Anointing Oil

anointing oilI was asked to do something this week that I’ve never done before in 22 years of ministry. Anoint someone with oil.

My friend, Charles Harris, has Stage 4 Mesothelioma Cancer – a cancer typically found in people aged 60-70+ who’ve worked many years in careers such as mining, with high exposure to asbestos. Charles is my age, married, with two boys just a little older than my two girls.

With my vial of scented-oil, I formed the shape of a cross on his forehead with my fingers, put a hand on him, and prayed. It wasn’t magical, but it was certainly very holy, and very human … two things which are almost always intertwined.

A couple of things struck me.

First – it is physical. You touch. While much of faith is often (too often?) internal or intangible, anointing with oil is not. And because of this, the moment is deeply human. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the entire point of faith is to help us get better at being human. (If you’re faith isn’t making you a better human, it isn’t worth holding). And so, even if my prayers do nothing to impact his cancer, the moment created a space where we shared humanity with one another. And that is worth it many times over.

Second – unexpectedly, my first thought upon administering the oil was this: Thousands of people have participated in this very act, over thousands of years, spanning every culture that has ever lived … all with the same hope. That somehow we might invoke the presence and intervention of the Divine. The moment felt timeless and strangely connected with all of human history.

I called Charles to ask his permission to share this story, which he granted, and then he thanked me again for anointing him and praying for him.

But I had to return the thanks, because the moment helped me too. It helped me become a bit better at being human.

Becoming Human

What if salvation simply means becoming more human? That’s my new theory. Which really isn’t new. Nor is it mine.

In the days before Jesus ministry began, the world seemed on the edge-of-its-seat, knowing something history-altering was about to go down. “Everyone was expecting the Messiah”, as Luke tells it in chapter 3 of his account of the Jesus story. The crowds were pushing their way toward John the Baptist because he seemed to be in-the-know. They hoped that he might help them prepare — to get ready for whatever it was they needed to get ready for.

“What must we do?” is their desperate question. It comes 3 times. First from the crowds at large. But then two more times from subsets of this larger group. The tax collectors come forward with the same urgent question on their lips. “Teacher, what should we do?” And then some soldiers come forward and ask yet again, “And what should we do?”

Each time, John responds the same way. Become more human.

To the masses, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” To the tax collectors, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.” To the soldiers, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”

Become more human.

Learn to see people. Learn to respect and show deference to others. Instead of seeing others as a means for gain, see them as real, flesh-and-blood, people with homes and families and people they love.

Become more human.

Jesus himself preaches the same message. Salvation isn’t a formulaic prayer nor is it acquiring a heavenly access-code for when we pass from this earth. In Matthew 7, Jesus summarizes the entire law and prophets with one simple phrase. “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.”

To Jesus, this seems to be the entire point of faith and the scriptures: become more human. And in doing so, mysteriously we become more like Christ. We become holy. Because to be holy as He is holy is necessarily to become human as He was human.

Holy Fiction

Last Sunday (December 13, 2015), we explored the Christmas paradox of the Holy and the Human and how they are very much connected. At Christmas of all times, we are reminded that to be holy as he is holy is (necessarily) to be human as he was human.

The Holy and the Human — the Divine and the incarnate — all twisted and tangled up together. Our most holy moments are also our most fully human ones.

As part of the sermon, I shared a short lengthy passage from Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See. It was a scene from the book that I found profoundly human and deeply holy. (If you’re curious, listen to the sermon or, better yet, read the book!) This wasn’t the first time I’ve used literature or fiction in a sermon. And I sort of blame Frederick Buechner for giving me the idea (and permission) to do so. He writes this about good fiction.

“What it means to be truly human in a world that half the time we are in love with and half the time scares the hell out of us—any fiction that helps us pay attention to that is as far as I am concerned religious fiction.” — Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (p. 183).

On that note, does anybody have any good book recommendations? I’m on the hunt for my next novel.



all-the-light-we-cannot-seeI’m reading Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light we Cannot See. It is set in occupied France during World War II and follows the lives of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and a German boy, Werner Pfennig. (I’m less than half-way through the book, and so their paths haven’t crossed yet, but I suspect that will happen soon.)

Along with 56 other cadets, Werner is in Nazi military training school. In one particularly moving scene, Werner’s friend, Frederick, is singled out as the weakest cadet. The commandant hands a piece of black hose to another cadet (Rödel) … and the beating begins. The narration follows Werner’s thoughts.

Everything becomes soaked in a hideous and wondrous slowness. Rödel rears back and strikes. This time he catches Frederick on the jaw. Werner forces his mind to keep sending up images of home: the laundry; dogs in the alleys; steam blowing from stacks—every part of him wants to scream: is this not wrong? But here it is right.

Reading about occupied France 75 years ago takes on unique meaning in light of the horrifying events that unfolded in Paris last weekend.

And Werner’s quote …

I don’t know the best political course of action or what we should do or even how to pray.  But I find myself foolishly hoping beyond hope that somehow, those caught up in the ways of IS / ISIS / ISIL / Daesh will want to scream: is this not wrong? Oh how I hope that somehow, like Werner in this story, their humanity will overcome even the darkest of circumstances where wrong has been perverted into right … and scream.

Lying Insiders

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past 5 years of ministry is this: God isn’t just in here. He’s also out there.

There is an Old Testament story (Genesis 20) where Abraham and Sarah are traveling. They come to the land of the Negev, ruled by a pagan king named Abimelek. Because of Sarah’s beauty, Abraham is afraid the king will kill him and take Sarah to be his wife. So they agree upon a lie and pretend to be siblings instead of husband-and-wife. As expected, Abimelek takes Sarah as his wife.

Time passes. Quite a lot of time. Abimelek’s entire household becomes barren “for the Lord had kept all the women in Abimelek’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife.” Here’s where things get interesting.

God speaks. But when He speaks, He speaks to the pagan outsider … which terrifies us a little. We much prefer when God only speaks to us (and the consolation-of-certainty that brings). We’re afraid of finding God in the other. It seems to be a betrayal of our faith. Perhaps even more terrifying, Abimelek listens and obeys! Which makes this a story of a faithful-outsider and a lying-insider. Hmm.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve begun to surrender my consolations of certainty. I still have a ways to go, but it has already borne such fruit!! It has done much needed work on my pride and all the subtle arrogance I hold on to. It forces me to admit that sometimes I am Abraham – the lying-insider in need of the faithful-outsider. This opens the way for making new friends in other communities with a posture of humility, resulting in honest two-way engagement! Because it isn’t just what I have to offer… it’s what I need to learn!

I love Jesus. I love the cross. I love my faith. I love how scripture doesn’t allow me to be arrogant-in-my-faith. I love the fact that He is too big for me to control … that He is too big to fit only on the inside.

Saving Jesus

My devotional book took me to the Christmas story this week (yes – I know – wrong time of year), and it pointed out two things I’d never really paid attention to before.

First, Jesus is visited by Magi from the east – astrologers and holy men of a foreign religion – who help save Jesus’ life by not returning to King Herod on their journey back home. (King Herod feigned interest in this infant king, but his plan was to murder and eliminate the threat to his throne.) Second, Jesus family flees to Egypt in the south – a land of idols and many gods – again, to save his life from Herod’s plot to kill all infant boys in Bethlehem.

I’m SO familiar with these texts that I missed it. How beautiful is it that members of other religions – the Magi from the east and the Egyptians to the south – save Jesus.

Perhaps God has a better way for religions to relate to one another.

deah yusor and razan
Deah, Yusor and Razan.

This Saturday (May 9) is our first Habitat build-day together with the Islamic Center of Raleigh. We’re building a home in honor of the three Muslim students killed in Chapel Hill this past February (Deah, Yusor and Razan). For Rachel and my girls, we’re all going to be there. And not because it’s a required “church event.” And not because it’s a mandatory “family event.” Because it isn’t.

We’re all going because this is what it means to follow Jesus. And this is what it means to be fully human. By the way, these two things are very closely related.

Perhaps I’m overly romanticizing things (I do this all the time!), but maybe a day like Saturday will be a tiny foretaste of Revelation 7:9 “I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

The Birthday Party

My mom and dad just returned home to Canada from their latest trip to Guatemala, and one of the highlights they shared was so awesome.

In the small village of Tactic where they serve, there is one tiny retirement home. Just 7 or 8 residents. The conditions are pretty bad. Most of the residents don’t know their birthdays or last names. Mom and dad threw them a birthday party! Mom made a huge birthday cake (which you know was amazing if you know my mom), and they brought party-favors and noise makers … and joy-unspeakable-joy erupted.

One of the residents was blind and simply couldn’t get enough of the cake and icing, licking her fingers, the plate, the utensils until no trace was left … and so, mom and dad just kept putting a fresh piece in front of her, which she ate with abandon.

Wish I could have been there!

In my new favorite book (Eager to Love by Richard Rohr), he writes this: “… a fully human love is probably going to do more long-lasting good … than years of formal religious education. I know that to be true from many personal experiences. That is “religionless Christianity,” which ironically might be the most religious of all.”

Mom and Dad, thanks for always offering a fully-human love wherever you go. Love you so much!

The wise men, and the real death.

I’ve read this every Christmas for the past 4 years. It’s a portion from one of Frederick Buechner’s Advent sermons called, The Birth. It’s beautiful and haunting.


“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” —MATTHEW 2:1–2

Frederick Buechner - Secrets in the Dark“‘Beware of beautiful strangers,’” said one of themagi-astrologers, the wise men, “‘and on Friday avoid travel by water. The sun is moving into the house of Venus, so affairs of the heart will prosper.’ We said this to Herod, or something along those lines, and of course it meant next to nothing. To have told him anything of real value, we would have had to spend weeks of study, months, calculating the conjunction of the planets at the precise moment of his birth and at the births of his parents and their parents back to the fourth generation. But Herod knew nothing of this, and he jumped at the nonsense we threw him like a hungry dog and thanked us for it. A lost man, you see, even though he was a king. Neither really a Jew nor really a Roman, he was at home nowhere. And he believed in nothing, neither Olympian Zeus nor the Holy One of Israel, who cannot be named. So he was ready to jump at anything, and he swallowed our little jingle whole. But it could hardly have been more obvious that jingles were the least of what he wanted from us.

“‘Go and find me the child,’ the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. ‘Because I want to come and worship him,’ he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. ‘Yes, of course,’ we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.

“Why did we travel so far to be there when it happened? Why was it not enough just to know the secret without having to be there ourselves to behold it? To this, not even the stars had an answer. The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go—a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky.

“But why did we go? I could not tell you now, and I could not have told you then, not even as we were in the very process of going. Not that we had no motive, but that we had so many. Curiosity, I suppose: to be wise is to be eternally curious, and we were very wise. We wanted to see for ourselves this One before whom even the stars are said to bow down—to see perhaps if it was really true because even the wise have their doubts. And longing. Longing. Why will a man who is dying of thirst crawl miles across sands as hot as fire at simply the possibility of water? But if we longed to receive, we longed also to give. Why will a man labor and struggle all the days of his life so that in the end he has something to give the one he loves?

“So finally we got to the place where the star pointed us. It was at night. Very cold. The Innkeeper showed us the way that we did not need to be shown. A harebrained, busy man. The odor of the hay was sweet, and the cattle’s breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the king. We did not stay long. Only a few minutes as the clock goes, ten thousand, thousand years. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left.

“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.

“And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?”

Buechner, Frederick (2009-03-17). Secrets in the Dark (pp. 11-13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (The entire book is available on Kindle for $1.99).

Preacher’s Remorse

I don’t get it often.

But I experienced a little bit of it this past Sunday. If I was to define it, it would be this.

Preacher’s Remorse | ˈprēCHərz  riˈmôrs | (noun)

An emotional feeling or sensation of regret or contrition usually resulting from a sermon during which the preacher/teacher either (a) over-shared from his/her own life and is feeling raw and exposed, or (b) remembered the “BEST ILLUSTRATION EVER!!” one hour after church ended, or (c) preached the entire message unaware of an obvious wardrobe malfunction.

For the record, I’ve had all three.

Just a few months ago, I went out into the lobby after church, and CJ walked up to me with a puzzled look on his face and said, “I’ve been wondering about this all morning. Is your shirt on backwards?”

I looked down. “Why, yes. Yes it is.” Preacher’s remorse version C.

The preacher’s remorse that I felt following this past Sunday was version A. The “overshare.” If you were at church, you would have heard me share simply and honestly about how — for Rachel and me in this current season — marriage is hard. Really hard.

And I talked about the new humanity that God is creating. A new humanity where all of the fierce loyalties and love and devotion that are typically reserved for immediate family, now must be directed to a much broader group! To all of God’s children. That is the implication of Jesus words in Matthew 12 when He turns to his followers and says, “This is my mother. And these are my brothers.”

I shared how Rachel and I are feeling the fierce loyalty and love and devotion of our little Kingdom family at Ekklesia. They (you all) are holding us up! And we need it! And it is so good.

In the days following Sunday, I’ve been plagued with a little voice inside my head that says “Preachers shouldn’t admit that! You are losing your public credibility. And what if people draw completely wrong conclusions? What if people think you had an affair? What if they think you’re separating? That was a foolish thing to share.”

There is an old song by Sara Groves called Loving a Person. The opening lyrics are as follows.

Loving a person just the way they are, it’s no small thing /
It takes some time to see things through /

Hold on to me /
I’ll hold on to you /
Let’s find out the beauty of seeing things through /

Truer words.

My preacher’s remorse has faded. I have to believe it’s OK to admit that marriage — loving and being loved — is no small thing. I had coffee with a good friend on Tuesday, and he said to me, “Amazing sermon. Seriously podcast-repeat worthy. It opens the doors for others to talk about their lives and their marriages. So good!”

Here’s to the beauty of seeing things through.

She Even Called Her Beautiful

This morning at church, nine of us had a chance to share some thoughts and reflections from our mission trip to La Limonada with Lemonade International.

If I had more time, I might have shared a little more about Beatriz — an absolutely beautiful 3 yr old girl being raised by a mother who was selling herself and her children at a bar in La Limonada for profit.

LI_Curtis01In this picture Beatriz is laughing and giggling and stacking hand-made coffee bags on my legs and head. She was as playful and joyful and mischievous and silly and innocent as my own daughters, Megan and Kyra, when they were her age.

At first, my internal anger was 100% directed toward this mother. Whoever she was, she didn’t even deserve the moniker.


But then, in my mind, I began to wander back through the streets of La Limonada — thinking about the kind of desperation that would drive a mother to this. And my anger shifted toward the systems and structures that could allow such desperation to exist. Selling your child(ren) for sex is infinitely more complicated than being a bad mother.

If we had more time, perhaps I would have described the manner in which Tita told us the story of Beatriz’s mother. I would have told you about the compassion and sorrow and tenderness and great love in Tita’s voice. She even called her beautiful.

She didn’t hate her.

She loved her so much that it hurt her.

Like so much of our trip, I don’t really know what to do with that. I don’t know how to process that kind of love. I only hope that our world (and my heart) is infected with more of it.

Sometimes I think I'm certain. Other times I am certain I'm not.


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