pascal was wrong

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)

More commonly, this phrase is seen as something along the lines of ‘Every person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.’ And this is a nice notion, lending itself well to an apologetic that insists on the existential inadequacy of life without Christ’s salvific work.

In recent months, I’ve been wrestling fiercely with inner demons, confronting my own dark places and winning some of the battles, while waging others still. In unearthing a lot of the baggage and processing through everything from past and present hurts to memories I literally had to recalibrate, I realized something that deeply bothered me.

I am half-man, half-chasm. There is an enormous hole in my soul, and I’ve spent years trying to fill it, trying to let God fill it, but mostly trying in vain to do it myself. Inversely speaking, it’s like trying to bail the ocean.

Then Pascal and the bastardized version of his quote came to mind. And I thought it over. And while I understand what he’s saying, he’s wrong.

An abyss, even one in the shape of a deity, cannot be filled.

Further, not only can that hole not be filled, I’m not sure God is particularly interested in fulfilling anyone. If it is so that we are incomplete without God, that completion does not complete God, but us; that is to say, that God in this state of affairs is not God at all. We are. It is completing us, and not completing God or God’s work.

No, it is not us who need to be fulfilled, but God. God may well be incomplete without us in all our broken, incomplete–ahem, holy–lack of glory. It is for our frailty that grace is offered freely to those who would embrace the grace giver; that we need not be made whole, but satisfied solely in the Christ-event.

It is this realization that has brought me significant relief and peace in these trying days and months. It may well be what has stemmed the tide. The hole needn’t be filled: it is for this very reason Christ came! Nothing will fill that gap and nothing should, lest we be somehow dissatisfied with the resurrection or somehow find resurrection inadequate. (And many, many religious types do, and with the best of intentions!)

Family, education, career, art, benevolent involvement, passion, religion: these are all great and worthwhile things and worthy of our time, effort and devotion. They will not heal existential wounds or provide fulfillment. While these things are not substance abuse, violence or other self-abusive behavior (often with lasting effects on others), they can very easily have the same pernicious effect, because they, too, can become false idols. Only anchoring into something transcendent of life as we know it will provide any relief at all.

Something like the man who left the tomb empty.

Rather than Pascal, I think Augustine is more fitting: Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. 

It is not completion we ought to seek, but rest.

briefly, dust

“…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” — Genesis 3.19b

I was not raised in a Christian tradition that paid much recognition to Ash Wednesday or the Lenten season, which began for many Christians a week ago. With the arrival of the season, though, this phrase has stuck in my mind.

To be returned to dust. Pulverized; pulvis: dust, powder, ash.

We will all be pulverized. What (ahem) levels the playing field more than that?

Perhaps in our heightened state of enlightenment, we have forgotten what it is we really are. Regardless if one believes in the literal creation (which I do not), or in evolutionary development (theistic or otherwise), the source is the same: we come from the elements. In kind, we will end up elements again.

In the meantime, we are animated dirt.

And, as dirt, living amongst dirt, we tend to lack self-awareness of our own dirtiness. As such, we take our fellow dirt for granted, we mistreat, we hate, we ignore, considering our collection of dirt of more value than someone else’s. All the while, neglecting the fundamental fact that I am dirt and could be dispatched to my natural, dusty state at any given time.

The fact that we are animated dust, then, should never be far from our minds, Lent or otherwise. This is the time to be grateful, to be fair, kind and to recognize the myriad ways in which we fail one another. This is the day to seek forgiveness and to forgive. The garden might not be an option anymore; that shouldn’t keep us from creating something beautiful (or as beautiful as dust can possibly be.) This is hope, that in spite of our mutated condition, we might yet even have the faintest resemblance of a time when things were right.

Indeed, while we yet have anima, we are extraordinary pulvis. Capable of life and destruction, often in the same manner and from the same source, inexorably thrust toward our pulverization. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.

What will you do with your interim? What shall I do with mine?

on suffering

Pain is a good and necessary thing.

This not to say it is good, which is to say that pain is itself pleasurable (ummm…unless that’s your thing, in which case, thanks for reading?), but that its utility is essential to living: the presence of pain or discomfort is the body identifying something wrong in its systems.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard this before. Pain is a megaphone, so on and so forth.

Suffering is endurance of a burden: the long, drawn-out affliction. It is not pain, rather pain extended. It consumes; you know when you’re flat on your back with the flu, the room spinning around and you’re trying to remember what it’s like to not writhe and wretch.

Wholeness becomes a faint memory as suffering floods the mind and soul. Suffering is then the converse of wholeness. Wholeness turned upside down.

Be it physical, emotional or mental, it is unfathomable to those who are well, as wellness is to the one who suffers.

Within this rubric, emotional pain and suffering is reflective of a lack of emotional wholeness; often, the absence of love in loss, in being unrequited or in abandonment. Suffering becomes the test of one’s capacity for love.

Blessed are those who suffer, for they could love more than this world would ever allow. Blessed all the more are those who suffer gladly, for they never let suffering consume their joy.

Would that we retained such joy. Would that I had such joy.

role reversal

how the church isn’t what it shouldn’t be, how the world is what it shouldn’t


Of course, this is painting with a broad brush: it’s not like life away from ecclesiastical trappings or vocation has been all daisies and tulips, and it’s not like church was a complete and total wasteland. However, the trends are at the very least disturbing for the sustainability and even basic recognition of the Christian movement and mission.

The church isn’t merely content with shooting the wounded; Evangelicals are now openly practicing a form of religious eugenics, drawing out those who fail to adapt to the hegemony, isolating them, eliminating them. In the process of creating a movement of themselves, by themselves and for themselves, Christians have only further alienated themselves from the very world they were tasked to serve and redeem. Those who do not comply are not excommunicated–that would be too direct, and conflict is a sign of dissension and weakness. Rather, the idea is even more injurious: marginalize, isolate, ignore. Abuse not of commission, but omission.

Move the herd one way, move the black sheep toward an already-open gate. When they leave, they leave freely. And Uriah was killed in valiant service to his king.

This complex exists in both ‘progressive’ (progressing toward what, exactly?) and ‘conservative’ (conserving what, exactly?) Evangelical circles, both of whom at their core share fundamentalist moorings derived from a political vantage rather than any sort of theological conviction.

Guess what, heathens? It’s not a good time to be looking at American Christianity. Not exactly a buyer’s market, and nobody wants what they’re selling.

I wanted to be a part of that world; to serve in ministry and build bridges of redemption into a community. Yet, though I was raised as one of them, though I shared a common commitment to the cause and did everything they asked me to do, at considerable cost and personal sacrifice, I was rooted out. Those who supported me turned their backs, or betrayed me in favor of the denomination, or to cover their own backsides.

When you’ve been blackballed by Christians, it’s not just you they’re after: they go after you and anyone you’ve ever known. Think Terry Benedict, but with even less class or tact.

That was over ten years of my life: amounting to not much of much, driven out of ministry, forced to improvise, forced to deal. Thankfully, I have dealt. And I say what I have said above not out of spite, but out of cold, detached truth. That was my experience, it was very hurtful, and it came at that hands of those who are supposed to sow Christ-likeness into others. Some can never cope with a fraction of those experiences, some have baggage from a lot worse. Many I know who were placed in that crucible emerged as anti-theists, or ran as far from Christianity as they could. This is the legacy they’re leaving. And they couldn’t care less.

Again, the world hasn’t exactly been a paradise: I found myself in two very toxic work environments where I was eminently overqualified and undermined by superiors. But it’s a new day.

What is ‘the world’, anyway?

Since there’s no official definition in this case, we can rely on experience and context. For the typical Evangelical, it’s little more than a bogeyman; an othering term to classify that which is acceptable and that which is not. The world is supposed to be a hostile place, a place deprived of Christian virtue or otherwise profaned by the absence of redemption.

All of that is lunacy.

If anything, life disembarked from the good old gospel ship has shown me what the church is supposed to be, and decidedly isn’t. I found more support out here than I ever did in pursuit of ministry. I wasn’t a gadfly to be suffered until I flew out the cracked car window; I’m a person with significant skills and abilities to be invested in, harnessed and utilized. I’ve encountered amazing people, some of whom were outcast themselves or otherwise thoroughly disillusioned with religion. Even some of those I’ve met who couldn’t give a crap about religion have been profoundly decent people: generous, thoughtful, gracious and kind.

What my experience in the last six months has underscored to me is that the church is so far detached from reality, and so self-insulated, that its inhabitants fundamentally lack the ability to connect with anyone who isn’t one of them on even a remotely-human level. Their efforts to connect with the community are alien to the community they with which they try to connect. The only way they know how to share their concern is through ham-handed cliches and tired gambits. If my time in the world has taught me anything, it’s that I’d frankly rather be with them than with a church with one foot in the sky and the other in a grave, not knowing and not caring which will be taken first.

This is precisely opposite of the incarnation. This is the great apostasy: not that American Christians have backslid from faith, but worse, from reality. More frightening yet, they may not be alone in the effort.


now hiring…

…Requirement: a penis. Sexism and poor optics from one of the more popular Evangelical churches in Milwaukee

I don’t suppose this qualifies as equal opportunity employment.

Epikos Church is a ten-year old church plant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin led by Rev. Danny Parmelee. In that decade, the church has grown, opened a second branch in inner-ring suburb West Allis and is, according to the above link, looking to launch a branch on Milwaukee’s north side–a part of town that is heavily stricken by poverty and racial segregation (until you reach Brown Deer, that is.)

By their own account, they have aligned themselves with the seminary where I did my graduate work (Bethel), as well as Converge Worldwide (the rebranded Baptist General Conference) and The Gospel Coalition and Acts 29. The former two I have no qualms with, aside from the fact that Bethel hasn’t gone by ‘Bethel Theological Seminary’ in years, but that’s not their fault. It’s those last two.

Acts 29 is the church planting network and The Gospel Coalition is the adjoining pseudo-denomination spawned at least in part by Mark Driscoll, who ran a cult of personality–Mars Hill–that imploded at the end of 2014 after his compelled resignation from the pastoral office. The self-professed egoist, and interwebs troll par excellence/misogynist/second coming of John Calvin was caught in a plagiarism scandal and, after charges of spiritual abuse and Christian bookstores stopped carrying his products, was deemed more hassle than he was worth. (A quick Google search should fill you in. Driscoll’s Wikipedia page is well-sourced.)

None of this is to say that Parmelee is Driscoll; that’s not fair to anyone. That having been said, show the world who inspires you and with whom you align yourself, and the world will see more clearly who you are.

The New Calvinist movement, neo-Calvinism, neo-Reformed theology all deign equality between the sexes, but in the same way that the Supreme Court codified the notion of separate, but equal in Plessy v. Ferguson. They even have the gall to hire women as staff, giving them much of the responsibilities of any minister without the benefit of being a pastor. Seriously, look at Epikos’ staff directory: the pastors are all men, the women are secretaries and ‘directors’. Leadership is a complete sausage-fest.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: If anyone knows anything about American churches, though, it’s that de jure, men may hold the titles, but de facto, women run the show. You never, ever, ever cross a church secretary. I digress.]

So much for the priesthood of all believers. If you have a uterus, you cannot fully participate in the work of ministry.

Never mind Paul’s proposition in Galatians is entirely contextually unqualified (a rarity, to be sure): There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 

Yet, the job listing in this blog post is very clear as to what kind of plumbing is essential to marrying, burying and all that other pastoral jazz:

He will be responsible for identifying, recruiting, and developing leaders. He will shepherd, oversee, and empower leaders to carry out the ministry of the church.

He will also be a preaching pastor, preaching regularly at all three epikos campuses as part of the preaching team.

[bold and italicized pronouns mine; Epikos’ stylized small caps theirs]

Then, they sneak this little nugget of richness in:

We desire a diverse preaching team that reflects the diversity of our congregation.

Wait, wha…?

Is Epikos a gentlemen’s club for men only? (No.) Is this a dog whistle that they will be hiring a person man of color? (Probably.) How is diversity defined, if not also by sex? (It’s not.)

I know people who attend Epikos; I know people who have contributed time and energy to Epikos ministries. From the outside, it’s a growing, emerging church filled with a lot of spiritual drifters and hipsters: largely younger, white college students and white-collar professionals. Epikos falls in line with national demographics on church plants. That said, I know a source who was deeply and sincerely embedded in Epikos volunteer efforts for a considerable length of time: the closer you get to power, the less liberty and charity exists, especially if you are female.

Well-intentioned, affable, Jesus-loving sexism. Well-intentioned, affable, Jesus-loving sin.

My suggestion is simple: this is the last week they are accepting resume packages. If you are a woman called to do ministry, send your portfolio to them at Your cover letter simply should state “Galatians 3.28.” Bowl them over with a killer resume. You can even use me as a reference.

There is no greater equal opportunity than the work of the ministry.

concerning repentance and participants in reality television

I didn’t want to write about any of this.

This week, numerous sources reported on allegations that Josh Duggar of television’s 19 Kids and Counting, sexually assaulted minors, apparently including members of his own family. The Duggars issued a statement to People, Josh resigned his position in DC as a lobbyist with the Family Research Council, TLC has scrapped all broadcasts of 19 Kids and Counting until further notice. Further information is readily available from any number of sources, I won’t bother to link to them here (although Gawker’s coverage appears to be the most thorough.)

The response from all corners of the interwebs has been predictably virulent and disappointing. Anyone with a keyboard, screen and hastily-created username has piled on. This is what we do now, I guess.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that what Josh Duggar is alleged to have done is wrong, criminal, sinful and absolutely inexcusable, but that’s our starting point. Ethically, legally, religiously: anyway you slice it, what happened was beyond inappropriate. The family put out a statement saying, in essence, that Josh recognized his wrongs, repented and asked for forgiveness.

Repentance does not excuse behavior: saying you’re sorry doesn’t somehow nullify the wrongful action. Within the economy of Christian salvation, it is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a point of commitment to want to do and be better. Josh was right to repent, but the past is written in stone, the future not written at all. It is troubling that these allegations persisted after acknowledgement and that countermeasures appear to have been haphazard and sloppy at best, while the later inquiry into Josh by the Springdale police was railroaded by his father.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: One thing I find interesting-as-in-disconcerting that seems to be overlooked in this matter is that Jim Bob Duggar was a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1999-2002: just as he was exiting a brief career in politics, is just when these actions are alleged to have started taking place. The question I can’t shake is whether one has anything to do with the other. I digress.]

Josh very well may have been sincere and cognizant in recognizing his wrongdoing, but his family parading his repentance is nothing less than an invitation for precisely the kind of vitriol being directed at them over the past three days. And, in fairness, there is no reason at this point to think that he continued to engage in similar criminal activity after 2003.

That said, we cannot turn a blind eye to what was done merely because he repented and asked for forgiveness; quite the opposite, both repentance and forgiveness require everyone involved–and now, in this case, that’s all of us–acknowledge the reality and gravity of the actions which aggrieved. Good behavior afterward doesn’t change bad behavior before. Try as they might, the Duggars cannot edit this out and leave it on the floor. Life is a live feed.


Not all Evangelicals or fundamentalists believe what the Duggars believe. A lot of the sneering and outrage has come from the cultural left and from various atheists and anti-theists of all stripes, lumping all of us Christians in with the Duggars, just as they are wont to do with Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham or any number of prominent church leaders over the years whose personal transgressions tarnished their reputations and killed the golden goose of faith promises.

I can’t be any more clear about this: Christianity is a very, very large tent. Quiverfull is a very, very small part of that caucus.

I refer to myself as a post-Evangelical Christian, as far as I know, that term means nothing to anyone but me. I do not agree in any way with the way the Duggars have designed their family or with much of their doctrinal positions at all. I am not them, in the same way that not all leftists are Stalinists, not all Muslims are out for global jihad and not all residents of Chicago are Cubs fans. (For the latter point, we can all be thankful.) When you [generally] take a swipe at all those stupid Christians pooping out a zillion babies and waiting for the Rapture, you are swiping at me and a very large contingency of those who would welcome a reasonable and vibrant conversation about what has happened (and about a host of other matters as well.)

What has happened over the past three days has put the magnifying glass extraordinarily close to a family in Arkansas. These events have also shown a light on the state of public discourse in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Neither have turned out to be particularly flattering revelations.

I really didn’t want to write about any of this.

an accidental feminist: a note of appreciation for the women in my life

My family isn’t exactly what one would call a bastion of progressive or liberal ideology. In fact, quite the opposite: much of my family is firmly planted on the right of the political spectrum fiction. And you would be hard-pressed to find people who are more caring, compassionate, respectful, generous or even-handed. Politics has divided us, and not for the better: people of good will can be found anywhere, and we will be a better society when we stop shovel-feeding ourselves preferred narratives, tell the politicians to shove it and realize that there is a reality that very much exists without our assorted grievances being rubbed raw all the time.

That said, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that our red-meat-potatoes-and-America family was decidedly feminist. And thus feminism isn’t a left- or right- wing proposition, but a human one. To reduce it, like so many other matters co-opted by activists and power players, to politics undermines everything that feminism–generally speaking, the idea that women and men ought to be on equal footing–stands for, namely, the provision of identity to people who historically have gone without. I would go on to suggest that identity politics is detrimental to respective causes, but that would be another conversation for another day.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I want to recognize a few of the women who were and are examples par excellence to me growing up, and who, wittingly or otherwise, made me an accidental feminist.

Growing up, I always looked forward to visits from my aunts Susie and Elaine. For many years, my father’s oldest and next-youngest sister lived with my grandmother in Milwaukee, and continue to do so in the exburbs. It never occurred to me that they were never married–Susie married later, long after her career at one of the largest banks in Wisconsin ended–they were always their own people, career women whose strength of personality left no doubt in my mind that they were their own people in their own right. Susie, the reigning family queen of the one-liner, taught me the power of humor and her sense of practical sense and savvy rubbed off on me by osmosis. When I was older and in college, I would spend days at their home, talking with her from morning late into the night about just about anything.

Elaine taught me the power of compassion and hope. An intensely religious person–my family is all pretty much devout Protestant and Evangelical Christians–her faith and love continue to speak volumes to me. Physical maladies have ravaged her body, but her spirit is strong and she doesn’t allow anyone to feel sorry for her. My aunt Nancy may have never officially entered the ministry, but to think of my uncle in the ministry without her presence and involvement is absurd. Her wit and grace, kindness and bedrock support to her family and the extended family–including friends who might as well be family–have been evident and enviable throughout the years.

Growing up in a family that was a clear partnership, and being surrounded by family that treated each person as a person, the idea of sexism was alien to me: why should women be treated differently from men? They were full participants in their lives and didn’t take crap from anybody. The women in my life were strong, confident, successful people. So, when I realized that there was a world around me that didn’t match the experience or perspective I had growing up–including an implicit sexism and departure from original views in the Christian denomination in which I was raised–I guess that’s when I realized I was a feminist, which isn’t necessarily feminist as much as it is pro-humans-be-treated-as-humans, which I suppose is a way to describe what feminism is at its essence.


The idea that women aren’t permitted to be ministers in parts of Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is fundamentally wrong and degrading to me as a man who was raised surrounded by strong women. When the urban church we were a part of in Kansas City accepted its first female deacon, it was natural for me to stand for an ovation at the announcement. When we moved to Springfield, we were part of a church that had already integrated women into its leadership structure and specifically sought out input from everyone involved. When we moved back here to Wisconsin, we joined with a church that again shared our values.

And I see many churches around the country whose directories show males as pastors and a female on staff as ‘coordinator’, ‘administrator’ or ‘director’. That’s horsecrap, and that’s not gospel. Some of the fastest growing churches in the country are sexist by design; those churches are horsecrap and they’re proclaiming a limited gospel, which could be construed to say they’re not proclaiming much of a gospel at all.

Priesthood of all believers: neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female. That’s my feminist credo. (That, and calvinus delenda est.)


Then there’s my wife: passionate, bold, her own person from a strongly matriarchal family not entirely dissimilar to mine. I couldn’t survive everything I’ve endured without her surviving and enduring with me. She’s given the paternal side of my family their first daughters in 60 years. No one will ever tell my twins they cannot do whatever they want to do in life. They already show the spirit of their female forebears, and they will be full participants in their lives, never second-class. I hope to provide a home like the one I knew as a child: where everyone is fully human and full participants. I want them to see a world where sexism exists as a strange and alien place and work to make a difference through their own gifts and graces.

Finally, my mother is the strongest person I know. The depths of her love, fire and inner strength are unknowable. Her patience and graciousness and generosity are unmatched. As she’s transitioned from Mom to me to Mimi to my girls, I’m always left blown away by the quality of person she is, the insight and wisdom she has, the incisive sense of humor I didn’t realize she had until far too late.

All of that doesn’t make her a great mom, it makes her a great person. And that’s the ideal, isn’t it? To see people as people, character and virtue above all else? That’s what I’ve learned growing up. And if that’s what makes me an accidental feminist, I guess I can live with that.

(PS – there are so many more women in my life and family who have meant so much to me. Please know that I love and value you beyond measure as well, even if you remain nameless…and, you know, happen upon this somehow.)