Category Archives: spiritual growth

Sin: more a list violation or a relationship break?

I was involved with a discussion about what sin is. Someone spoke of a “list” form of identifying sin and a “relational” understanding. This was my input into the dialogue:

I want to know the list of things that are sin, for my own sake and for the sake of helping others keep out of it. I want to know actions to avoid. It comes naturally for me. Because of that, I’m drawn to people who can definitively give me the list, saying God helped them figure it out.

I want to know the list of good things to do as well.
That’s why my heart beats faster and my mind pays attention when someone asks: “What do I have to do to obtain eternal life?” When I hear that, I expect to be able to add to my do and don’t lists.

But the way my Saviour handled this very question is giving me reason to re-evaluate the approach that comes naturally. When Jesus was asked the question, he painted a word picture in response in which the list-oriented people used the rule book to avoid showing compassion, and the list-less person ended up being the good example. Hmmmm. What might he be showing me, a list-wanting person?
I’m still working it out.
But the more I struggle and reflect, the more a relational approach to sin makes sense. It humbles me in its grace and it’s simplicity. Something in me wants it to be harder than it appears.
It looks more and more like evandadam* broke relationship by trying to be equal to God, then hiding.
I can relate. I want to be God in my life and in the lives of others. I don’t want to submit or take responsibility for what I have done that broke relationship.

Sin is now less about violating a list item and more about internal attitude for me.
So, profoundly, the message God left is more a message of how hard God has worked to relate to me and to others and the price God has paid to make relationship possible again. God has made a way for list item violations that I do so readily to be dismissed, to no longer be a barrier between God and me, if I just accept that God loves me that much, stop being God myself, and admit them. I come out of hiding, accept God’s outstretched mighty hand, and walk the Way.

A story I’ve been told from my toddlerhood came back to me recently. I came in from playing outside, and my mother figured it was time to try teach me to wash my own face. So she held me up in front of the bathroom mirror and pointed out the boy in the mirror, and after some coaching got me to see that he had dirt on his face. She asked me what we could do to fix it, handing me a warm wet “Doekie” while she asked.
What did I do?
I started washing the face of the boy in the mirror of course!

The story is such a wonderful illustration of what I still tend to do naturally. I try to clean the logs out of other people’s eyes and am in danger of obsessing about them and their logs and dirt, all the while avoiding cleaning my own eyes and heart, or having them cleaned. People are drawn to me as a good leader and teacher and one who “tells it like it is” if I do that, but meanwhile crud builds in me. It’s frightening.

Pete, searching out the godly way.

* just a creative way of saying Eve and Adam, partly because it can be turned into E. Vandadam which sounds like a Dutch origin name


Would you buy a car from Pyramid Auto sales? I did!

It was back in 1994/5. It was an interesting life-lesson.

Here’s part one of the story:


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The pain of a friend’s death

I got a call this morning that one of my male friends – the rare kind that you can call anytime about anything – died suddenly of heart failure. I am writing him a farewell letter that I will share with the family, since I won’t be able to make it to the funeral.

Here is an early draft:

Well Henry, what you used to say turned out to be true. I’m hurting. You’re the one who told me you wanted people to hurt, in words something like this: “if it doesn’t hurt to say goodbye, you haven’t connected, so I want it to hurt to say goodbye.” Knowing you are physically gone hurts. So you did it! As I think this, I can hear you, your softly rumbling voice in the memory of my head saying a resolute but unsmug “Well. Good!”

And as I hear that the hurting turns mysteriously comfortable. Oh pain is still there, but the warmth of that flagrantly open and honest admission I know you would make spills down my face and I feel lighter… yet more grounded, and I find myself celebrating the connection we had, and it becomes hard to tell what kind of tears these actually are. They are glad-sad tears, and then they are sad-glad. There is joy in them, gladness about the connection that can’t be erased by your death, value in the experiences we shared, appreciation of the enduring wisdom of the insights we were led to together in our many seemingly rambling yet Life-finding conversations.

Our first meeting comes to mind. My second sermon as a student pastor. After, you came barreling up to me at some point and said words like “I’ll bet your professors love that sermon, but it didn’t do Dick-all for me!” Just what a rookie preacher LOVES to hear. But I needed to hear it. Truly. For I was in danger of heading off into preaching a heady gospel I was learning about at Seminary.

We became friends out of that somehow, and you introduced me to the gospel of the Sow-minary. A Gospel that fits the pig-pen of life. Today, partly due to how God used you to direct the shaping of me, I am no longer a pastor, but am working in the pig-pen of Addiction treatment, because church work was in part too neat, too tidy, too boxed in, and the whitewash baked on too well, the manure pit too unreachable to be able to raise a healthy stink that meant the land was being made fertile again.

So now I’m helping wean addicts off the swill they’ve been using and become addicted to because they believed that they should NOT feel, so they did not learn to acknowledge they have a soul, a spirit, and did not learn to nurture it, and came to find themselves in a hell where nothing would numb the inevitable inner pain that results. And they appreciate learning, slowly, how to feel and acknowledge and express pain and other feelings. They come to Life as they learn to get rid of their manure. So thanks for that Henry.

There is much more. I’m sure over the days more will come to mind. You and your outlook not only resonated with me, but they are woven into the fabric of who I am now, and the threads you put in are hard to identify.

Some memories that are flooding back can’t be shared in such a public way, such as some of the experiences we had making Elder visits. For a couple of these I still haven’t figured out what exactly happened, they are not explained in any expert’s book (you’re the one who gave me a new understanding of Expert: “Ex” means before, or used to, and “pert” standing for pertinent, so an expert is someone who used to be pertinent. The real pro’s are the ones who are still doing it). But the book I find the most similar stories in is the Bible. And the moving force in those events was definitely Spiritual and beyond or above what you and I were capable of. You encouraged me to explore these things. Yet I don’t think you ever did that intentionally. You went with whatever came, and I tagged along. Hmmm. Sounds like discipleship to me…

I still use some of the Semordnilapses and other word games you introduced me to now and then. Yeah, you didn’t know that’s what they were, but I just looked it up, and its the word palindromes read backwards. like LIVE and EVIL, and especially LIVED and DEVIL as an illustration that if we live in the past looking only backwards then the devil is likely having a heyday.

By now, you might be getting a big swell headed, so I need to remind you that you could be pig-headed too, and get so locked into something that the world outside of you would disappear. I remember the time you called me and begged me to come home with you because you knew you had really blown it with Jean out in the offsite barn preparing pigs for shipping, and you had been so trapped in your own stinking thinking that you totally trampled on normal conversation and created a chaos that met Jean’s inner wounds with salt… and well, you and Jean know the rest of the story, it’s not mine to tell. But boy did I learn about me trying to help you!

Around you is where I learned to make use of an ability to see patterns, to see when there is likely something behind what appears to be going on, like the Wizard behind the curtain. I just used that ability effectively just yesterday, where a group was amazed when all I did was show clear patterns in someone’s story.

A woman was talking about sneaking cookies before going to sleep at night and how that was wreaking havock with her Diabetes. She had already talked about other things she did to numb pain, and how she doesn’t remember having feelings since being 5 years old. She talked about how she has nerve damage in her feet from her diabetes and how that damage is traveling up her legs. Then she talked about how she has lived most of her life feeling as if she was only “living only in the top half” of existence. So I named the patterns I heard her speak of: I hear you say your life is about numbing your pain, and you are eating extra cookies at night to do that, just like you used alcohol at night before, and you feel like you are missing half of life and your abusive sugar intake is causing you to go numb from your feet upward. That alarms me!” The stunned reaction of all present when I said that surprised me. I keep forgetting that not everyone listens and looks for patterns and what might be said via them.

I remember exploring with you if there might be another way to avoid overeating other than willpower, because we both saw that deciding NOT to eat the cookie made us WANT the cookie more. And I began to learn to look at the cookie and not even want or need it, and it would stop “calling me.”

From that my mind wanders over to another shared learning, namely that “Humility pursued is already lost” or any virtue pursued can’t be gained by reaching for it. If you decide to be humble today, you are not likely to succeed, because you will be measuring all you do on a humility scale, and the moment you think you are doing well, any humility you had is gone. It’s so simple. Yet it’s profound.

What’s even more bizarre is that once you see that and let go of any need to be humble, people start calling you humble.

Henry, you were a humble, wise man. It hurts to know you’re gone. And that is good.


The Dirty Cup lesson

Here’s a message I’ve been tinkering on for a month. It’s about a connection between one of my favourite sermons out of my repertoire and how a connection was made between it and my new job in the middle of preaching it.

Dirty Cups, my job and a call to the church today


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The Voice of Jesus; Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit

I am reading through the book with that title slowly these days.

It’s one of those.

It needs slow digestion. Speed dis-serves it.

I found a lot of relevant wisdom in it’s pages so far, but a part of pages 144 and 145 particularly hit home. I have a link to a quoted section at the end of this post.

Gordon Smith, the author, has been using the language of desolation and consolation, taken as Ignatius Loyola first laid them out in Spiritual Exercises. Smith says “desolation is an emotional response to the multiple ways in which we experience a broken world. We usually experience desolation as a negative range of emotions… Sometimes our reactions are self-indulgent… However, our desolation may be a true and authentic response to injustice, disappointment, or loss… An authentic Christian response to the world means that we feel its pain. And sometimes that pain intersects with our lives.”

“In contrast, consolation is our emotional response to a set of circumstances that reflect the power and goodness of God…” (page 139)

Shortly after learning that I came to a part that has a lot of relevance for me where I am in life right now. It has helped me admit to myself that I am “in desolation.” You can read the relevant paragraphs here: The Spirit Guides in times of Choice – chapter 7





Back from a time away

I took a few days away to grapple with some things. As seems to be typical, I gained more peripheral clarity than central. I came to three statements that seem to be relevant:

Hold your head up.

Let it come to you. (or “it will come to you”)

You know what you have to do. (the hard thing)

They have meaning for me (does not mean I like them!), and each came in response to a specific seeking. The first was a general “What now?” The second about a more specific “What do I do next (employment-wise)?” The last came when contemplating what has been asked of me by my denomination. I’m not done sorting it all yet.

I wrote a few things recently, and will be slowly posting them. I’ve added a new page to the home page. I’ve called it “Ideas and Dreams.” To reduce clutter I’ve moved the JH Ranch stuff to be a sub-page of the LifeLessons page. Hopefully that did not wreck any links.

I took one book along on my retreat, one a friend had lent me because he felt it might fit my life circumstance. It does. But it is in a writing style that is tough slogging for me as a visual yet cerebral person. It shares some deep and valid and fascinating insight about individual and communal spiritual discernment, and about the role of head and heart in that discernment, but does it without stories, or word pictures, or illustrations, hence my brain tread does not get good traction unless I reread or really really focus. The book is called “The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer, and the Witness of the Spirit” by Gordon Smith. His distilling of commonalities between Ignatius, Wesley and Edwards was very interesting. I’m still only halfway but will finish it because — although hard reading for me — it is very relevant and has much to teach me. It’s sort of like being near Yoda as he is softly whispering the secrets of the force –you know it’s weighty, but you have to strain to catch it.

But while at my place of retreat I picked up a laying-around book called “Catch the Wind; The shape of the church to come-and our place in it” by Charles Ringma. That one really grabbed me and resonated, and I read the whole thing in two sittings. It is quite radical, yet rings true in terms of the questions I’m grappling with — and have for some time — regarding the shape of how we do church, and how to change forms. Here are a few distilled sips:


“Change is never only about truth. It is not simply about what is best. It is far more complex than that. It also has to do with politics. And church politics is about power, privilege, status and continuity.

We cannot afford to be naive about the way in which change takes place or is resisted in church. Change should be a matter of moving ourselves and others to live more authentically as God’s people in our world. Instead, it is often a power game, where tradition wins over relevance and where present structures block new possibilities.

“… … … human institutions frequently lose their way. Over time they develop a self-perpetuating life and culture of their own. They develop powerful traditions, hierarchies, experts, resources and legitimacies that are hard to resist and change. More seriously, institutions frequently fail to live out their own stated goals and purposes and fail to serve the very people they were meant to serve. And most disconcertingly, institutions can propagandize their clientèle, controlling their lives at the point of their vulnerability, and thus create dependence.” — 40



“… An institutional dependence … guarantees immaturity. If I am well socialized into the ethos of the church, this does not necessarily prepare me well for my participation in the world… And, as I believe spirituality is the co-joining of my inner and outer world, it is imperative that my spirituality is formed in both the church as well as in the the world outside the church.” 66 – 67

I hope that gives you an idea of it. I had to leave the book there and did not type many notes. His big themes as alternative directions for church were that individuals need to take more responsibility for their spiritual growth, and that such growth happens in daily living, but he also was very big on church being community more than a place ‘just’ for sacred ceremonies. I hope to get a copy of my own to read more reflectively. He has republished it recently with a more emergent focus, so I’ll get that version. The two books were actually a good blend.


To be three years sober and God-guided

I write this reflection as a tribute to a God who gave me privilege and the blessing of getting on the rollercoaser thrill ride with someone on a journey out of active addiction and into a new life led by a power outside himself. Monday night (the 19th) I got to attend the 12 step meeting where he was awarded his “three year cake” and a medalion and a necklace, and many words of admiration.

It will be too long for a post, so I made it a page, which you can read by following this link: Swallow your pride and reach out for help, and you end up proud of how God lets you reach out to help others.


Reformation Sunday

Here is a link to the last written draft version of the sermon I preached for Reformation Sunday 2007.


Rethinking church

I’m bumbling around trying to find inspiration for my Reformation Sermon, and after picking my passages and key word (Metamorphasis in Rom 12:1-2 and 2 Cor 3:16) I took a break to read email. One was from Leadership magazine, and contained a link to a blog item that talked about Willow Creek rethinking how they do church because of shocking results from a survey they did.

Take a look for yourself:

I’ll likely post more thoughts on this later.