Litmus Test for Any Church


The Litmus Test: Can I bring my unchurched friends to this church?

Will I have to prepare them before hand or can they just show up?

Will I have to translate for them so they can participate without feeling like an outsider?

Will I have to apologize to them afterward?

Will they encounter Jesus when they come?

The apostle Paul said that the gospel is a stumbling block.  It sure is.  It always has been an anathema to the human condition.  It is bad news before it is good news.  But the church ought not be a stumbling block.

The church ought to be as welcoming as Jesus.  And people ought to be able to belong before they believe.  How’s your church doing on this litmus test?

Cutting Room Floor: Lifetime vs Point in Time


St Peter holding the keys to the Kingdom. Statue at St John Lateran Church, Rome. 

Often times preachers can fall into the temptation of taking one “point in time” moment in the Bible and teach that everyone should be like that everywhere, all the time. I recall sitting in a sermon where the preacher invited us to pray the “Prayer of Jabez” every day for the rest of our life. But let’s face it, Jabez prayed that prayer at one point in time and the Chronicler briefly concluded, “And God granted his request.” One and done. If preachers keep stacking these “point in time” moments into ongoing commitments, we won’t have any time left to do dishes or take out the trash, to say nothing about how we too quickly ignore the unique nature of many of those encounters. “We should ALL step out of the boat and walk on water!” Really? Because one guy did it one time?

What if, instead of extrapolating these “point in time” moments, we instead look at the ebb and flow and the ups and downs of a lifetime of following Jesus? I think that would give us a more accurate picture of lifetime discipleship.

This summer, our church is doing that very thing – starting with the moment someone follows Jesus through the ups and downs of following for a lifetime. Bold moves, mistakes, confused questions, failures, amazing courageous acts, all of it. We’re spending our whole summer with Peter, one of Jesus’ most famous disciples because the authors of Scripture wrote so much about him.

One other quick mention: The Bible condenses history into action moments on every page. Matthew, for example, recorded approximately 1000 days of Jesus’ ministry into 31 pages. When we read Matthew or any of the gospels, we can mistakenly think that following Jesus is an “action every day” sort of experience, but surely Peter had days of getting up, doing dishes, kissing his wife goodbye, running the donkey-pool, spending time with Jesus, coming home. No miracles, no spectacular moments. But unfortunately, scripture leaves those days to our imagination. Don’t get me started on how many mundane days Abraham lived, or the Israelites in the wilderness. Forgetting this reality leads us to a false conclusion that every day is a miracle filled adventure with Jesus and we’re not measuring up. Hopefully this summer series will offer some needed balance to that assumption.

We began this week with Jesus’ call to follow him. Next week we’re looking at the moment when Peter walks toward Jesus on water. We’ll follow alongside Peter through the ups and downs of his Jesus following – from his declaration of who Jesus is to his denial and subsequent forgiveness. We’ll then chase him through Acts as he helps build the church and finally close with a few sermons on 1 and 2 Peter. Of course, Peter is still a singular figure in church history. We should proceed with caution before saying, “we too should be like Peter.” But all the same, staying up close and personal with Peter for a few months will give us a taste of the ebbs and flows of long term Jesus following. We invite you to join with us on the journey.

Public Shame and Solidarity

‘I was seen by many but actually known by few. And I get it. It was easy to forget that That Woman was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.’ –  Monica Lewinski

1997. I was sitting in the hospital cafeteria eating a chuckwagon steak when the ER beeper lit up. A young mother driving the neighborhood carpool was in a bad accident and several of the kids had been thrown outside the van. She came away unscathed because she was wearing a seatbelt, but none of the kids were buckled and now she was on one side of the ER double doors, the kids on the other. She was waiting to hear if she had killed her son and her friends’ sons.

What do you do for a person who is so wrecked with guilt that they exhibit pure self hatred?  I was far enough along in my CPE journey to be self aware that I was very angry at her. My default setting at the time was self righteousness and it often came to the surface when I was under pressure or needed to feel better about myself. I was, in so many ways, the pharisee who said, “thank you God that I am not like that person….a sinner.”

She didn’t make the kids wear a seat belt. Continue reading

Advent Art: ProtoEuangelium


“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Quality art is better enjoyed than explained. I hope you enjoy this fine craft. Artist is unknown, but I found the piece profoundly moving. I hope you do too.

Annotated Guide to Deeper Bible Study


Our church is in a series that focused on Bible Study this week. Our message focused on two dynamics:

  1. The contrast between God determination and self determination. We live in a culture that values self determination, but David reminds us in Psalm 19 that God determination is the pathway to freedom and that we shouldn’t trust self determination. “But who can discern their own errors?” he asks? He writes affectionately about all the ways God’s laws and edicts are for our protection, not for our restriction, yet our tendency is to “keep the law off our back.” The contrast is stark.
  2. Most followers of Christ want to get more out of their Bible reading, but feel stuck for various reasons. We spent the majority of our message on this dynamic and as promised, below is the list of tools I mentioned as pathways to growth.

People grow in their Bible reading when they combine their spiritual hunger with guides who can help them (like scholars or pastors) and time and money. In my own journey, I put a lot of time and money into getting helpful guides and it made a huge difference for me. Of course as a Pastor, it makes sense that I would invest a large amount of time and money into my vocation. Fortunately, we live in a technological age where you really don’t need to enroll in a seminary to get incredible, seminary level guides. So many great scholars now offer online courses, but you can also find them in books, podcasts, iTunes university etc. We live in a golden age of resource, why not spend some time and/or money on some of these resources below.  Continue reading

Happy Thanksgiving

Everybody has a favorite Christmas movie. In that same vein, I have a favorite Thanksgiving television episode. The West Wing season two episode “Shibboleth.” It has several great plots running through it, one involving Chinese refugees seeking religious asylum and the White House staff having to determine if they are “feigning faith” to get in, or if they are true believers. Another involves the Press Secretary, CJ Craig having to choose between two turkeys, one of whom will be pardoned by the president, the other will be eaten within days. Having spent time with both turkeys, she wants neither to two and implores the president to pardon a second turkey.

Here’s the discussion on faith:

Here’s the turkey:


The whole show is on Netflix if you’d like to enjoy it. Happy Thanksgiving.

The Elephant (And Donkey) In the Room and the Kingdom Manifesto

*On November 9, the country woke up to a new president elect, surprising a great deal of people including people in this church. This nation has been through some harrowing times in our history, we have dealt with cultural anxiety and anger as a country before. September 11, 2001 was one of those times.

But this is different because the inciting incident hasn’t brought us together, it has divided us against each other even further. Pew research center, “more than 4 in 10 voters believe that the other side’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation.”  55% of democrats say the republican party makes them afraid. 49% of republicans say the same thing about democrats. That means that basically half of the country is terrified of the other half and convinced that they are destroying what makes America strong.

I believe the anxiety, fear, hurt and anger are only going to increase in the coming days and while it is a very painful time, regardless of how you cast your vote, I believe the church has an obligation to show this culture that there is a vision for another way in God’s kingdom.

Never in modern history has there been a more important time for the American church to embody the Kingdom. In God’s kingdom, powerful people always move toward powerless people. Jesus was the very model of finding marginalized people, humans that society had deemed unclean or unwelcome and welcomed them into community. So if you are a woman, or if your skin is a color other than white, or if you are a man, or if your skin color is white, if you are an immigrant or have a disability of some kind, or a police officer, if you are not a follower of Christ but follow another religion or no religion at all. If you are attracted to people of your same gender, the gospel of Jesus is for you and this church is a place where you can encounter Jesus, be scandalized by Jesus and transformed by his Spirit. None of us who encounter Christ stay the same.  Behold the old has gone and the new has come. In Christ, you are a new creation. The church exists as an outpost of God’s Kingdom welcoming all humans and honoring their inherent dignity and value.

Russell Moore said, “We’re not getting anywhere as long as we gather in church with people we’d gather with if Jesus were still dead.”  Continue reading

Cutting Room Floor: Stewardship


My favorite preacher, Fred Craddock tells preaching students to avoid, if at all possible, the “ship” and “ness” words and find another word. Fellow-ship, Steward-ship. Righteous-ness, Holi-ness. They are not bad words. The church has just worn them out and they have lost their punch, according to Craddock.

And so this week’s sermon on….Stewardship. The word “steward” is an old word, airlines don’t even use it anymore, so for the sermon, we focused on the word “manager” over “steward.” Of course, I suppose Craddock could equally criticize the “ment” words: manage-ment. All the same, the sermon was about “someone who handles someone else’s stuff.” And so we come to the impasse of this sermon:

Who’s “stuff” is it?

The bible clearly teaches that God owns all stuff. All that we love, including people, the air we breath, all of it. With a multi billion dollar advertising empire behind it, our culture teaches that we own all our stuff, we need to protect our stuff, we don’t have enough stuff and we need more stuff.

Who is telling the truth? God or our culture? How do you preach a message on stuff management without moving into the usual guilt/shame/should do more syndrome of so many sermons?

Can a still small voice speak deeper into our frightened and anxious hearts than the megaphone of Madison Avenue?

Only if you trust.

Jesus tells a parable in Mathew 25 that is stark, threatening and dire, but underneath the hyperbole is the question, “do you trust the owner?” and “what are you assuming about the owner.” The managers who trusted that the owner is good and has good intent managed his property well, so he gave them more to manage. The one who assumed the owner is bad squandered the little he’d been entrusted with. I find this to be utterly convicting – believing that God owns it all comes down to trusting in the nature of God.

And so this week, an opportunity to put your trust in the owner of the cattle of a thousand hills over a culture that incentivizes you to stay discontent. Generosity really does lead to freedom and wonder. Changing our grip on the people we deeply love relaxes our heart and anxiety. God owning it all and us managing it is the free-er way to live.

And finally a wonderful quote from Thomas Merton, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

Cutting Room Floor: Compassion

I suppose this is less “cutting room floor” and more “commentary on the sermon process.”

If you boil down every significant religious leader to one descriptive word, it shows how radically different they really are. So many people today lazily suggest that all religions basically believe the same thing or all religions lead to the same path. I say “lazily” because you’d be hard pressed to find a devout muslim or devout Jew who would agree with that, nor of course a Christian or Hindu. I propose that the one word to describe Jesus is ‘compassion.’

This past week I was intrigued to try an experiment. If Jesus really is the embodiment of compassion, could I just grab some random chapters of a gospel and see how he embodies compassion in each chapter? One of my favorite stories of compassion is John 8, so I started there and went 5 chapters ahead and 5 behind. No problem, either way would work. The same trick works if you start at Matthew 10 (Good Samaritan) or Luke 15 (Prodigal Son.) I chose to start at John 3 because I enjoyed being confronted by a painful reality: Jesus is much more compassionate to a wider range of people than I am. Ouch.

As an aside, if your preacher isn’t being affected by the study he or she is doing, beware.

The sermon was fun to preach. They aren’t all fun, to be honest, but anytime I get to simply share the stories of Jesus, I have a good time. I think it is because Jesus is the reason I became a preacher in the first place. Also because I am a grateful recipient of the compassion of Jesus. Mostly though, it is because no matter how many times I study the life of Jesus, I am always scandalized and confronted. As I studied, I renewed my vow to God: more light, less heat. More listening to understand rather than listening to defend. (Thanks to my wife Lisa for that fantastic dichotomy.) More openness to a wider range of people. I have a long way to go.

Throughout the message I occasionally paused and asked a question that God had been nudging me with: What would be different if the church were at least as compassionate as our leader? We are not, as a collective whole, known as a people of compassion. It is never too late to repent and try a different path.

Also, I’m in debt to Andy Gullahorn who wrote a wonderful song “If You Want to Love Someone.” It helped me discover the wonderful quote by Keith Miller,The way you love someone is to lightly run your finger over that person’s soul until you find a crack, and then gently pour love in.”

It also gave occasion for me to ask Jimmy to sing the song. It is one of my favorite things to do: ask Jimmy to sing a particular song for our service. He is always very generous to agree. I doubt many people know how much work is involved in performing a 3 or 4 minute song in such a way as to embody it, but it is his particular gift. He was joined by Lisa on Thursday and Alex on Sunday, both of whom enhanced the song with talent and heart.

Several ideas didn’t make it into the message, this particular one below:

I am listening to Terri Gross interview Nadia Bolz Weber on Fresh Air. She is commenting on a funeral she preached for a suicide. Her comment was that love is not enough to save somebody. I have found myself in this situation, thinking, “if only they knew how much they are loved.” I think Nadia is saying that we can’t love enough to protect somebody from life’s battles. I think that is why we pray. Sometimes all we have is a prayer, begging God that he would show somebody his love. So as I wrap up this blog, I invite you to pray for somebody who needs to know. There may be many telling him or her, but it isn’t getting through.

It made me think that sometimes prayer is asking God to bridge the gap between our love and someone’s perception of it.

A Reminder from Fred

United States is a celebrity culture, far above any other culture in its need to follow, hound and report on celebrities. This culture spills into the church where church leaders, particularly those who spend any time on a stage in front of people, can forget that they are simply one member in the body of Christ.

Yet when a leader uses their medium and platform to serve, the results can be powerful. Here is a needed reminder from Fred Rogers – his acceptance speech for an Emmy Award he won: