Where is the Habitat of Your Heart?

Studies show that our favorite music—the tunes that stir us the most—come from the soundtracks of our younger years. Musicologist Nolan Gasser, architect of The Music Genome Project, says that even though our tastes evolve, “The music people listened to at an early age becomes their native home comfort music. It will always be a part of who they are, tied in with deeper memories. It becomes a stake in the ground that says ‘this is who I am.’”

This rings true for me. My playlists are eclectic—new age, ambient, 70s/80/90s, jazz, metal, reggae, flamenco, bluegrass, folk—but there are certain classic rock tunes that transport me to another time and place. As Boston said, “It’s more than feeling.” I see this in my parents. On a recent visit, they asked me to sit with them and watch a rerun of an old Lawrence Welk episode. I squirmed in my chair, but they were enraptured.

This kind of organic resonance also applies to our favorite places. In a book I recently co-authored, one of the chapters begins like this:

“Think of a place that has a powerful hold on you. It may be a family homestead, a setting in nature, or a venue in your city where you spend quality time. These locations evoke more than memories; they stir our spirits and connect us with memories of times past.”

Where is this habitat of your heart, past or present? Specifically, where is that place in the woods, the fields, the mountains, or along the seashore that stakes your heart powerfully in time? Tell me its sights, smells, sounds and textures.

For me, the chaparral hills of Southern California, mingled with orange and avocado orchards, will always lay claim to my spirit. This was the playground of my childhood. It’s Mediterranean climate, Santa Ana winds, sage, manzanita, scrub oak, and “warm smell of colitas rising up through air.” Its kingsnakes, alligator lizards, roadrunners. The intoxicating aroma of orange blossoms on a summer evening.

As a geographical transplant, I now have a new heart habitat. 15 years in Texas has led me to a lasting kinship with its Hill Country, especially its cypress-lined rivers. When I feel restless, experiencing what Richard Louv calls “nature deficit,” I drive a half hour north to Bandera. I park at a secluded place on the northern edge of town, then walk to the banks of the Medina River and wander slowly along its course. I am learning the names of trees, shrubs, flowers and grasses in this biome. Its birds, butterflies, reptiles and mammals are becoming family members.

I have taken this walk countless times, savoring every season, but it is always fresh. Here is a slideshow of images from recent trips. Spend a moment and watch them.

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I ask again: where is the habitat of your heart? If it’s a childhood place and you still live there, immerse yourself! If you live in a new locale but have not discovered a habitat to cherish, get out there!

As Stephen Stills sang, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

Medina River banks



The Sunday that Lepers Became Leapers

When ABC announced it would reboot Kids Say the Darndest Things, hosted by Tiffany Haddish, I chuckled for a couple reasons.

First, I’m old enough to recall the original, a segment of The Linkletter Show which aired until 1969. Even then, I marveled at what sprang from the lips of children when Art Linkletter coaxed them into sharing.


Second, I chuckled because many of us who attend mainline churches have our own version of this phenomenon every Sunday. We call it The Children’s Sermon, a few moments when young people are invited to hear a simple message crafted at their level of understanding.

I remember so many times when extroverted kids went off on tangents—blurting out surprise (sometimes bizarre) answers, or revealing household secrets that made their parents squirm and blush.

Which brings me to a recent Sunday…

One of the teens of our congregation volunteered to deliver the Children’s Message for the first time. I was thrilled at her courage. When the moment arrived, she had a written transcript in hand, based on Jesus’s healing of the ten lepers recorded in Luke, chapter 17.

She smiled at the assembled children in the front pews and began, “Once, Jesus was travelling through a village when he came upon ten leapers.”

Immediately, many of the adults smiled, our eyes meeting with a wry, unspoken acknowledgment that “kids say the darndest things.”

But it was more than that for me. Even as part of my brain listened to the familiar story of ten who were healed, only one who gave thanks, another part vaulted through the portals of imagination.

Leapers! Yes!

I thought of Isaiah’s prophecy that in the days of the Messiah, “the lame will leap like deer.” I thought of the power of God’s healing love, focused so clearly by Jesus. How it raises up the lowly, empowers the disenfranchised, brings hope to the downcast.

I thought of countless people whose journeys I have shared during my ministry. Addicts and alcoholics who turned back from the abyss to find joy in serving others. Grieving loved ones surprised by resolution and new life. Lonely folks who discovered a faith community of gracious fellowship. Homeless immigrants who found a pathway to sanctuary. Souls suffering from depression who experienced a dawning of God’s light. Young and old, gay and straight, people of all classes and colors lifting their voices and hands in worshipful celebration!

Then another thought entered my mind that can only be filed under “adults think the darndest things.” I saw Shadow, a pet goat I had as a child. When I let her out of her pen, she would follow me around, just wanting to be close. One evening at twilight, she couldn’t find me until I called her name. I saw her silhouette turn, orient to my voice, then gambol towards me. Gambol, meaning to leap with boundless joy. She seemed to be clicking her heels in mid-air she was so delighted!

Back to that Children’s Message. When the teen closed with prayer, many of us spontaneously applauded. I was tempted to go a step further. I almost stood up and blurted out:

Yes! You had me at LEAPERS!

Praying for Donald Trump

There’s a scene in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi that I will never forget.

Gandhi is strolling along a sidewalk in South Africa with his newfound friend, Anglican priest Charles Andrews. Up ahead, some thugs gather to enforce a law that prohibited people of color from travelling on public pathways.

Gandhi strides resolutely forward, but Andrews suggests that they turn aside. Gandhi replies, “Doesn’t the New Testament say that if your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left?”

“Why, I, uh, think perhaps the phrase was used metaphorically,” says Andrews. “I don’t think that the Lord would…”

“I’m not so sure,” interrupts Gandhi. “I have thought about it a great deal, and I suspect he meant you must show courage, be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back, nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that, it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred for you decreased, and his respect increased. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen that work.”

When they reach the ruffians, Gandhi will not yield. There is a fierce clarity in his eyes, a mixture of determination and love that causes his would-be attackers to relent.

That moment bored into me like one of Jesus’s parables.


You see, in my 32 years of ordained ministry I have aggressively refuted Biblical literalism. I have challenged those who use “proof texts” to oppress women, discriminate against my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, or demand allegiance to unjust authorities. I question those who treat ancient myths like science. I insist that scripture is story, a collection of writings conditioned by their times and places. We must read them with both historical knowledge and current insight through the Holy Spirit. Literalism is often the death of evolving spirituality.

Yet, there was Gandhi, internalizing the most seminal teaching of Jesus—love your enemies–and applying it SO literally that he eventually sparked a nonviolent revolution that ousted England from India

It begs a question. Are we sometimes remiss in not taking scripture at face value?

This brings me to Donald Trump….

I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say that Trump is an affront to everything I hold dear. You could even say that, symbolically, he is an enemy of mine.

I also have a confession. Except in perfunctory petitions for elected leaders, I have never prayed personally for our president. This is true even though I know Jesus said, “Do not return evil for evil,” “Love your enemies,” and “Pray for those who persecute you.”

I wonder what would happen to the polarized climate of our country if every one of my progressive Christian friends prayed daily for Donald Trump. I am not suggesting that we dampen our struggles for justice. I am saying that we do so even as we pray sincerely for our enemy.

Many of you will dismiss or disdain this suggestion. What’s the point of praying for someone whose narcissistic personality will never change?

If you are among those, I ask you to remember these words from Soren Kierkegaard, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

And so, I have begun to pray for Donald Trump with sentiments similar to these.

“Loving God, Giver of Life, you cause the rain to fall on all of us. A thousand years are like a single day in your sight. You are the final arbiter of justice, and you call us to practice love even when it is difficult. Right now, I pray for Donald Trump. I pray for your Presence to enter his heart and the hearts of his family members. Fill them with a surprising new awareness of your love and grace, those gifts lavished freely on each of us, even when we don’t deserve them. I pray this in the name of Jesus, the one who modeled love for his enemies. Amen.”

Will you join me?


In Defense of Perla

Early morning, a colonia on the outskirts of Reynosa, Mexico. Chilly winter air tinged with smoke from trash fires. The neighborhood is mostly shacks cobbled from old wood, tin, and cardboard. There is no running water; the city has promised electricity, but so far those pledges are hollow.

Most of the residents are migrants from Chiapas, lured to jobs in maquiladoras along la frontera. These are not squatters. They have purchased their tiny lots with a mortgage through Habitat para la Humanidad, and now they hope to build their dream homes: 500 square foot, cement block structures with 2 bedrooms, a living space, a kitchen, often housing large families. Latrines remain outside.


Our crew of volunteers is inspecting construction sites. We will work alongside members of the community, a day of labor and fellowship, but first I have other tasks. Word has rippled through the dirt streets that a pastor is present, and I have received invitations to bless homes recently completed. One family asks me to pray for their newborn child.

I am glad to oblige, even though my bendiciones are clumsy mixtures of English and broken Spanish. It doesn’t matter. I have friends who translate, and my smile and eyes communicate more love than my words could ever convey.

One house after another, joining hands, lifting our hearts to God with petitions for abundance and safety. I receive many more blessings than I give, especially when I arrive to pray for the infant. Her home is a one-room shack where she lives with her parents and two siblings, walls of scrap plywood, a roof of rusted tin. Outside is a cooking fire, and they share a pit latrine with an adjacent family.

An old bench seat from a bus is near the front door, listing slightly, its surface torn to reveal the springs beneath. The parents ask me to sit as they bring their tiny daughter to me, only two weeks old.

Que preciosa,” I say. “Come se llama ella?”

Perla,” is the answer.

I cradle the girl in my arms, bundled in blankets. She is quiet, her dark eyes staring up at me, and though she will never remember this moment, it is sacramental for me.

I make the sign of the cross on her forehead. I pray for God’s guiding hand to be upon her and her family all their days, giving them strength, safety, and abundance for this new life they seek to establish.

Then I hold her against my chest for a moment, encircled by her family and smiling neighbors.

Our work that week was a triumph for all of us. Yes, we helped two structures rise from that neighborhood, but more importantly we joined our hearts across cultures, time, and space.

Months later, through my Habitat connections, I received a photograph and a brief note. Perla’s family was standing proudly in front of their new home, and the words said: “To Perla’s padrino. Muchas bendiciones.” To Perla’s godfather. Many blessings!

In over three decades of ministry, I have occasionally been asked what drives my passionate efforts for justice and peace. I could give answers complicated by theological jargon, socio-economic statistics, or political convictions, but my reasons are far simpler.

I act in defense of Perla and countless others I have met. I stand in unity with those struggling on the edge, joining hands in our one human family.

You see, Perla is also my daughter. She is your daughter as well.


Born Again?

There are people with stellar IQs who are short on common sense. People who exhibit genius within the narrow bandwidth of their expertise but lack any breadth of cultural literacy.

Conversely, there are human beings who will never be labeled brilliant by societal standards, but who startle us with insights about life. I know this firsthand as Father to a “special needs” son. Kristoffer often voices simple nuggets of wisdom that awaken me to what is truly important.


I believe there is one definition of intelligence that is sorely needed in ALL of us. It is the ability to get outside ourselves and our given culture. The ability to see our reality in time and place, then respond (not react) to it with a fresh, objective perspective.

Sociologists say that when it comes to our cultures, we are like fish in water. We swim in the conditioning of our upbringing, our genetic makeup, our juncture in history. Often, we never rise above these determining factors. We never decide what to claim and what to reject, what to shed and what to make part of our flesh. Examples are rife in our world.

  • People who adopt the spoon-fed religion of their tribe or nation, then wield it as an exclusive truth that trumps the faith and beliefs of others. James Fowler, in his Stages of Faith, called this Stage Three—Synthetic-Conventional Faith—a closed mindset that prevents us from celebrating the mystery of spirituality in all its diversity.
  • People reared with a righteous sense of patriotism, an idolatry of their country’s identity and flag. American Exceptionalism is a tragic example, but history is replete with examples of dangerous nationalism.
  • People indoctrinated with racism, sexism, or homophobia who never rise about the fear that promotes their exclusion and hatred.
  • People whose skin color or class has afforded them a privilege that traffics, consciously or not, in systemic injustice.
  • People raised to put their trust and security in material things.
  • People trained to gauge their worth by the hollow standards of power and prestige.

In his clandestine meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus famously said “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:7) It’s a pity that these words have been coopted by Christian fundamentalists, a pat phrase that means conversion to Stage Three Christianity.

I see them as a deeper call to wake up, to be born outside the determinates of our lives, to recognize the timeless existence of God’s liberating presence that permeates everything around us.

When this happens, the scales fall off our eyes like they did with the Apostle Paul following his conversion. I believe we ALL need this transformation. It helps us evolve into citizens of the world, not just the territories of our genetic and cultural conditioning.

This is hard work. It begins with a sobering analysis of our own habitual thinking. It often requires repentance, amends, even restitution. But the resulting freedom is well worth the effort.

How did Jesus describe this freedom? In that same conversation with Nicodemus, he said “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Or, as my son, Kristoffer, recently said, “Dad, there will never be peace unless people change.”







Box of Darkness

From the introduction to “Box of Darkness…” Here is a link for the entire book.

Photo for Crowdfunding campaign

“The title of this book comes from ‘The Uses of Sorrow’ by Mary Oliver, beloved American poet who died on January 17, 2019. She wrote it following the death of Molly Malone Cook, her partner for 40 years. With her usual straightforward imagery, Oliver reminds us that the darker aspects of life can offer surprising inspiration.

We invited the following artists to share some of their work, prompted by simple questions: ‘How do you receive inspiration from the darker fringes? How are you drawn artistically to the shadows?’

“The result? A box of darkness, presented through paintings. photographs, collages, and poems. Our images and words are eclectic—a multiplicity of perspectives—but together we invite you to become more familiar with your shadow side, finetuning your eyes to its presence.”

Krin Van Tatenhove and Angelica Gudino, Editors/Curators
March, 2019