Dear Coasting Christians

I realize there are many reasons you stay on the periphery of your faith community. You are burned out but don’t want to stop going completely. You try to be hopeful that maybe someday church will be relevant again. You keep your toe in the water where you are, while you periodically dip your toe into other pools nearby just in case the next one is a bit more to your liking. You stay because of your friends. You stay because you are members. You stay because that place has been part of your identity for so long that you decide it is better to be on its periphery than not there at all.

I understand these reasons because I have been where you are. I reached the point in my community of faith where it no longer stirred me or challenged me or inspired me, but I stayed anyway.

Eventually I did realize the need to move on. Staying, but only on the periphery, was giving me a false sense of engagement. While I might show up, I risked nothing. I offered little. I expected even less. I wasn’t really part of a faith community. I was merely pretending to be. And so I left and went to seminary because I knew what had led me to my church’s periphery is what I needed to better understand. My interest in God and faith hadn’t diminished. But the church where I attended, and many that were just like it, were increasingly unable to adequately and appropriately facilitate an exploration worthy of the 21st century.

The reason I write to you today is to let you know how much you are needed. There are many of us attempting to bring the church beyond it’s defined walls. It is in this space that so many wander. Paradox, honesty, complexity and wholeness dwell here in this space. But the space is not an easy one to navigate. It requires commitment and courage, companionship and endurance. We need you not because you have the answers but because you believe in the work to be done. You know that while faith can be difficult, it is also rewarding. We need you to be willing to be challenged and encouraged so that others who are just beginning to learn the value of community can be accompanied on this journey of faith. We need those of you who already believe in a God of grace to be bearers of that grace. We need you so that the church doesn’t merely survive but thrives. We need you. I need you.

And I think you need us too. I think your soul is tired of the periphery and hungers to reengage in a way that matters, that makes this world better, and you better too in the process.

Find a church – a community that will both love you and challenge you. Pick a place where you will give generously and maybe even sacrificially. We are meant to be in community with one another, and we need a community that will intentionally connect us with God too. It isn’t the savvy services, polished leaders or right programming that feed our souls. It is being known and loved, and doing the knowing and the loving of others. And once you find it, go for it.

With love,


Another Tough Goodbye

Jen.Kids.KittyThis is Pumpkin, along with 6 year old Isaac and newborn Liv. I am the giant in the middle. We often called Pumpkin “Kitty” because when you said KittyKittyKittyKittyKitty in a relatively high voice, she would nearly always come. Jeremy surprised Isaac and me with Kitty back in 1998 while living in Merrillville, IN. Isaac was almost 4 and Kitty was 7 months. Upon meeting her for the first time, Isaac responded, “I wike that wittle kitty cat.” Thankfully we have the moment on video.

At the time we lived in an apartment with a long hallway, the family room and kitchen on one end and the master bedroom on the other. Twice a day, for about half an hour each time, she would play by running back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Often she would run to one end with me at the other and not return. Sometimes this meant playtime had ended. But every so often, just when I assumed she had settled down, Kitty would burst back into the room and then just as quickly run away. The routine burned kitty energy and greatly entertained me.

We were in Indiana less than a year when we moved to the Chicago area. Liv was born about a year or so after our move. Kitty accepted her immediately, I assume since she was still able to keep her place on our bed. As you can see in the above photo, she liked to curl up on my side of the bed between me and the bed’s edge. (Thankfully I didn’t have twins. Otherwise resentment might have occurred.) Kitty not only accepted Liv but seemed to carry a sense of responsibility for her. We would often find her curled up in Liv’s crib on the opposite end of where Liv slept. I don’t think Kitty wanted to be in reach but seemed to want to keep an eye on her. She would leave as soon as one of us would arrive, as if to say “Your turn.” Kitty also tolerated behavior from Liv that she has never tolerated from anyone else. Normally if someone got too close, particularly young children, Kitty would run and hide. But on multiple occasions, Kitty let Liv carry her around, upside down no less. As Toddler Liv walked by with Kitty in her arms, Kitty would look at me but never struggle to get free.

For 17 years Kitty has slept by my side. 17 years. 17 fucking years. While the family certainly loved her, I think I gave her a sense of belonging. I interacted with her frequently throughout each day, and when it was time to go to bed she would be by my side. She would either be sleeping in her spot waiting for me or she would arrive shortly after I got in bed. If she didn’t show up within minutes, I would go looking for her, often finding her locked on the porch or garage. When away from home, I would struggle to sleep without her next to me. It was just part of settling in, a routine of having her there next to me.

Up until two months ago, people could not believe her age. She seemed significantly younger in appearance and activity. But her age finally caught up with her. In the final few weeks, I watched as she lost weight and energy. She became increasingly unable to get comfortable. She would hide for hours at a time. Eventually she gave up eating. Her back legs began to give out. I would find her laying by the water bowl, either without energy to leave or an unwillingness to have to make the inevitable trip back. And yet she continued to sleep by my side… until her last night with us. She no longer belonged. She couldn’t belong anymore. I needed to let her go. It was time.

I sat in the vet’s office saying my goodbye. As her sedative was kicking in, my memories flooded back. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to Kitty. I was saying goodbye to a lifetime. Isaac doesn’t remember life before Kitty and for Liv, there was no life before Kitty. I tried to be strong for Kitty so that she would drift off into deep sleep hearing my comforting voice. But I couldn’t do it. What she heard instead was my shaky, raspy voice. What she felt were my tears streaming off of my face and onto her fur. She didn’t get a pillar of strength to lean upon. Instead she got someone feeling a little lost herself. I couldn’t be strong, but I could be there. I was where I belonged, by her side. Just as she had been for me, so many times and in so many ways.

We have lost three pets in three months. While all three were older and we could say had lived full, long lives, there never is a good time to say goodbye. As I look now over at my very old black labrador sleeping on her pillow nearby, I am comforted by this. I might still whisper, “Don’t go, not yet.” But as with Kitty, I would never want her to linger and suffer for my sake. Goodbyes are hard. Watching suffering is harder. Godspeed, Pumpkin Kitty. My life is richer because of you.


Questions, Questions, Questions

I love questions. I love thinking them up. I love talking them through. I love hearing them. I love asking them. Even the silly questions small children ask can be fun. Not that I don’t periodically feign having something to do so that I can walk away. But I try to do so without letting on that I am bored because I would never want to quash a questioner.

To me, it is the figurative experience of poking and prodding to see how stable or sturdy something is. It reveals strength or lack of it. Some might think I am specifically looking for a weak position or that I relish tearing something down through the course of my questioning. But that is not true. I love to learn. And it helps that I have a sort of detached relationship with knowledge. When something does not hold up, I would rather know so that I can reconstruct. Rarely do I abandon the entire structure that makes up what I think or believe. Rather questioning is the way to discover what needs to be reconsidered. And ultimately the work makes those thoughts and beliefs better. It’s like finding a leak in the roof and fixing it before a big storm comes.

Questions about religion, faith, God… those can be big, complicated, difficult questions. My religious landscape is like a great outdoor expanse. I construct very little, spending most of my time exploring the possibilities. People looking for certainty aren’t going to find my answers particularly comforting. And so I try to discern when it is best to listen and say little, and when it is best to answer honestly. It helps to recognize when a question is genuinely being asked and different perspectives are welcomed, versus a question that seeks affirmation. It’s the proverbial “Does this make me look fat?” question. You know what you have to say. Nothing good comes from the answer, “maybe just a little” when the person only wants to hear, “No! You look great!”

What I find essential with any serious question is conversation. Conversation allows for differing opinions. Conversation recognizes the limitations each of us brings. Conversation proves to be more about learning from each other than convincing the other. And yet we don’t do conversation well. Just look at what happens with most “conversations” about religion or politics. It resorts, often very quickly, to discrediting the other voice. A narrow perspective makes one live a very small life in a very small world. That is why we need more meaningful conversation and with people who think and see things differently.

This kind of conversation is difficult. We become vulnerable as we expose our thoughts and ideas to others, and can feel threatened by thoughts and ideas that challenge our own. And yet I believe many of us crave conversations that bring us together in spite of our differences. For those of us who want to be part of reconciliation, we know we have to do this better. These are my rules for meaningful conversation:

  1. Listen. Sounds easy, but rarely is done well. Often the “listener” starts working on a response before the talker has finished making his/her point.
  2. Be honest. Defensiveness and anger are typically masked hurts. Be real with yourself and others about what you are feeling rather. This takes time and patience with self and others.
  3. Be respectful regardless of how much you disagree.
  4. Always looks for what you can learn, rather than what you can teach.
  5. Recognize that no matter how smart you are, you don’t know it all.
  6. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Sometimes you don’t know until you’ve begun that a reasonable conversation isn’t going to happen.
  7. Don’t be an asshole.

While social media is a terrible place for meaningful conversation, it can be a good place to start it. Send me your questions. Message me or post it in the comments section. Let’s explore some of our big questions together.  And when a question deeply stirs you, I hope you will find someone to talk with in person, or better yet find a few people. That is where the magic really happens. It also takes more work. I am convinced that to have a few people in your life to whom you can say anything makes all the difference in feeling loved, supported, and connected. And that’s something we all need. No question about  it.


The Perfect Dog: part 3

If you’ve read my previous posts about “The Perfect Dog” you’ll know that my desire for the perfect canine companion goes way back. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a dog could offer in friendship that I have always longed for and/or enjoyed. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that there is no such thing as a perfect dog in the literal sense. Each dog has its annoyances, its imperfections. But what is it, sometimes in spite of that dog, that does so much for one’s soul?

Here are a few aspects of what I love and value so much about my perfect dog, Lucy:

  1. She’s uncomplicated. I don’t need to understand her past. I don’t need to anticipate her future. She needs to be fed, played with, walked, and given affection. When she receives those things, she’s content.
  2. She’s a great listener. She never interrupts or tells me to hurry up.
  3. She’s always up for whatever I suggest, whether it’s a nap in the early afternoon, a ride in the car, or playtime at 10pm. When I ask, she always says yes.
  4. She makes me feel special. When I return home I’m always greeted with tail-wagging. It doesn’t matter if I was gone for a few minutes or several days. She’s excited when I return and she lets me know.

In this list, I see not only what I long for, but what I often fail to give to others. I’m complicated, sometimes excruciatingly so. I am not always a great listener. I rarely hear a suggestion without offering at least a slight amendment. I never wag my tail. My perfect dog has been perfect because she’s made me feel loved, needed, and special. She’s been a faithful companion in the good times and the not-so-good times. When I skimp on a walk because it’s too cold, she doesn’t hold a grudge. When I cut playtime short because I’d rather put my feet up, she doesn’t punish me. She enjoys what she’s given. She gives back without condition.

Lucy is well over 13 now. We have had so many wonderful adventures over the years. She has gone with us to the beach and the woods and the wide open fields, romping and chasing and playing all the way. She has never refused an invitation to climb under the bedcovers for a nap or full night’s sleep. She has protected us from countless squirrels and cats that have dared to step into her yard. She has run more miles than most, an eager companion to Jeremy and me over the years, although admittedly far more of those miles were Jeremy’s. She has rescued us from ocean waves she thought were dangerous and UPS workers she thought were sinister. She has given our family countless memories.

While my children have nearly grown up, Lucy has grown old. She has a heart murmur that causes her to cough deeply. She periodically has a leg collapse which often results with a faceplant to the ground. Why can’t dog years be the same as people years?  For the time we used to spend playing, I find myself petting her and thanking her for loving my family so well. She’s now got several lumps, “fat pads” the vet said, apparently common in aging labradors. The lumps used to gross me out, but now that it’s almost unavoidable to touch one, I pet those too.  She looks at me with longing eyes, almost confused by what she’s done to warrant the affection.

Because animals are easily cared for and unconditional in their love, one has a choice whether or not to do the bare minimum. I could have met Lucy’s basic needs and left it at that. But I wanted to do more for her. And I guess that’s one of my biggest lessons from this perfect dog. Just because one can get away with the bare minimum, doesn’t mean one should. I have also learned how important silence can be to another human being. I see the value in trying to put into words or actions what I feel, rather than assume my feelings are understood. It’s not that my humans lacked these traits, but a dog offers them without expectation of something in return. I don’t know any human, myself included, who doesn’t get in the way of a relationship from time to time. Dogs are different.

As I watch Lucy age, as I awaken more frequently to her coughing, as I see her struggle to sit her long legs down or get them back up, I find myself saying “not yet, don’t go.”  Letting go of what has become part of you is so hard. Because she has been part of our family for so long and is integral to who we are, it is nearly impossible to imagine “us” without “her”. And yet, life has been showing me for awhile what that will look like. We are reluctant to bring her along on our adventures, knowing she doesn’t have the stamina she used to. We are making memories without her. We are saying goodbye in little ways. But we are also a different family because of her, and so even when she’s not physically present, she’s still with us. I will give Lucy all that I can give, including letting her go when it’s time to say goodbye. It would be easy to ask more of her than I should by extending her life longer than she might want. But I won’t. I love that dog, knowing she deserves to live and die with dignity. I will be with her to the end. And until that last day comes, we will love her and play with her and pet her and tell her over and over how wonderful she is, giving her all the joy we can give just as she has done for us. Thank you, Perfect Dog, for being my perfect dog. Your human is so grateful to you and for you. Wag, wag.


The Perfect Dog: part 2

184001_10150094379129299_4124971_nAbout a year after we got our beloved Lucy, we traveled from Pennsylvania to Michigan. Jeremy had work where his extended family lived, so we packed up the car, Lucy included, and traveled 650 miles for our week away from home. Although his parents were in Arizona for the winter, we stayed at their house which was on a lake. While Jeremy worked, the kids and I enjoyed the beautiful setting. We walked and explored and relaxed. Ice was still on the surface of much of the lake, but we knew that it was thinning.  I repeatedly warned my eight year old son, Isaac, that he could not walk on the frozen lake because it might not be able to hold his weight.

A few days into our vacation, with Jeremy not vacationing but rather away and working, the kids and I ventured outside with Lucy. Isaac was looking for anything to pick up, throw, or pull apart.  Liv, who was not quite two, was by my side and barely able to walk with all the clothing I had on her to keep her warm.  While in the midst of our exploration, I heard a sound that didn’t register. I looked around and on the lake about 20 feet from shore was Lucy. The sound that I had heard was her paws navigating the ice as she slipped and jumped and played. As I opened my mouth to angrily call her back to shore, the ice broke and she went completely under water.  Her head came up and she placed her front paws on the ice’s edge.  She attempted to pull herself up, but couldn’t get her front legs high enough to pull her back legs out and onto the ice. The kids were silent. My mind raced.

Lucy attempted a second time, a third time, and a fourth time but failed.  With each attempt I could see ice breaking and her getting weaker. By this point I was using my most upbeat, I’m-not-freaking-out voice to call her. “Come on, girl! You can do it! Come on, Lucy! You got this! Come on now!” While yelling, I was also thinking, “My dog can NOT die with the kids here to watch.” Seriously. I clearly remember thinking that her drowning in that lake on that day was something I could not allow. I think this refusal to stand by and watch was my mind’s way of pushing me forward into action. I made a decision in that moment that I would do everything I could to get that dog out of the water alive. I was cognizant enough to know that I couldn’t put my life in danger, but there had to be more I could do.

And so I formulated my back up plan while I continued to call for her. I figured the water was maybe 5 to 6 feet deep where she was. I would send Isaac with Liv to the neighbor’s house to get help. Meanwhile I would run to the garage and grab some rope, tie one end to the fishing boat on the shore nearby with the other end tied around my waist. This would enable me to walk to her with some connection to shore. I had unsettling images in my head of her slipping under and beyond the ice’s opening and my trying to get her. I kept planning and calling for her and planning and calling for her while keeping an eye on my kids. Isaac was now calling her too while Liv silently watched by his side.

Lucy continued to try to get herself out of the water, but she was pausing longer in between tries. She wasn’t pulling herself up as high. I thought, “This is it. Either she gets it this time or she’s giving up.” I called her with every ounce of my being knowing that my next move would be a sprint to the garage while yelling instructions to Isaac to take Liv next door. And finally, miraculously, Lucy did it. She got her front paws far enough onto the ice that she was able to just barely get one back paw up as well. She scooted herself forward and eventually got the other back leg up. She crawled to the shore’s edge and collapsed once she reached us. We wrapped her in towels and I carried her to warmth. The kids were thrilled. I sat down and wept. All the emotion, the intensity, the fear, the near loss, the what if’s overwhelmed me and I shook uncontrollably as I cried.  My kids stared, unsure of why I was crying since Lucy was now safe.  I could see their alarm as I kept crying, but I couldn’t stop. I cried until I had nothing left.

When Jeremy returned later that day, we told him what happened. He scolded me for even considering going onto the lake to get her. But as I think back, I am quite sure that while I would not have done something stupid, I would have tried whatever was reasonably possible to get her safely back to shore. In this near tragedy, I learned that I am able to stay calm and be proactive in a crisis, and a complete wreck afterwards. I learned that miracles do happen. I learned that love can be painful, because even the thought of loss hurts like hell. I learned that my kids come first, but my pets are a close second. I learned that dogs need to be told to stay off the ice just as much as eight year olds do. And I learned that a good, hard, shoulder-shaking cry is cathartic. I was crazy mad at Lucy that day, but even still I’d have to say she’s the perfect dog.

The Perfect Dog: part 1

While growing up, I wanted a dog that would play and run and follow me around. I wanted a dog like I had seen in so many movies that would nuzzle next to me when I was sad, and rescue me if I ever fell down a well. What I had instead was a lump-on-a-log dog, a lhasa apso named Fluffy. She slept, sniffed,  and constantly wandered out of the yard. She didn’t really play or cuddle, and she hardly lifted her head when I entered the room. Even when I was sick and pleaded with the most pathetic eyes I could muster for a companion to help me through my long day, Fluffy was ambivalent. She was a huge disappointment. Unfortunately Fluffy lived a long and happy life, and so my childhood dream of having the perfect dog was never realized.

Jeremy and I weren’t married long before we fostered a golden retriever named Sierra. We weren’t in a position to have a dog, particularly a big dog, but my heart couldn’t resist and neither could Jeremy’s. This was my opportunity to finally Sierrahave a real dog. Fostering turned into adoption and we loved that dog dearly. She was calm, trusting, loyal, playful, and attentive. All it took was a lingering look and she would get up from where she was and plop down right next to me. That dog stole my heart.

We didn’t have her quite a year before we had to find her a new home. We were moving cross-country and into an apartment. I knew we could not give her what she really needed – outdoor space and lots of it. Letting her go was tough because I wanted to see her grow old. I wanted her to be there when we someday had children. She was a perfect dog, but she wasn’t meant to be my perfect dog. And so my in-laws helped us find her a new home. She went to live with a couple who owned a farm. Sierra would spend many years to come roaming acres of land all day, being companion to the farmer and playmate to his grandchildren who lived nearby. We would hear regular updates on our beloved Sierra, and how the grandkids would take her home with them because they couldn’t bear to part with her at the end of the day. Sierra lived a long, full, and wonderful life.

After we settled into our new home, we went to the local animal shelter to pick our next companion. Sierra had affirmed for me what I knew I wanted, and it was time to get our perfect dog, for keeps this time. We would look for a smaller dog. Thanks to Fluffy, I knew to avoid the toy breeds but I was sure we could find a small dog with a big personality. We walked into a large room which housed many cats. There was a desk in the room with the shelter’s volunteer sitting there. We told her we were looking for a dog. In the corner, caged, were two adorable dachshund brothers.  “Last of a litter” we were told, and about 10 months old. I hunched over the crate and opened the door.  One brother came out immediately and confidently greeted me.  The other stayed back, timid and shy.  I looked up at Jeremy : “We can’t just take one, especially the outgoing one.  It would devastate this other guy.”

G&SSo off we went with our two new dogs, newly named Gilbert and Sullivan, forgetting to ask why they were caged in the cat room rather than being outside with all the other dogs.  We would rue that oversight. We quickly learned that our dogs hated all other dogs. In fact there was a long list of things they hated. They hated doorbells and door knocking. They hated visitors. They hated sharing, even with each other. But what they lacked in love, they made up for in personality. Sullivan was sneaky and naughty. He would pull out all the trash but be far away from the scene of the crime when we got home, leaving his brother in the rubbish while sitting innocently on the couch with his head slightly tilted to one side as if to say, “I don’t understand why Gilbert would do that.” Gilbert was loyal but dumb. Sullivan would lure Gilbert off my lap by romping around, an invitation to play, only to jump onto my lap as soon as Gilbert jumped down. And Gilbert would fall for it every time. We were never bored with those two. We had them for over 10 years. I loved them, but I promised myself we would never own another dachshund. They were not the perfect dog, by any stretch of the imagination.

When it was time to get another dog, we had finally learned an important lesson: I cannot make a logical decision regarding animals.  The greater the need, the more I feel compelled to respond.  If I went to the shelter, I would probably come home with the three legged, blind dog.  We now had two children, ages 7 and 1.  I wanted that childhood dream dog for my kids and for me. Jeremy wanted a dog who would run with him. But I knew I didn’t have the strength to pick that dog, because everyone wants that dog. So Jeremy went to the local shelter, alone. After a half dozen visits or so, he found our Lucy, a black lab mix. She was four months old and big-screen-adorable.  She romped and played and cuddled with all of us. She tackled our 7 year old and his friends, and was attentive and gentle with our 1 year old.  Lucy was everything I ever wanted in a dog.  And she would stay ours. What I longeFamilyd for in my childhood, I was able to give to my kids for theirs: an affectionate, playful, loyal, loving, will-drag-you-out-of-a-burning-building-if-needed dog. It was a gift they might never fully appreciate, but one that has made all of our lives better. We all need a Lucy, in some shape or form.