Safe, Supportive Spiritual Community

Most churches call their main building a "sanctuary," but many people find the environment inside to be alienating and hostile. The dramatic decline in church membership and attendance over the last 30 years speaks to the way many people have been hurt by the Church.

Is there a better way? On the most recent episode of The Liturgists Podcast, I sat down with my pastor and took questions from our audience to discuss how we can make church safe, and ways people who are searching for a supportive community can find one.

You can hear the episode here.

What Oprah and My Wife Taught Me About God and Male Privilege

I‘ve never known much about Oprah. That shouldn’t shock anyone, after all I’m both male and a nerd. Oprah’s demographics appeal skews decidedly female, and my nerd sensibilities work to make me clueless about most things that are popular in society. Oprah is about as popular as it gets.

But then Oprah went on tour with Rob Bell. I suppose it's more accurate to say "Rob went on tour with Oprah," but I'm a lot more familiar with Rob. I love Rob, and I love his work.

I asked a few people who’d been to the event if it was worth checking out. There's a lot of pavement between Tallahassee and Miami, and I didn't want to make a drive like that for anything less than amazing.

My friends told me that I shouldn't miss it. One friend went so far as to say I owed it to myself, as someone who often speaks on stage, to go and see Oprah do what she does.

Really? We're talking about someone who entered my awareness by shouting, "You get a car!" on television.

I mentioned the idea to Jenny, and her reaction was powerful. My wife is neither male, nor nerd, so she often sees things differently. She seemed to think a trip to Miami was well worth it. When my pastor (another non-male, non-nerd named Betsy) heard about the trip, she decided to join us. They both assured me there was more to Oprah Winfrey than free cars.

So, we hopped in our (not-free) car and drove from Tallahassee to Miami to see the most powerful woman in media. I'm told that's not hyperbole.

Betsy, Jenny, and me. (I'm the one with the beard).

Betsy, Jenny, and me. (I'm the one with the beard).

I’ve been on a pretty amazing journey the last couple of years. It's like my moment on the beach with God started a wind that always fills my sails. My life has an enchanted quality, and I feel like all I have to do is keep the sails up and the Wind will do all the work. I'm just along for the ride.

Jenny does not feel that way at all. She’s been stuck in a pretty cynical place about God for a long time—she got to experience the full brunt of my doubt, but she hasn't had a moment like I did on the shore of the Pacific. I don’t want to make it sound worse than it is. We’ve been in a good place together. But, in terms of God, Jenny’s boat was being towed behind mine.

I've taken her to some of the places that moved me, and introduced her to people who have been transformative in my life. I thought it may raise her sails, but it never really did. She liked meeting some of my other friends, and she understood the work I was being called to do. But that’s it.

I noticed there was a lot more excitement in Jenny’s voice about this trip than any of the other things we’ve done together in the last couple of years. I wasn’t sure why until about five minutes into Oprah’s story. Then it clicked.

Oprah’s not some vapid media personality. She’s a profound person of depth and wisdom. I know that sounds ridiculous to people who know her work. But my main understanding of Oprah came from the pronounced antipathy many Evangelicals hold toward her. I've been told for years that Oprah was a dangerous spiritual force in America.

I think those people have it all wrong. I say that because Oprah didn't espouse some sort of generic, self-help spirituality (and I'm not sure if there's anything wrong with that anymore). Oprah's language was certainly open and accommodating, but the substance of her talk was unmistakably Christian in character. She spoke fondly of Jesus, and this post by Christa Black goes into greater detail about that.

That's some stage.

That's some stage.

Anyway, I was blown away by her story and the powerful way she communicates and holds a room. 13,000 people strong, and I know the back row was completely dialed in to everything she said. But Jenny, wow, she was enthralled–like I’ve never seen her.

The next morning, Jenny meditated with Deepak. She’s never meditated with me. It's funny, I'm somewhat of an expert of meditation, but I can't get Jenny into it. She’s humored me a couple of times, but it’s never worked for her. But in a crowded, noisy stadium she was able to do it.

Then she listened as Liz Gilbert talked about finding herself on a hero’s journey with tear in her eyes. As she did the exercises in the program, she and Betsy kept whispering to each other.

I was analyzing and learning, but Jenny was changing and growing.

When Rob came out, it seemed like Jenny connected with his work for the first time. I was puzzled by this, until I realized the obvious—this was a safe environment for women. There were not enough men to bluster and dominate. We were in a hive of womanhood. There was perhaps one man for every 30 or 40 women in the room.

I was just a guest at their party. Here, in an arena full of other women, my eyes were opened to the depth of male privilege for the first time.

I’m pretty progressive about gender. Actually, that’s just false modesty: I’m a male feminist. But, I’d never really understood male privilege really looks like until that moment. When men are present in suitable numbers, women have to either fit the mold of social expectation, or rebel against it to break the mold. Neither of those are an authentic representation of self.

Jenny was crying at the end. Jenny is not the soft, sentimental crier I am. It takes a lot to move her needle so to speak.

We drove down, so we had to drive back. It’s 7 hours. Betsy had a conference in Lakeland the following week, so we drove there first to drop her off. Something was stirring in Besty and Jenny, something powerful. Spiritual awakening. The voice of God was speaking.

God came to me through Rob Bell and the waves of the Pacific, and  God came to Jenny through Oprah and the Trailblazers and a 7 hour car ride.

Jenny has good days and bad days with God. She's not prone to the same obsessive introspection and fact-finding that drives me. But here, after Oprah, Jenny seemed comfortable with God again. She prayed in the car—and she started to get a vision of the work she wants to do with God.

Not how she wants to support my work. She was already there. I’m talking about her work.

After 14 years of marriage, and I mean 14 absolutely SPECTACULAR years, we clicked in a new, more powerful way. I saw new things in her, and she saw new things in me, and God came and just laughed as drove home together.

All that because my wife had the space to listen for God in the company of other women. I'm more convinced than ever that men have a vital role to play in a society–and a faith–that supports women as full equals to men.

Reader Mail: A Question About Peace

I get a lot of mail from readers of my Doubt Series with further questions and insights. I answer as much of that mail as I can, and I thought it would be helpful to start posting some of the common questions on my blog. If you'd like to ask a question or share your story, use the form on this page.

Dear Mike,

I’d like to start by thanking you for your blog and the Liturgist Podcast. Both the blog and podcast have helped a lot in my faith walk.

I grew up in a Christian household and have always thought that Christianity is a good thing. Both of my parents are pastoral counselors and I get to see first hand the peace and healing that Christ can bring into people’s lives.

For the past two years though, I have struggled with a lot of doubt. For most of these two years, even though I attended church twice a week, I had not been putting any effort into seeking out God out of fear that I might not find anything. Every now and again I would feel as if God was real and I would feel like I was in his presence. Even with these rare occurrences of faith, doubt would ultimately take over.

When I found your blog and The Liturgists Podcast, I felt compelled to explore Christianity more. I have read your entire doubt series and am currently working my way through Rob Bell’s series on the bible. A lot of the questions that I initially had about Christianity, that created a lot of my faith deconstruction, have been answered and I’m continuing to learn more and more about how applicable Christ is in my life.

All of this sounds inspirational but there’s a problem. Now that I am struggling towards God, I am not at peace. One day I will wake up and think ‘Wow, the Universe is so beautiful! How could you not believe in a loving, personal God?’ The next day I will think ‘Wow, the Universe is so beautifully explained by science. We don’t need a silly creator.’ This constant switching back and forth wears down on me.

One of the aspects that is most appealing to me about Christianity is the peace that it promises. I feel like I’m missing out on this great gift. Do you have any advice on how I could find peace in my faith even if my faith involves healthily wrestling with God?

I've got two Weimaraners. They're wonderful dogs: fast, strong, wicked-smart, and picturesque. Max and Ruby are laid back and easy-going, but that hasn't always been the case. They were lunatics when they were puppies.

Weims are high-energy dogs. They have a nearly limitless energy supply, and a powerful desire to hunt. When they were younger, the frustration of suburban life lead them to dig trenches in my yard and chew up anything they could get their mouths on--including a gas grill, all our shrubs, and our home's foundation.

The sad thing is all this frenetic, obsessive activity did nothing to satisfy them. They'd get into a frenzy and their eyes would go wild. I walked them, but my human legs couldn't go far enough, fast enough to help.

I loved days when I could take them out to our family farm and let them run. A Weimaraner finds itself when it can run across a couple hundred acres. My dogs would change after a few hours of running and chasing wild game. They'd be calm, centered, and considerate.

That peace only came to them after they'd had an opportunity to channel their natural energies in a healthy way. So, let's talk about a couple of human energies.

First, Human brains have a remarkable need for certainty. Studies have shown people crave certainty, and they experience something neurologically similar to pain when they are in a state of chronic uncertainty.

Second, humans have a need for meaning. Humans that don't have a sense of meaning are much higher suicide risks, and research shows that humans will sacrifice their lives if they believe their death has meaning.

Christianity does a remarkable job addressing these needs, even across all its diverse sects and denominations. Christians trust that God has the answers (which offers certainty) and that God has a plan for the world (which offers meaning). I spent most of my life in this warm blanket of certainty and meaning, and the result was inner peace.

When times were tough, I trusted that God was in control and that God had a plan. I remained at peace.

And then I lost God, and all my certainty vanished, along with that feeling of peace. Without God's plan, my life had no meaning, and I struggled with existential nihilism and depression. This compelled me to furiously research what science had to say about our world. I dove into philosophy, epistemology, quantum physics, and cosmology. I was determined to find out the answers to life's greatest questions: How did we get here? Why did it happen?

Like my dogs, all that energy compelled me to dig deep, unsure of what I was looking for.

It would be easy for me to say is that discovering God again offered me peace. That's what the crowd loves to hear, but it's not what happened.

I found peace as an atheist. I learned to accept that there were things I would never know, and that this life was the only one I would ever have. I learned that I had to make my own meaning in life. After a few months of angst, I discovered a powerful sense peace in humanism and atheism.

I believe that is what ultimately prepared me to know God again.

When God came back to me in the waves of the Pacific, I couldn't reconcile it with my model of reality, but my understanding of science helped me know my model was just that: a model. My experience with humanism taught me to be certain about my own uncertainty. There's always going to be new data and new experiences that will challenge my older ways of knowing the world.

I hold my understanding of the world in an open hand instead of a closed fist.

I believe God is real. I could be wrong about that. That's ok. I'm not trying to find the final answers to the big questions. I'm trying to live a good life--the only one I know for certain that I get.

You need certainty to have peace, so place your certainty in your uncertainty. Stop treating life as a puzzle, and accept it as a gift instead. We're wrong about things all the time, we just don't know which things. If you want to trust in God, then trust in God. I accept that I could be wrong, and that stops the constant loop of doubt and anxiety.

But, what about meaning?

I find my meaning in Matthew 25. Jesus tells a story about sheep, goats, and salvation. It's a famous story, and it shows how the Gospel changes the world when Christians work for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, shivering, sick and imprisoned.

We have a need for meaning, and I find that meaning when I serve others. A lot of people think I'm nuts for reading all the email I get on my blog, but that's one of the places I find meaning and connect with God. I find it when I accept those who've been rejected, or sit with those who have no place in our society. When I walk with someone in their suffering, and offer the little insights I've found in my own, peace comes to me.

I found certainty by letting go, and meaning by getting my hands dirty. With those things, came a profound and lasting peace.

May you know the peace of letting go and getting your hands dirty.

photo credit: Debarshi Ray via photopin cc


Christopher Nolan just released a movie called Interstellar. It's science fiction film steeped in the big questions of life and some pressing ideas in the sciences. After a few hundred of you sent me questions about the science behind the film, I headed to the theater so I could answer your questions.

My friend Rob Carmack did a five question interview with me about Interstellar. If you've only got a few minutes, that's the way to do. We also did a special edition of The Liturgists Podcast to discuss the science and faith themes found in the film. The podcasts runs just over an hour, so we cover your questions in detail.

Be warned, both are full of spoilers and plot details.