My Last Newspaper Column

I found out just as you did: I saw the headline that our paper was folding. No warnings, no large appeals for renewals, no publisher writing with their regrets. After 27 years of writing essays meant to inspire critical thought on issues of faith and life, I found out with all of you that I’m done. And so are those professionals who worked for our papers, had dedicated their education and livelihoods to the study and practice of journalism, some of whom had just begun working for the paper last month.

You wonder if you’ll miss the small weekly? We’ll no longer have a single place for obituaries, celebrating our youth events, or the opening of new businesses. And no independent reporter will be sitting at our town council meetings where zoning, taxes, roads, and development projects are controlled. No reporter seeking public records and discovering corruption, no journalist sitting through the first part of the school board agenda to report on staffing concerns, campus security, curriculum changes, or book bans. And no place where we can easily read interviews of those running for the elected offices of school board, town committees, or sheriff.

Can the StarTribune expand its coverage? Can the New Prague Times step in? Will our seasoned local journalists rally to create an online newspaper like Eden Prairie? We live in an area with deep financial resources; is there not anyone resident who is willing to organize and fund such a project? Here’s a serious plea: If you know of any journalistic entrepreneurs with a knack for raising up investors, please tell them of the opportunity in Savage and Prior Lake. We need the next version of local journalism to rise up!

As for the rest of us, the serious spiritual work of healthy community remains. The changes that technology has brought, which include losing our small-town newspapers, has let many more of us slowly slide into resignation and suspicion. Sitting on our phones and seeing hours of algorithmic-generated content every day has just increased our current social and political divisions. If we want to stop the erosion of community, we need to encourage one another to embody the core values of respect, collaboration, and support that neighborhoods thrive on. You know that has never exactly been easy; nothing worth doing ever is.

Reflecting on my years in print, I think there are twin threads that run through all my essays. The first is my effort to speak about the Christian faith as the lens through which I have come to experience God, a God of mercy, forgiveness, peace, and creativity. A God who joins us in this human life, coming close to us in loving relationship, and not as some remote, rigid divinity pulling our strings. The second is my deep conviction that we participate with God’s version of power, God’s “kingdom” or “reign,” when love for the neighbor is our ethical cornerstone: when we feed the hungry, heal the broken, and work for justice. God’s kingdom is present when we use power well and resist the pull of human evil, when we uphold human dignity, and protect the weak and vulnerable. Jesus lived his brief life devoted to God’s kingdom power. He invites us to follow and find abundant life.

Thank you for sharing these Spiritual Reflections with me. Occasionally I would receive an email or personal comment about my columns, and those connections cheered me on. (Once or twice, they even spurred an angry letter to the editor!) May we continue to do the work that God gives us to do in the world, each of us a unique expression of that creative and generative God we seek to know and love. Let’s keep striving for a more just, compassionate, and loving world. I’m cheering us on.

Written for last edition of the Savage Pacer 4/27/24

Getting back to community

As we move toward a more mobile and interactive lifestyle again, how do you imagine your need or preference for social gathering has changed?

At last, some good news: we seem to be slowly crawling our way out of the pandemic. Even with new variant strains, our community rates are low, hospitalizations have decreased and fewer Americans are critically sick and dying. More of us are vaccinated every day as supply increases. Schools, gyms, airlines, restaurants, museums and churches are starting to welcome people back.

But after a full year (and more) of limitations on our social gatherings, many wonder how our cultural institutions will look when we finally emerge through this crisis. We can’t just snap back after half a million people have died, countless numbers of businesses have closed, more millions have lost their jobs and our nation’s children, parents and teachers are exhausted by the loss of classroom learning.

As we move toward a more mobile and interactive lifestyle again, how do you imagine your need or preference for social gathering has changed? Will you embrace your earlier habits of frequent restaurant dining, attending crowded basketball games, or elbow to elbow live music concerts? Will masks become part of our normal attire at a doctor’s appointment or plane flight? And for people of faith, what will become of in-person worship when we can all get back together?

Church statistics have shown that even before the pandemic restrictions, Americans were changing their habits of worship attendance and affiliation to Christian communities. A sharp decline in participation has been measured in the last 20 years, and the loss of in-person participation in this last year has increased that loss.

The Barna Research group ( has discovered that while half (53%) of active church members report that they have streamed their church’s worship service in the last month, a full third (32%) of active members have never participated online in the last year. Even more disconnection is reported among members in the millennial generation (18-29 years old) as a full 50% have stopped any church participation since the start of the pandemic. While some churches report a number of new online participants this year, the number is too small to be statistically significant.

These numbers simply prove to me the obvious: that full human life, including religious activity, is meant to be lived with and among each other, not separate, isolated and apart. Video conferencing, while a wonderful technology and alternative mode of communication across distances, can never replace the experience of being together.

When we are in proximity to another human body, we share essential emotional information with one another about who we are and who we see the other to be. We communicate with more than our words: our bodies have a social language expressed in our posture, gestures, tone of voice, tilt of the head, the gaze of our eyes. We stand close, we hug, we step apart. We laugh, cry, roll our eyes, make a face, drop into silence, listen or shout together. The energy of these emotional expressions is felt in our nervous system, and we have the power to co-regulate one another as we connect with close relationships.

This is what I hope many more of us have learned in this last, very hard year together. That to be fully ourselves is to be seen and felt and known as we are when we are physically together. That to save our lives, we had to stay apart. But to be fully alive, to create human community together, we need to be physically present in one another’s space.

It has been a terrible year in so many ways. Staying connected to spiritual practice and people has been challenging, even as I have loved being together on Zoom on Sundays or talking books and culture on Tuesday nights. I will be forever grateful for our pastor and musicians’ optimism, consistency and focus as they pivoted from in-person to online in a flash. But when we can, churches will be gathering body to body, heart to heart, to sing, to pray, to listen for the word spoken. Because that is how our God has made us: spiritual people in physical bodies.

I pray you can find your way back to your faith community to regroup with others and be restored into the body Jesus called us to be. May it be so, and may it be soon.

(Originally written for / published in / the Savage Pacer, Feb 20, 2021

Fear and What’s Possible

Today is 9/11. The bells toll, and the wars continue.

In an email from our school district, we have been informed that the H1N1 virus is up and running. Several children have tested positive, and we are all encouraged to be alert and aware. NPR reported this morning that a single vaccination (instead of two) may be all that is needed to immunize adults, allowing more vaccinations to go to more people this fall.

In listening to the media coverage of this story, I’ve learned that in an average year, fully 36,000 people die from the seasonal flu virus. That’s an average of 720 people per state. Do you know any of them? The predictions for this winter imagine up to 90,000 deaths from H1N1. That would be an average of 1800 deaths per state. The primary difference being many of those deaths are predicted to be our healthy, robust children.

I want to be ready. I will get my family immunized. But in the meanwhile, in the midst of the preparations, I have been wondering: what’s the difference between fear and vigilance?

We are washing our hands. We are covering our sneezes. We have a strategy for taking time from work. But I worry that all our worry makes us feel less strong, and more vulnerable. Less confident, and more anxious. Some preparation is the soul of wisdom. Thinking ahead is what keeps us resilient.

But too much hand wringing about what we cannot ultimately control just hurts the hands and stalls the mind. It puts our life on hold, waiting for the worst. A worst that may not come, and if it comes, is still never far from the grace of God.