The Shape and Smell of Grace

I have a new frame, a new construct, a new living memory for what grace is.

Which is extraordinary, because grace is such a cornerstone concept for people of faith. Grace is God’s orientation, relation. Grace is God’s approach to us and with us. Grace is the heart and the gift and the offering, so profound that in some Christian traditions it takes on a sort of subjecthood, a personhood, an existence. Some warp it into a perimeter, a limited space for a limited few. But grace, I believe, is relationship and community and wonder and safety and wide open space.

And grace is profoundly transformative.

Growing up, I was so often given a specific definition of grace that hearing the word in my mind immediately brings the response: unmerited favor.

God’s grace is favor. It is goodness, maybe even preferential goodness, to me. On the dangerous side is the way that slant of the word can slide toward my superiority, my worthiness over and above and against some other person. On the miraculous side, grace can somehow actually create worth in its recipient, can actually confer and beget and birth and call forth value in me. In you.


That “favor” does come with the modifier “unmerited”. I don’t merit it. I don’t deserve it. I don’t do anything to justify its existence in me. And here there are precipices on (at least) two sides. On one we plummet down a crevasse of self-incrimination and self-punishment, reminding ourselves always that we don’t deserve, we aren’t enough. This fights the very power of the word it is modifying. And on the other side is this strange abyss where we trick others and ourselves into a life of humble-brags, where we try to demonstrate by certain social-spiritual behaviors that clearly we must possess this grace, because see, look what I’m doing. And we thereby work hard to earn the unearned-ness.


When Jesus speaks grace into existence, it often carries a lot of seeking, striving, working. But the foundational pivot that we often slip to the wrong side is that Jesus always speaks of grace as God’s striving, not ours. Grace is the woman frantically sweeping her home to find the lost coin, the shepherd clawing through thorny vines to find that one wandering lamb, the elderly, broken-hearted parent endlessly scanning the road for any sign of the wandering child’s return. Grace is God seeking us out in order to shower love upon us. Grace is found-ness. And grace seems to call forth a community’s celebration when the coin is found or the child returns or the lamb is rescued. Which means grace is personal, and grace is communal. Grace is God’s nature and character, and so it’s one of the things we can expect to find the Spirit replicating in us, we God-bearers, we imitators of Christ.

I’ve lived a long season of Lent. A journey of release, of giving up, of grieving what has been lost. It’s important work, necessary work.

Last May, in the heart of the slog, our kids and our people surprised us with a scavenger hunt and a party and a gift so overwhelming, so over the top, that I just kept shaking my head and then burying it in my hands and my lap. “We can’t take this. We can’t take this.” Over and over those words went through my head, as I couldn’t wrap my mind around a gift of love that was such a magnitude of offering beyond anything deserved.

Truly, profoundly “unmerited favor.”

People I love sacrificed and gave so that Elaine and I could go to New Zealand. And for months after the party, I couldn’t get myself to think or plan or dream about the trip. I was blocked. Stuck. I could not walk into that perimeter. I finished serving as pastor and everything I had stuffed, everything that was lost, everything that had hurt…it became the entire space I inhabited. Loss of what had been shut out what could be. What was lacking in my life overwhelmed the good that was there.

I had to do that work. Oh let’s be real, I’m still doing that work of naming and releasing what I wish was still here day in and day out. But as Elaine and I ticked off the days and crept closer and closer to boarding the plane for our adventure, I talked candidly about wanting to shift. Wanting to move toward thankfulness, toward gratefulness for what is. To search and to find…favor. To find the grace I believed (with knuckles white with straining!) had to be there.

It was the morning of our second full day in New Zealand. Elaine was driving us through the heart of the South Island. We wound our way out of Christchurch, out of industrial zones, out of farmland and vineyards. We started climbing, curving our way into wilderness and light and snow-dusted peaks rising out of azure water. And I laughed. I cried. I thought of more than a hundred people at home who literally chose to take money they earned and hand it to us so that we could smell this, see this.

The next day we sweated our way on foot, past skittish sheep, up switchback trails to stand on Isthmus Peak. I spoke as many of the names of people that I could remember, spoke them out loud as the wind buffeted us at the top. Thank you Rachelle and Stephanie and Natalie and Hayley and Aubrey, thank you Michelle and Alan and Steve and Diane and Elizabeth and Steve, thank you Lisby and Jon and Di and Bruce and Carol and David… I spoke for far longer and with far more names than I’ve written (so yikes don’t be offended if I left you out here; I know how many and I have gone through the list since I’ve been home and I have named you ALL).

It was like breathing in grace. Wading in grace. Drinking and sleeping and eating in grace.

I mean, I lived a 36 year old dream when I landed a six pound native brown trout on a dry fly. My shoulder literally ached with the strength of that beast, and the throbbing pain was grace. How do you open your mind and heart enough to comprehend people taking the dream of a lonely 13 year old moping in a school library, and then giving that dream to the almost 50 year old man he became? How do you accept and integrate that special and unique and wondrous expression of love?

As overwhelmed as I was by the surprise in May, this was more. We inhabited the space of grace, and it has transformed me.

We’re back in our normal (scratch that, our new normal) world. I got sicker than sick for weeks after we returned. I’ve still had my moments of crying and grieving and questioning and frustration.


I breathe grace.

I choose to name out loud the gifts of this new normal life.

I choose to write or speak a prayer of thanks each day.

I celebrate the Giver and givers of good gifts, my God and my community.

And my thankfulness to Giver and givers is so difficult to put into words. (This is me trying.)

Thank you for giving me a living memory where we inhabited grace.


Christmas Eve in New Zealand

We trickled out of our hostels and hotels, we travelers from far-flung spaces, winding our way by twos and threes and sixes to tiny St. James Anglican Church. It wasn’t until Elaine and I reached the quiet one lane highway that I realized we weren’t going to be the only out of place visitors in the congregation on Christmas Eve, far from home.

In truth, there were only two members of St. James there. As the priest introduced herself, she confessed that she, too, was a visitor–from another part of New Zealand, here with her husband and son to gather us in worship with nine lessons from scripture, an Advent Candle, and song.

Looking at it one way, we all botched it. The priest’s iPad quit sending out sound, though it had worked half an hour before. When it did finally work, the recorded pianist couldn’t keep a steady time; we struggled to find our way as we sang, one time finding ourselves a whole bar behind. We lit the candles out of order. At one point, a man in his twenties in the second row on the left had to put his head down and cover his mouth to keep from laughing. Looking at it one way, our visiting congregation with the visiting priest performed horribly.

And yet…

She asked for volunteers to read God’s redemption story, nine passages that painted a wide ranging biblical arc. So we heard the Good News in a New Zealand accent; and an American, a British, an Irish, and a vaguely continental European accent. We watched a child from Kuala Lumpur light one of the Advent candles, and it was the Canadian young man from the second row who saved Christmas by restoring the iPad’s sound.

We became a community. Not a deep one. Not a lasting one. But we were gathered.

And for so many reasons…because for the first time in years I wasn’t leading the Christmas Eve service, because on one level it was so hilariously awful, because it was so wrong and weird to be apart from our kids and our people, because so much has withered and not stood the test over the last few years…for so many reasons I saw the heart of it all again, anew.

We became a community because we welcomed Jesus, God-come-near. From almost every continent, we vagabonds sat in a small chapel in New Zealand, gathered to honor and worship a baby born two thousand years ago in oppressed and impoverished Palestine. Christian community truly is God-instigated, not human-created.

We try to create it.

We try to make it.

We often perform it better than we rag-tag wanderers did tonight.

But we botch it. We get full of ourselves, we make it about ourselves, we build our tiny empires and identities. We exclude when we mean to include, we dig in our heels when patience is called for, we wound our own because they didn’t get it quite right enough. We are infinitely creative in our failure, and yet we keep trying.

True community, the kind our souls were created for, comes with the invitation to come. Come to the One who has drawn near, to the Word made flesh. We somehow found ourselves in a chapel full of hope, though wrapped in our human frailty and failure. We came and we found a divine home where none of us (well, only two of us) lived and belonged.


“O come, let us adore him.”

Once again, it is Jesus that I keep coming back to in this year of unsettled, magnitude ten earth-shaking. I can’t leave him. And I keep finding him, or being found, or something. Tonight we found him, or were found by him, or something. We were gathered, we found community, not because of the words we sang or the service we tried to create. We were made a community by the One we believe took on flesh for our salvation.

“O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.”

Gratefulness and Jubilee

Tonight we leave for New Zealand. Seeing those words on the screen staring back at me increases the shock and amazement already in my head.

Tonight we leave for New Zealand, thanks to over a hundred of you who gave generously, to those who planned for months and surprised us last May 23rd. I’m still so thankful to so many: Lisby Rogers Curtis Gemeroy, Rachelle Staley, and Natalie Koskela who were the main drivers; Meghan Rogers Czarnecki, Hannah Frankcamp, Joshua Reid, Nolan Staples and Sarah Staples Kelley for all their work on the party; Alan Akins, Stefan Czarnecki, Lyssa McConaughey, Steve Fawver, Natalie, Hayley, Aubrey, Jacob Graham, Shawn McConaughey, Michelle Akins, Mareesa Fawver, Stephanie Andres and Mikayla Kinnaman for an amazing scavenger hunt; and so many friends far and wide who generously gave for us to go experience unspoiled natural beauty, fly-fishing…and, um, Lord of the Rings filming sites!

This year has reminded me that thankfulness and gratefulness are choices, and that there are times when they are difficult choices. 2017 has been a year of pain and loss for many of us. It’s brought the most changes for me personally in any of my adult years. There’s no sense denying I grieve the losses of no longer being a pastor; the loss of working daily alongside some of the people I most love and respect in the world. There have been family health challenges I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’ve wrestled with countless questions and self doubt and fear. Elaine and I have said more than once it will be good to put this year behind us. But ending the year with this trip will be a conscious choice to be present and to choose gratefulness.

Elaine and I turn 50 in 2018, and she claimed for us many months ago the biblical concept of a Year of Jubilee. I want to choose to enter Jubilee by wrestling for gratefulness.

So when we post a picture on this trip, it’s gratefulness to you for your generosity. It’s a thank you for staying in relationship with us, when honestly right before that surprise party last year, I thought I had lost all but my closest people.

When we are standing alone in New Zealand’s native natural wonder, I will be choosing gratefulness for friends and teammates who saved my soul; for those of you who still let me walk alongside you through the highs and lows of life.

I will be choosing to redeem this year by finding and naming all the beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring moments of our community’s grace and care, by naming God’s faithful presence. Thank you for this amazing gift of the time to do that in a bucket-list place. I love you all.

The First Noel-Final Round

Screen Shot 2017-12-15 at 8.20.49 PM

It was close. Very close. I almost had to break the tie between Leslie Odom and Pentatonix, but my family did it for me.

So time to vote for the last time in 2017 Advent Caroling Madness! Due by 2 pm PST on Saturday!

#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22


First Noel-Round 3

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 6.07.24 PM

I’ve never had people agree with me this much! Only Pentatonix as a 6 seed broke their way into the final four instead of my #3 pick, Whitney Houston.

Now it gets real. Four left, and since Elaine and I leave on Saturday, you need to vote quickly: deadline is Friday at 7 pm PST.


#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #4 Emmylou Harris



#2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22 vs. #6 Pentatonix

The First Noel-Round 2

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 8.12.49 AM

I’m pretty sure the voting on my bracket was not the most important voting that happened last night. Totally ok with that.

But we’ve gotta return to our duty and vote these 8 contenders down to 4. Votes are due Thursday at 9 pm PST.

#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #9 Mariah Carey

LISTEN. Even Mariah-loving-Bylsma would say: DO THE RIGHT THING HERE PEOPLE!

#4 Emmylou Harris vs. #5 Over the Rhine

It feels to me like this one will cause a lot of conflict in some people, like the Venn diagram of people who like each of these is almost just a perfect circle.

#3 Whitney Houston vs. #6 Pentatonix

Pentatonix is literally the reason I came up with the idea for Advent Caroling Madness. But I’m just simply going to say: “And IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII-EEE-IIIIIIIIIIIIIII… will always love YOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!”

#2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22 vs. #7 Sarah McLachlan

This doesn’t even need a comment.

Thanks for joining! Vote! Share! Rally your troops! Yell! Complain!

Bracket Released: The First Noel

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 10.07.45 PM

One of these times I’m going to video myself trying to make these brackets. It is stressful, people. You have to look at who nominated what, and decide which nominations to leave out, and watch match ups, both for the actual artists but also for the people who nominated…WHEW! It is DIFFICULT!

But it’s done. We’re off and running. Voting for the first round is open, and the deadline is Tuesday at 9 pm PST.



#1 Mary J. Blige vs. #16 TobyMac

I’m claiming credit for Mary J.’s nomination, as I found it before Bylsma. It’s. Awesome. Robin Mohr nominated TobyMac’s recent release.


#8 Philadelphia Brass vs. #9 Mariah Carey

David Sherwood delivered a great brass version when asked for one by Robin Mohr, and Bethany Bylsma nominated Mariah and all her high register showboating. (GO AHEAD AND YELL I DON’T CARE.)


#5 Over the Rhine vs. #12 Regency College Choir

Martha Wood offered up Over the Rhine, a cello instrumental gem. They face off against a traditional choir from Regency College, nominated by Jenn Perez.



#4 Emmylou Harris vs. #13 Lady Antebellum

Emmylou Harris brings a very creative and vocally compelling version, nominated by Bylsma. Robin Mohr offered a nice version from Lady Antebellum, which I actually enjoyed (this is not easy to do when I listen to country).



#6 Pentatonix vs. #11 Semino Rossi

Rachelle Staley and Jenn Perez nominated Pentatonix. I already put in a vote for them with Steve Sherwood’s name on it. Willow Givens nominated a classical version from Semino Rossi.



#3 Whitney Houston vs. #14 Vince Gill

Bethany Bylsma and I both nominate Whitney. Wow. And she faces Vince Gill, nominated by Davida Brown Ankeny. This is in a way to support Lisby Rogers, since Vince is Amy’s husband…



#7 Sarah McLachlan vs. #10 Ella Fitzgerald

Sarah McLachlan was nominated by Martha Wood, Jenn Perez, and Bethany Bylsma. She faces Ella Fitzgerald, fresh off her “Midnight Clear” win, nominated by David Sherwood.



#2 Leslie Odom Jr. & PS 22 vs. #15 Andy Williams

Davida Ankeny Brown, Martha Wood, and Carla Barnhill all nominated this fantastic Leslie Odom version, with kids from Public School 22. And I’m excited to have my first nomination from one of my new co-workers, Rena Koster. She grew up listening to Andy Williams and nominated this.

Midnight Clear-Finals

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 9.13.33 PM

I mean I don’t know why anyone has bothered to record this song in my lifetime. We are sitting here in Advent Caroling Madness Land, partying like it’s 1969. Yolanda is gone, my heart is broken… but we have a final match up to contend.

Get your votes in by Saturday at noon PST. While you’re at it, send me your favorite version of “The First Noel” by Saturday at noon PST as well, and we’ll get the next party started.


#6 Ella Fitzgerald vs. #8 Julie Andrews