“These families have tattooed my soul.”

I met the Rev. Dr. Helen Boursier while serving on a committee she chaired within our denomination. Since then, I have admired her deep devotion to a group of people she would never have met without a faith that compels her to action. She has let these people “tattoo her soul.” Frankly, her witness continues to convince me of the need to act in my own life. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she shares the arc of her journey.

Since 2014, I’ve been a volunteer chaplain with refugee families seeking asylum. Together, we have talked, laughed, sung songs, shared time in worship, made artwork, wept, and prayed. Most of these asylum seekers have been young women with small children who are fleeing violence and death threats in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Serving as a volunteer chaplain is my Christ-centered response to Jesus’s proclamation: “Whatever you have done for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.” (Mt 25:40)

The preparation for my spiritual journey of love and hospitality started long before I first visited the detained families. It began over a decade earlier with my sense of disconnect from the Christian church and its increasing disregard for the ethical teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount and many of his parables. Disheartened, I saw that the church is too often a social club of like-minded members who look, believe, and act like people of the world, rather than disciples called by Jesus to challenge and change injustice. However, despite my disillusionment, I still wanted to continue as a Christ-follower.

Ironically, in the middle of my disappointment with the formal Christian church, I sensed God calling me to vocational ordained ministry. After completing the education and ordination requirements, I became the organizing and senior pastor of a new church start in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The job came with no funding, no building, no land, no people: go build a church from scratch! It felt like God was calling me to “put up, or shut up,” challenging me to put into practical action Jesus’s teachings so that “right belief” intersected with “right action.” Community Fellowship Presbyterian Church in New Braunfels, Texas began with core values to be uplifting, friendly, welcoming, spiritual, fun, Christ-centered, and culturally relevant. The church’s DNA was to welcome every possible type of diversity with radical hospitality and unconditional love. The congregation responded to the community with a spirituality of love and hospitality by being fully present in whatever capacities and contexts.

Then, in 2014, I received an invitation to chair the Mission Outreach and Justice Committee for 150 Presbyterian churches located in central and south Texas. I had been so busy planting a church that I hadn’t realized what this committee oversaw. I did some homework and research to familiarize myself with its areas of concern. This included an immigration task force formed in response to the large influx of unaccompanied minors and young families seeking asylum at the southern border of the U.S.

I began volunteering with many of these families as Pastora Helena. As Dr. Boursier, I had been writing about the racist policies and practices centered on immigration, but this was firsthand experience. As thousands of detained mothers shared their personal stories of trauma, courage, and love, it suffused my academic perspective with deep love and compassion. As one ministry colleague said, “Your experience with these families has tattooed your soul.” These families became my lifelong forever friends.

Their witness to my spirit intersected with the words of Dorothee Soelle, a prominent German theologian who began teaching after the Nazi regime ended. In her memoire, Soelle said she was appalled by the complicity, through silence, of the German people and their repeated excuse, “We didn’t know…” She made it her life’s mission to ensure that people around her would never again give that same lame excuse regarding injustice in our world. Her words and work inspired me to unmask the racist policies and practices meted out against immigrants seeking asylum.

To this day—through teaching, public speaking, and advocacy—I bear witness with these families. I hope and pray that my writing provides historical documentation for future generations. Each book I research and write becomes a learning experience that reinforces my spiritual journey of solidarity with these wonderful mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are desperately seeking asylum in the United States of America.

You can find out more about Helen and her ministry at her website.

What keeps me going is the “knowing.”

Le Anne Clausen de Montes is a Presbyterian pastor living in North Iowa. In the following words, she characterizes herself as unsuccessful. That begs the question: what is success? Laboring behind the scenes as a volunteer, she is co-creator of the Iowa Faith Leadership Network, the Farm Crisis Ministry Network, Spectrum Spirituality Project, Family Welcome Centers International, and We Parent Together. She has studied, volunteered, or worked with organizations such as L’Arche, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Middle East Council of Churches, the International Solidarity Movement, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and Women Against Violence (the first Arabic-speaking women’s crisis center in the Middle East). In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), she speaks about the forces that propel her to work for justice.

At this stage of my life, I may not be anyone’s definition of success. I’m in my 40s and I’ve never owned a home. My car is ancient and slowly dying, with 270,000 miles and a lot of rust. In 2015, I became a struggling solo parent of a low-income family. The first few years, we were an extremely low-income family, living in public housing, and although I was working all the time, we needed a lot of assistance to make ends meet. What I remember most from that time is the exhaustion and the mice.

I took a break from parish ministry when my youngest was about to be born, my second child was showing signs of autism, and members of the congregation I served were not really supportive. My spouse was going through his own behavioral health struggles, and we ended up separating, then divorcing. I’d hoped to return to parish ministry when my youngest was ready to start school. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 changed plans again.

People these days might mistake me for “white trash” when they see me out and about. I do look the part sometimes, with worn clothes and a worn face. They may not realize until they get to know me the adventures I’ve had in the past, or the social justice work I do today, about which I am so passionate.

Between college and seminary, I was a human rights worker in the Middle East and on the U.S./ Mexico border; I was among the first investigators to discover what later became known as the Abu Ghraib scandal. Later, in seminary, I spent a month in maximum security as a federal prisoner of conscience for my nonviolent protest of torture at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia—a facility that teaches torture tactics to militaries from other countries. While imprisoned, I translated and transcribed letters from women facing deportation who were writing to their lawyers, friends, and families.

Although away from the parish, I found other ways of doing ministry. I “shared life” with adults with intellectual disabilities in a L’Arche community. I worked in a school for children with severe behavioral health disorders. I started a storefront hospitality ministry for families with young children. The friendships were wonderful, but the heating bills ate us alive that winter, and the roof leaked. I redesigned the ministry so that we could operate without building woes.

Throughout college and seminary, three pastorates, and even in poverty as a solo parent, I keep finding ways to work for peace and justice. I work for racial equality, for the homeless and hungry, and for the well-being of families with young children, especially those whose children have special needs. I find that this work often dissolves my despair over the brokenness of the world. It has also led me to many wonderful people and places.

I recall a few poignant moments in my youth that propelled me to work for justice.

I remember the 1991 war on Iraq, when I was in sixth grade. The teacher rolled in the TV cart so that we could watch the airstrikes. The class cheered for every explosion as bombs hit the city. I felt sick to my stomach.

I remember the racism on my college campus, toward Black students in particular, as well as students from other countries and religions. Fundamentalism drove the LGBTQ+ students off the campus after my first year there. I felt both rage and fear at the harm being done. Fortunately, I had friends who knew how to organize and were willing to teach.

What keeps me going is the “knowing.” Knowing that Jesus calls us to this work of feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the foreigner, tending to the sick, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Knowing the suffering of so many people from the experiences and friendships I’ve had. These days, I simply seek to use the community organizing and advocacy skills I’ve learned so that I can work with others to build a better world.

Every breath is a prayer:
for wisdom and courage;
sometimes for rest;
and always for hope.

You can connect with Le Anne on Facebook here

“This is my call, two strikes and all.”

Aisha Brooks-Lytle is the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She is multi-gifted as a preacher, teacher, and musician, bringing all these skills to bear as she helps oversee 84 congregations and 26 new worshipping communities. She believes her role is to equip healthy and innovative leaders as they live out their passion and purpose. Her inner calling stems directly from her personal life experience which she shares candidly and powerfully in the following excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here).

“Aisha, you have two strikes against you. You are Black and you are female.”

These words casually fell out of my mother’s mouth like two stones hitting the ground as she was combing and styling my hair. I cannot recall the content of our conversation before these words, and I don’t remember the conversation afterwards. I do remember how I felt as an elementary school student hearing them for the first time. “Well, damn!” I thought. My reaction was quiet, internalized, heavy. My mother was stating what was obvious to her and what was a harsh reality for me. No matter how talented I felt, no matter how bright and beautiful I may have appeared, my life would be fraught with difficulty and an uphill battle as a young Black girl growing up in a country with a terrifying history of racial violence and discrimination towards Black and Brown bodies.

Growing up in a Black working-class neighborhood with a single mom offered sociological observations that made a profound impact on me. I could see the disparity on our block. I remember the crack epidemic and watching addiction snatch adults away from their children. I also remember asking larger questions about supply and demand and who profited off the pain of low-income and working-class communities. I lived in a city divided by the haves and have-nots. I knew there was a system at play that benefitted from an underpaid work force, division among the masses, and an unrealistic obsession with excessive wealth. I often thought, “There has to be a better way than this.” I wanted to be the kind of person who was part of the solution, not part of the problem.

While my mother instilled in me the truths about being Black in America, she also instilled in me a faith that is resilient and continues to dismantle the myths of superiority and inferiority. After taking a break from the church, my mother reconnected to her faith in the early ’80s with the rise of conservative white evangelical Christianity. In other words, I did not grow up hearing any sermons about justice, freedom, and the need to march in the streets when we saw harm done in our community. I grew up learning that Jesus was the only way, the truth, and the life. I grew up learning that I needed to live holy, confess my sins, obey God, love others, and be kind. There was not much talk about the gospel of liberation.

Ironically, I found a message of concern for the marginalized in the world of Contemporary Christian music. In the early ’80s there was an artist named Keith Green. He was of Jewish heritage and had converted to Messianic Christianity. He and his wife, Melody, sang with fire and passion about the Lord. By the time I really listened to his music, he had already died in a plane crash in 1982 at the age of 28. His music ministry only spanned six years. For many, his work still speaks to this day.

Green’s song The Sheep and the Goats, a musical interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, captivated me. It’s a stirring rendition of this parable wherein Jesus reveals that we can find him in the poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. One group could see Christ reflected in the marginalized; one group could not. I must have listened to this for hours upon end. I listened to it for years! How could people who followed Jesus miss his presence in the most vulnerable of the world? I knew as a kid with “two strikes” that I needed Jesus and the followers of Jesus to advocate for kids like me.

I also knew that there were people in my own city who had it worse than me. This was a cry for all of us, no matter where we found ourselves, to see Christ in those too often overlooked and invisible in our world. It was a call to love them, care for them, advocate for them, and to see them with eyes of compassion. I now know what I only suspected back in the day. I, too, am counted in the number of the marginalized, the overlooked, and the forgotten. I am also a marginalized voice who has come to recognize my position and power in the world. I am situated in this world to be an advocate for justice, to see Christ in the most vulnerable, and to serve Christ among the lonely, hurting, hungry, and lost.

This is my call, two strikes and all.

You can connect with Aisha on Facebook here or Instagram here.

The (Re)Call of the Wild

I met Brad Dodson and his family while pastoring a large church in Fort Worth, Texas. We had a natural affinity and spent many hours discussing faith, our families, our hopes for the future. Brad’s grandfather was a lumberman in the East Texas pine forests, passing on his love for the natural world to his grandson. In this excerpt from the book The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), Brad shares how nature helped restore his spirit during a difficult time in his life.

Brad at home on a Texas river, fishing of course…

I have hunted, fished, hiked, climbed, skied, paddled, and camped across the years. Nature has been a constant element in my life.

I have also been blessed with companions who pursued these adventures alongside me. One, a childhood friend, became my primary partner each year during late summer and early fall as we hunted migrating doves. We spent countless afternoons sitting below majestic live oak trees, waiting for the birds to come. They would arrive, and we would strive for our limits. But regardless of the outcome, we never missed our true aim: spending time outdoors with someone you appreciate. The smell of the grass, the sound of the retrievers as they bring back the birds, the feel of the last sunlight on our cheeks—it is all etched in my memory. So is the sound of my friend’s voice and the smile across his lips and eyes as he also delighted in those days.

My friend died unexpectedly in our late 30s. As I grieved for him, I found I had no desire to spend time outdoors without him. Instead, I turned my life towards work and remained that way for six years. My father would also leave us during that time. Each year grew more frustrating than the last and I began to question life in ways both large and small.

I became active in my church and found some purpose there, but something was always missing. At a weekend youth retreat one spring in the country, I was standing outside cooking hotdogs and burgers. Suddenly, I heard the call of a male turkey. Almost immediately, a second tom joined him vocally. I went inside, got a few of the kids, and brought them outside. I called the two turkeys to our cabin, feeling alive in a way I hadn’t for years.

Shortly after that, I went to a river to try fishing again. In a dark pool that fed into a small waterfall below a canopy of trees, a rainbow trout took my presentation. The pull of the line as it darted across the pool gave me a smile. It was my first rainbow trout. When I held that fish in my hands, preparing to let it go back into the water, it transformed me. Its muscular energy and desire to swim away were powerful. It was the most alive thing I had ever felt. I fished the remainder of that evening and all the next day, slowly letting my grief dissolve. In the years since, I have not stopped. I have traveled and camped across thousands of remote miles in pursuit of trout.

Fly fishing brought me back to nature. It did more than that; it brought me back to God. Although I was active in my church, I had become numb to what God has created for us on this planet, its flora and fauna that surround us every day. I had neglected to notice the beauty. That fish and those turkeys brought it back into focus and renewed my perspective.

I have come to appreciate that the natural world is God’s earthly gift to us. I have experienced this in so many ways. Watching geese skim the water in flight, then settle next to me as I wade-fished a fog-covered river in early morning North Carolina. Having a beaver swim between my legs while casting in the waters of Wyoming. Sharing five minutes with my wife in the Sea of Cortez as hundreds of dolphins chasing tuna swam past our kayak. Or, simply standing outside my workplace and delighting as a juvenile mockingbird imitated my whistled tunes. These and many other experiences have shown me repeatedly how wonderful God’s love is to have created such beauty, song, light, and motion for us to enjoy.

As a young boy, I watched a lone wolf with my grandfather early one winter morning. “That may be the last wolf you will ever see,” he said. Many years later, sitting around a fire with a dear friend next to our raft in Western Alaska, we watched in silent awe as a lone wolf loped casually down the rocky beach just across the river from us. He paid us no mind. In that place, so remote and seldom visited, we were simply part of the environment. We could hear his call many hours later.

As with all the moments I have had in nature since that first trout, I smiled and thanked God for the gift.

Connect with Brad Dodson on Instagram here.

Embracing Paradox is the Heart of Wisdom

My friend, Rebecca Blackwell, is a creative and courageous soul who has labored, like I did, for many years as a Presbyterian pastor. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), her faith journey highlights the book’s pattern of questioning and emergence.

For the last 48 years, I’ve been on a journey that took me from the solid ground of Christian Fundamentalism to the misty mountaintops of whatever kind of Christian I am now.

The journey has required that I leave some things behind on the trail. I had to let go of certainty, fear, and shame. As my load lightened, I discovered a deep freedom, a peace that passes all understanding, a closer connection with God/The Sacred and the confidence that nothing can separate me from the love of God that permeates the cosmos.

I took the first step on this journey in 1972, when at age 18, I walked away from the church I grew up in. I could no longer abide their sexism, patriarchy, narrow-mindedness and fear-based way of life. Since they taught me that they were the One True Church and the God they proclaimed was the One True God, that left me with nowhere to go. So, I did not affiliate with any church.

About ten years into my exodus, I began to notice that even though I had left “church,” I was still praying (though not in a hands-folded, head-bowed kind of way), and I was missing a spiritual community. Could it be that God was bigger than I had been led to believe? I took what felt like a huge risk and began exploring other churches.

The willingness to explore and to say “maybe” to new experiences or ideas, and to trust my instincts and intuition (which I believe are the way Spirit speaks to us), have been key to this journey. I said “maybe” and then “yes” to the Presbyterian Church (USA); I said “maybe” and then “yes” to the Charismatic movement. I said “maybe” and then “yes” to seminary and ordination in the PC(USA); I said “maybe” and then “yes” to yoga, meditation, Reiki and other practices. I said “maybe” and then “yes” to seeing God at work in the deep dimensions of other faiths.

With each exploration that resulted in “yes” (and not all of them did), my heart grew more expansive, my faith more inclusive. So, where am I today? I consider myself a Christian, though I hold few of the traditional doctrines (heaven, hell, penal substitutionary atonement and others are gone), and the doctrines I do hold have been significantly re-shaped. My conviction is that the Mystery at the heart of the universe is infinitely knowable through a variety of means. The Bible (especially the stories of Jesus) is the organizing narrative for wrapping my head and heart around this Mystery, and so I call this Mystery “God” and “Christ.”

Should you be on a spiritual journey of your own, I offer the following aphorisms and suggestions in the hope that they will help you.

  • Faith is a journey, not a trip. There is no precise road map, no timetable, no certain destination…the journey IS the destination.
  • Hold everything lightly.
  • Don’t confuse God with any church or religious institution.
  • Your convictions don’t have to make sense or be logical/systematic to be true. Embracing paradox is the heart of Wisdom.
  • Read and study widely…history, spiritual biographies, theology, faith stories, poetry, and great literature.
  • Find some traveling companions, including people of different faiths or no faith at all; people who will talk, walk, think, and sit with you. A good Spiritual Director is an invaluable traveling companion.
  • Trust your inner wisdom, no matter where and how it leads you…it is the voice of the Spirit.

You can connect with Rebecca on Facebook here or Instagram here

Test Every Truth!

My friend, Heiwa No Bushi, is a Buddhist-Christian monk, founder and Abbot of the Thomasville Buddhist Center in Thomasville, North Carolina. A former Christian minister, he has degrees in philosophy and theology. He also received classical training in both Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. He holds black belts in three different Japanese martial art forms, making him, as friends often say, an “official badass.” He places his teachings under the moniker “Bodhi Christo” which means “enlightened Christ,” an amalgam of the two rich streams of Buddhism and Christianity. He and I collaborated on Four Truths on a Crosstown Bus, (downloadable for free here.) In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable for free here), he shares some reflections on his journey.

“On this adventure, I remain a lifelong learner…”

This is my story, but I believe it reflects all our stories.

I grew up in south Florida, essentially a preacher’s kid because my grandmother was heavily involved in both the southern and primitive Baptist movements. She was so devoted that when people within her circles wanted to erect a building, she loaned them the money.

By the time I was six years old, my grandmother had become a minister in that church, but she struggled constantly against patriarchy. The congregation was so misogynistic that they wouldn’t allow her to be a regular preacher. However, she was a very clever bird. She decided that every time they gave her an opportunity to fill the pulpit, she would use her grandson to introduce her. It was a way of deflecting all the attention from her, and the result was that I became a phenomenal, entertaining bit of Sunday mornings! People came to hear my grandmother because this young boy really knew how “to lay it out there.”

All that time I worked with my grandmother, I saw the inconsistency between her church life and her home life. At church she was outwardly “righteous,” but at home she would speak in ways normally prohibited. I thought it was hypocritical, but she quoted the Apostle Paul from I Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

As grandma’s ministry grew, I began to feel a calling to attend seminary. I received my training and then, in my early 20s, I traveled overseas with the military. It was a time of hands-on experience, what I call “tacit education.” It challenged me to look at the deeper and wider aspects of life on our planet. I encountered many other faiths, not only seeing their beautiful richness, but their many parallels, especially the “golden rule.”

In my experiences as a Christian, I had not encountered a real moral teaching about how to treat our planet, especially “lesser creatures.” As a lover of the earth, I found a much greater connection to creation through other religions, especially Buddhism and its tremendous emphasis on caring for all living things. Jainism also intrigued me. It insisted on not naming “God,” believing there is no particular god outside of ourselves.

These religions lifted up a type of humanity that many circles of Christianity seemed to usurp and ignore. They spoke volumes of higher learning to me, and it seemed to me that Christianity did not stand up in the court of reality. For instance, where in Christian scripture was the insistence on an intimate relationship with all living things that I found so beautiful in Buddhism?

Then I thought of the parable Jesus told of seeking out the one lost lamb. He was saying to the majority, “You hold on tight, I’m going to get the one that matters.” This began to bring out what I call the “more mature” interpretation of Christ that I am trying to live out today.

In my teachings, I emphasize that there are three types of knowledge.

  • Explicit knowledge that comes to us from textbooks, manuals, Sunday school lessons taught as literal. This is a form of cultural programming, even indoctrination.
  • Codified knowledge which is the design of the society around us—from traffic signs to laws to the licenses we need to practice our professions. All this is meant to make sure that we follow the rules and remain in compliance with the status quo.
  • Tacit knowledge which we gain firsthand in the laboratories of our own lives. It can’t just be told to us; we must experience it and adapt it to the reality of our own understandings.

The bottom line is that we must test any truth for ourselves! Examine it in the light of our minds, hearts, consciences, and personal experience. I feel religious institutions, especially the Christian church, should be some of the most unregulated organizations in our society. They should always call us to the high adventure of exploring a fuller spiritual life.

On this adventure, I remain a lifelong learner, carrying on something my grandmother taught me long ago. “Go beyond what educational systems teach you,” she said.

Take on the world. Tacitly hold it, experience it, live it and understand it!

You can connect with Heiwa No Bushi here.

Called by His Ancestors

I met Joedy Yglesias while training to become a Texas Master Naturalist. He calls himself a Bodhisattva of the Earth, someone whose compassion extends to every living creature. It is his calling. In this excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (free download here), he shares the journey of how he came to this place in his life.

Joedy at Big Bend Ranch State Park

My parents raised me as Catholic during the ’70s and ’80s, a time when Chicano Americans were having an existential identity crisis. For those of us on the left, it meant consolidating our power, supporting La Raza or the United Farm Workers. For conservatives, it meant identifying more with their Spanish colonial roots and ignoring the indigenous aspect. The Catholic church and the government had always done a good job of separating us from those roots, which led to internalized racism. For my own parents, who wanted to make things easier for their children, it meant giving their children English names. This was part of the American Dream as they saw it.

I was quite involved in our local parish church. I taught catechism and sang in the choir, all the while trying to deal with my gay identity. I eventually thought I might join the priesthood as a way of circumventing that issue, essentially shutting it down.

Then, one day while visiting Austin, Texas, I saw a poster advertising a group called Shaman’s Circle, hosted by gay activist Toby Johnson. Toby had an earlier association with Joseph Campbell, having spent time with him in northern California. He had been a Roman Catholic priest but gave up his ordination and dedicated his life to focusing on gay spirituality. Like Campbell, Toby understood religion as myth and metaphor, and he introduced me to a much wider awareness of my spiritual journey.

I attended their shaman drumming circles and discovered that it was all white men. I approached them with the idea that even though I couldn’t afford their retreats, I could join them as a worker and bring a different ethnic perspective to their group. It was a great experience! Toby took me under his wing like a spiritual father, teaching me some of the primary truths from Campbell, like the journey of “the hero with a thousand faces.”

I came to understand how important my indigenous heritage was to me. I discovered that many of my relatives had practiced indigenous rituals in the past, but they hid it because the culture considered it pagan. The more I delved into it, the more I developed my own unique spirituality as someone who is half Native American.

Toby convinced me that the priesthood wasn’t right for me, so I joined the Navy. I loved the adventure. I saw it as a challenge to participate in the military from the inside, showing how the LGBTQ community could bring honor to the institution. I was still practicing my Catholic faith, operating as the lay leader on ships, but after I returned to America from one deployment, I saw a Unitarian Church flying the rainbow flag. I visited their fellowship, and it blew my mind how they welcomed the spiritual writings and traditions of so many faiths. I began to attend there on a regular basis.

 After a final deployment to Iraq, I returned to live in San Antonio, Texas, suffering from PTSD. To get my head clear, I began to visit a number of Texas State Parks—camping, volunteering, and eventually receiving my certification as a Texas Master Naturalist.

I believe that the universe opens up to us at just the right time. While touring Seminole Canyon State Park, I saw, for the first time, the ancient pictographs for which the park is famous. When I looked at them, I instantly had a connection. I intuitively understood what they were really communicating, an awareness that amazed our “expert” tour guide.

As I spent more time outdoors, everything seemed to fall into place. Even the snakes, tarantulas, and vinegaroons emerged when I was there. I felt a deep connection and kinship with my indigenous roots, especially in the Trans-Pecos desert region of southwest Texas. I knew I was home.

Today, I am working with Texas Parks and Wildlife at Big Bend Ranch State Park, a remote and beautiful region of our country. It’s where I belong right now, and I feel it is part of my journey to help protect this majestic landscape. Our natural resources are under attack through neglect and development, and although I know I can’t fully stop it, my presence can help preserve the spiritual magic of nature for others.

My ancestors call me here, and every time I go into the canyons, I sing a prayer song of the Lakota Sioux to let the spirits know I am present.

Tunkasila wamayanka yo
Le miye ca tehiya nawajin welo
Unci Maka nawecijin na
Wowah’wala wan yuha wauwelo.

Grandfather look at me
This is me standing in a hard way
I defend Grandmother Earth
and I come humbly with these ways

You can connect with Joedy on Facebook or Instagram

Liberated from Literalism

I met Rob Mueller because of our association in Mission Presbytery, a consortium of Presbyterian churches in south Texas. I quickly grew to admire many things about him: his openness to other faiths, his commitment to justice, and his nearly three-decade devotion to a bilingual congregation on San Antonio’s westside. Eventually, we joined in writing a book entitled Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission. The Co-moderators of the Presbyterian Church (USA) chose it as “Study Book of the Year” for our denomination in 2019. It was a great experience, not just the creative birthing, but how my partnership with Rob changed me. In that process, I learned that the expansiveness of his faith had not always been present. He, like anyone with spiritual courage, struggled to be where he is today. Here he shares the evolution of his views on Christian scripture, an excerpt from the book The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, downloadable for free at this link.

Reverend Rob Mueller with Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Reverend Cindy Kohlmann, Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)

At age 16, I had a powerful and life-rearranging conversion to Christ. I gave myself and my future to God at the altar of my best friend’s Pentecostal church. Seeking fellowship, I attended my girlfriend’s Evangelical Free Church youth group and started opening the scripture with studies produced by the Navigators. These fellowships instilled in me a desire to devour the scripture and steeped me in a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. They told me that the essential meaning and purpose of the scripture was to lead us to personal salvation. At the time, it was a powerful and animating message for me. I swallowed it; I believed in it. I developed such a fanatical daily discipline of reading and studying the Word that my parents worried I had joined a cult!

In college, I joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, continued with a Navigators men’s study, and joined an ad hoc Tuesday night prayer group. The prayer group was wildly ecumenical, including folks from Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, nondenominational, and mainline traditions. We would pray, share, and discuss our faith lives. The deep relationships I developed with Christians of varying perspectives opened me up to new ways of looking at scripture. My friend Matt English, a deeply-rooted Presbyterian, introduced me to the persistent thread through scripture that presents the divine imperative for justice. This thread expressed a concern for collective salvation more than personal salvation. It viewed God’s activity as transformative of society and not simply of individuals.

InterVarsity introduced me to Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a book that turned my world on its head! For the first time, I began to understand that the Kingdom of God was not just about me and Jesus, but about how the world around us should look. Another friend introduced me to Sojourners magazine, the reflections of justice-oriented evangelicals in inner city Washington, D.C., Sojourners helped me build bridges between these two often opposing theological camps.

I read biblical scholarship from a historical-critical perspective. In my Sociology of Religion class, I read Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, and discovered how we set up certain unassailable truths to act as a canopy of meaning over us, while in reality, all of those “unassailable truths” can be critiqued and even changed. This discovery began to pry open the rigid frameworks I had inherited from conservative influences and prepared the way for a significant shift in my view of scripture and how it acquires authority.

My seminary education helped me to identify and appreciate the diversity of voices within the scriptures, even how they critiqued one another. Biblical inerrancy no longer worked for me. Gospel parallels revealed the many differences in Gospel details, and I learned that factual historicity was not the dominant concern of Gospel authors. Rather, the effort to communicate meaning was central. The Bible became a library of books assembled by diverse writers over thousands of years. These writings were shaped by their particular places and times in history. They were still “inspired” by the Spirit of God, but not dictated word by word, detail by detail. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg helped me realize that a story could still convey truth and meaning without being factual.

My most challenging hurdle during seminary was the exclusive claim by many in the Christian faith that salvation is only through Jesus. Today, I have a completely different understanding of certain “exclusivist scriptures.” When Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe he is inviting us into the pattern of death and resurrection he exemplified. Jesus’s “Way” is the surrendering of our ego, a dying to self, so that we may discover our unity with others in God for an abundant new life.

I have encountered this wholeness in other people of profound faith who do not share my same tradition. Interfaith conversations now enrich me; at an earlier time, they would have simply been arguments in an attempt to convert the other person to my way. The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton, John Philip Newell and Richard Rohr, helped me build bridges between my tradition and other faiths. They speak a language I can understand.

Today, when uncertainties or challenges to my understanding of God arise, I delight in being stretched into new ways of thinking. Together with Meister Eckhart “I pray to God to be rid of God” because every attempt I make to understand God is flawed and limited, so I must forever open myself to the God I don’t yet know or understand.

And so, my journey continues!

You can connect with Rob on Facebook, Divine Redeemer’s website, or their YouTube channel.

Soaring in Sky Church!

Steve Nootenboom comes closest to a Renaissance person of anyone I know. He is a filmmaker, painter, master carpenter, sailor, rock climber, and hang glider. I first met him when he and his family visited a church I pastored in north Los Angeles County. We soon became lifelong friends. I have always admired his dedication to a simple, nomadic way of life. With very few possessions to tie them down, he and his wife travel in a bus whose interior Steve designed to be amazingly livable. Our conversations about art, creativity, and the spiritual life can last for hours. I asked him to share his amazing perspective on how hang gliding has become a spiritual discipline for him. This is an excerpt from The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, downloadable here for free.

Watch one of Steve’s takeoffs here

In 1977, I had my first hang gliding flight. I will never forget the moment my feet left the ground and I felt completely free of the earth and its cares. I was hooked!

Every time I launch my glider, I get the same sensation as that first time I flew. I feel so connected to God when I am flying that I have nicknamed the sport “Sky Church.” I tell people that I have to fly up in the sky to find God.

Hang-gliding requires intense focus in the moment—shutting out cares, events, worries, and the 10,000 things mentioned in Taoism. When you are flying, you are looking for the invisible, such as hot air rising in “thermals.” Some of the indications of a thermal are the smell of sage brush rising in the desert air, or the smell of French fries when you’re over a city. When you get in a thermal, you circle around in that tube of ascending hot air and it can send you soaring at up to 5,000 feet per minute. You also keep your eyes on those local pilots, the birds. They know right where to go!

My glider is about 70 pounds, and I can easily carry it on my shoulders. My flights average about two and a half hours. Some have been at 18,000 feet with a small oxygen tank tied to my harness. I have soared for over six hours at a time, crossing more than 150 miles of bleak desert with no motor, simply searching for and trusting the lift of air currents.

The concentration required for these flights focuses and clears my mind. I can hear instructions from God about what to do in business or my marriage, and I get strong impressions of what the future holds outside my scope of knowledge.

Here is an example of Creation speaking to me during a flight.

I was traveling through Montana with my hang glider tied on my truck top. I found a high ridge facing the prevailing wind. I launched and soared for about two hours down the wooded backbone of this beautiful slope. I found myself getting very low and finally began to sink in a canyon with no way out. My first instinct was terror. Then something I believe to be God cut through my fearful thoughts and I felt hope and peace in spite of seeing myself crashing into giant pine trees. Just then, a red-tailed hawk came strafing under my wing and I knew I needed to follow him. I followed him into a deeper part of the canyon where all logic would say DON’T GO! At the end of that box canyon, the hawk started to circle, a clear indication of a thermal. He and I did a sky dance together, around and around, until I was 1,000 feet safely above the ridge again.

I continue to attend my “Sky Church,” sometimes as much as twice a week. After every flight, I feel rejuvenated with a clear perspective and a new direction. I have often said to non-pilots that a two-hour flight hanging in the Presence is equivalent to a two-week vacation. Although I find similar connections to God in prayer and meditation, there is still something special for me about soaring above my troubles below. It certainly takes faith in your glider, your abilities, and God to just run off a mountain with some Dacron and aluminum strapped to your back.

But I am a believer that faith honors God, and God always honors faith.

Visit Steve Nootenboom here or here.

The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters

I relish hearing the stories of others on their spiritual journeys. For this project, I invited 20 people to share personal experiences from the laboratories of their lives. These are moving and diverse testaments to the overall thesis of this book. Each chapter includes their testimonies under the heading Las Historias de la Gente. If you read only their words and none of mine, this effort will be worthwhile. I thank them for their contributions!

In the stories of others, you will find language and concepts that differ from yours. Some may seem too expansive or “out there.” Others may seem parochial. Please suspend your judgment. Practice tolerance. Give yourself to each person’s journey with a measure of grace. Look for the underlying pattern of liberation. Celebrate with them!

This book arises from a time and place in history shaded primarily by Judeo-Christian teachings. Thus, many of the stories are about emerging from a particular compression of culture. Obviously, it would be different if I were writing from an Asian or Middle Eastern setting. This is why I urge you to see the pattern in each story, not just the details.

Here is a link to download a free PDF copy, easily importable into your Kindle device or other e-reader.

Namaste! God bless you! As-salamu alaykum! Mitakuye oyasin! May the Force be with you! Keep on truckin’! LOL!