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angry young prophets and #MyChristianLeader

If you’re part of the post-evangelical/social justice/progressive Christian world, you can’t have missed the recent conflict between a few of our most beloved figures.  In the past couple of weeks, our space has seen a number of social ruptures occur along previously-obscured fault lines, with bloggers and activists either staying silent or rallying towards one of two primary personalities.

One of these leaders is Rachel Held Evans, the blogger and author who largely dedicates her writing to the advancement of gender equality in the church, and more recently to the inclusion and liberation of LGBTQ Christians.  Rachel is well-respected in many progressive faith circles for her commitment to marrying strong egalitarian beliefs with a robustly evangelical faith, and for her ability to articulate her spiritual journey in a way that resonates with and helps transform her readers.

The second leader is Suey Park, the prolific writer and racial justice activist who rose to national attention last year for sparking several worldwide conversations on race and white supremacy.  Suey is a highly sought-after figure in both secular and spiritual spaces for her academic writing on critical race theory, her community organizing skills, and her innate knack for all things social media.  Suey is a Christian committed to racial reconciliation, and she recently co-founded a group called Killjoy Prophets, a faith-based collective that works to disrupt and challenge both conservatives and progressives, inviting all to re-conform to the image of Christ by centering the most marginalized voices.

Recently, Rachel was publicly challenged by Suey to pay more attention to racial justice issues, and to not speak over or tokenize the voices of women of color (some call this process “decentering whiteness”).  The two exchanged brief correspondence on a few separate occasions, and among other things, we witnessed the peculiar distorting effect that 140 characters can inflict on our clearest arguments and observations, as the limits of the medium played their hand.

Soon, this little bubble of the Internet seemed to split in half.  People who I had thought were all “on the same side” quickly splintered and divided.  Some folks were called out, others lashed back, and there has also been a notable chasm of silence from many folks who probably aren’t quite sure how to react to the trauma.  (I apologize if I’ve summarized anything inaccurately here or mischaracterized anybody.  Please let me know if this is the case.)

Because I’m not a professional activist or author like Suey or Rachel, it’s unusual for my online commitments to eclipse my daily slate of Real Life activities – I’m a full-time undergraduate student, an RA, an event planner, and plenty more besides.  I write, tweet, and read when I can, but it’s all in between attending classes and hanging up bulletin boards.

However, I’ve had more phone, text, Twitter, and Skype conversations this week than I can count – all with friends who are paying a lot of attention to this situation.  All of them admitted to being general fans of both Suey and Rachel, to feeling caught in the middle, wanting so badly for some kind of reconciliation to occur, but feeling increasingly hopeless, powerless as to where to begin.

And so I feel obliged to say something.  It might be easier to sit this one out, because I’m deeply wracked with the fear that I’ll say something wrong and alienate the very people I’ve come to love and trust so much.  And my friend Mihee already wrote something similar, so maybe this is unnecessary.  But if there is even a small chance of good resulting from this post, I have to write it.  While I’m ill-prepared to step into this conversation and try to serve as some kind of moral arbiter, I can speak as someone who really respects both of these women, someone whose only desire is reconciliation.

At the same time, I hope I’m not trying to slap a band-aid on a gaping wound, to call “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.  I’m not ignorant of the pain this recent conflict has caused those involved, and I want to be clear that I’m not proposing the sort of stand-in-the-middle-with-your-eyes-wide-shutthird way” that some Christians are constantly hawking above the voices of the hurting.  My goal in writing this is just to ask for an actual conversation between two women I admire, and the chance at healing.

I'm sure Rachel doesn't remember this – but it was one of the most affirming conversations I've had.

I’m sure Rachel doesn’t remember this – but this is a photo of me having one of the most encouraging, loving, and affirming conversations I’ve ever had.

Suey and I both publicly repented earlier this week for the damaging ways in which we have conducted ourselves in the virtual world, whenever those ways have negatively impacted the justice work we are trying to accomplish.  We both decided to stop getting into unnecessary Twitter fights, to think more critically about how our virtual vitriol can hurt actual human beings, particularly when a softer word might get the job done just as well.

Mark Driscoll recently claimed that his days of an “angry young prophet” were over for good.  Though he was certainly never a prophet (or any sort of responsible spokesperson for God) I want to borrow his wording here because I believe the idea of an angry young prophet is apt for those who are called to challenge ecclesiastical patterns of sin.  Yes, our lethargic, bloated North American church needs more killjoys and angry young prophets to stir up a mess, to fasten a whip of cords together and shake our congregations out of their lazy, oppressive systems – to purge homophobia, misogyny, white supremacy from our ranks.

Yes, naming institutional sin is a sacred role.  But it can’t be the only one all of us ever play.  Our Church needs more angry young prophets, but also more healers, more writers, more fishermen and reconcilers, more doctors and social workers; our call is as much a builder of good as destroyer of evil.  We’re supposed to be as sharp and striking as snakes, yet as peaceful and innocent as doves.

I’m not talking tone policing, and this isn’t me asking for marginalized people to play by respectability.  This is me personally trying to grapple with the fact that as a follower of Christ, I give into the temptation to lack grace and demonize and dispose of my opponents far too often.

This ethic of disposability is so attractive, and it can play out in all sorts of online spaces, whenever we find ourselves disagreeing with a single aspect of someone’s politics or doctrine and subsequently write them off entirely.  Yet our ultimate enemies in the war we wage against fundamentalism and white supremacy are not individual human beings, but powers and principalities.

Each one of us are Imago Dei, remember?  We are always more than one digital dimension, greater than the rote sum of our piecemeal profiles and portfolios.  We are human beings.  Not brands.  Each online persona that we malign or antagonize or dismiss as a liar is a real someone.  Someone who loses people, who gets dumped – someone who makes mistakes on too-small phones, who also loves Taylor Swift, who cries themselves to sleep over the horrible things that people have said about them on the Internet.

I think part of the problem is that we can conduct ourselves so differently in virtual spaces.  I know that I have the tendency to be more assertive and aggressive online on social media, where bravery is cheaper and magnified by pixelated courage.  It has become so easy to dehumanize each other, which is maybe the greatest sin we can commit.

image

Visiting our friend Daniel's church last month

I can see why some people might be afraid of Suey’s online persona.  Watching her release sharp streams of thought can be harsh and entrancing, like witnessing the searing beauty of an active geyser.  Yet it’s another thing entirely when you’re sitting across from Suey in person, talking about faith, and she actually says “the s word” because she doesn’t swear in real life.  I have felt a safety and affirmation in her presence that is impossible to convey online.  Like the Wizard of Oz, my impression is that we can easily become enveloped and obscured by our bluster, our projected personalities.

I can see, too, how someone with as much respect and influence in this niche world as Rachel might naturally unsettle those with smaller platforms, or those who are less familiar with how many streams of the “progressive Christian Internet” operate.  (We are an odd bunch – very white, very reactive, frequently myopic and hostile towards those who threaten our sense of comfort.)  And yet I suspect that many who judge Rachel prematurely are, in person, completely disarmed by her warm presence and kind drawl.  I’d imagine that an actual in-person conversation would melt away any fears that this woman is intimidating or above reproach.

* * * * *

I hope it’s obvious by now that I consider Suey a teacher and a dear friend.  There’s scarcely a day that goes by that she doesn’t care for me in some way.  I wish I could express in a sufficient way how much positive impact her friendship and influence have had in my life.  I’m more convinced than ever that we need her voice and prophetic witness in the world, in the church, in our in-person and online conversations.

I’m afraid I don’t know Rachel very well, so I can’t speak for her or how she might be learning or feeling or hurting right now.  But I do know that I am profoundly grateful for her work, which has touched so many people.  (Including myself: Rachel’s writing was what helped give me the courage to finally leave a spiritually abusive faith community – by coincidence, the exact same group of people that Suey also survived).

I know too that Rachel – like both Suey and myself – has come so far in the way she treats and advocates for LGBTQ Christians.  She’s challenged biases and led the captives out of the same circles of fundamentalism that have left all three of us scarred.  I really believe that if we ever lost her voice, it would not be a cause for celebration.

I feel my loyalties torn between these two brave and imperfect Christian leaders who have each taught me so much, who have both inspired and influenced my faith journey in countless ways.  Neither of these women are monsters.  They deserve charity, dialogue, and at least a chance at real conversation – in more than 140 characters.  I want reconciliation.  I want resolution.  That’s how you act when you’re #MyChristianLeader.

(Maybe someone should start an anonymous Kickstarter campaign…to buy Rachel and Suey plane tickets and day passes to Disneyworld, where they can spend the day getting to know one another and talking faith/justice over taffy apples and roller coasters?  Is that too wishful?)

tú me quieres blanca (may God forgive you)

Three months ago, I walked into a Cuban pharmacy to fill a prescription I’d been given at the clinic across the street.  I had recently come down with a case of photodermatitis, which maybe sounds bad, but the hospital specialist assured me that the scary name was mostly a bluff – I had probably just spilled lime juice on my hands and then unintentionally let the sun stain my skin with these leprotic spots.  The recommended treatment was essentially to not let the sun shine on my hands anymore, and to apply a healing salve every morning and evening.

While I was waiting for my medicine in the pharmacy, I witnessed the single most disturbing thing that I saw while in Cuba.

This was more sinister than any evil economic or political ideology I found on the island, more jarring than skinny dipping in the freezing Atlantic Ocean, more frightening than the time a Cuban soldier threatened to arrest me for taking a photo of him.

On a shelf next to medicine and contraceptives, I saw something for sale called skin whitening cream.  In case it isn’t obvious, the point behind this product is to lighten your skin, and therefore align it more closely with perfection and beauty.  This particular brand was called White Prestige™.

blanca

White Prestige.  Main ingredient: Hyaluronic Acid.

The implicit assumption at play here is that whiteness equals beauty.  Dark skinned folks, therefore, need only to assimilate to white standards and expectations if they want to truly be beautiful.  A cream like White Prestige might seem odd to some, but this “beauty product” is, after all, for sale in a country with a tired history of racial discrimination against black and brown bodies.  This greater context perhaps begins to explain why some darker skinned people would eventually learn to hate their skin so much that they would pay money to bleach it, to apply caustic chemicals (literally acid) to it, in order to escape the social shame associated with not being white enough.

Although these products comprise a multi-million dollar industry worldwide, they are not as mainstream here in the United States.  However, it would be a mistake to assume that the very literal whitewashing that takes place in other parts of the world is somehow absent from our society.  The all too familiar pattern of altering ones’ skin, eyes, and hair to better align it with how white bodies look has become a common trend in my country, and the twisted philosophy behind this practice (whiteness=beautiful) affects the lives of both whites and people of color, adults and infants.

Which doll is the nice doll?  It’s that one.  Which is the bad one, the scary one?  That one.  Why is that doll pretty? “Because it’s white and has blue eyes.”  Why is that doll ugly?  “Because he’s black.”

I hope you’ve watched the above video, which documents several studies examining how early childhood development and socialization often has racially fragmenting results.  Studies like these should break your heart, perhaps especially if you happen to believe that all people are created equally in the image of God.  It should utterly rile you that the greater trends of colonial violence operating in our society fracture and build to a rising spiritual conflict inside of our youth.

Since I left Christian fundamentalism (where I had several experiences with fake exorcisms and the like) I’ve been hesitant to name things “demonic” or “hellish.”  But the phenomenon recorded in the above video is truly nothing less than satanic, a devilishly fathered system of lies that incarnates itself inside the most innocent.

The kind of shame and self-hatred encouraged by this pattern can actually perhaps be aptly summarized by an old protest song originally written about an IRA terrorist attack in Northern England that left two children dead:

Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken

And the violence caused such silence

who are we mistaken?

But you see, it’s not me

It’s not my family in your head, in your head…

Young people begin to absorb horrific messages of White Prestige(™?) soon after they are born.  They learn very early to be ashamed of the fact that they don’t seem to match up with popular conceptions of goodness or beauty.  Children of color in particular know that it’s not them, not their faces or families, that people are picturing in their heads when we’re having a conversation about who or what is beautiful in this country.

Non-white children instinctively come to understand that their people aren’t represented positively or adequately in the media, that members of their communities aren’t holding a proportionate amount of societal power.  And so our young people naturally begin to internalize the unnatural rationale that being a different color consequently correlates to being untrustworthy, dangerous, ugly.

How can we – who believe that the color of one’s skin does not impact the content of one’s character – fight against a culture of such reckless hate?  For one, we can talk about it.  We can educate young people about this issue.  We can teach our children to take joy in their melanin-thick, sunburn-resistant skin, to celebrate their little dark eyes that squeeze almost completely shut when they laugh, to embrace their “wild,” natural hair that refuses to be tamed or pushed into a box.

We can help our children come to know that their own bodies are 100% unique, 100% acceptable.  We can work so that they will one day understand that the white supremacy which operates largely unchecked in our country is a system of evil from the devil himself.  May our little ones never come to believe the lie that they need to pick up a jar of acid to bleach their skin, and destroy themselves in order to become beautiful.

As Alfonsina Storní, one of Latin America’s most important and incisive poets, wrote almost one hundred years ago: “tú me quieres blanca…me pretendes blanca…(Dios te lo perdone).”

“You want me white…you expect me to be pale…(may God forgive you).”

How about you – do you believe you have been unconsciously affected by systemic racism?  Why or why not?

seniortime sadness (and writing through it)

Anne Lamott (who I consider to be a spiritual mother of sorts) says that writing can be about filling you up when you are empty, and also about dealing with the emptiness.  I’ve experienced this to be true at many points in my life, especially now as I am entering my final year of college.  There’s a certain kind of swelling sadness, or at least a new sense of depth, that is growing swiftly at this particular stage in my life.  It’s been comforting to use writing – the creation process – as a useful tool to help guide me through these uncertain waters.

When I came to this university just three years ago, the scary prospect of the real world™ suddenly paused.  Jobs, career, and future relationships didn’t demand any present concern.  I allowed myself to become imbued with the comforting knowledge that they would all work out in their proper time.  College, after all, would last forever.

I’ve experienced my undergraduate education here like a stilted version of purgatory.  I’ve been stretched and challenged and tugged in all the right ways, I’ve made mistakes and stumbled down weird roads, and I’ve loved well and grown as a human being.  Now, senior year is approaching.  The incessant “so what are you doing after graduation” question has already begun to surface.  Our eternal deadline is on the horizon and I’m honestly a bit frightened at the prospect of what comes next.

So here I am, these universally isolating thoughts clattering around in my head, spending a day “writing” and relaxing before residents move in, before classes start, before campus kicks off and all hell breaks loose.  I’ve had a few days like this in the past week, and I’m starting to notice that every time I “dedicate a day to writing,” I end up instead reading thought pieces and comic books, obsessively tweezing rogue body hairs, marathon-watching my favorite shows on Netflix, neurotically scrubbing my carpet clean with blue patches of tape.

I've got that summertime, summertime Netflix...

I’ve got that summertime, summertime Netflix…

As Anne Lamott has also observed, the one thing no one never tells you about writing (the one “fly in the ointment,” as she puts it) is just how much the actual act of writing sucks, how much it strains your mind and soul and smarts at every part of you.

I’m already a really undisciplined person.  And writing is therapeutic, but it doesn’t dish out rose-colored glasses; the whole ugly process of forcing myself to sit down and write only makes me realize just how bad I am at calmly organizing my thoughts coherently on paper.

I have over a hundred unfinished drafts sitting in my blog queue.  Some of these are almost totally completed, others have disparate thoughts I’ve vaguely fleshed out, and a few feature just one or two impossible sentences.  I’m sure many of these works will never see the light of day.  But the ones that do, I’m proud of them.  They aren’t just random, I take the time to create and polish them.  I want them to stretch their legs and get out there into the world and start walking all over the place.

I’ll admit it – when I’m feeling celestially dramatic, I have a real sense of guardianship over my words.  I almost see my individual posts or essays as my children.  (I also wonder if other writers or artists ever feel this way.)  Each individual labor is meaningful to me, a little piece of myself, born in love, and each of these little ones is unique and special in their own way.  Like a parent, I do my best to look in on my creations from time to time, and I always hope they are doing well.

Sometimes these babies will make a mess: sometimes they misbehave and cause a stir, stomping around and tracking muddy fingerprints all over the walls of my tiny social network.  Other times they just sit quietly and play in the corner, hoping no one will notice them.  (I tend to like these ones best.)  Other babies will silently pack up their things and light out, marching off into the unknown.  I don’t hear back from all of them, but way down the road, some might return with some tiny bit of gospel, of good news.

Like yesterday, for instance, I woke up to a Facebook message from an old enemy who had once been an old friend.  It was odd, considering the way things ended between us, but I was intrigued and excited to connect again after years of silence.  She mentioned that a friend of hers had linked to my blog, and that she’d clicked a few posts back to something I wrote about our freshman year of college.  The post made her feel sad and nostalgic encouraged her to take the initiative to reconcile things (an action I had not really been brave enough to take up to this point).

Through one five minute Facebook conversation, we both regained a friendship.  A bridge became unburned.  It was that easy.  We’d held onto the fear and regret for years now, and in the end, it was silly how simple solving our conflict was.  It made me want to grab ahold of the little one who helped orchestrate this healing and give her a hug and a blue ribbon, for humbling me and teaching me what it means to forgive and forget as children do.

Now, there’s probably one large downside (besides the spiritual arrogance, of course) to thinking of your words as your children: you’ll eventually have to kill them.  I was writing a newsletter article a month or so ago and I was given a word limit of 400.  I turned off Netflix and ate some cereal and mustered up the strength to work for an hour and a half, then whipped my head up to check the word count.  1000.  I spent the next three hours wracked with hot tears, stinging anger, and misplaced guilt as I culled a herd of my own precious children down by the hundreds.  (Okay, it wasn’t that intense, but seriously, it was hard, and I felt like a monster.)

Kill your darlings, is a valuable piece of advice that’s very popular among my writer friends.  I also hate it.  To kill your darlings essentially means that whenever you think you have written a sentence that is so fantastic, so clever, so amazing, that it’s sure to make everyone realize how wonderful and intelligent of a writer you are…whenever that happens, you need to swallow hard and kill the thing.  Cut the entire sentence from the piece, get rid of it now before anyone sees it.  It is almost certainly too floral, too verbose, or too self-important for anyone but you to stomach.  It means other things too, I think, but you might be better off asking my friends about that.

I kind of got off topic here.  My point, I think, is that even though writing is so horribly difficult and annoying, sometimes good things can come from the pain and awkwardness that go into it.  Disciplined writing, killing my darlings, helps me to understand a crazy world that can make me feel alone, a world that often scares the shit out of me.  As messy and infuriating as the whole writing process can be, the mental clutter and disarray actually help me fight off the emptiness and the unknown that the future brings.  And so I welcome the struggle.  Better chaos than oblivion.

a real rattlesnake, always ready to strike

Last month, I celebrated my 21st birthday.  Friends gathered together at my buddy Alex’s apartment for food, drinks, cigars, and music.  It was tons of fun, everybody got home safely, and then I schlepped off to work at 7am the next morning.

Overall, it was a great day and the party itself was a wonderful way to celebrate reaching college-adulthood.  I wanted to write this post because I think I’ll always remember in particular a few simple but amazing presents I received to commemorate the occasion:

The first gift I want to tell you about was that I had a nice lunch with my mom and dad.  It has been almost fourteen years since divorce split us all apart, and in this entire time I hadn’t gotten to sit down for a meal with both of my parents, even though they live five minutes from each other.  It was so nice just going out for a meal like a normal family (if there is such a thing), and feeling somewhat intact again for just a few minutes, even if my parents weren’t really speaking to each other.  I’d like to think the waiter didn’t even notice anything was wrong.

fam

would you?

The second gift that I really appreciated was a poem that my friend Heather wrote for me.  It’s kind of an unconventional gift, especially for a college student, especially for one’s 21st birthday.  I’ll admit, when she first told me my birthday present was going to be a poem, I heard something silly and juvenile inside of me crinkle up and die – a poem for a 21st birthday gift just sounded like the dullest thing in the world, like getting a pair of oversized socks for Christmas while your siblings received buckets of celebratory booze (and I may be mixing metaphors/celebrations here).

However, after I read this poem, I was struck.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so happy at receiving a birthday gift.  It is silly, sharp, winsome, and wildly esoteric in the sense that unless you’re a nerd about my life, you won’t understand all of it (which is totally ok).  Heather has given me permission to share it here, at the end of this post.

I really appreciated all the work that went into writing it, and I’m grateful for all the time spent on the physical displays of love that people gave me.  (Not to disparage the lovely libations that many of you gifted me at our party, but store-bought things often can’t hold a flame to presents constructed from the heart.  Handmade gifts, born in love, really are the best.)  Another friend handwrote me a letter, and made me a super sweet mix CD.  My girlfriend took the time to create a jar with “ 21 reasons I love you ♥” inside of it, where she carefully wrote me kind observations and infatuations on red and pink slips of paper.  All of these gestures made me want to cry with happiness.

make a wish!

make a wish!

Anyhow, to all of my friends who made it out last week, and to those who were too far away to be there in person, I thank you for reading this and for being a positive presence in my life.  So much love to you today.  I’m very grateful for you, loved ones, whether we met in Spanish class or through Twitter, and I’m especially thankful for the support and insight you’ve brought my life (particularly when things feel overwhelming and confusing on this end).  Thank you all for reminding me I am a valuable and important part of your lives and this world – as I said on my birthday last year, sometimes you first have to see somebody else love something before you can really believe it’s worth loving.

I’ll leave you with the aforementioned poem:

“Be a mover, a shaker,
A voice for the lost.
Be a thinker, a doer
No matter the cost.
Be a blogger, a writer
A true friend to those
Who are heretics, doubters
Though you face many foes.
Be an activist, a fighter
For justice and love
A supporter of a faith
That we all fall short of.
Be a romantic, a dreamer
Conspirer, inspirer
Someone who’s willing to
To Carry the Fire.
Be bold and be loud
Be an outspoken voice
For those who are told
That their love is a choice
Be true and be kind
Be a transparent soul
Where people, not projects
Become the ultimate goal.
Be an acceptor, nonjudger
Encourager, and free
To say what you think
And with no apology
Be an author, a critic
Creative and sincere
Not avoiding the issues
That people need to hear
Be a listener, an empathizer
Someone who understands
The struggles and heartbreaks
Of both woman and man
Be a feminist, a marcher
For equality and truth
When the world tries to silence us
Because of our youth.
Be persistent, consistent
Mr. Brightside, the grey
Because nothing’s black or white
At the end of the day
Be present, be mindful
Be generous to others
Welcoming each stranger
As a new sister or brother
Be a real rattlesnake
Always ready to strike
Questioning the conventions
That white society likes
Be a wordsmith, an inventor,
Always outside the box
Willing to stand up for
causes others may mock
Be strong and be proud
Be unshakable through pain
Though others may scorn you
Because you don’t think the same
Be loving and vulnerable
No matter the scar
Be not afraid of the darkness
Just always be who you are”

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My thoughts and work on philosophy, theology, and politics.

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One Way, One Truth, One Life

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