creatures Unlimited (The Flying Pencil Press 1989, edited by Charlotte Towner Graeber), a collection of more than 50 poems, stories & artwork by young people ages 8-14. The experience was fabulous and surreal — my introduction to the possibility that words can circulate far beyond oneself. (Also, I was interviewed for local TV; my glasses frames…oh the 80s!)

Bearing in mind that I wrote this piece at age 11, here is my first published writing: “King Cat.”

drawing by Mike Sheppard, also published in "Creatures Unlimited"

drawing by Mike Sheppard, also published in “Creatures Unlimited”

As I peered out of my window, I saw a cat stalking the corn field as if he were a king proudly walking throughout his own country.

The cat’s face had ears pricked straight into a point. Its eyes were green with a black slit in the middle of each eye. His nose was pink, and his mouth was curved into a sly smile, as if he knew something that I didn’t.

This cat’s body was sleek, and a small arch in its back gave it a graceful appearance. From a small bulge in its stomach, I guessed that he had found a fat mouse for dinner.

The cat’s tail was standing almost straight up with a small curve on the tip. Its body was snow white, and although it limped a little, the cat was beautiful.

As I continued watching, the cat, after a quick pause, walked out of the field and into the woods.

Although he was out of sight, I imagined King Humfred the Cat (that’s what I named him) walking into his home territory — a proud, victorious king. His people would welcome him home, and great knights from afar would come and ask how he had conquered the fiercest enemy in the land. Fair maidens would arrive in great caravans.

Late into the night, the king would hold a feast for the people of his kingdom — knights from afar and the fair maidens.

I woke up. My mother was calling me for supper.

“Coming,” I called back. As I turned to leave, a thought crossed my mind. “My monarch…?” I turned back to the window. There he was, King Humfred the Cat, standing again in the field. To this day, I still swear that he winked at me that night.