the practice of the better

Practice pinned on noticeboard

“the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better”

– richard rohr

* * * * *

i had an interesting conversation with a friend this past week who didn’t really know my story of the past 7+ years of the ups of working on a big church staff to the downs (in a good way, ha ha) of starting the refuge.  stepping out of the path of ascent into one of descent started long before 7 years ago, but it wasn’t until i stepped out of “church-as-i-had-always-known-it” that my heart, practice, and the actual ministries i am in all lined up with greater integrity.  before, i was always swimming against the tide, trying to change systems that honestly weren’t that interested in changing.

part of the conversation that arose with my friend is something that tends to be a fairly common one–many don’t understand why people who leave church have to be mad about it.  “why can’t they just move on, quit looking back or being so angry, and just focus on something new?”  i always have a strong reaction to this because i know in my own life, i wish it were that easy.  but grief, my friends, doesn’t look like that.  grief is messy.  grief is unpredictable.  grief includes anger, sadness, depression, and disorientation.  when we leave behind all that we once knew, we can’t help but grieve.  but, we also all know that western culture sucks at grieving so we don’t really know what that looks like.  so friends tell us to “move on”, we tell ourselves “it shouldn’t hurt that bad, geez, it was only a church for goodness sake” and we stall out our healing.   we also forget that issues of injustice and oppression, which are a lot of major reasons people find themselves “out” aren’t ones we can just “get over” in a flash.  they tap into something far deeper about our dignity & worth and do a number on our head and hearts.

the best thing i ever did was let myself be a mess five years ago for a long time.  it was one of the hardest things i’ve ever done, too, because anger scares me (and people around me who weren’t used to me expressing it, either).  but i kept on moving through, letting myself feel hurt, sadness, loss, and anger, and eventually, most of it has dissipated over time.  sure, i have moments where it seeps through & different experiences trip that wire inside of me that touches on raw feelings of oppression & injustice & hurt.  i’m human.  but on the whole, i’m in a completely different place.

and really committed to looking forward with hope, while sometimes glancing backward sometimes so i remember why i’m doing what i’m doing.

one thing i am struck with more than ever is that “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better“.  it’s the way we will ultimately change things.  we also must remember we are human and sometimes we need to go through our raggy season of being critical and cynical and wounded for a while to learn “um, i don’t want to stay here forever because it’s really a drag.”  and eventually we begin to get in touch with not “what was” and focus on “what could be”we begin to see that we can, indeed, find all kinds of wild and beautiful ways to live out what we deeply believe.

that’s the season that i am in right now.  life at the refuge is nutty, complicated, and hard. but i am also seeing “practice of the better” in real life.  i am living in a culture that extends love mercy & compassion, welcomes pain, honors doubt, diffuses power, practices equality, pursues justice, expresses creativity & celebrates freedom in all kinds of simple, beautiful, unassuming, natural ways.  to me, these are the core practices of downward mobility & part of my small contribution to “the practice of the better.”  yesterday, i hit the final “send” button on down we go: living into the wild ways of Jesus back to the publisher.  on june 1st it hits the streets.  i’ve been a little weepy all day yesterday & today, thinking of how much i’ve been through, how much i’ve learned, and how grateful i am for the journey.  the most important thing i’ve ever done is keep going instead of giving up and find ways to practice what has been embedded in my heart for many years.

this looks different for everyone reading.  for me, the refuge & the muck and mire of pain and struggle in people’s real lives is where i like to live. but the challenge i pose in down we go and try to keep emphasizing in everything i write here is:

what does the practice of the better look like for each of us?

how can we nurture the practice of the better?

how can we participate in cultivating new ways of living out our faith that reflect freedom, hope, love, and peace outside of unhealthy systems?

i’d love to hear some of your experiences.  how you are finding that the “best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better”?

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • I need to write more honestly on my blog (in due time) about this, thank u for showing the way

    • thanks, trig, i look forward to reading….and thanks for reading here. hope we can touch base soon.

  • This is something that I learned the hard way as well. One of the things that has helped me come out of seasons like this is remember how sovereign I believe God is. If I am going to praise God’s sovereignty when things go awesome for me, I have to also praise his sovereignty when things go bad for me. I guess my practice of the better, is seeking out what God is wanting me to learn in the midst of disappointment, hurt and pain.

    Thanks Kathy — this is a great thought.

    • thanks, darrell. for me, i like to think of God “present in all things” and not necessarily “controlling all things” & that’s in the good and the bad, the joy and the suffering, the beauty and the ugly. and, like your practice of the better, what am i learning in whatever it is? peace to you across the oceans…

  • I’m really learning in my life that at some point it’s ok to aknowlege that the things that bother me, do, and that they do for a reason. Then I need to ask myself and pray about what that means for me. I guess since I can’t make anyone else behave differently, nor is it my place, I need to really closely look at what I am doing. I love that quote. If everybody in the church focused on their own behaviour an iota of what we channel towards how “others” should behave I think it would make a radical difference! I can’t wait to read your book!

    • thanks, jenn, yes, i can relate to learning how to just acknowledge “what i’m really feeling” instead of stuffing it down. oh that is so true, the energy that gets spent in all kinds of other directions when a fraction of it spent on ourselves could radically change the world 🙂 thanks for reading, i’m glad you’re here.

  • Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!! This is so helpful. It has been two years of recovery so far. There have been days of feeling like we’re doing pretty well and days of wondering why recovery takes so long – that it seems like we should be all better by now – and yes, why can’t we just move on? I identify with the issues of injustice & oppression that you mentioned and add rejection and dismissal to the list. Yep, they can do a number on us.

    I must learn more about your refuge. God impressed on us to host a refugee camp for our fellow refugees; it was a good picture of what we were all dealing with.

    I have discovered that I can speak honestly and boldly about the journey in some settings and not in others yet. Trig said it well in the comments: I need to write more honestly in my blog – in due time… I’m just on the edge of doing that a bit – with some courage and confidence and much fear and trembling. I want to step slowly and carefully into that arena because I want to be fair and balanced in what I say.

    • kaye, oh i am so glad that this helped you in some small way on your healing journey. how did you find this blog? you are so not alone in the refugee status, and glad to talk to you in any way that would be helpful. you can email me if you want to connect that way. have you checked out the video convos on the series page called “church refugees” with my friend phyllis or the ones with john? any way you can speak freely here, feel free to try. peace & healing to you on this long and beautiful road to freedom.

    • Kaye — Your heart resonates with mine. Just want you to know that if you write that blog, it would be my honor to read it. I understand the rejection and dismissal issues, and I hope you’ve read Kathy’s recent post about persecution — so helpful and accurate. I highly recommend the video conversations Kathy mentioned on what it means to be a refugee … so helpful!

  • Wow Kathy! The book is finished! You are an amazing, talented, thoughtful woman and I am blessed to call you friend. I’m sure there is a let-down from all the last minute rush-rush, get it done process. I know, however, that the Refuge has a way of filling those empty places and I’m sure that will happen in time. For me, the practice of the better has been to find the places that God wants me to serve and give myself wholeheartedly to them. It brings joy and blessing that I never expected!

    • thanks, patty, i am so glad that you found ways to use your gifts and serve freely and find joy in it. of course, both jose and i are extra grateful 🙂 but i think it’s awesome that you stepped out and into new arenas and gave your heart and time to learn and grow. it’s beautiful. i’m so thankful for your love & support, too.

  • Thanks Kathy, for going through all that you’ve been through and giving Donna and I the strength and encouragement to go through our own messy grieving. Like so many people who have gathered around you, to be shepherded, loved, led, and challenged, I can say emphatically that you may never know how much you’ve given us, and how much we give thanks for you, and your pain, and especially your healing presence!

    • oh gordon, i am so glad our paths crossed and somehow through wacky online stuff here we all are. it’s beautiful that somehow we all found each other & i know it’s a gift to not feel so crazy or alone. a safe place to heal and breathe is a lovely thing. we need to get something on the calendar, tell us your schedule!

  • Oh yeah, leaning into a new way has been, um, really really tough. Practicing the whole wholehearted living instead of operating on auto-pilot is, well, not playing around. It is really really helpful to me, though, to actually think about how my life (even though I thought they were *fine*) could have turned out for me had I not let myself be….well, a mess. While it is notsomuch enjoyable in the present, I too believe strongly in the (&^%$) practice of the better. 😉

    • yep, my dear, you are most definitely not dabbling 🙂 it’s beautiful to see the practice of the better up close and personal.

  • Congratulations! So excited for you and your book!!!!!! Practice of the better means being honest with myself and being honest with others about myself. Why is that so scary??? It shouldn’t make a difference, but for some reason, something inside me wants to keep it all in, both the good and the not so good. I’m getting better at it, but definitely a work in progress…

    • urh, thanks so much. couldn’t have done it without you. yeah, it’s kind of wild how honesty is so not-our-natural-reflex. glad you’re trying to practice it!

  • The “why can’t they just move on” folks: Once I thought they were just clueless. That may be the case for a few, but most of them know the answer to their own question. Those who leave once thought they were finding a safe harbor, friendship, a place to grow. Instead they ended up feeling used, controlled, manipulated and not included. Then the users pretend they don’t know what could be the problem. “Must be in your imagination.” No, they’re “users” of other people, who hide behind religion.

    The best way to deal with these people is “the practice of the better”. When you find out your boyfriend was using you, a new, genuinely nice, loving boyfriend will do wonders to help get over the old one. Focusing on finding the new boyfriend is more productive than forever focusing on the old one. We may be cynical and think there are no nice boyfriends to be found, based on our previous experience, but that’s a dead-end street.

    While it’s hard to forget the past, focusing on the present and especially the future has been the way forward for Kay and me. Focusing on other people, building relationships with them, building community, loving lavishly without an agenda, extending mercy and compassion, pursuing justice, practicing equality, diffusing power and celebrating freedom as we follow Jesus have been the way forward.

    Congratulations on the new book, Kathy!

    • Love your last paragraph, Sam, especially “loving lavishly without an agenda” — how very Christ-like. Your whole list describes Him so well … thanks for that.


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