Advice on How to Write (and Speak)

James Clear has some great advice on how to write. I also think it applies to speaking whether that takes the form of lectures, sermon, addresses…

My friend, who sometimes shares his writing with me, once said my feedback always falls into three categories:

1. Make it shorter.
2. Make it more appealing.
3. How could it apply to more people?

Bible sermon

The 10 Commandments as Signposts of God’s Love

A Sermon on Exodus 20

I played a lot of soccer when I was growing up in Texas. 

I had this coach when I was probably eight or ten years old. 

He was a terrible coach. 

And I don’t mean that he was terrible at teaching us strategy or the rules of the game or the best way to kick a ball. 

His ethics were terrible. 

He had this habit of gathering the team for a motivational speech before the start of the games. 

He would tell us that we needed to win at all cost. 

The only thing that mattered was putting a check in the W column. 

He told us to cheat whenever possible and hurt the players on the other team when the ref wasn’t looking. 

I remember him telling us in detail how to tackle an offensive player with our cleats up so we’d injure his ankle. 

We were eight or ten years old. 

The coach was truly terrible. 

But as bad as his motivational speeches were, there was one other aspect of his behavior that was even more damaging. 

It didn’t matter how hard we played, or how many goals we scored or stopped, or how much effort we gave in practice, nothing we did was ever good enough for him. 

As players and as human beings were never good enough for him. 

The only reason he opened his mouth was to say something negative about the way we were playing. 

He would insult us in every way a person could. 

We never measured up to his standards. 

Each and every day of practice he told us we were failures. 

When I finally told my parents about what the coach was doing they lodged a complaint and he was pulled from coaching the team. 

For many people God can seem like that coach. 

No matter how hard we try, we never measure up. 

God is never happy with us, always pointing out or failures and mistakes. 

Historically, one of main reasons why folks have developed a negative understanding of God stems from a twisted understanding of the 10 commandments and biblical law. 

A misunderstanding of the 10 commandments and biblical law arose in the 16th century and remains common today. 

This misunderstanding said that God gave the laws and instructions in the Bible in order to expose our sins, to show us how our lives don’t live up to what God intends for them to be. 

In his view, the ten commandments exists to show us how sinful we are, so that we are driven to the point of asking God for forgiveness so that then and only then will God finally accept us and love us. 

But that is not how the ten commandments actually function within the Bible. 

The ten commandments did not exist in the abstract, on their own, as independent laws that people had to live up to. 

The ten commandments are set within a particular story and this makes all the difference to how we relate to them.

We hear of this story in the very first verse of Exodus 20:

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 

God gives a preface to the ten commandments, an introduction that gives context to the ten instructions that follow. 

God reminds the Hebrew people that they are already in relation with God before the ten commandments are given. 

Not only do God and the people already have a relationship, but God has already acted to save them. 

It is only after the people are saved from slavery in Egypt that God then comes to them and gives them teachings on how to live with one another in loving ways. 

The ten commandments are not symbols of God’s judgement and our inability to measure up to God’s demands. 

The ten commandments are signposts of God’s unwavering love and of God’s unbreakable commitment to God’s creation. 

Theologians and religious leaders have often gotten this twisted. 

The ten commandments do not exist to condemn us or provide us with a pathway to salvation. 

God is not waiting for us to obey all these laws and make the correct life choices before God will accept us and love us. 

The Hebrews who received the ten commandments were already saved, God had already brought them out of Egypt. 

God already loved them.

God tells them at the very beginning of the ten commandments that God was their God—the covenant was intact, their relationship was solid, the people were accepted and embraced. 

Biblical commands and teachings are there to remind us of this reality that God loves us and accepts us.

Out of this reality God teaches us how to live well, how respect other people and this planet, how to create societies of loving regard. 

God is not like my horrible soccer coach. 

If we image the ten commandments similar to a coach’s speech before a game this is how it might go: 

The first verse, the introduction, is like the coach gathering the team and looking the players in the eyes and saying: 

Each and every one of you are beautiful. I’ve hand picked you to be on this team because I’m proud of you and I care for you. No matter what happens today, no matter how you play, you will always be on this team and I will always be your coach. 

And then the rest of the ten commandments is the coach patiently teaching their players how to play well. 

God’s unwavering love is how the ten commandments begin. 

God’s unwavering love is how the Christian story ends. 

How will you share this unwavering love with the world this week?

Bible sermon theology

Welcome Home–A Sermon on John 1

Here is a sermon I preached at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, KY on December 31. If you are interested in the theme of God making the world God’s home, here are a couple resources from Miroslav Volf that you might find interesting:

A book-length treatment: The Home of God: A Brief Story of Everything by Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz.

A essay in a free pdf form, Why Did God Create the World? (And Why You Need to Know).

And now, to my sermon.

Welcome Home, A Sermon on the Gospel of John, chapter 1


Have you ever wondered why God created the world? 

God probably had at least several reasons. 

One of those reasons is mentioned in our Gospel reading today from the first chapter of John. 

John refers to the second member of the Trinity and says that this God made the world and everything in it including you and me. 

This is how John describes it: “All things came into being through [God], and apart from [God] not one thing came into being.”

None of this would have been surprising to a first century audience. 

Everyone in the ancient Mediterranean believed the world was created by divine forces.

But John takes an unexpected turn in verse 14.

John says that this second person of the Trinity, this Word of God, took on flesh and became part of creation in the birth of Jesus. 

But why did God do this?

Why did God make the world and then enter it in the form of baby? 

Why do we have the Christmas story at all? 

John continues his vision. 

In the second half of verse 14 we read that this incarnate God—this divine Word made flesh—lived among us. 

God lived among us. 

We often pass over that phrase too quickly. 

God lived among us. 

In other words, God made the world because God wanted to make the world God’s home. 

This isn’t the only time this idea is mentioned in the Bible. 

God making this world God’s home is how the Bible begins and how it ends. 

The Bible begins with the Book of Genesis describing God creating the universe. 

In this act of creation, God makes a garden and places plants, animals and humans in it. 

After creating this garden God visits it and the humans in it. 

The garden is God’s lake house or weekend home. 

The biblical story ends with the book of Revelation. 

In the second to last chapter of the Bible we read of a vision of God’s home in heaven.

God’s home is a city.

It is radiant and beautiful.

The city comes down out of the heavenly skies and rests on earth. 

Heaven and earth are fused together. 

In the vision a voice cries out and says: 

Look, God’s home is among humanity. God made God’s home with them.

We get to the end of the Bible and discover that God has turned God’s lake house into God’s one and only home. 


We Episcopalians join with many other Christian denominations around the world and structure our gathered worship services around the Revised Common Lectionary. 

The Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings that takes us through the majority of the Christian Bible every three years. 

It is inspired by an ancient Jewish pattern of reading through the Hebrew Bible in synagogue over a period of three years. 

The lectionary approach to reading Scripture is a gift in several ways. 

It helps us experience the entire story of Scripture multiple times throughout our lives and gives us time to think deeply about its parts. 

The lectionary also links us with other Christians all over the world who are reading and thinking about the same Scripture passages that we are in this exact moment. 

But with every good thing, there are also weaknesses. 

One weakness of the lectionary cycle is that we read the Bible in fragments. 

Each week we hear little snippets of bigger stories. 

These snippets are, by definition, taken out of their larger context. 

Because of this, it can be hard for us to discern the overarching storylines of Scripture and the ideas of God that run through the Bible. 

In other words, it can be challenging for us to make sense of the biblical fragments we hear each week. 

So today I’d like to offer you this theme of God making the earth God’s home as a way to hold Scripture together. 

From beginning to end the Bible is an epic story of God making this world God’s home. 

God invites you and me to join with this work.

We are God’s homemakers. 

Through our actions, decisions, and movements we are to cultivate the spaces around us—and even our our hearts—into places that welcome the divine and simultaneously welcome other people into communion with God in God’s home. 

This Christmas season we are reminded that God is making a home here among us. 

How will you cultivate and care for God’s home this coming year?  

Bible books theology

2024 Grawemeyer Award in Religion

I am incredibly honored to receive the 2024 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. It is a particularly significant honor for me because the previous recipients of the Grawemeyer have inspired and shaped my theological life through their imaginative and boundary pushing work. 

When I was a high school student growing up in Austin, Texas I dreamed of becoming a scholar of religion. At many points I doubted whether I had the ability to do it. I remember looking at the first winner of the Grawemeyer, E.P. Sanders—a fellow Texan—who shifted the study of the New Testament, and thinking that maybe I too could join The Great Conversation. 

The Grawemeyer winners that came after him are scholars whose books have set the standard of writing I have aspired to. Their ideas have changed my religious imaginary and formed the ways I move through the world. I never expected to win the Grawemeyer, but I am so appreciative of this recognition for A Human-Shaped God.

There are so many people I’d like to thank who made this work possible. In particular, my wife, Lori, who supported and encouraged me and this book in all ways. Daniel Braden, my editor at WJK, who believed in this book from the beginning and helped bring it to the world. And, all the folks at Louisville Seminary, the University of Louisville, and the Grawemeyer Award who read this book as part of this process.

Bible theology

On the Perpetual Strangeness of the Bible

I love the title of Michael Edwards’ newest book. (Well, it probably is a tie because he has another book that also came out in 2023–The Bible and Poetry, you can read an excerpt here.) On the Perpetual Strangeness of the Bible. Edwards encourages us to cultivate a sense of the Bible’s otherness as we read it.

On the Perpetual Strangeness of the Bible by Michael Edwards

He comes at this from his understanding of it as divine revelation. In his mind, this makes the Bible is unlike any other book and reading strategies should be formulated and applied accordingly.

I too try to cultivate a sense of the Bible’s otherness as I read it, but I do so from a slightly different angle. The Bible is linguistically and culturally different from anyone living today. Therefore, all of our readings and interpretations have varying degrees of separation from how people in the ancient world received these writings. This should cause us to hold our interpretations of the Bible lightly and with an eagerness to change them based on new information or new insights.

If our interpretations are static, we are essentially denying the strangeness of the Bible. We imply that we understand it encyclopedically and authoritatively.

I think a better approach is to keep the Bible strange. Or, like the slogan from my hometown–Keep Austin Weird–the Bible should  try to keep the Bible weird as we read it.

books theology

3 Books that Changed My Theology

There are so many books that have changed my ideas, but three in particular have shaped the arc of my theological reflection. I’ve listed them here in the order I read them:

  1. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez. I read this during my first or second year of seminary. Up to that point, I thought there was one, objective story the Christian Bible presented and I believed that the point of theology was to uncover this one, objective story. Gutierrez showed me that there are many stories one can produce from the Bible and that these stories are constructed purposes or goals. One can have the goal of liberating people from oppression. Or, one can have a goal of keeping the oppressive systems in place. Each of these goals will produce different different stories, different theologies, and different reading strategies. The real key to producing good theology is to identify and embody a good purpose or goal.
  2. Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership by Andro Linklater. There are two types of land ownership: private property and yet-to-be private property. That’s what I had assumed before I read Owning the Earth. Linklater showed me that the ways humans have related to the land has changed widely and diversely through the ages. He also showed me that something I regarded as a tautology–property is always private and has an owner–is actually a choice. Humans can and have chosen to relate to land differently. This caused me to understand that everything about human life and culture is a choice and we have the ability to make different choices.
  3. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Lorde showed me that we cannot use the same reading strategies and constructive approaches that were used to produce hierarchical theologies of exclusion to unwind this hierarchy and replace it with a better theology. We need new tools, new questions, and new ways of approaching Scripture.  If we keep using the same hermeneutics that brought us here, we will end up in the same place where we began.
hope theology

Maintaining Hope

Cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart.

–bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions

bell hooks Photo credit: Monica Almeida/The New York

I meet a lot of people who have given up on organized religious life. Each person has their own reasons for this, many of which I feel myself.

bell hooks identifies two of the most common reasons I’ve encountered: disappointment and betrayal. Disappointment that institutional religious life is uninteresting or irrelevant for contemporary life, couldn’t provide a sense of identity or life direction that is fulfilling, and/or is actively foster abusive beliefs and ethical systems.

Other folks have been betrayed by religious figures or institutions as they have seen or experienced emotional, financial, and sexual abuse.

I think there are very legitimate reasons for walking away from a religious community or institution. I’ve done it on a couple of occasions. In these times it has been difficult for me to maintain hope that theological visions of life could make the world a better place and that religious institutions have a beneficial role in fostering them.

bell hooks, along with a few other writers and friends, have helped keep alive my hope that theology done with skill, care and love can fill our lives with meaning, joy, and world-improving action.

If you are feeling cynical or burnt out on religious life, you’re not alone. I’ve been there too. I hope that my writing in this space and in my books can bring you some hope.

In my constellation of ideas, hope is the foundation of theological reflection and communal religious practice. I’m not sure they are possible without it.

bell hooks alludes to one of the keys to maintaining hope: being open and honest about our disappointments and betrayals.

We can easily mask our hurts through cynicism. We can try to suppress pain through avoidance. But doing theology is an emotional endeavor. When folks have tried to disconnect their emotional lives from it, and portrayed theology as a purely rational exercise, they’ve run into serious problems and dragged other people down with them.

That’s one of the reasons why I wrote my newest book, A Human-Shaped God. Theology is an embodied practice. To do it well includes, as far as well are able, keeping the entirety of our person in a state of well-being. That includes actively cultivating a sense of hope.