A sailor’s letter home, part two

Jonah and I talked a bit. Then the captain’s voice called me back to work. Jonah asked if there was a better place to ride. I pointed to a pile of extra sails under the deck. He thanked me and laid down.

We were half a day and more from shore when the weather started to change. I shouldn’t say started. The wind exploded from behind us. I’ve never seen such a wind. And the storm came so suddenly that everyone grabbed desperately for the oars. The steersman turned us into the wind. All of us were shouting to gods, some names we knew, some we’d heard of in the ports we visited. We tossed anything heavy overboard, just to stay afloat.

Looking for anything more to toss, the captain stumbled over Jonah, sound asleep on the sails. “Wake up!” he said. “How can you sleep? Pray!”

We all made our mark on one of the broken pieces of pottery and tossed them in a basket. The captain drew out a piece. It was Jonah’s.

Everyone started shouting at him, over the screams of the wind. “What are you doing here?” “Who are you?” “Who have you killed that the gods are pursuing you?”

He looked at me and then looked away. “I’m a Hebrew, and I serve the God who made the winds and waves.”

There was panic in the faces of the younger sailors. “What can we do? Can you ask your god?”

Jonah looked calmer than he had since I first saw him on the dock. “Throw me in the water,” he said. “That will calm the waves. This is my fault.”

No one wanted to do it. We just started to row harder. Who wants to be the one who throws one of God’s people in the storm God made?


A sailor’s letter home, part one.

Dear mom.

I pray this finds you  well. And that it finds you.

I know you always offer sacrifices when I am on a sailing trip. Thank you for that concern. I had reason to need divine help recently, though I’m not sure that we’ve been sacrificing to the god most powerful.

Let me tell you my story.

We were loading our boat up at Joppa. We were almost ready to sail when a man showed up, looking a little haunted.

“Where are you going?” he asked the captain.

“Across the Great Sea,” the captain responded. It’s the way he answers curiosity-seekers.  The man didn’t look like a sailor looking for work, and we don’t usually carry people who can’t carry their own weight.

“Is this enough to ride along?” the man asked, holding open a sack.

The captain rubbed his beard, as if thinking. But we could tell by his eyes that we were going to have some paying cargo.

“How far are you wanting to go?” the captain asked.

“As far from here as can get,” the man said. He shuddered a bit.

The captain took the sack from his hand and stepped aside. The man walked up the plank and settled onto a ledge in the bow.

We ignored him as we finished our work, pulled up the ramp and set sail as the wind shifted. I did notice that the man looked back toward land as we sailed away. He seemed to relax a bit.

As we settled into our watches, I sat next to the man.

“Running from something?” I asked.

“I’m running from God.” He laughed a little. I laughed, too.

“You’re Jewish right? Your god is pretty safe to run from I guess. The way you all keep losing land. What’s your name?”

“Jonah,” he said.

Thinking about a prayer.

First published October 13, 2009

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be talking with a group of people about what is commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.” Many of you have heard of it, have heard it, or have even said it.

Here are some questions that use and challenge multiple intelligences (to useHoward Gardner’s term) to stimulate different kinds of thinking about this familiar text.

  • When was the first time you heard it? When was the last?
  • When you think of these words, what color comes to mind?
  • If you watched the Ken Burns special on National Parks recently, which park could you see this prayer being repeated? (When Jesus was teaching it, everyone was on a hillside, sitting on rocks, on the ground).
  • Is this a speech or a conversation? What difference would that make?
  • As you listen to the words, is there a sequence of requests (I ask A. You do A. I then ask B. You do B).
  • In the text, there is an us (“Give us this day our daily bread”). That suggests that there may be several people involved in this prayer. When Jesus is saying it for the first time, where are they sitting? Are they looking at each other? Are they all repeating it together or taking turns? And is he suggesting that it be an individual or a group conversation?
  • Is Jesus writing a formula, an equation of some sort?
  • Do you think that Jesus is describing how he talks to his Dad? Does that change how you think of the tone of voice of this prayer?
  • Think of all the musical versions of this text. Now, think of doing your own. Does it make more sense as a Bach anthem or as improvisational jazz? What instrumentation would you use to arrange it for your life?
  • Read it out loud. If you were talking to someone across the room, how loud would you say it? Try that. If you were talking to someone right next to you, how would you change your voice? Try it. If you weren’t talking to anyone but yourself, how would that sound?

As you read through the questions, it was likely that you read some and thought “Who would think that” and read others and thought “Oh, that’s easy.” That’s the point. We are different. Now, imagine that all the questions were of the kind that you don’t understand. That’s what we do to parts of our audience/group/congregation/whatever when we don’t take the time to think about how people learn or we ask questions that are comfortable to us.

And if you are interested in helping people understand how to talk to God, for example, or whatever you are teaching, doesn’t that time investment make sense?

On writing your life

First published March 3, 2010

Ruth Bell married Billy Graham.

That’s the reason many people know her name.

She grew up in China before World War 2. Her dad was a doctor. She went to college where I did, though long before me. (She was on the board when I was a student). She had five children, a husband traveling constantly.

Footprints of a pilgrimI heard her voice Sunday evening. Not the sound, mind you. She died a few years ago. Sunday evening I was at church,  helping run sound for a group of college students doing a reader’s theatre adaptation of her story.

I heard her poems.
I heard her letters.
I heard her journal.

The arc of her life was consistent, not perfect. She was often frustrated with parenting alone. She was fearful for a rebellious son. She was supportive of a husband who served the world. She talked with God with questions and hope and delight.

As I listened, I realized the importance of writing your heart.

When we write honest accounts of our struggles, our fears, our lives, our hope, our faith, it matters. It may be therapeutic to us.  Up close, day to day, it may seem up and down. But as I listened to this story across decades, I saw that if there are many points, you can see a pattern in a life well-committed.

I suppose that part of the reason it resonated is that I recognized bits of poems that Nancy and I had read nearly three decades ago, just before we were married. Listening to those words drew me into thinking about our version of Ruth’s story. Sometimes stretching, sometimes wonderful, sometimes wondering, always completely committed to God and each other. Hearing Ruth’s words reminded and refreshed me.

So write, dear friends who journal honestly, write. And live lives showing incremental application of passionately consuming commitments.

We need your stories.


First published March 15, 2010

“How do I do that?”

piano keysWe answer that question, many of us, with list of steps. When we are good, we give detailed steps, well tested, proofread, illustrated. We take into account the vocabulary of the person being trained. We anticipate visual learners by providing pictures. We tell people where to go for more information.

Having done all that, I don’t think we have helped people understand how to do anything. We have explained what to do.

The how to do something is about passion, about caring, about love.

  • How do you play the piano? With all my heart.
  • How do you give? Cheerfully.
  • How do you teach? With concern for the students.
  • How do you shoot video? To captivate the hearts of the audience.
  • How do you answer questions? To change the world.
  • How do you clean the floor? With an awareness of the souls that use it.
  • How do you write? Humbly, with respect.
  • How do you explain policy? I think about the most difficult audience member and I explain it to that person.
  • How do you make the donuts? By thinking about the smile a little kid needs today.

Answering the how question often takes much longer than answering the whatquestion. In fact, someone might have to watch how you do the what.

I think, in fact, that making disciples, real followers, is mostly not about what. It’s mostly about how.

That’s why it takes so much effort. That’s why it changes the world.