our scandalous hope: reflections on the 2016 election

the following are the impromptu reflections i offered to the students of focus (fellowship of college and university students, the university ministry of first presbyterian church of berkeley) the day after the election results were announced.

something happened this morning that has never happened to me since moving to the bay area just over a year ago. on my way out the door, i turned to jen and said, “i wish I didn’t have to go to work today.”

it’s not that i don’t want to be here with you—worshipping and praying with you all is exactly what i wanted and needed. but the responsibility of speaking into this moment was not something i felt i had the energy nor the expertise for. to be honest, i didn’t feel i had anything edifying to offer.

i broke down crying several times today: at home, at the gym, in my office. and yet, i recognize that speaking to you all, when things are tough as well as when things are great, is my job.

so i spent much of the day in prayer and reading. what I have to say to you is, in large part, what i need to hear myself.

also, i feel like i should tell you that i had another message i was planning on giving tonight, but i felt like it would be inappropriate. this reflection will be unusually brief and less polished than normal. i apologize. but i hope it’s helpful.

lastly, i want to be honest about the political and theological diversity in the room. one reason i love this group so much is that we’re not all alike! this is the church—you all are the church—not an affinity group. so i don’t want to assume that we all voted alike.

this is not a political party talk; this is a call to reflect on and remind us what it means to be christian at a time like this.

Kingdom of God ≠ kingdom of the state

Jesus’ triumphal entry (mark 11:1–11) is a familiar scene for most of us. Jesus enters jerusalem during the passover celebration, riding on a colt. when he did, he was celebrated by those present, like a celebrity, or a popular political candidate. this is a great start to the week! unfortunately, His week ends with the same crowds shouting for his execution.

why was Jesus crucified after being so warmly welcomed? because He threatened to disrupt their religious and political way of life. if Jesus came to offer the kind of kingdom that fit with the state’s values, he wouldn’t have been killed. but the Kingdom Jesus came to preach was an entirely different Kingdom.

rather than entering in a powerful way, say on a tank or on a private jet with the word JESUS emblazoned on the side in bold letters, Jesus enters riding on a lowly donkey.

i hope you see the humor here. i hope you see the disruption. this was a humiliating entrance! but He did it to show that God’s Kingdom is not what the people were expecting. not what we were expecting.

Jesus’s triumphal entry denounces triumphalism. Jesus’ Lordship rejects our approach to kingship. the Lordship of Christ is not one who rules by domination and might, nor by forceful imposition. Jesus rules as a servant.

to say, “Jesus is Lord,” is to give up the temptation to be in control, because that’s part of caesar’s kingdom, not God’s. Jesus’s Kingdom doesn’t fit the kingdom of rome, which cost Him his life.

christianity didn’t begin with a healthy relationship with its political authority, but under a political (and religious) authority that executed its Lord as an enemy of the state. Christianity began with no false assumptions that the state was there for the benefit of the early church, or God’s in-breaking Kingdom.

there were no false assumptions among early Christians that those in power were responsible for bringing about God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom was, instead, happening because of God’s work in the disciples’ life together, through their life in the world, enacting an entirely new reality.

one of our problems today is that we fall in love with the idea of electing the right leader(s). we have been tempted to think that, particularly when our political authority approaches certain characteristics of God’s Kingdom—maybe when candidates talk about providing shelter for the stranger in our land—we get excited, and put what should be our expectations of God’s Kingdom on the state. when that falls through, we are deeply disappointed.

but the Kingdom of God is not a democracy. the Kingdom of God is not coming into fruition by of our vote, but because of God’s continued work in the world, in history, in our story.

the theologian stanley hauewas preached on election day at duke divinity school, offering this reminder:

We are told on Election Day, this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels and all the people asked [not for Jesus] but Barrabas. Jesus was not trying to create a democratic coalition…We did not elect Jesus to be President. We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity. We did not elect him messiah or savior.

Thank God, God’s work does not depend on our election.

if God’s Kingdom ≠ the kingdom of the state, is our life together giving others a taste of the reality of God’s in-breaking Kingdom—regardless of who’s in office?

is our life together posing a threat to the Enemy’s ways of lies and destruction upon so many lives here in Berkeley?

if not, it matters little who’s in office, for our allegiance to Jesus is in question, the One whose true, ultimate authority is not based on any election.

our Savior is not a candidate, nor is our Enemy

on that point, as Christians we do not believe any elected official is our capital “s” Savior. we most certainly ought to do our due diligence, learning all of the candidates, and cast our vote for the candidate we believe best embodies and envisions a nation that shares as many Kingdom characteristics as possible. but we never imagine any candidate will be perfectly aligned with the reality that God promises.

i don’t remember much from high school math, but one concept i remember is the asymptote. like an asymptote, a curve that approaches a line to infinite, without ever touching that line, even the best political individual approaches, but never totally aligns with the Kingdom of God.

we celebrate when elected official’s vision and values approach God’s Kingdom values, but we don’t assume God’s Kingdom will come from political authorities enacting it. this prevents us from despairing when a certain official is not elected–or another is.

things are at their worst in the history of Christianity and the State when religious leaders are too in love with their State leaders. dangerous things happen when we lose sight of who God is and what God is about, in placing our focus and hope on a particular political leader.

our capital “s” Savior is not found in any particular political party or person, nor is our capital “e” Enemy. our greatest Enemy is not located in any political party or even elected official, but in the one Scripture calls Enemy, Satan, the Thief.

in a democracy we ought to do our best to avoid electing anyone who’s values look more like the Enemy’s ways than the Kingdom of God. what are these ways?

“the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says. “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly,” (john 10:10).

an elected official whose vision means theft, destruction, and death do not match the vision our Savior came to bring to earth, and who called us to embody in our life together.

but we don’t lose hope when elected officials do not look like God’s Kingdom values. this is a very scary, and provocative reminder, i know, but God may still work through them to accomplish God’s purposes. the old testament book of Isaiah reminds us that God uses a political enemy to help His people. it is scandalous, i know. and the God’s people struggled to believe it then.

i am not saying that this is what we find happening today.

but we must remember that the Living God exceeds our imagination and expectations. God will work through God’s people and otherwise, a people that does not align perfectly with civil authorities.

also: Christians bear the difficult reminder that our real problem is never ultimately with anyone else. ultimately, the real problem is inside of us. and that manifests itself in ways that are difficult to face, including an election result.

but we are the ones that need Christ’s reconciliation and redemption. it is for me that Christ came. i need saving, often even from myself.

hope in the darkest of darkness

we started the evening by reading the scene from Jesus’ entrance into jerusalem from mark’s Gospel. what we didn’t read is the ending, though I did refer to it, and though we’re likely all familiar with it.

after lifting up Jesus as their long-awaited hope for the throne, at the end of the same week, the same crowd insists on Jesus’ death. they got their way. He was executed publicly, following an unfair trial, as an enemy of the state.

that’s how the week ends for Jesus and His followers.

and what you must see, friends, what you have to realize, is that this was the darkest moment imaginable. all of their hopes and dreams, not just for the next four years, but for the next millennia, were now shattered.

the One who they were banking on to finally set things right with their oppressive government; the One who would finally end hunger for so many working poor, starving children; the One who would finally lead not with arrogance and power and force, but with humility and love; all hope of that was now lost.

His body is now lying in a tomb somewhere, and they’re hiding in fear and disappointment. what we have to imagine is that, at this point, they cannot see, let alone imagine, what hope would even look like. hope cannot now fit into the disciples’ imagination. and for some of you, that’s exactly how you feel now.

so what, then?

in the dark days, we mourn, we lament. some Christians act as though morning and lament is not proper for us. but that’s a dangerous lie. Christ Himself wept in the face of death—even as He knew He was going to bring the same man back to life!

why? because He knew this is not the way things are supposed to be. the proper response to the way of the Thief—death, destruction, lies, power over others, oppression—is grief.

as Christians, we grieve with the best of them. but we do not grieve without hope (1 thessalonians 4:13)!

as Christians, we know that the dark and our tears will not last for all time, but only for a while. because death and despair is not the last word, but only the second to the last word.

hope is the last word.

two ways to mourn

after Jesus’ death, we see two different ways of disciples mourning.

following Jesus’ execution and the loss of all they had placed their hope in, the traditional disciples lock themselves in a room, afraid for their own life.

but there is another group of disciples; we’ll call them the alternative disciples: joseph of arimathea and nicodemus. unlike the other disciples, they move toward Jesus’ body, in love and great courage, preparing his body for the grave, wrapping it carefully with fine linens and expensive spices (john 19:40).

the first disciples mourned without hope, frozen in fear. the second disciples mourned with active love.

but there were other alternative disciples: the women who followed Jesus were also there at the tomb (rather than hiding in fear). and they were the first to see the Hope of God in Christ, resurrected!

but it was a hope that the traditional disciples could not have imagined, they could not yet see, given how dark the days were. they could not yet imagine what God was up to. the darkness was blinding.

scandalous hope

in the midst of that darkness, we must never forget the scandalous nature of Christian hope: that God took the State’s greatest symbol of power, control, and fear in that time—the crucifix—and God turned it into our source of greatest hope.

don’t lose hope, friends. don’t lose hope. don’t lose hope.

a letter to hudson

hey hudson,

you were due to arrive the day i first sat down to start writing this letter. we welcomed you into the world a full week later. now that i’m finally wrapping this up, it’s been three weeks since you breathed your first breath of air–a good sign that you’re arriving in the right family.

Hudson's birth

these are the first words i have ever written to you, and the mere mention of that fact is enough to steal my breath. we have a whole lifetime of words ahead of us to exchange, but these are the first. i will do my best.

before your sister was born, i wrote down some things i wanted to make sure she knew. several years later, it feels presumptuous to think you would want to hear what i have to say, or that what i have to say would be of value to you.

perhaps that is simply the passing of time, but i now feel i have less to offer than i did just a few years ago when it comes to worthwhile advice. time will tell.

the story of my life will not be the story of your life, of course. and yet, the story of my life will undoubtedly give shape to yours. so i thought i might start by telling you what life was like when you first arrived into our family.

life when you arrived

we’ve been living in the bay area for just six months at this point, so it still feels new to us in many ways. and after moving four times in the past five years, life has felt transient for a while now.

before we arrived in california, and before we left our home in washington state before that, we lived in england for two years, and then north carolina for a couple more after that. i had been studying theology in both. our time in england was so rich and full and, in many ways, unbelievable that i wrote a book to do my best to keep it all from falling through my fingers. one day i will have many stories to share with you from that chapter of our life.

your sister, emma, was born just after our time in england, and so she spent the first two years of her life in north carolina. two years of learning how to do life as a family of three. how to crawl. how to walk. it all happened there. by the time we were packing up our things in durham, i found myself wanting to boil the curtains and make a soup out of all the memories we made in that home so that we could take it all on the road with us.

after four years of school, and a year back in washington state, we moved to the bay area so that i could take up a new job–which suddenly sounds very grown up and dad-like of me. how does that happen?

i have found myself wondering lately what you will think when you find out one day that i was a university minister when you were born.

will you find that strange?

will you find that fitting?

that i am working in ministry at all–and in a church, no less–has been one of my life’s great surprises. it wasn’t always the case, which is likely why i’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact. but so it is.

my workdays are a combination of hearing from college students about their life (mostly) and their faith (sometimes); doing my best to speak meaningfully into their lives on the difference a life of faith in Christ makes in an often faith-less life; and, at times, reading and writing.

even in the surprise of this work, i often struggle to imagine something that would be more meaningful to me. perhaps one day you will know what i mean.

at the end of my days, i follow so many other commuters home along i-80, past the golden gate bridge standing tall and proud on the westward horizon. when i finally arrive home, i am greeted by your sister, now a dizzying three and a half, and your mother.

your sister often runs to the door, greeting me with a wide, watermelon slice grin. your mother also often looks happy to see me, but her smile, i am sure, has more to do with the fact that she knows that she can now be “off” for a bit.

this is, hands down, the highlight of my days.

when you are one day old enough to read this, hudson, you will likely know them both better than i am now able to put into words, but here’s what their lives looked like before you arrived.


your sister has chocolate brown hair that reaches just past her shoulders, with curls on the ends that dance when she runs. her smile is a gift from your mother, and it is enough to stop me dead in my tracks and lighten my foot steps at the same time.

Emma & Hudsonemma is a wizard at puzzles and matching card games, and she is now asking us to read beatrix potter (“peter rabbit”) at bed time. you cannot keep her dry near a pool.

she has already told us that she wants one, make that two dogs. and a cat. we’re doing our best to hold out, but we have no idea how long that will last.

we have been talking about your arrival for some time now, hudson. we’ve been telling emma that you’re coming, so that you don’t completely sideswipe her.

the evening we found out we were having a boy, emma made a disgusted face. “i thought we were having a girl,” she said. which is funny, given that she had already been telling us she was going to be having a brother long before we knew.

when we tell other people your first name, she frequently corrects us. “you mean hudson james,” she says in a teacher’s voice.

she is also, even at three, one of the most thoughtful people i know. it’s not infrequent that we’re in a store and she grabs something, returns to us, and insists that you’ll need it.

emma has been telling us about all the things she’s going to teach you as your big sister: how to brush your teeth, how to do puzzles; important stuff. just the other day i walked in on her wearing her green fairy wings and reading a picture book to a doll seated on her lap. you can add reading to the list.

Emma reading at 3 and a half

as you will learn, emma is quite sensitive, like her parents. be careful with your words, will you? if you give her time and your undivided attention, she will adore you.

the last few weeks before you arrived, emma would often start the day by staring at your mother’s pregnant belly and shouting, “hudson james, come out!”

your sister has been anxious for your arrival. so has your mother.

your mother

i did my best to paint a portrait of your mother in the letter i wrote to your sister upon her birth; maybe you can look over her notes. but there are a couple things i want to tell you about your mother, since i have your attention.

Jen & Hudsonfirst, your mother is the best woman i have ever met. i mean it.

i’ve known your mother for about half of my life at this point, and never before have i met anyone whose heart i trust more. in a world where trust is hard to come by, your mother has been a rock.

but it’s her love that you will most likely come to appreciate most. your mother’s love is tough and strong. it is one of the most patient, steady, and at times sacrificial loves i have ever experienced. there will come a day when you will know this is true, and you will be as grateful for her then as i am today.

i mentioned this to your sister in my letter to her, but your mom, as you will come to learn, is also much tougher than me. i cried like a baby at our wedding; she didn’t lose a single tear. already i’ve gotten into the habit of calling you sweetheart, which she pointed out to me doesn’t sound masculine enough. so i grew a beard and kept calling you sweetheart.

of course, your mother has her rough edges just as much as the rest of us. i’ll let you discover those for yourself.

a few things to avoid, though, when it comes to your mom: early mornings, if you can; unnecessarily expensive gifts; and the spotlight. also, she’s still working on taking compliments.

if you do happen to cross her, chocolate peanut butter sweets do in a pinch.

life: ball lightning, your voice, & paying attention

as i mentioned, i feel reluctant to tell you much in the way of advice. perhaps it’s a growing sense of my own naivete, or perhaps it’s an even bigger question of whether or not you’ll actually be interested. either way, i have my doubts. i’ll keep this short, but here are some things i’ve noticed when i look out at the world.

Dadda & Hudson

first, you should know that my life has not unfolded according to some well executed plan on my part; it has exploded with surprises. apparently there are actually those most enviable people for whom life seems to go according to plan. but for me, life has been more like ball lightning: exploding here, exploding there, and then, darkness and silence.

in the seeming chaos of it all, you will most likely find yourself wondering, what in the world was that about? but then, after some time, you will look back and think, my God… that was beautiful.

knowing this, in advance, can save you much heartache.

do your best to surround yourself with the kind of people who can put a finger on the ball lightning moments, trace them to the next, and tell you a story. friends are the ones who give meaning to the ball lightning chaos of life.

second, and in absolutely no order, i have to tell you something that will sound like something i have to tell you. i know. but here it is.

you are a male, and a white male at that. which means that you will have, by nature of your birth, a voice. do not take this lightly.

things are changing by the day at this point. in the last couple of years, we have seen the kind of racial violence we haven’t seen in 50 years. i hope to God that things have improved by the time you’re able to read this, but experience shows that these things take time. and lots of hard, intentional, proactive work.

if things have not improved, it means your voice will be heard at a whisper when others are shouting from the rooftops. if you do not use that for good, i have failed you as a father.

and lastly–i promised you i’d keep this short–i cannot hope to know what will bring your life the kind of hope and joy that i desire for you. you will no doubt be influenced by those things that have brought hope and joy to my own life: books, authors, people, places. but i hope you hear me here: when you happen to come across those things that steal your breath and bring you surprise tears, pay attention. pay attention to your life, hudson.

if life is for you anything like it has been for me, the rush of it all will beg you to keep moving. it will tell you that to stop and take it all in is to fall behind.

do not listen.

if you can, pay attention to that which brings life to your life, and point.

music & books

two of the things that have brought life to my life have been music and books. perhaps it will be the same for you.

so you know, the first three songs you heard were “ara batur,” by sigur ros; “drift,” by kim janssen; and “love is all,” by the tallest man on earth. you could do worse than these three.

i do hope you have a deep appreciation for words, as i do. in the way of writers, your taste is not likely to be the same as mine, but here are a few who have left a mark on my life.

frederick buechner encouraged me to see the holiness and grace in everyday life. in the most ordinary, routine moments just as much as in the highest peaks or deepest valleys. that lesson has made each day, no matter how mundane, worth living into deeply.

c. s. lewis once showed me that it is okay to be a thinking christian. maybe, and hopefully, that will sound like a given, but that lesson changed my life in tangible ways.

and dietrich bonhoeffer not only wrote, but lived in such a way that showed me that our God-given gifts are not to be used merely, or even primarily, for ourselves. they are to be poured out for Christ’s sake, which is to say, for the sake of the world. if we try to keep such gifts for our own gain, they will not only spoil, they will turn us sour with them.

there are more writers whose work i would like to share with you, of course. i am sure you and i will discuss them in the years ahead. but if you take your time with these three, your life, and the lives of those around you, will be richer for it. of that i am sure.

not looking the other way

one last thing before i go. at the moment of your birth, your doctor welcomed you into the world and placed you into your mother’s arms in one beautiful, sweeping motion. in an instant, i found myself simultaneously laughing and crying.

Dadda & Hudson first sight

the head nurse was there, standing opposite me, on the other side of your mother. she turned her eyes from you to me and said, “you look as though you didn’t know he was in there!”

i knew you were “in there,” of course, and that you would soon be with us. but if i were being honest with you, hudson, i’d tell you that life has been so busy, at this point where my feet stood waiting for life with you in it, that i had worried you were going to arrive and i would find myself looking the other way.

but here’s the thing, when you arrived, it was impossible for me to be looking anywhere else. i was staring straight at you, but it was you who were looking the other way. and as i spoke to the back of your head, laughing between tears, you picked up your head and turned to face me.

in that moment, as best as i can describe it, i knew the gratuity of God’s grace. one day, i hope, you will know the same.

and years from now, when you take your first steps; when you learn to throw a ball; when you spell your own name for the first time; when you pick up a pen and tell the world a story; when you tell me that you’ve met someone; when you give your heart away; when you receive it back again in pieces; when you come to us and say you’ve decided to step out in faith; i promise to do my best not to be caught looking the other way.

i love you, hudson. we all love you, so much. and in you i see God’s gratuitous grace. if you know nothing else, know that.

i hope you can forgive the trite nature of any or all of my words. i am still new at this, but i am working on it.

your dad,


remembering broken bodies: a reflection on the Lord’s supper

“the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 corinthians 11:23b-24, esv)



“on the night He was betrayed.” that is, on the very night on which Jesus’ broken body was foremost on His mind. on the night when those closest to Him looked straight into His face and pretended they didn’t even know Him. on that night, Jesus took a loaf of bread in His hands, broke it, and said, eat up. it’s mine. it’s for you.

“and when he had given thanks,” scripture says. which is to say that even on the darkest night of His earthly life, when the promise of Easter was so distant it was not yet even a glimmer on the horizon, Jesus somehow found it in Himself, somehow found the words in His throat, to give thanks. on a night when, of all things to give, to speak, gratitude should’ve been the farthest thing from His lips. from His mind. on that night, He gave thanks. He remembered, even in the darkest darkness, that there is still something to give thanks for, Someone to give thanks to.

and “do this in remembrance of me,” He says. do this. that is, gather together. share a meal. a meal, of all things. a simple loaf of bread. something to drink. come around a table. together. share.

“do this in remembrance of me,” He says. in remembrance of Me. you’ll have plenty of your own broken bodies to remember, God knows. Jesus tells us to remember His. and in so doing, to take heart that His broken body means that we do not need to make any more broken bodies ourselves. to remember, in the end, that this broken body means our own broken bodies made whole.

and when you gather together, Jesus says, the lovely and the unlovely. the rich and the poor. the in and the out. the light and the dark skin. do it knowing that you are doing it, in some mysterious way, in Him. do it knowing that, somehow, His broken body makes our unity possible. that our meeting together in peace is only possible in the One in whose name alone there is Peace.

“peace I leave with you,” Jesus says, according to john’s gospel, as He was saying His goodbyes. “My peace I give to you. not as the world gives do I give to you.”

apparently He thought the word peace needed clarification.

this kind of Peace. not that kind.

not the kind of peace that comes in armored trucks. with guns and barking dogs, teeth bared. not the kind of peace that says, in a voice that comes from behind a face shield, ‘this is for your own safety.’

not the kind of peace that means you surrendering your will to mine.

not the kind of peace that’s an idea, the way to which is anyone’s best guess, but the kind of Peace that is embodied. the Peace that comes in a baby’s soft, penetrable skin and leaves with scars in its hands.

the kind of Peace that will one day wipe away every tear. will set every broken bone. on that day when there will be no more mourning. no more pain. the kind of Peace that remembers our broken bodies, even when we do our best to forget or ignore or explain them away.

come, Lord Jesus, come. and may You have mercy on us all.

but who do you say that I am? a devotional

i was recently asked to lead the staff of westside: a Jesus church, in portland, in a time of devotion. here are the reflections i gave on matthew 16:13-17, the story of peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.

who do others say that I am?

Jesus begins this episode by asking His disciples who other people are saying the “Son of Man” is. and if you’re familiar with matthew’s gospel, you know Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself.

and so what we find here is Jesus asking what the crowds are saying about Him. “what’s the watercooler conversation about me been like,” Jesus is asking.

what all of the disciples’ responses have in common is that people are saying that Jesus is one of the prophets. perhaps, even, one of the greatest prophets.

and the interesting thing to notice here is that Jesus seems wholly uninterested in their response. He doesn’t even acknowledge it, as far as we can tell.

which begs several questions: why does Jesus even ask in the first place? does He not know what others are saying? is He going through some sort of existential crisis and is in search of validation?

and why doesn’t he acknowledge their response? if He disagrees, why doesn’t He say so?

instead of acknowledging their response as we might expect, Jesus asks another question.

but who do you say that I am?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks.

and the thing i wish scripture told us is how much time passed from Jesus’ question and peter’s response.

you can just imagine the disciples–sensing the weight of this question, and not wanting to get it wrong–doing all they can to avoid eye contact with Jesus. staring at the ground, kicking the dirt. whistling to themselves.

of course, it’s peter who finally breaks the silence.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” peter says.

and unlike before, Jesus not only acknowledges peter’s response, He praises it.

“blessed are you!” Jesus says, which is about as close as we get to Jesus giving an a-plus on one of His pop quizzes.

but He doesn’t stop there, which is the really interesting part.

in the same breath that He uses to praise this response, Jesus tells peter that he could not have answered this question rightly were it not for the Father giving peter the words.

“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father who is in heaven.”

isn’t that odd? why would Jesus ask the disciples a question that He knew they could not answer rightly without God’s help?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks the disciples. and this is, i would argue, one of the most important questions in the entire bible. which brings me to my third and final point for reflection.

not a one-off question

the more i think about this story, the more confident i am that this is not a one-off question that Jesus asks and then leaves alone. nor is it simply a question posed to peter.

instead, i think this is a question that scripture, as the living and active word of God, and Jesus, as the living, resurrected Lord, continues to ask each one of us anew each day. moment by moment, even.

this is a question that we can never get away from, never get ahead of.

it is a question we must answer in the seemingly mundane realities of life, as well as the incredible highs and the tragically low points of life.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, in your buying habits. in the television shows you watch. in your internet use.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you finally get that job offer that you’ve been waiting on for what has seemed like an eternity.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you’ve been trying for years to get pregnant, while everyone you know is welcoming a new child into their family, and all your efforts have been met with nothing but closed door after closed door. or when the lab results come back, and it’s cancer.

who do you say Jesus is then? In those moments?

the full, painful reality of the world

i was listening to the radio the other day when i heard what was easily one of the grisliest, most tragic stories i’ve ever heard.

apparently someone opened up a locker in a public transit station in canada recently after noticing a terrible smell. to their horror, they found several newborn baby bodies stuffed into the locker.

the worst part is that these bodies had been there so long that the police couldn’t actually tell how many were there. maybe three, maybe four. they couldn’t make out where one baby’s body ended and the next began.

friends, who in the world do you say Jesus is when you hear those sorts of stories? because whoever we say Jesus is, however we respond to this relentless question, our answer must be able to hold the full, painful reality of the world in which we live.

listen to your life

frederick buechner is a presbyterian minister, novelist, and memoirist whose work i have clung to after being introduced to it a couple years back. he’s incredibly thoughtful, beautifully written, and exceptionally honest about the painful realities of the brokenness of this world.

and one of the repeated themes in buechner’s writing is that of our need to pay attention.

“pay attention,” buechner writes. “pay attention to your life.” to the monotonous, mundane bits just as much as the exciting or even tragic parts.

because if you listen really closely, buechner insists, you will see that your life itself is telling a story.

and that story, i believe, is the only answer we can offer to this question that Jesus asks each and every one of us over and over again: “but who do you say that I am?”

‘called’ available for pre-order

good news: my forthcoming memoir on calling is now available for pre-order on amazon. check it out here.


here’s the full description for called: my journey to c.s. lewis’s house and back again from amazon:

Called is the heart-breaking, humorous, and refreshingly honest account of one twenty-something’s adventure of learning what it means to be called by God-an adventure that took him to England, C. S. Lewis’s house, and back again–and why it was only in the reality of his worst nightmare that he learned what it means to be called.

What is it like to be ”called” by God for a particular purpose? What can you learn for your own life of faith from such a calling?

Through a series of personal anecdotes, illuminating conversations, and candid reflections,Called brings you face-to-face not only with the world of C. S. Lewis, but also with the very real peaks and valleys of pursuing a calling. Seeking to reclaim the uniquely Christian sense of calling, Pemberton shows that God’s call cannot be reduced to one’s dreams, skills, or passions, vividly and powerfully illustrating how Christ turns ideas of failure and success on their head.Called will encourage you to realize God has entered into your story, calling out to you anew each day with the words, ”Follow me,” leaving you to ask, Will I be obedient to the calling set before me?

called is due out feb 2015, but you can pre-order your copy now.

commodifying myself: my piece for the image journal blog

“It’s a funny feeling,” I confessed to an editor-friend as we worked on my first memoir, a book on calling. “In a few months perfect strangers will be able to read some of the most intimate stories from my childhood that even my closest friends don’t know.”

She nodded thoughtfully, her brow furrowed.

“And the conclusion I’ve come to is that strangers can know these stories about me and still not know me. They’ll still be strangers.”

read more of my reflections on the process of writing as self-commodification for the Image Journal blog here.  

first look: “called” cover art

so my publisher has just given me permission to share with you the final cover art for my new book, called: my journey to c.s. lewis’s house and back again, and i could not be happier with how it turned out.


this image of the famous oxford spires framing the cover instantly brings me back to memories of strolling through the bodleian library‘s old schools quad on my way to the radcliffe camera. the golden sky sets the classic look i was hoping for, and the whimsical typeface matches the book’s voice.

for the unfamiliar, called is the humorous, heart-breaking, and honest account of my journey of learning what it means to be called, a journey that took me to oxford, england; c.s. lewis’s house; and back again, and why it was only while sitting in the reality of my worst nightmare that i learned what it means to be called by the living God.

called is due out february of 2015 with leafwood publishers.

stay tuned for more updates as the release date gets closer, including a new book website, book trailer, a special sneak peak at the intro and first chapter, as well as announcements about book readings i’ll be giving. and if you want to make sure you don’t miss any called news, feel free to sign up below to receive e-mail updates.

until soon, peace.


identity: this is who you are

taped to my bathroom mirror so that i see it every morning is a small, two by four inch sheet of lined notebook paper. its top edge is frayed from being torn out of a notebook, and on it is a handwritten bulleted list in black ballpoint ink:

  • child of God
  • husband
  • father
  • everything else

like i said, it’s a bulleted list. but the order is important.

who am i?

i recently gave a sermon on a passage from matthew’s gospel, from the scene when Jesus asks His followers, “but who do you say that I am?

i asked the largely gray-haired congregation sprinkled across the three orderly rows of pews why they thought Jesus would ask such a question.

‘do you think this is an insecure 30-something struggling with existential questions of his identity?’ i asked.

the question was rhetorical, of course, but it was also meant as a reminder of the obsessive nature of such questioning. particularly among those of my generation, and the generation coming up behind me

it was meant as a reminder of the fact that many of us often look to other people to tell us who we are.

“you are not the moon kissing the black sky,” someone wrote in a letter that was floating around online a while back.

and i love that line. in fact, i love the entire piece. but mostly, i love this bit at the end:

‘you’ve got to stop asking everyone for their opinions… love yourself, kiddo. you’ve got to love yourself.’

i love this line for the same reason i taped this sheet of notebook paper with the bulleted list to my mirror: because i am that thirty-something (just turned, thank you) struggling with existential questions of identity. wondering who i am, and hoping someone might be able to tell me.


“that is horrible,” a friend of mine said with a laugh from his seat beside me in my favorite local coffee shop. “everything about that is terrible.”

i had just recounted to him a dream i had had the night before. a dream that was still fresh on my mind as we sat together early on this morning over hot coffee and oven-warmed muffins.

i had shared about how, in this dream, i was standing in a long, snaking line of recent graduates, all waiting their turn to speak to someone seated behind a desk. a mysterious figure who i could not pick out from my spot in the line.

i told my friend about how when i finally made it to the desk, i was greeted by the principal from my former college in oxford.

“so, what are you doing with your degree?” was his question for me. innocent enough, except for the fact that its stung stuck with me long after i awoke.

and i think the reason this question stung is because i felt like, in many ways, the emptiness of my response somehow reflected an emptiness inside myself.

in this dream, just as in so many conversations i have had in the past few months, i confessed that i was still looking for full-time work. and each time this confession made me feel as though i had to apologize.

in a culture where the first question asked in most conversations is, “so, what do you do?” it is easy to think our work defines us. it is easy to think that by telling you what i do to earn a paycheck, i am somehow telling you who i am, or what i am worth, as a person.

“well, i am working on wrapping up my first book,” i confessed to my old principal in this dream. “and i’ve been doing some consulting work. but i’m still looking for what’s next. still having conversations and praying. still applying.”

a knowing smile spread across his face. an attempt at reassurance. and then i woke up. feeling empty, somehow.

if i tell you i make my money by lining up words end-to-end and trying to make them dance, you will know something about me. or if i tell you i spend my time wrestling with other people’s words like disheveled, excited children in a school pageant until they’re finally in just the right formation, you will know a bit about who i am.

of course, this would hardly tell you all you need to know about me. or even the most important thing about who i am.

what’s worse, if this is how i think of myself, it will only be a matter of time before who i am comes crumbling down and i am left trying to put the pieces back together.

when we find our identity in our work, it is guaranteed that we will all of us face an existential crisis sooner or later.

when we’re laid off. when we make a job change. when we’re certain God is leading us down a different road than we could have ever imagined, away from the dream job we thought certain to bring us the kind of security we spent our entire childhood longing for.

if we continue to think that our endless, “so, what do you do?” greeting-of-a-question is the best, or even an appropriate, way to identify ourselves, the day will come for all of us when we’re left wondering, who am i? who in the world am i?


“pepsi, please,” i tell the waitress staring with a confused face at my grandfather. “he’d like a pepsi.”

it was a year or so ago that my grandfather–a man who has had as much of an impact on my life as anyone i know–was diagnosed with parkinson’s disease.

since that time, our family has watched helplessly, like drivers passing by a wreck on the side of the road, as his body gives up on him.

this man who taught me how to swim, who used to pull me on an old cement truck chute across the concrete slab behind his house, now struggles to walk. struggles to speak loud enough for others to hear him.

and now i am the one pulling him in his seated walker from his house to the car, and from the car to our table in the restaurant where this waitress smiles at me and leaves with our orders in hand.

my grandfather stares blankly as she leaves, wondering, perhaps, what has happened. wondering where his voice has gone. anguishing over the fact that his legs now refuse to cooperate more often than they comply.

“i am so tired of this,” he confesses to me in his most candid moments. after he has fallen, again. for the tenth time that day. or more. his bruised knees striking the ground with a sickening thud. like the sound of a milk jug falling from the fridge on a linoleum floor.

we can no longer do the things we used to do together. working on the projects around the house like we used to. he now sits in his motor scooter while i mow the yard. or watches as i use the skilsaw to cut a board, like he taught me long ago.

things no longer look as they once did for my grandpa, for this man who grew up in the dustbowl era, and who used to work around the clock in a physically demanding job to make sure his family always had food on the table.

but it’d be silly to say he’s no longer my grandfather. he is, of course. his body may be failing him, more and more quickly by the day, but he’s still my grandfather.

soon, even i will be unable to make out his words. soon, his mobility will be completely gone. but even then, even when his body has all but given up, he will still be the same man who helped raise me.

because that’s who he is.

as one writer recently put it, “as the body and mind deteriorate, [people] are not less themselves.”

the truth is, all our bodies are deteriorating and failing us more and more by the moment. all of us are getting older. and the promise of youth so revered by our culture is passing through all of our fingers like sand.

which means we’re all in great danger if we locate our identity solely in this flesh and bone package we’ve been given.

in his now-famous address to future graduates of kenyon college, the writer david foster wallace warned his young audience of the dangers of placing their identity in their bodies (especially for those particularly good-looking folks among us):

“Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

to place your identity in your body, wallace insists, is to bury yourself long before the undertaker ever arrives on the scene. because none of us can ever be properly defined solely by our body.

in some ways, of course, i am my body. who i am is very much shaped by my body.

may God forgive me, for example, if i ever ignore the privilege afforded me by way of my maleness. and my whiteness. those are real. they cannot be ignored.

and yet, who i am is not reducible to “white male.” i am both of those things, sure. but i am also more than those things.

nor am i to think that i am somehow no longer me when my hairline makes its embarrassingly premature retreat backward across my forehead. or when my waistline begins to resemble the spare tire in the trunk of my car.

who i am is somehow located beyond all of that. just as my grandfather is somehow more than his failing limbs and crippled speech.


“we are our stories,” a jewish writer recently suggested, reflecting on the palestine-israel conflict.

and i thought that was fascinating and intriguing and challenging, all at the same time. i thought there was something true in that sentence.

but the more i chewed on this line, the more i began to realize i had some serious hesitation with thinking who we are is somehow located in our stories.

i was talking with an editor friend not long ago, who happened to be proofreading my book manuscript for me at the time, and i was talking about memoir and sharing our stories and what i think that means for our identity.

“it’s a funny feeling,” i confessed to her, “the fact that, in a few months, perfect strangers will be able to pay a few bucks and read some of my most intimate secrets, stories from my childhood that even my closest friends have never known about me.”

my editor friend nodded a thoughtful nod, her brow lowered and furrowed. her eyes narrowed to slits.

“and i guess the conclusion i’ve come to is that, strangers can know these stories about me, and still not know me. they’ll still be strangers.

“if you think about it, it’s a bit like us and God, right? i mean, you can know things about God, and still have no relationship with God.”

what i was trying to communicate to this editor friend of mine is that our stories shape us, of course. in undeniable ways. and knowing those stories allows others to know things about us.

if i tell you a story about growing up in one of only a handful of single-parent families in a small farm town where dairy cows outnumber people 10 to one, you will know something about who i am. if i tell you a story about what it was like growing up as the oldest child in said family, you will know a bit more.

but this does not mean that i am somehow reducible to my stories.

you will never fully know me even if you know all my stories. because i am a person, not a story to hear and to somehow possess in its hearing.

what defines us

at any given moment, there are countless stories being told, whispering to us that this is what defines us. that this is what shapes who we are. things that have no right whatsoever to determine who we are. and which will, if we let them, if we allow ourselves to live into their narratives and define who we are, eat us alive.

there are narratives being told that tell us who we are is determined by something as banal and arbitrary as the make of car we drive. or the brand and style of clothes we wear.

others want to tell us that who we are is best determined by our particular body shape. or by how much hair we have. or don’t have.

there are long-standing traditions that teach us, from a young age, that the most important thing about is is our last name. our family. or the town where we grew up.

we’re told that who we are is somehow defined by whether we’re attracted to the same sex, or the opposite sex.

we’re told that our identity is somehow determined by our level of education. by the letters behind or name. or by where we go to school.

nearly as old a narrative is the idea that who we are is determined by the size of our paycheck. or where our paycheck comes from. or whether or not we receive a regular paycheck.

these are the stories we’re told all the time. every day. from the moment we wake up to the moment we close our eyes to go to sleep at night. from the time we are old enough to listen to such stories, to the day we’d give anything for someone to listen to our stories.

i no longer wrestle with the question of whether or not the car i drive somehow reflects who i am–i mean, it’s a car–and yet, there are those moments when i need the reminder of who i am.

there are those moments when i need to be reminded that my identity is not something that can be defined by the work i do, by my body, or even by the stories from my life that have doubtlessly shaped me in important ways.

this is who you are

“this is who you are,” the words came in the faint hint of a whisper. “you are Mine.”

i was standing on a ladder at the time. painting a friend’s house back in my old hometown, in the same community where i grew up, after leaving several years before for the kind of elite education i never could have imagined for myself.

in that moment on the other side of grad school where i began to think that this menial work somehow defined me, or that this farm town community where i grew up defined me, the whisper of these words was enough to steal my breath and wet my eyes.

“this is what you,” of all people, “are,” the words whispered.

“you are,” of all things to be, “Mine.

a simple note

the taped note on the top corner of my bathroom mirror is simple, really. a sheet of lined notebook paper not much bigger than the palm of my hand. but it helps me in ways i struggle to put to words.

  • child of God
  • husband
  • father
  • everything else

when i start my day, staring into the eyes of the face looking back at me, this note helps remind me who i am. it helps remind me that who i am is something that can never be taken away or commodified or lost with age.

it reminds me that who i am is, instead, somehow interwoven with the story of the world’s beginning. somehow wrapped up and found in all of the world’s greatest stories of coming home.

this note on my mirror reminds me that my identity is something to be received anew every morning, with tears in my eyes. and the kind of rich joy and deep laughter that comes from the kind of good news we struggle to believe when it’s told to us.

like a secret whispered so softly for fear that it might be lost in its telling. like the best joke we’ve ever heard. like the best dream we’ve ever dreamed.

turning 30: help me dig a well in bihar, india

i remember talking with a friend of mine when i was in high school about the fact that, one day, we’d be turning 30. and i remember thinking how old we would be when that day finally came.

funny how 30 doesn’t seem that old now that it’s nearly here. funny how, in some ways, in some places, i still feel like a kid.

anyways, i’ve decided to do something special this year to mark the event. i’ve decided to use my birthday as a way to help others with the very real struggles and needs they are facing.

check out the video below to find out more.

and please, please click here to find out more about how you can get involved.

you can’t go home again

bill bryson once said there are three things you cannot do in life.

“You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.”

and i think that’s true. especially the last one.

i was sitting on a wood bench recently, watching my (almost) two-year-old daughter run across a playground, brown curls flowing in the air behind her, pea-gravel crunching underfoot.

behind me, a baseball field stood silent and awkward. its hair slightly overgrown, the infield unkept. the same ballfield where i learned to play third base.

on the other side of the playground, a river floated slowly by. the same river on which i used to spend lazy summer days floating on large, black inflatable tubes with friends.

the stop sign across the street is where i used to catch the school bus, when i was not all that much older than our little girl, now grinning widely at me from the top of the yellow slide, making sure she has my attention.

it was home, in many ways. but it was then that i realized, in many ways, it was no longer home.

things have been quiet

with the exception of a few intermittent posts–some words on the saturday afternoon when my sister-in-law was struck by the nightmarish news of cancer at just 25 years old, a handful of posts on holy week, and asking what it means to grieve the death of a loved one as a christian–things have been pretty quiet here over the past four years.

as quiet as things have been here, things have been pretty busy in the rest of life over the past four years.

for starters, we left home, work, and community, and went to england. and we had some pretty incredible experiences along the way, while i earned a degree in theology.

in the two months between wrapping up one degree and starting another, we welcomed our first child into the world. a beautiful girl we named emma.

we moved, again, to north carolina–an entirely new country for us, in many ways–where i completed another degree in theology.

along the way, i tried to get a couple books published, and I ended up batting .500 (more on that later).

then, after another round of ‘goodbyes,’ we came home. sort of.

trying to wear someone else’s shoes

a lot has changed since we left, it seems. as much about home as about us.

some buildings have come down. others have gone up.

my grandmother’s 30-plus year prayers have come true: we finally won a superbowl.

new relationships have been formed. others have died away with time and distance.

some new people have come since we’ve been gone. others have left.

we’ve come, and we’ve gone. and we’re not the same for it.

and no matter how much i know, deep down, that this place is the place we used to call “home,” there’s still much about it that feels as though i’m trying to wear someone else’s worn-in shoes.

“you can’t go home again,” bryson wrote. and it would seem he was right.

this isn’t home. not exactly. but we’re here, we’re back, and we’re looking forward to doing life again from here.

picking up the pen again

i am looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again. and there are a few things i’ve thinking about, things i’d love to spend some time writing on. i’m hoping to do that here, as well as pitch a few of them elsewhere.

here are some of the things i’ve been chewing on during my early morning jogs, with the smell of fresh-picked raspberries floating through the air, and the snowcapped mountains framing the horizon.


i’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about calling for the last couple years.

i’m thrilled to announce that i have a memoir being published on the topic of calling–and, specifically, what it looked like in our life when we set out to pursue a calling.

it’s titled, Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, and it’s due out in february of 2015 (leafwood publishers). i’m looking forward to sharing the cover artwork very soon.

i’ve had the chance to give a few talks on the topic of calling over the past year or two, and i’m looking forward to doing more of that as things wind up for the book release.

in addition to telling our story of what it was like to leave everything and set out in pursuit of what we believed to be God’s call on my life, more and more, i’ve begun to wonder whether we even know what we mean when we use the word “calling.”

especially as christians.

whatever it means to be called, i am more and more certain that it doesn’t merely mean following our dreams, putting our talents to use, or even simply responding to the needs of those around us.

i think it means something totally different than that, and i’m looking forward to spending more time writing about this in the near future.

life & death

i was talking with a friend before we left north carolina–a friend who had just found out that he and his wife were not going to give birth to their second child after all–and we were talking about the fact that, in the face of death and the messiness of grief, silence really is the worst response.

and yet, it’s also one of the most common responses to grief.

and i think one of the main reasons we so often respond to death with silence is because we don’t know what to do with death.

when what was supposed to be the joy of preparing to welcome a new family member into the world turns out to be a painful surgery in a matter of just a few days; when the phone call comes on saturday saying the test results came back and it looks like cancer; when the brain tumor shows up at 50 and you’re trying to put back the pieces of your life after your mom, wife, neighbor is no longer there, we are left speechless.

we don’t know what to do with death. and i have a theory about why i think this is.

i think one of the reasons we don’t know what to do with death, at least among many Christians, is because we skip right over Jesus’ death. and the reason we skip over Jesus’ death is because of our joyous expectation of the Easter Resurrection.

and i think that’s a massive problem, for which all of us pay the price.

anyways, that’s my theory. i need to flesh it out a bit–sorry, unintended pun. i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

commodification of everything

i recently heard about a theologian who was asked at a conference what he’s trying to prevent in his work. his response? “the commodification of everything.”

for some reason, i cannot get my mind off of that statement.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that the commodification of everything is the natural, logical result of capitalism.

now, i’m not about to sign up for marxism (is that still a thing?), but i do think there are some important questions to ask when everything is available for purchase.

for one thing, i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in our visual-centric society, to be seen is already to be commodified (think hipster clothing for sale at target, reality tv, artists who begin their careers on youtube, etc.). i’ve been using the term ‘ocular commodification’ for this idea. but i have much more thinking to do here.

anyway, this idea is related to two other things i’d like to write about.

raising a daughter

i’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise a young girl who is already praised for her beauty before her second birthday in a culture that commodifies bodies (especially physically beautiful bodies), while also, simultaneously, giving girls impossible models for what their bodies should look like, making them feel hopelessly, endlessly inadequate.

(i think boys run into the same issues, of course. it’s just that i only have a daughter at the moment, and so that’s what i’ve been thinking about).

i’m not exactly sure what this means for raising our daughter, but i think a lot of it will have to do with talking about the kind of stories we are told.

about how some stories lead to life, and some stories lead to the kind of life that is better described as death. and about how those stories that try to tell us that our bodies are something that can be purchased, or used to make us feel hopelessly inadequate, are deadly stories.

there’s much more to say here, of course, and i’m looking forward to doing so soon.


with my 30th birthday looming just around the corner, on the other side of graduate studies, and still seeking clarity on what my next professional role will be, i’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that i hate how identity-less i feel when i don’t have a seminar paper deadline, or when i am not entering my time card at the end of another work week.

i’ve been thinking about how much my identity is tied up into what i’m doing, instead of who i am.

i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in publishing a book that will involve the most important, intimate stories from my life–the kind of stories that have shaped who i am as a person–i have actually, voluntarily, commodified myself.

of course, i am more than my stories. which has left me wanting to think and write more about identity.

the poor & the oppressed

i’ve had the privilege of being involved with a couple organizations whose purposes are to care for the poor in the developing world and come to the aid of victims of human trafficking.

they’re both great causes, of course. but, something i’ve been thinking about lately is the question, why?

why should we care for the poor? why should we care for victims of sexual abuse?

because it’s the right thing to do? that can’t be a good answer.

i think we all assume these are good causes to be involved in–and i absolutely believe both are vitally important causes–but i think the reason why these are important causes matters greatly.

i think i know the answer, i think i know why these are important, but i need to think and write a bit more about it. i’m looking forward to doing that soon.

the living Word

and, of course, all of these questions will involve that question i simply cannot seem to shake, no matter where i am, or what i’m doing:

why does it matter that Jesus is the living, enfleshed Word of God, in Whom God is reconciling the world to Himself?

you can’t go home again

my daughter comes flying out the end of the yellow slide wearing a wide, apple-slice grin and i catch her in my arms.

‘let’s go home and get some lunch, whatta ya think?’ i ask her.

she nods her head and mouths, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’ as she does.

on our way back to the house, a 50-something woman i do not recognize smiles and waves to us, as though to say, ‘it’s good to see you again. it’s good to have you home.’

“you can’t go home again,” bryson says. and i think he’s right.

the place called home as well as the home inside each one of us is always changing. always moving.

and as much as i want to fight that with all my being, as much as i want to go back to how things used to be at times, i am beginning to think it might not be such a bad thing that we can’t go home again.

i’m looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again, here from our new, old home.

as always, thanks for reading.