Seriously, Everything?

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Grandma Lucy, 1960

I come from church-goers on my mother’s side. (I also come from hell-raisers and Alabama moonshiners on my father’s side, but that’s a different devotional.) For years my great grandmother, Lucy Modenia Spanagel, was a pillar of the Mt. Vernon Methodist Church in Birmingham. In most of the old photos of Grandma Lucy, she’s wearing a simple housedress and apron—her “everyday” clothes. But a few pictures show her dressed to the nines with white cotton gloves and a fancy hat—her “church” clothes. For Grandma Lucy, as for many from her generation, the practice of wearing Sunday Best to worship arose from a genuine desire to honor the Lord.

I have a young friend whose faith inspires me and who, like a growing number of worshipers, is decidedly more casual in his attire. Once, when an older man in the congregation chided him for “disrespecting God,” I overheard my friend’s gentle response: “I’m trying to honor God by offering my real self,” he said. “Not just my Sunday self.”

I wondered later if my young friend had been reading Psalm 103: “Let my whole being bless the Lord. Let everything inside me bless his holy name.”

Everything inside me? Seriously, everything?

This flies in the face of the sacred Southern aphorism: “We may think it, but we do not speak it!” But what if “speaking it” is the very thing God desires most from us? Not the endless (and futile) polishing up of our shiny selves, but the offering up of our whole selves.

Let everything inside me bless God’s holy name. Sure, the happy, thankful parts of me are going to find it easy enough to sing. But what about the other parts—can they also bless the Lord? According to Psalm 103, you bet they can:

~ The exhausted part of us can sing praise to the One who “renews our youth like the eagle’s.”
~ The part that’s angry at injustice can bless the God who “works righteousness and does justice for all who are oppressed.”
~ The part that’s suffering can sing to the God who “heals our sickness.”
~ The part that’s guilty can sing to the God who “forgives…and removes our sin as far as the east is from the west.”
~ The part of us that’s weak can bless the One who “knows our frame and remembers we are dust.”

As Henri Nouwen puts it:

The discipline of the heart makes us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wandering, and most of all our people, family, friends and enemies, in short all that makes us who we are….

We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow. And not just our prayer but also our self-knowledge because by behaving as strangers before God we become strangers to ourselves.

Who can say where God lands in the “white gloves vs. flip-flops” debate in worship? As with most things that really matter to God, I imagine it comes down to the heart—and not just our Sunday heart. Our whole, real, raw, angry, anxious, unpolished heart. This is the best offering of all.

This piece appeared first in a shorter version on September 14, 2015, as a devotional for Baptist Women in Ministry. 


Scanned Image2-1I’m reading the One Hundredth Psalm on my patio this morning, coffee in hand, as a splashy redbird nonchalantly strips the needle-like leaves from the rosemary in my herb garden.

For the Lord is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
his faithfulness to all generations.

In a flash, I am whisked away from my patio and am in the backseat of a blue Chevy Bel Air, racing along a two-lane road in the Florida panhandle, my thin blonde hair whipping in the wind, stinging my eyes.

It is the summer of 1968 and from the dashboard radio, Jeanie C. Riley is belting out Harper Valley P.T.A. The acrid stink of a paper mill tells me Panama City Beach is just minutes away. A few miles short of town, my father pulls off the road beside an open-air rest stop. “Everybody out!” he commands with a smile. With a whoop of delight my brother and I leap from the car. My thighs peel away from the vinyl seat, leaving a pattern on the backs of my legs.

For the next ten minutes we stand stock-still beside a roadside picnic table, arms extended like scarecrows while Dad slathers Coppertone on every exposed millimeter of our bodies—even the insides of our ears. He always made sure we were wearing sunscreen before we hit the beach, knowing that the instant we arrived at the motel, my brother and I would bolt for the turquoise water of the Gulf, screaming like banshees across the white talcum sand.

The parental care. The practical love. I still cherish them, all these years later.

The Lord is good . . .
God’s steadfast love endures forever;
his faithfulness to all generations.

We don’t know a whole lot about the writer of Psalm One Hundred. One thing we can surmise with confidence, though, because it’s jumping up and down and waving at us from every line, is that the psalmist has experienced something of God’s love so tangible, it makes him or her bold to declare: The Lord is good.

Sometimes God’s love and goodness show up through nature—a cheeky redbird in your herb garden. Or a welcome wave of cool air in September—God’s way of saying, “Chill, dear, I’ve got you.” Sometimes love is Coppertone in the hands of a caring parent, or a friend who forgives you when she has every reason to hold a grudge. Once, love became as concrete as a cross.

The love of God is the one eternal reality; there is no other. When everything else has passed into shadow, what will remain is Love. The Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.

This piece appeared first on September 7, 2015, as a devotional for Baptist Women in Ministry. 

Easter Fail 2015

5437335840_6ffbe4d95aSo for starters, there was a veritable Easter parade of technical snafus (microphones not working, video issues, missed cues, etc.). In our second service we had to stop mid-way through the first stanza of Christ the Lord is Risen Today because there was an entirely different hymn projected on the screens. The audio in the wonderful baptism testimony video was out of sync, like a Godzilla movie.

But all of this pales by comparison with the moment in the 8:45 service when, near the end of my message, as I accelerated toward the mighty Empty Tomb Crescendo, I invited a sanctuary full of pastel-clad worshipers into “everlasting, ever-living, ever-praising DEATH!”

Happy Easter, y’all.

Okay, so I was excited and momentarily lost my train of thought. It happens. I knew I’d committed more than a minor fumble when the congregation, which up to that point had been nodding and supportively amening, did this simultaneous little head-tilt—a collective ruh-roh. A few of them actually gasped. Some laughed out loud. I think even God probably offered down a sympathetic “Bless her heart.”

The Devil’s favorite lie
Later, as I kicked myself in my office, my friend and fellow pastor, Sharyn Dowd, gave me a hug. “Don’t take it too hard,” she said. “All the screw-ups in worship today were because of that swipe you took in your message at the penal substitution theory of atonement.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I’m sure of it,” she said. “Penal substitution is the Devil’s favorite lie for keeping us anxious and ashamed our whole life. We were just getting pushback.”

The crucifixion of Jesus is a great and holy mystery. Because of our genuine need to make sense of this mystery, the Church has offered a number of theories about Christ’s death over the past two thousand years.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: Let me explain. No—there is too much. Let me sum up:

Atonement Theory (sorely abridged)
The New Testament does in fact say, “Christ died for our sins.” (1 Corinthians 14:3b, Galatians 1:4, Romans 4:25) This claim is not up for grabs. The real question for two millennia has been: How do we interpret that claim? Most atonement theories are based on bona fide biblical metaphors for the cross: the “military” metaphor; the “obedience” metaphor; the “ransom” metaphor and the “sacrifice” metaphor.

The “penal substitution” atonement theory, which comes out of the sacrifice metaphor, is not in the New Testament. It’s been around for about 500 years—ever since Martin Luther misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be a sin offering, who knew no sin…” Luther interpreted this verse in terms of punishment rather than sacrifice: God treated Jesus, who knew no sin, as though he were a sinner.

Unfortunately, penal substitution became the prevailing Protestant view of atonement after the Reformation.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, in a recent sermon on John 3:16, takes a hilarious (and harsh)
romp through the penal substitution atonement theory:

“…God had this one little boy – and he loved that little boy so much… but he had to KILL that little boy because you stole a candy bar, or lied to your mom, or felt up your girlfriend or maybe you used swear words or looked at dirty pictures. The important thing to know is that God killed his little boy rather than punishing you, because let’s face it, someone had to pay and you should feel so grateful about all of this that you believe and (most importantly) you behave. But the good news is that if you believe all of this and if you try really hard to be good then when you die you get a special all-inclusive vacation package called Eternal Life.”


Love Wins
Bottom line: The notion that what God mostly is is ANGRY with us is as mistaken today as it was 500 years ago. As Richard Rohr puts it: God loves us, not according to our capacity to be good; God loves us because God is good.

The Love of God is the one eternal reality. When everything else has passed into shadow, what will remain is Love. Love never ends, never fails, never stops, never dies. Fortunately, the news of Easter is so powerfully transcendent, it can bear any of our botched attempts to communicate it.

Happy Easter, y’all.

Good Friday With the Methodists

I estimate forty of us—
spread like thin gravy
over the dim sanctuary.

"Ecce Homo" by Benjamin Lopez

“Ecce Homo” by Benjamin Lopez

My own Baptist flock
honors the noontime
crucifixion, so tonight
my son and I are free
to join these Methodists
who have hired four
Gregorian chanters from
the Catholics up the road.

My son was attentive
at first, but is now
rifling through items
in the pew rack:
offering envelopes
prayer request cards
“What Methodists Believe”.

The tiny choir is giving it
their all with Dubois’
Christ, We Do All Adore Thee
but are hobbled
by a soprano whose high G
doesn’t quite clear the bar.

The man across the aisle
is fighting to keep awake,
his head swinging
like a censer.

What a pitiful clot
we are, curdling
beneath the cross.
We chant our confession:
We love darkness rather than light
and I reckon
my own brambly heart
as exhibit-A.

For on this night of nights,
as sorrow and love
flow mingled down,
I’m still fuming
at the seminarian who,
just yesterday,
misspelled “Maundy”
on our church marquee
and whom I (rightly)
castigated just before
the foot-washing.

Yet now,
in the cover
of this half-light,
the memory
of his wounded face
pierces me.

The choir is lumbering
through the Palestrina
Kyrie while the man
across the aisle
softly snores.

© Julie Pennington-Russell

Love’s Detour

Thank God for second chances, “Plan B”, alternate routes and the long way around.


“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.”
~ Matthew 2:12

What would a Christmas pageant be without the three Wise Men? They’ve captured the imagination of songwriters, painters and poets. James Taylor sang about them; Monty Python parodied them; Garrison Keillor brought them to Lake Wobegon; we celebrate them in Christmas carols and on greeting cards and with gazillion-watt front yard light displays.

They’re awfully mysterious and exotic up there on their camels, with their heavy accents and bejeweled hats. And whether their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar, as John of Hildesheim dubbed them in the 14th century, or Larry, Curly and Moe—what the Magi stand for is the news that when God showed up with skin on in the person of Jesus, it was for everybody. Every race. Every nation. Grace, mercy and love for all people, not just a few.

The magi first travel to Jesus on a road leading straight through the palace of King Herod. And Herod, pretending to be as devout as they are, tells them: “You’ll find the child in Bethlehem.” Then he leans closer and twirls his greasy moustache and says, “When you find him, come back and tell me so I can go worship him, too.”

But when they arrive in Bethlehem and see with their own eyes the very face of God, they begin to know what’s what. God comes to them in a dream and says, “Don’t go back to Herod.” And Matthew reports that when it comes time for them to head home, they figure out an alternate route and return by another way.

This story is an especially good one for any of us whose “Plan A”, which looked so promising in the beginning, has gone bust and left us in desperate need of a better way home.

Recently a woman in our church named Lydia graduated from a residential treatment program for alcohol addiction. I was happy to be invited to the celebration, which basically consisted of an A.A. meeting followed by cake and punch. As the honored graduate, Lydia got to lead the meeting.

Hi, I’m Lydia and I’m an addict.

Hi, Lydia!

‘So this is an A. A. meeting,” she said. “But mostly I want it to be a gratitude meeting. Would anyone like to share some things they’re grateful for?”

After several people spoke, a woman in her early thirties named Kari, who also belongs to our church, stood up and faced the group.

Hi, I’m Kari and I’m an addict.

Hi, Kari!

She told Lydia how much she loves her courage and kindness and amazing hugs. Then Kari told of how earlier that morning she was jogging over the freeway overpass. “As I did,” she said, “I thought of how, not that long ago, I used to want to jump off that overpass. And now, thanks to my Higher Power and my church family, that’s the farthest thing from my mind.”

Praise to the God of second chances, “Plan B”, alternate routes and the long way around.

Monks and Mediation: What some Benedictines taught me about conflict

Chapel steeple, Monastery of Christ in the DesertSeventy-five miles north of Santa Fe there’s a high desert canyon so ancient, so primordial, I half-expected to see pterodactyls in the sky instead of hawks as I steered my rental car along 13 miles of single-lane dirt road. The road runs along the Chama River where elk graze along the banks, and beavers big as bear cubs drag sticks from the woods to their dams in the greenish water.

At the end of the road is the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where some 25 Benedictine monks from a dozen countries around the world share their lives with one another, and with the guests who come throughout the year to pray and work alongside them. Hospitality is embedded deep in Benedictine practice.

The robed, sandal-shod brothers gather in a beautiful adobe chapel seven times a day for prayer, starting with Vigils at 4:00 a.m. and ending with Compline each evening at 7:30. They pray the Psalms, all 150, over the course of each week, then start over again. They sing all the psalms, even the “cursing” ones that call down the whole gamut of affliction on the heads of the psalmist’s enemies. I can report that Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks feels perhaps a wee bit less appalling when set to Gregorian Chant.

The monks not only pray; they also labor four hours a day and invite their guests to join them. My assignment the first day was pulling weeds in the cemetery with Brother Will from Atlanta and hauling rocks in a wheelbarrow with Brother John Baptist from Malawi. Other guests worked in the hops field. The monks brew and sell their own beer, called Monk’s Ale. “Brewed with care and prayer” it says on the label.

Trouble in the Canyon
I came to the Monsatery a week before their 50th anniversary celebration. In the gift shop I bought a history of the community, commissioned for the occasion. The monastery got its start in 1964 when an intrepid Benedictine monk named Father Aelred from Rhode Island stumbled upon the remote canyon by happenstance and was hooked. He and two close monk buddies from New York set up three tiny tents on the banks of the Chama and made a go of it. In the face of blizzards, floods, land disputes, wild animals and near-fatal injuries, they carved out a primitive observance of monastic life in the tradition of John the Baptist.

Fast-forward eight years to 1972. The monastery has grown! From three monks to four.

However, relationships between them have deteriorated to the point that Father Aelred and his one-time best friend, Father Gregory, are no longer speaking. They communicate now with each other only through notes passed to the other two monks. Things continue to go downhill until one day Father Aelred asks the groundskeeper to drive him to Santa Fe. Without a word to his three brothers he catches a bus out of town. They never see him again.

Ain’t for the Chickenhearted
I talked with Brother Andre, a spunky monk from Connecticut, about this. “For crying out loud,” I said “All you guys do is pray and seek God. How did things get so sideways?”

Brother Andre just grinned and said, “Yeah, well…”

Then he told me about a monastery in the Midwest where the brothers were in revolt against the abbot. “They said they’d rather see the monastery close than work with him,” he said. “They had to bring in a mediator.”

“Geez,” I said. “I’m torn between despair for the Church in general, and relief over the size of our occasional flair-ups back home.” Brother Andre grinned again, the skin around his eyes going all crinkly. Then he summed it up for me in a pronouncement worthy of a bumper sticker: “Sister,” he said, “Christian community ain’t for the chickenhearted.”

There’s a grace note at the end of this jangling story. Because the Spirit of God works just fine in spite of human silliness, the Monastery is a beautiful, thriving community today. I’m sure squabbles still flare up over this or that. But love pings around the place like a pinball and bounces off the red canyon walls.

And every night, as the monks wrap up their prayers, their liturgy includes mention of “our beloved founder, Father Aelred,” making no reference to his defection forty years ago. Instead, they bless his memory and thank God for all the gifts that have come since.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

Father Aelred (left), Father Basil, and Father Placid en route to the Chama Canyon, circa 1964.

This piece originally appeared September 4, 2014 at

What THEY’RE Having

While in New Mexico this summer my friends Lauren and Amy and I drove into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to attend Mass at the historic Santuario de Chimayó.
It was Pentecost Sunday. The small chapel was filled to capacity and hot as an oven, so we stood near the door where at least a hint of a breeze was stirring. The priest read from Acts Two, the part about the Spirit blowing life and courage into that first gathering of believers. Then from John Twenty, where Jesus breathed on his friends and said, Receive the Holy Spirit.

After Mass we went for lunch at the nearby Rancho de Chimayó, a restored century-old adobe home with a garden terrace. As we waited for our names to be called, a party of six older Hispanic adults walked in. Lauren, Amy and I halted our conversation in mid-sentence as we watched them walk past. All six were wearing something red. A Pentecost parade!

A tall man in a hat wore a skinny red tie with his white Oxford shirt. One woman was wearing red everything—pants, skirt, shoes, socks. But best of all was the seventy-ish woman wearing a long, red satin cape, like Superwoman, trimmed in white lace all the way around. On the back of the cape was a large golden dove with the word Come! stitched beneath.

I was thrilled when we wound up seated next to their table. Trying hard not to stare, I couldn’t help but watch them throughout the meal. They talked and ate with such joy. They lifted glasses of sangria into the air with a hearty toast to the Lord: “Thanks be to God!” And oh, man, they laughed. Not restrained giggles. Not tempered chuckles. I’m talking deep-from-the-gut laughter that shook the water glasses and had all of them wiping their eyes.

When their food came they all joined hands while the man in the skinny red tie offered a passionate prayer, calling on Holy Spirit to “hold us and guide us,” upon which they all bellowed Amen! Everyone sitting near them in the restaurant seemed blessed by the overflow and maybe even a little wistful, in a When Harry Met Sally way: “We’ll have what they’re having!”

These dear Catholics took themselves so lightly, precisely because they took Holy Spirit so seriously. There’s something marvelous and mysterious about the presence of the Spirit in a church. As Jesus observed to Nicodemus (John 3), we can no more explain the work of the Spirit than we can pin down a breeze. But we’ll know the Wind is blowing when leaves in the trees—and even friends around a table—are shaking with something like joy.


Better Than Normal

Well, my lovely three-month sabbatical is winding down. A pastor friend told me that he’s never more depressed than at the end of a sabbatical. When you’re on sabbatical, he said, you come to realize that a pastor’s life isn’t normal. When you have a chance to taste “normal”, it’s hard to go back to “crazy”.

I know something of what he’s talking about. Still, my sabbatical is having a different effect on me. Having tasted “normal” (or as normal as life in the P-R house is ever gonna get) for nearly twelve weeks, I’m coming back inspired and eager to try some healthier practices, both at home and at church. More on that later.

This week I’ve been holed away at a mountain cabin, writing, writing. Mountain “cabin” is a bit of an understatement. More like a mountain mini-Biltmore. Undying thanks to two dear friends who opened their home to me.

Today I’m doing my best slug imitation, lazing in a rocking chair, soaking up the harmony of wind chimes and ogling the lavender carpet of mountains in the distance. Just off the deck is a bird feeder that seems to be a Circle K for every feathered creature inside a five-mile radius—warblers, plovers, thrushes, tanagers, buntings, chickadees. These birds of the air indeed do not sow or reap. But they do bully each other for Cole’s Special Blend around the feed trough. Here’s a 30-second clip:

My friend Brett Younger says that when you look up the word sabbatical in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of a pastor smiling. Yep, I’m smiling.

And so grateful.

First, to a good God who’s in the restoration business.

Second, to my dear, generous First Baptist Decatur family for giving me time and space to refill my saggy tires and to remember who I am, what the Church is about, and what we’re meant for.

Third, to our selfless staff who’ve covered lots and lots of extra bases all summer. I know, I know…I owe you big time.

And finally, to all the super-dee-duper preachers who’ve filled the pulpit each Sunday. Confession time: It’s a tiny bit possible that in some dank, reptilian corner of my soul, I secretly hoped that at least a few of you might stink a little, you know, for a comparative boost when I got back. You let me down, people.

Next Sunday I fly to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to wrap up my sabbatical, kayaking on Lake Superior with nine people I’ve never met. Back before Easter I saw an ad in the Christian Century for a retreat, sponsored by the Cedar Tree Institute, called “The Spirit of Place”. They had me at hello. We’ll kayak by day and talk about the writings of Flannery O’Conner around the campfire at night. Yes, I’m that lucky.

Two things you should know about the Michigan trip:
a) The ICE PACK on Lake Superior finally thawed just last month. Did I mention there’s been ICE?
b) I’ve never actually been in a kayak.

I’ll keep you posted.

Lenten Confession: Theft


Yesterday at the Drug Emporium
while scanning the shelves
for my favorite lotion I encountered
a blind woman and her companion who,

to my profound irritation, scooped
the last two bottles of St. Ives
Creamy Vanilla from the shelf
and dropped them into their basket.

Maybe it’s a sign
of my complete self-absorption
or possibly exhaustion
that when the companion made a quick dash

to the toothpaste aisle I considered pilfering
one of the bottles (just one)
from the blind woman’s basket,
then tiptoeing away, silent as the grave.

Truth Beneath the Ashes

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses.

Ash Wed. SchmeerSeveral years ago in Waco, TX, a couple hundred of us gathered for a crack-of-dawn Ash Wednesday service led by a team of seminary students. All kinds of folk—Baylor students, doctors, construction workers, grandparents—gathered at the shoreline of Lent, sleepy-eyed and somber. Fiddle music beckoned, “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy…”

No Ash Wednesday service would be complete without the imposition of ashes and pronouncement from Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We spilled into the aisles, ready to receive the mark of the cross, after which we would turn and mark the forehead of the person behind us. Just ahead of me in line stood a college student, a kind, cheerful young woman named Rae. We waited our turn, then Rae received the ashes and I stepped forward to receive mine from her. That’s when things went…um…slightly askew.

Rae pushed my bangs aside and smudged the sign of the cross on my forehead, according to plan. But as she drew her hand away, somehow she got some of that inky schmeer on my nose. Horrified, she tried to wipe it off and in the process, managed to spread the greasy mixture to my cheeks, my chin and, as best I can recall, one of my earlobes.

Finally there was nothing to do but laugh at this epic Ash Wednesday fail. I hugged poor, mortified Rae and returned to my seat, looking like a coal miner.

But as I sat there blotting my face with a tissue, it occurred to me that what Rae had just done, quite unintentionally, was to paint a picture of how it really is with me.

When it comes to my own dust, I tend toward one of two responses: As with those ashes tucked conveniently beneath my bangs, either I try to cover up my sin so that no one will see—or I try to pretty up my sin in order to make it appear more respectable. I’m okay wearing my dust in a smart little liturgical shape, along with everyone else. In fact when worn that way the dust actually becomes a sign of my spirituality. But the greasy truth is this: my sin is all over me in blotchy smears from head to toe.

The Apostle Paul also found himself covered in dust one day—sprawled face-down in the dirt of the Damascus road, blind as a bat. But even as he lay there picking grit from his teeth, a promise began to stir inside his heart and mind which later he would put into words for all of us: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”

That’s my story. I’m gratefully sticking to it.

This piece also appears at NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc.