Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ben Towne

I never met Ben nor have I met his parents. Ben's mom, Carin, is dear friends with our daughter Annie. They have shared a deep love for country music. They were part of the same church, and Ben's dad, Jeff, was on that church's staff with Annie.

Just as Annie moved to Nashville, Ben was diagnosed with disease which in a breathtakingly high percentage of cases is a death sentence. Neuroblastoma, as I understand it, is a cancer that attacks the nervous system viciously, aggressively, quickly, and causing horrific suffering. The only treatment that holds much hope is as gruesome and horrible as the disease, attacking good nerves at the same time as the cancer.

Over the last 16 months this little two year old boy went through more suffering than most human beings will go through in a long life. Treatment was a nightmare of pain, one awful step at a time. Ben often lay writhing in pain, enduring the one pathway of hope that he had available to him. He lived in the hospital most of that time. He had much of his childhood stolen from him by this disease, having to become as tough and strong-willed as life gradually makes most of us over six or more decades.

Still, the stories we have heard about little Ben have been remarkable. The humor, energy, determination, courage, affection for those he loved, love of life. . . Ben was amazing. Astounding. Awesome. Awe-inspiring. Heroic. Hilarious. Heartwarming.

On November 3rd, we got word that the full extent of treatment known to modern medicine had failed, and that Ben was being sent home to die. Just when the hope had been that his body would be cancer free, tumors began popping up in his body, growing, again, viciously and aggressively, demonically, to my limited perception. Yet he fought on, giving his family many more memories.

Ben died yesterday morning, December 30th, 2008. He was almost three and a half years old.

For me, the intense suffering of a small child is a crossroad event, especially when it leads to death. One road coming through the intersection is actually a superhighway. It is characterized by an agony that articulates the very real, very honest and very tempting cry, "Where were You?"

The other "road," actually little more than a climber's trail, dangerous and meandering, staying close to the contours of the way things truly are, is definitely the way less traveled. This path is characterized by an agony that articulates a different cry. Something David Hart wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few days before Ben was born, in response to the tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands:

"For while Christ takes the suffering of His creatures up into His own, it is not because He or they had need of suffering, but because He would not abandon His creatures to the grave. . . As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy."

Goodbye, Ben. I never met you, but I will never forget you.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Konza

Today I walked in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It's become a ritual for me. I go either to the Tallgrass National Preserve or the Konza Prairie Trail (as today) regularly. Excellent hiking should contain elevation gain, a view, significant expenditure of energy, a bracing encounter with nature itself, beauty, and a sense of adventure. There are few places in the central Midwest where I found all of this. The Konza, however, qualifies.

And today it was in all of its glory. This, I think, was why God made these hills. The temperature on this December 29th was near 50. Not a cloud in the sky. Deep blue sky. The tallgrasses were golden, waist high, tinged with red as we looked across seas of them. I was with some of my favorite people. The white and red and burr oak trees were gnarled and dark, artistically set against the backdrop of the golden grass and blue sky. It was perfect; my body worked as it is supposed to. This is why I hike, and I still haven't come down from the joy I felt in my bones.

There. That's all. I just needed someone to tell about it. It was, today, just as the Scriptures say:

"Day to day pours out speech (referring to creation, when it is doing what it was made to do), and night to night reveals knowledge." Psalm 19:2

It was as one of the Puritans said:

"Praise waiteth for Thee, and to render it is my noblest exercise; this is Thy due from all Thy creatures, for all Thy works display Thy attributes and fulfill Thy designs; the sea, the dry land, winter cold, summer heat, morning light, evening shade are full of Thee, and Thou givest me them richly to enjoy. . . All Thy works praise Thee and Thy saints bless Thee." ("God-Honoured" in The Valley of Vision)

That's my part, our part. To bless Him consciously and from the heart as His creation praises Him by simply living out their part. Like the Konza did today.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


I'm a journaler. But years ago I read Leanne Payne's book, Listening Prayer, in which she recommended using journaling as a prayer to God rather than as a diary/record of what is happening in one's life. And sometime later I discovered that St. Augustine wrote his most famous book Confessions entirely to God. We are invited to listen in, but the One for whom it is written is God. Both of these dear witnesses were powerful to me.

I have tried since to write in my journals (I'm in my 31st uninterrupted year of keeping journals now) to God, and that which has the "feel" of being from God. A few of the most precious, recent words that have seemed to me to be from God Himself to me. And maybe to you. . .

"Make me know the way I should go." Psalm 143:8

"Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herds in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Yahweh; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God the LORD is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer's; He makes me tread on my high places." Habakkuk 3:17-19

"Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd. For the LORD of hosts cares for His flock, the house of Judah, and will make them like His majestic steed in battle." Zechariah 10:2,3 ( referred to in Mark 6 regarding Jesus, who, upon seeing the desperate masses on Israel, knew that they were like sheep without a shepherd)

"Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices." Psalms 16:9 The Hebrew word that is translated here "my glory" means "whole being." Glory is who and what we were meant for. It is our real self, which is the reflection of the living God uniquely placed in each of us. I sometimes get glimpses of who I was meant to be. I see glory, which is a reflection of the One and only, the true glory (John 1:14)

"You hold my lot." Psalm 16:5b A call to surrender and to trust.

"Your gentleness made me great." Psalm 18:35b

Does the Word of God every come off the page to you, illuminating the will of God for your life in specific situations? If so, I'd love to hear of an instance where God spoke to you.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Just over two years ago, I was introduced to a burgeoning body of thought and practice loosely collected under the title "missional." Since then, I have learned about a whole world of exploration, books, authors and speakers, conferences - all associated with the same word. And somewhere in that process, I was invited to be on the board of an organization dedicated to helping congregations be transformed into missional communities. Ever since, I have been on a dead run, trying to wrap my mind around what the word "missional" means. Since I'm supposed to know what I'm talking about now . . .

And here's a little bit of what I've learned.

It's NOT a new program to be added to the already existing programs of a church.

This is NOT business-as-usual material for churches trying to stay competitive. . . with one another.

Being missional is NOT first and foremost about having a heart for missions or sending money overseas, although that usually is true of people who are missional.

Being missional first of all calls for a different orientation from what the Church has had in an age of modernity. As our culture(s) moves from modernity to post-modernity, the Church is becoming increasingly marginalized; the culture is losing even a basic understanding of the Scriptural story; the Church is increasingly considered irrelevant to the culture. In such a context, the attractional model so dominant in modernist thinking within the Church is becoming and will become less and less effective, conservative Christianity will be villified more and more for its understanding of an exclusive Gospel and anything smacking of absolute truth, and the meaning of our language will no doubt be co-opted more and more, emptied of its meaning and replaced by meaning the culture is more comfortable with.

As a result, a missional orientation emphasizes the SENT Church, rather than the GATHERED Church. The locus of attention moves more from what we do within the Church walls (as crucial as that is and continues to be) to what we do with the other 95% of our week out in the world, being the Church on the world's turf.

Our focus becomes what we DO before what we SAY. The deeds of Jesus before the words of Jesus. Show, then tell. Lord knows there's a lot of people who are saying "We're sick of you telling us what you believe." The best way of earning the right to talk is to walk.

Being missional means becoming one of them before you can expect they will become one of us.

Missional living means being Kingdom-focused, well above local-church focused. In other words, competition between churches has to die.

The missional lifestyle is participatory. Not removed. It's something about hands-on.

Missional means servanthood over control. It really does mean coming alongside people confessing how many less answers we have than we thought we had once upon a time, but that we love them and want to be a neighbor. A good neighbor.

A missional person is little. Little trumps big.

Missional life means making partnerships with groups and organizations that you might not agree with about everything, but with whom you can partner on an issue. It means the death of the Christian "ghetto."

Being missional means community rules over program, especially the "one-size-fits-all" program.

That's what I think thus far. A great primer to introduce the subject is an article by Alan Roxburgh called "The Missional Church", found in the journal Theology Matters (2003?). Or the book by the same name, edited by Darrell Guder. Or try the blog Allelon (missional maps), or Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight. And towards the top of my list, I unashamedly encourage you to check out the work of the organization I get to work with, the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, at

I'd love to know what you think. . .

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

Last weekend, Susan and I went to view a movie called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at one of those funky cinemas that is still locally owned (as opposed to being an outlet of some corporate conglomerate). We have come to expect movies in this particular cinema that are more edgy, fringe, less welll-known. The trailer on this film told us that it was something of substance, and that it was not going to make a big splash in the mainstream U.S. movie-going public.

Still, nothing really prepared us for the cost of watching this specific movie. Not in terms of the cost of admission. In terms of the knife it left in our hearts.

The story is about a dear boy whose father is an officer in the SS, during World War II. He is given a new assignment that takes him out of the beloved and safe family home in Berlin, to a site in the countryside. The young boy is torn from his friends and displaced into a quiet estate house in the middle of nowhere. Little does he know that the people he can see moving around in a neighboring setting are prisoners in a concentration camp. The one his father has been commanded to come and oversee. Little does he know that the rancid smoke that fills the sky every few days is the burning of gassed bodies of dead Jews. And how little does this little boy grasp that the young boy in striped pajamas he meets through the electrified fence of the camp one day is the victim of a malevolent evil that he, his father, and his people have propagated.

As the movie enfolds, we are drawn into a gathering sense of alarm and forboding. Something horrible is building, danger is on every side, risk and tragedy seem to lurk just around the next corner. Every part of ones being begins hoping for a life-giving ending. It is not to be.

When I read the credits at the end, I thought, "Of course. It is a Hungarian film. I should have known." The Hungarians who so willingly collaborated with Hitler in the extermination of Jews and who have spent the last 7 decades doing penance for their evil. This movie is a confession of sin, a self-flagellation filled with the despair of having no saviour to put things to right on their behalf.

If you see this movie, you will come out of it, no doubt, asking "Where is the hope?" Interestingly enough, the movie reviews are almost totally focused on style; NOT on content. There is a deliberate and intentional refusal to engage in the horrid reality of nihilism that one is confronted with as the film ends. The reviewers, almost laughingly, won't even begin to cry out with the hopelessness the movie was intended to scream at us. All they can do is to comment on incidentals, cinematic techniques, and story lines.

There is no hope in the movie. Nor in the book on which the movie was taken (by an Irish writer). Nor in world history. Nor in contemporary politics. Nor in the friendship of the boys. Nor in family relations. Nor in the authority of the State. Nor in the love of a mother. Nor in the
promise the trailer implied.

The only hope one is left with after watching this movie is from the outside. A grace which is left outside the movie and only hinted at in the love of the boys and the mother and the grandmother. A love spoken of only minimally through the lips of the pastor who buries the grandmother. Who has a name, and His name is Jesus.

Go see this movie. But only if you are prepared to bring with you the only hope this world has. The Incarnate One who identified with every wickedness known to humankind and bound it to His life, embraced it, took it as His own, and bore it to the Cross that it might die with Him.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Total Waste

In May of 1934, a group of pastors from all over Germany gathered in Barmen to protest the actions of the Fuhrer, as his National Socialist movement (Naziism) arrogantly steamrolled over all opposition. The Fuhrer himself had seized control over the Church in Germany, placing his own puppet as head over it. There ensued a movment to eliminate any and all mentions of anything Jewish in the Scriptures. The State was exalted over the Church as being paramount, based upon, among other things, the belief that Creation trumps Redemption - that is, that Creation itself has established the Aryan race as the dominant and best race from the beginning, and that whatever Redemption/salvation is, it is defined and shaped by that Creation reality. Jesus' salvation, thus, was reduced to something little more than the notion that God would give victory into the hands of the Aryans.

This gathering of pastors produced a protest document called the Barmen Declaration. You should read it. It consists of 6 simple assertions of truth, followed by 6 concomitant assertions therefore of what ISN'T true. And in it they lay bear the hideous idolatry of National Socialism, and, in fact, every idolatry known to humankind. For those of you who cannot stand Karl Barth, you may gain a new honoring of him when you read the Barmen; for he was the primary author of it. Those who adopted it prayed, pled with God, worked passionately on this project, and in so doing became known as the Confessing Church. There were several hundred of them. They became a protest movement within the larger German Church, standing on orthodoxy and historical faith.

Four short years later, every single one of these men (except three) had been put to death, thrown into concentration camps, or silenced. The movement, the only public protest anyone mounted against Hitler from within Germany, was completely vanquished. It was a total waste of life and effort.

Where's the significance in that?

St. Paul had a lot to say about not living by what you see but by what God says. And so, in the context of telling the story of how much he and others had suffered, he says, "For this momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen." 2 Corinthians 4:17-18a And his perspective is eschatological (that is, arising out of what is true in the Age to Come). Paul is saying that what really matters in this life is participating in the life that is already true in the Age to Come. Paul believed that there are events, actions, a reality which is true THERE, but which becomes present to us HERE through faith, and begins to break in upon us. This reality is called the Kingdom of God. And when we participate in these actions, in this reality, what we do and say now lasts forever. Is full of significance, regardless of how it looks to the watching world. . . or Church.

T.S. Eliot spoke to this, at least tangentially, some 1900 years later. "I am not myself very much concerned with questions of influence, or with the publicists who have impressed their names upon the public by catching the morning tide and rowing very fast in the direction in which the current was flowing, but rather that there should always be a few preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue."

As the Confessing Church was destroyed by the rising tide of Naziism, total failure was all that, honestly, anyone could see. Little would anyone have known that the document would be discovered, resurrected as WWII led into the Cold War, and as the U.S.S.R. seized East Germany as its own. And rediscovered the Barmen spoke courage into the hearts of pastors within East Germany who pastored the faithful through the nightmare of Communism. The inspiration they received from the Declaration led them to start what became a 10 year prayer movement that issued forth in 1989 into the non-violent uprising of the Church in East Germany became a central part of the fall of the U.S.S.R. in East Germany. Without so much as a bloody nose, as Dr. Jim Edwards said a few weeks ago.

Who would have known that simple acts of obedience would not only be signficant in and of themselves, expressions of the Kingdom of God breaking in and full of worth in the Age to Come. But also usable in the hands of the living God 30 and 40 years later, after all the signers were dead, to bring justice upon earth.

Makes you think twice about worth and significance in an age which knows nothing but the immediate and that which makes one feel good right now and that which brings the BIG and the measurable. It makes me think that sometimes the visible result right now might actually be the total waste.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Built to Last

A friend of ours from an Eastern European nation entered seminary when the Iron Curtain was still a reality. In that particular country, the communist oppression was exacerbated by a megalomaniac dictator's fears and absolute control. The nation was ruled by the Secret Police, who had spies in every church, electronic bugs in every hotel room and every seminary dormitory room. Pastors were regularly accosted on Monday mornings for something they said in their Sunday sermon that sounded remotely threatening to the government. It was a cold, dark world, with no earthly hopes of freedom anywhere in sight, no tangible reason to believe anything would change in their lifetime.

But our friend fell in with 7 other like-minded seminarians, who discovered quietly that they were not only of the same mind theologically but also prophetically - that is, they believed that God was on the move invisibly, and that a new day was coming, and that they were to play a part in it. They found their way often out into the hills to pray and read Scripture together, to listen to God about what He was doing, to create a code by which they could communicate hidden messages by phone, and to determine ways to communicate hidden messages imbedded in the Sunday services they would soon lead, messages only the faithful would understand. When they graduated, they all went to their first churches and set about faithfully building up their local churches.

One of their number in particular was charismatic in personality, a bold leader, a person others naturally would rally behind. When he took a dying church in a university town, the agnostic/atheistic students, at last hungry for something more than scientific materialism, began to flock to his church. The Secret Police threatened the pastor with retribution, then murdered a member of his church. Ultimately they removed him from his parish forceably, violently. And it was that action by the Secret Police that actually began the 10 day revolt that overthrew the dictator and his communist empire. It was only right that this pastor would become a major political personage in the re-formed government, and would be made Bishop of the entire district of the church in which the 8 former seminarians served.

Only. . .somewhere in this process, the new Bishop succumbed to, what? Internal temptations? External luxuries? The insecurities deeply buried and never to be uncovered when they were fighting injustice? No one, I guess, truly knows. But as Bishop he became his own dictator, terrified of anyone that might be a threat. . . like our friend, and the other 6 seminarians. He sought the power to remain Bishop forever. He bullied and coerced. He ruined people who resisted him. He lived in opulence, while his people lived in poverty. And he betrayed his 7 loyal and dear friends. Susan and I presently are concerned because our friend has not answered an e-mail, a phone call, or a letter in 3 years. It's as if he has dropped off the face of the earth.

Where's the lasting significance in all of this? What has worth when such wrongdoing is afoot? How do you square up the years of yearning, praying, working for change, for justice, for the Name and honor of God, for the wellbeing of not only the people of God but the unsaved people of the nation. Although there are scraps of goodness to be seen lasting, almost everything they had worked for, including and maybe especially friendship that matters, all of this was basically soiled and discredited and in some cases destroyed. Where's the worth in that?

And there's no place we feel this dissonance moreso than in the Church. Right? Where's God in all of this? Or to say it in another way, "Is there anything that matters, that lasts, that makes a difference, when such destruction happens? Is there anything that carries over to the life to come?"

To which St. Paul says something breathtaking. He's writing to a church that is polluted with sexual incest between a man and his mother; by the rich of the church eating all the food at the Lord's Supper and the poorer Christians going hungry. . . regularly; with spiritual gifts being used as political weapons to gain status; with petty divisions based on favorite upfront leaders (sound familiar?); by some partaking in pagan ceremonies ostensibly in the name of Jesus. In other words, Paul is writing to a church filled with destruction. And he says, "Now if anyone builds on the foundation (of the Church) with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw - each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. " I Corinthians 3:12-14

To put it into the language of significance, Paul is saying, "If you tear down the Church, if you contribute to its decay and disease and pollution and discouragement and fracturing divisions, what you have done will be burned up in the Day of Judgment. But if you build up the Church and encourage faith and the growth of its members, and help people enter into the acts of love which arise from the heart of Jesus within you, all of this which comes from the One who lives in the Age to Come will of course carry over into the Age to Come." It will last forever. "Blessed are the dead who die in the LORD, says the Spirit, for they rest from their works, and their works follow them."

Try to imagine how this looks. In the Age to Come, when we are restored fully to the image of God and embodied in resurrection bodies and the fullness of life in the restored creation, what we are doing now that builds up the people of God will be present in that new Age. The fruits of our work now, no matter how much outwardly appears to have been destroyed by evildoing or foolishness while we were in this life, carry over. What it means is that Jesus wastes nothing that is in Christ.

What it also means is the Church, in a way far greater than Protestantism has grasped, is far more important than just a means to an end, or an unhappy necessity for this time on earth, gladly to be dismissed in the Age to Come. The question, as Simon Chan puts it (Liturgical Theology), is, "Is the church to be seen as the instrument to accomplish God's purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God's ultimate purpose itself?" One thing's for sure, it's a lot more important than the way it is used as yet another means of feeding the consumeristic bent of American churchgoers. And what we do to build it, even if or when our efforts are later dismantled, have eternal significance.

I don't know where my friend is, or if he's alive or has been placed in some going-nowhere chapel, tucked away where he can seemingly do no harm to the Bishop. But I know this, wherever he has loved people, fed the poor in his congregations, told them the truth, baptized, given Communion, taught children the Heidelberg Catechism to hold their lives together in a post-communist nightmare, something is being played out in the Age to Come that lasts. Built to last.

How about you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

But the Greatest of These

Graham Greene, an English Roman Catholic, wrote a dark, brilliant novel, The Power and the Glory. It centers on a Roman Catholic priest on the run. The story is set in the1920's, in a southern state in Mexico where the Marxists have taken control (which actually happened in his lifetime) and subsequently executed every priest except this one. To make matters worse, the man is a fallen, broken man who has gotten a woman pregnant, breaking his vow of celibacy; and he has drowned his shame in a lifetime of alcoholism. His daughter and her mother despise him. The common people live in the tension of both desperately clinging to his existence and the hope associated with his office, and at the same time rejecting him as shameful and a loser. He lives in the tension of his abject moral failure and at the same time the unrelenting call of God to serve His people. Thus, when he finally escapes into a neighboring state, he cannot live with himself. "The whiskey priest," as he is called by the masses, goes back home into a Marxist hell.

It is not long before he is captured and identified by a Judas-type character as the long-sought whiskey priest. The Marxists exult that at last the land will be cleansed of all religious influence. They hastily prepare his execution, drag him to the wall, and shoot him to death.

Where's the significance in that? What worth could a life like that possibly have? Honestly, what is the worth of your and my lives? That's at least part of what Greene is asking.

Or to put it another way, is there anything which "carries over" from this life to the next? Is there anything that happens here which lasts forever, which we will find somehow present in the Age to Come? Does anything we do here that carries eternal worth, thus infusing it today with ultimate significance?

The classic answer of evangelicalism, at least since the early 1900's, has been "faith." Faith in Jesus Christ carries over. We will find it present in the Age to Come, as well as the fruits of it. Faith is the means by which a person crosses over into salvation. It speaks of one's worth to God, and our participation in another's coming to faith, as we would say, speaks of the significance of our lives as well. All of this is true, biblical, and to be treasured.

But it is a grossly incomplete answer, according to Scripture.

Does not St. Paul say that three things abide? Faith, hope, and . . . love (I Corinthians 13:13). Paul is saying that these three carry over. What we do in faith, hope, and love are eschatological in their essence. They arise in the Age to Come and break in upon us in this Age of the Already but Not Yet. They connect the two Ages. Therefore, they have worth and provide significance.

But listen closely to all of I Corinthians 13:13: "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Acts of agape love, you see, a love which only comes from God and simply cannot be done or conceived of or embraced or participated in except in and through Jesus Christ. . . acts of agape love that arise from the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus are the primary evidence today that we are citizens of the Age to Come, of the Kingdom of God. They are a key measure of our significance.

In my favorite of all U2's songs, Walk On, a song about significance and crossing over to a place we've never been, Bono does a voice-over riddle in the opening measures, saying, "Ah love, it's not the easy thing - the only baggage you can bring; love, it's not the easy thing - the only baggage you can bring is all that you can't leave behind." In other words, acts of love, the kind that only comes from the heart of God, through the life and death of Jesus, is the only "baggage" we get to take with us into the life to come. These are the evidences of our significance.

As the whiskey priest is executed, it is clear to every reader, every participant in the book, that his life is meaningless, worthless, insignificant. He is a loser. Nothing remains. And yet, in the two pages that remain in the book, three miracles occur - you will have to read the book to find this out for yourself - but three miracles are the sign for the Roman Catholic of the sainthood of the person. And only later do you realize, as a reader, that he loved the woman with whom he had had a child. He loved his daughter. He loved the people of God. He loved the lost masses. And, in a moment of grace in his last night, in a dank jail cell, he loved God.

The only baggage you can bring is all that you can't leave behind. Which means self-sacrificing love that comes from the heart of God. It's all we can take with us.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Tears In A Bottle

When my mother began to need daily attention, we moved her from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to be near us. She lived in an apartment just 4 miles away, where she lived as normal a life as possible, and with us helping in whatever ways she needed. But in March of 2005 she was stricken by a series of small strokes and, probably, a mild heart attack - and almost died. She never lived on her own again, living successively in a nursing home, an assisted living facility, and then another nursing home. At one point, she begged me, clinging to me, pleading with me to do anything to get her out of the last of those facilities, saying, "If you don't get me out of here, I'm going to ROT! I'm going to DIE!! Please, Paul, you've got to save me!" But there was no other good solution, we kept her there, and she indeed, in a sense, rotted before our eyes. She just slipped away, probably suffering little debilitating strokes daily or often - for she just quietly disappeared in loss of consciousness, awareness, ability to access and articulate thoughts or memories, ability to feel hardly any emotions. . . she withered away until one day in June 2007, she lost consciousness entirely, breathed with a death rattle, and died.

Where's the signficance in that? In all of that? In any of that?

Or what of little Ben Towne, the 3-year old son of dear friends of our daughter Annie. The Townes are dedicated, generous, mature followers of Jesus Christ who have served a great church in Seattle for years. Who, one day about 2 years ago, discovered their first born son has an extremely rare form of cancer from which few survive or live beyond a few painful, awful years; and for whom the only hope in treatment involves severe pain, the kind of pain that eerily makes one wonder if Ben were to survive, would he be forever scarred deep inside. Ben is undergoing the terminus of his latest experimental treatment right now, and he writhes in pain because the medicine is attacking his nerves, not just the remaining cancer cells.

Where's the significance and worth in suffering like that?

Far greater, weightier, deeper, more thoughtful people than me have wrestled with these things, and I don't even pretend to have anything to add to what they have said. I am only wrestling with it because of how suffering has invaded even my little corner of the world and raised the question, "So, what really matters?" And especially in this blog, "Where's the significance in suffering and death?"

One thing that strikes me about the story of the people of God is the recurrence of the theme of suffering as redemptive. As if something good is going on when suffering is invaded and indwelt by the living God. So it is that a Suffering Servant would one day come from God to Israel and so identify with the people of God that he would enter into their sufferings, taking them as his own, absorbing their pain into himself. He himself would not be able to grasp the meaning of it, nor see what was happening, crying out in despair,

"But I said, 'I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." Isaiah 49:4a.

And yet still he clung to faith in the living God, the One and Only, who reveals who He is to His people in His proper Name, which our translations notate with "the LORD,"

"Yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God." Isaiah, 49:4b

Later, we discover that this very Suffering Servant, in taking not only the unjust, undeserved sufferings of the people of God upon himself, but also the just judgments of God against His people into himself, puts to a final death these sufferings - for him and for all who follow him.

Likewise, and to the astonishment of too many Christians in the Western world, we discover that to follow in the footsteps of the Suffering Servant means a continued manifesting of the incarnate life of Jesus in his people. Which means that the people of God suffer with the sufferings of Christ still today. How could we be "in Christ" and thus "know Him," and not know something of the loss, grief, horror, pain, bewilderment, sadness, heartache that the incarnate son of God lived on earth?

"That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead." Philippians 3:10-11

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might also be manifested in our bodies." 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

And then Paul, who is speaking as an apostle, goes on to say that his sufferings are actually, as Jesus' were, for the sake of the people of God (Colossians 1:24). And I don't mean simply that sufferings are for our own transformation. They are that. It is in the dying to self (Augustine's transformation of desire) that much fruit comes (John 12:24-25). Contentment is only found in the midst of deprivation, which becomes our teacher (Philippians 4:10-13). Agony alone seems to tear off our comforts so that we at last discover that God alone is our Desire (Ps. 75:1, 3, 6-8). But Paul is going beyond all of this and teaching that somehow, although no doubt in a far more modest and lesser way than that which came through the apostles, the sufferings of all who are in Christ impact, build up, strengthen, help the people of God, too.

But not only that. There is also ample reason to believe that the blessing that apparently arises out of our sufferings is not simply for the people of God, but for the whole world as well. Following directly out of the 2 Corinthians 4-5 passage where our sufferings in Christ are the issue, Paul moves directly into how we as a suffering people are to embody the reconciliation of God as ambassadors to the world. The message is that what we do when suffering is part of the ministry of reconciliation Jesus sends us with to the world (2 Cor. 5:18-19). As a Congolese Nyabiando pastor said recently, "People are tired of listening to empty words." And Joseph Lusi, a Congolese orthopedic surgeon said in response, "We have to show Jesus."

It may be that we must cry out with Augustine that we are "radically ignorant of what we actually accomplish in our actions." It is certain that we will have to suffer by faith believing that there is any worth to be found in it. But that's the story we have been born into, the one that Jesus told and lived out, and the one that our union with Christ empowers and makes real.

In the end, I begin to understand that God has come down and entered into the harsh realities of what it means to be human in a tragically fallen world. That he redeems it. Makes it somehow "worthwhile." Claims it as significant. And perhaps most wonderful of all, in a way that actually transcends all that he might be able to do with such sufferings, that he makes it worth it because he is in it personally with me.

"You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?" Psalm 56:8

My tears are in his bottle. He has kept every one of them.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Through A Glass Darkly

When I arrived as a new pastor in a sleepy mountain town two decades ago, a pastor from another small church invited me to pray with him for God's revival in our high mountain valley. Soon, we gathered the new Episcopalian rector, two Pentecostals from neighboring villages, and a handful of assorted independent community church pastors. Most of the Baptist pastors would have nothing to do with us, nor would any of the other mainline churches. This ragtag band met together once a month for 10 years, praying for God to invade the valley in power, making it a haven of restoration for those bludgeoned by Gospel ministry in hard places, and sweeping through the hard ranks of unbelievers, bringing many to Christ. However, at the end of those 10 years, the founder of our group left for another call, and he was replaced in his church with a man who was ambitious and gifted, and who had no time to waste on praying with other pastors. In very little time, they reached what appeared to me to a modest circle of unchurched people. . . but mostly drew people away almost every other church in town. In the hypercharged climate of consumerism, people walked away from the communities of faith in which they had raised their children, cared for the sick, worshipped weekly for years, and broken bread together. They traded in the hard work of being a people of God to join the newest, latest, greatest thing. So, the town ended up with a megachurch, a broken unity among what had been like-minded churches, a competitive environment, and a strong surge of self and turf protection.

So, where's the worth in all of that? Where's the significance of years of investment that a number of caring people put into tearing down walls between Christians, building a unity that proclaims to the world that Jesus is risen (John 17:21,23), nurturing servanthood between congregations where it doesn't matter who gets the credit, and defeating the whole consumerism plague . . . undone overnight, in the name, supposedly, of Jesus?

On our two mens' climbing trips this summer, Dan Dermyer was our teaching pastor. And on Monday evening of both trips, he opened up the story of Job, which just so happens to be about this very subject. Job, as many of you may remember, was an innocent man who was visited by breathtaking calamity and loss. In fact, he pretty much lost everything: his wife, children, possessions, health, and his closest friendships. He was accused of being the reason for the losses, that it was God's punishment for being a sinner, and a hidden one at that. In spite of his protestations, no one believed him.

But as he gained traction in his rebuttals of these accusations, Job gathered strength of conviction, that perhaps God was the bad guy, that God was responsible for wronging him, that God was the author of these evils being visited upon him. Job throws his challenge at God, demanding an answer to the question, "So, why did all of this destruction happen? Where were You?"

Until at last God stopped him dead in his tracks with this question: "Will you condemn Me that you may be in the right?" (Job 40:8) To which Job crumbles and confesses that he is utterly wrong for blaming God, that God is never the author of evil.

And God, we notice, never answers Job's question.

God leaves it in the realm of what, for us, is mystery. Like looking into and through a mirror dimly (I Corinthians 13:12). As if the Psalmist had it right all along, saying, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain." (Ps. 139:6) Perhaps there are bigger things afoot, things beyond our ability to take in and understand and carry within us without doing inestimable damage by knowing them.

But in a sense, although one must wait for it for centuries, God does answer Job's question. "Will you condemn Me that you may be in the right?" For God answers in the Person of His Son, Jesus, who took upon Himself the utter condemnation that belongs to Job and issues forth from Job, so that Job might be in the right. And you and me, too.

Which tells me, in the end, that whatever is happening in wretched, destructive, unfathomable, agonizing, seemingly stupid and outrageous and wasteful events in life, which make NO SENSE AT ALL, and which call into question significance and worth and what really matters, that we will find in the end something better than a suffocating view of God's sovereignty that "makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. . . [but at the high price of believing] in and lov[ing] a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of - but entirely by way of - every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, evey sin the world has ever known." (David Hart, "Tsunami and Theodicy", Wall Street Journal)

So, when we live enveloped by mystery, especially when it involves suffering, it is our comfort that the God we know through Jesus Christ "has come to rescue creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. . .and that [until that glad Day of salvation is upon us] the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death. . . [and as a result] I can imagine no greater comfort than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Remember the Bony Finger

How do you find the worth of something when it lies in ruins? When all of the marks of success, as we measure success in the dominant culture in which we live and move, are, at the very least, damaged beyond recognition? Where's the significance of one's work and life to be found when that work and life can visibly show little to no fruit?

I remember being a commissioner to the 1992 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. The major issue before that G.A. was the adoption of a document that spoke out of both sides of the mouth about the life of the unborn, trying to affirm that people who had scruples regarding ending the life of a fetus could file for a conflict of conscience and redirect where their medical insurance premiums would be used; while at the same time maintaining the right of women to end that life if they so chose. I joined a cadre of like-minded commissioners, strategizing on many fronts to seek a better document, and a better solution for the PCUSA. We labored in 18 hour days for almost 2 weeks. And on the last day of the GA, we lost everything. Every motion. Every minority report. Every change in language. I walked off the floor of the last plenary session defeated and in tears. Where's the worth in that?

It's at this point that God has been insistently but mercifully helping me in recent weeks, regarding much more recent, bitter disappointments. As I wrote in my last blog, He has taken me back again and again to His love. That significance ultimately is found in the decision He has made in His freedom to love me. Us. His people. His creation.

But He has spoken another word to me, as well.


I must be quick to say, however, that I do not necessarily wield this word the way that all those within the people of God use it. I have no patience with those who approach theology as if it is a detached theoretical exercize, one which intends to make sense out of all of life, answering all but a very small number of questions. Theology in general, and sovereignty as an example of it, are always applied pastorally in Scripture. Truth about God is brought to bear on broken hearts, lost hearts, angry hearts, hopeless hearts. Scripture, I believe, leaves many questions unanswered, perhaps because the answers are too marvelous for us; we cannot attain to them.

The sovereignty of God, therefore, has become for me a pastoral word, one which quiets my heart and brings relief and comfort to me. It is not an appeal to a theological construct that explains who gets chosen by God and who gets consigned to hell. It is the quieting voice of the great shepherd of the flock, assuring me that there is much that I cannot see, but that He can. Reminding me that the story isn't over. That He has an uncanny way of turning things to the good, things that on the human side of responsibility have been done from ill motives and even hearts of evil.

This is the One who in His sovereignty chose a pagan king to rule over Babylon, and gave to him kingship and greatness and glory and majesty for the sake of the wellbeing and blessing of much of the ancient world that lay outside of the people of God, the Jews (Daniel 5:18). This is the same One who collected all of Daniel's prayers, not discarding a single one, and who as a result threw into being the answers to those prayers. . . only, they were being carried out in the realm of spiritual warfare, out of Daniel's visibility and awareness (Daniel 10:12). It is this sovereign One, who David says keeps "count of my tossings," that David goes on to ask, "Put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?" (Psalm 56:8) In other words, God does not forget any of them, and they all matter to Him, and He weaves them all into His purposes.

When I came off the floor of G.A. that last time, Elizabeth Achtemeier stopped me. She was a theology professor at one of our seminaries, a brilliant, fiery, orthodox, godly woman, with a heart for all the little ones in the world, perhaps especially the unborn who have no voice of their own. And she in her frail 5 foot 3 inch frame wagged her bony finger in my face and said, "Take heart, Paul; for God will yet have His way. But you and the others have done your part: you were faithful."

So, in the face of an unbelieving world that has no use for such partially blind faith, I have been going back to that very thing. To trust the One I cannot see, who is doing a work I cannot see, because of promises He has made in and through Jesus Christ.
It is enough.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

If You Can't Get Out Of It, Get Into It

It's been a full two months since I even have attempted to sit down and write. A wilderness time for me. I have languished in the in-betweenness of my life, not sure where it's headed, not clear what my job description at work is yet, and certainly not sure what God is wanting from me, at least in terms of direction. I belong to and have poured my best energies into a denomination which is self-destructing, and there is no sense of security that it will hold together long enough to get to retirement years. I have pastored in four wonderful churches, our personal, visible investments in each certainly diminished if not exposed as failed. Many of the relationships that mattered the most to me here in Kansas City in the last 5 years have been damaged. So, I have thought a lot about worth. What has worth?

Over the last two weeks, I have been in Colorado, helping lead two mens' climbing groups. We successfully got55 of 56 men and boys to the top of at least one "14er," a summit whose elevation is above 14,000 feet. At least 14 of those men summitted their very first 14er. It's a very rewarding experience to help "midwife" this kind of life experience, especially when it draws men closer together (because they need each other), brings men to life changing transformation through Jesus Christ (because they need Him), and exposes men to a new lifestyle in which they take care of themselves and the creation. It was helpful to me, because it provided a climate in which to think about what is worthy. . . that is, what has worth.

That's what I'm going to write about over the next few weeks. Any of you who never have a qualm or fear or wonderment about "worth," you can skip this blog site for a while. But for those of you who, like me, struggle with a sense of lost worth or confusion about what really matters, or who cry out for meaning and significance and don't want to miss what God might have in mind. . .I want to share what God's been illuminating to me.

In Outward Bound, the outdoor training program that challenges people to take responsibility for their lives, they have a saying: "If you can't get out of it, get into it." That is, if you can't evade the circumstances you are in, if the issue won't die, if the storm or the cliffband or the injury or the lack of equipment won't disappear, face it. Throw yourself at it. Turn your full attention to it. Take responsibility for what you have control over.

So, ironically, here's the first and foremost thing I am re-learning about worth. Worth begins, ALWAYS, in the heart of God. Worth and significance are found in the love of God. Period. And my part, what I have responsibility for in order to find my way into that love and thus to hear that worth experientially, is to surrender to His love.

In these two weeks, I have had time to sit with the Word of God, allowing the Holy Spirit space, I guess, to imprint pictures somewhere inside of me; to mediate truth in head and heart, making it come alive to me in Scriptures like this one:

"How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within Me;
My compassion grows warm and tender.

I taught Ephraim to walk. . . but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness with the bonds of love;
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and led them.

I will not execute my burning anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath." Hosea 11:3,4,8,9

And this:

"Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you with His love;
He will exult over you with loud singing (some translations say "He will dance over you").
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach."

Zephaniah 3:16-18

And this:

"This I know, that God is for me." Psalm 56:9

So, whatever the events of my (and your?) life that scream worthlessness, or at least the questions about what matters in your life,

and especially if you find that you can't get out of having to deal with such questions,

I would recommend that you press into the storm and discover that in the awfulness of self-doubt and woundedness and feeling like a loser, you would discover there is One awaiting you in the hard place who also knows the pain of self-doubt ("Father, is there another way?"), aloneness ("Father, where are You?"), and resolution ("Father, into Your hands I surrender"). Because of love.

So, if you can't get out of it, get into it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Little is Big

It has been a long time since I've written anything. I think part of that is because life has been too full to have time to reflect, and at this point I can't bring myself to use the blog as a place to write about trivia. Moreover, there hasn't seemed to be anything particularly gripping that I have thought anyone would especially want to hear, or that I was prepared to share with a wide audience.

Until last Wednesday.

A little background information. I have started riding my bike to work on any and every day that I don't have to have a car to drive across the city for something later in the day. I leave early with work clothes in my backpack, a towel, some instant oatmeal, and toiletries; ride the 6.3 miles to church; shower in a small bathroom shower tucked away in the church facilities; and make and eat my breakfast, all before work hours begin. The route, thanks to some great city planners here in the Kansas City metro area, follows Tomahawk Creek, then Indian Creek, almost door to door from our house to the church. So, along the way, it moves through dense forest, revealing amazing glimpses of big river turtles, deer, oppossum, racoons, snakes, bobcats, and the usual birds, squirrels, and rabbits. It's awesome. One other thing: the creek beds, as all the soil around here, are lined underneath with shelves of limestone.

So, when the thunderstorms come blasting into this area, like they did last Tuesday night, dropping several inches of rain in a short period (about 3 inches in 3 hours last Tuesday), the water is immediately trapped in the creek channels so that the water rises precipitously. I always thought that flashfloods in the desert were outrageous (how could that water not drain immediately into the sand?); here, I am just as dumbstruck that water has nowhere to go.

At any rate, those 3 inches of rain left the creeks high and rushing on Wednesday morning. It was thrilling to see the huge volume of water surging down Tomahawk and then Indian Creek. Whereas the creeks normally run about 8-10 feet below the bike path, this day they were running probably 4-5 feet below the path. The speed and thunderous noise of it all spoke of danger and risk. I was loving it.

And then, all of a sudden I came around a sharp corner, angling up to the top of a rise. . . 20 plus feet above Indian Creek. . . and the path was covered with tree limbs and debris, 2 feet high and 20 feet across. On the top of the hill! In fact, I estimated I was standing, at the edge of the debris, an easy 25 feet above the normal water level in the creek. And 3 inches of rain had lifted this massive landfill of tree limbs the thickness of my upper legs to this highpoint. After I picked up my bike and carried it across this wasteland, and then moved carefully on along the bikepath, I began to realize that everywhere on this trail the water line from the night before was in fact at that incredible height. At last, some adventure in downtown KC!

All of it reawakens in me something that many have told me over the years: little is big. Or at least it can be. The power of an idea, like the value of the individual, for example, can overturn centuries of bondage to the "divine right of kings," as it did in the Renaissance and Reformation. One person's encouragement of another at just the right moment, usually unknown to the person speaking, can turn a life, a family's complexion, a company's direction, a nation's destiny. Just 3 inches of rain, which is a little in the big scope of things, can lift an incredible weight to an incredible height; how much more with human beings.

This is at the heart of so much of what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God.

"If you want to be big in the Kingdom of God, you can't be. Only those who are little can be big in the Kingdom of God" (Mark 10:43-45, my paraphrase)

"Truly, I tell you, this widow has put in more than all of them." (Luke 21:3, the story of the widow who put in two pennies, which was all she had)

"To such as these belongs the Kingdom of God" (Mark 10:13-16, Jesus speaking of little children, who could do nothing, gain no merit by good deeds, nor even understand what Jesus was doing to them as He prayed for them)

It seems to me that such high waters as visited Indian Creek last week are a sign in the physical realm of something true in Kingdom of God: that that which is little is powerful, big, amazing in the hands of God.

Monday, May 12, 2008

It's Time

"It should not be denied, either, that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west."
Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

It's time. It's getting past time for me. Oh, I got to go west in late December and did the best snowshoeing I've ever done, in subzero weather at that. And Susan, Sarah, and I got to go west to Utah in March to hike our favorite desert hikes. But it's amazing to me how powerful and unending the call of the West is to me. Maybe it's what Father Schmemann (Russian Orthodox priest whose journals I am reading) is getting at when he says, "It is quite difficult to live until you feel at home." (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-83) Maybe it's because the dry heat and alpine meadows above 11,700 feet and emerald green in Iron King Basin and the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon - maybe it's because that's where I feel at home.

At any rate, it's time to go again. To enter into being footloose, to escape obligation and history and bury myself in the wilderness once again - whether it's in the Rockies or the canyons of Utah or the glaciers of the Cascades, it's time to go home.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Covenant Group

One of my favorite quotes, ever, is about the astonishing, breathtaking potential of people all around us:

"It is a serious thing. . . to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, in a nightmare. . . All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. . . There are no ordinary people. You never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization, these are mortals, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we work with, joke with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. . . And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner - no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love. . ."

C.S.Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Over the last 32 years, I have watched the glory of which Lewis writes emerge in 3 men. For the last 19 of those years, I have seen such "everlasting splendours" up close and personal. In my covenant group - Peter, Allan, and Trevor.

We met in seminary. They were fresh out of college. I had just gotten married, was 3 years older, all my classmates had graduated, and basically Susan and I had no friends. So, they as freshmen and I as a senior fell in together. And by the appointment of God, I think, we were forged into something of His own making, although that would not become clear for years.

After we went our separate ways, the other 3 ended up serving PCUSA churches back east, while Susan and I migrated back to Susan's home church (PCUSA also) in the Pacific Northwest. We stayed in touch. But then, in 1990 we began to meet together as a covenant group, meaning that we made promises to one another and to God that bound us together in love. We agreed that it would be an annual event. We've now been meeting yearly 19 times. We travel once a year from long distances and from all around the country, to meet for 5 days.

Along the way, we have shared pretty much everything about ourselves with each other. We take turns doing self-disclosure each year, sometimes for 3-4 hours apiece. We know each one's weaknesses, failures, fears, temptations, spiritual gifts, losses, griefs, dreams, nightmares, favorite books and movies. We know each other's spouses, parents, and children. We came to Trevor's side when his son Colin got killed as a freshman in college. We have sorrowed in the deaths of parents.We have agonized as each one has left one call to serve another congregation. We cook together, celebrate national championships together, go running together, argue about theology together.

In all of this, we have shared so much of life that we never have a need to start back at the beginning. We share a common education, the same denomination with all of its flaws and painful recent history, are from the same economic class, bear the same color and gender, are of the same nationality, and are within 3 years in age of each other. When we regather, we simply start where we left off. There's so much that never needs to be said, so much to be built upon, so much equity we have with one another, so much hilarious and delightful history we have made or lived together, so many of the same books we have read. We are living through the same huge cultural phenomena at the same time, die daily from the same agonies, have the same profession. I'm sure that many of you will say, "How BORING!" But in a world that is saturated with impermanence, a crass consumeristism that breeds faithlessness and betrayal, this group is one of the greatest comforts of life, evokes some of the greatest joys in life, gives hope in the midst of a hard, cruel valley of the shadow of death, revives the soul for the next leg of the journey, provides the next year's reading list(!), kicks one another's butt, quiets the incessantly accusing voices we hear inside, and demands a greater attentiveness to the most important part of the call to pastoral ministry: to love the people place under our care.

And perhaps most importantly, we help each other to believe that none of us is a mere mortal. That each of us is someone of astonishing beauty, the very reflection of the living God. And we gain eyes to see who is really there, not the mask that is on the outside.

In all the world, everyone needs a covenant group in which Christ is present and given His rightful place. If you don't have such a group, seek one. Pray for one. Call people to form one. Don't stop until it happens. Because life is too hard to go through on one's own. And, to use a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 3:18, "We are what we gaze at."

Monday, April 7, 2008


Seen any good movies lately?

Susan and I don’t go out to see a lot of movies. There’s always something else that needs to be done, or so it seems. We’ve been known to be picky about what we see. Movies can cost a lot. But every once in a while, we get a sense about a certain movie, a sense that there’s something there worth taking in.

Like Juno, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong, Juno’s not a safe haven for Christian sensibilities. It’s laced with profanity and adult themes. It’s about a high school girl (Juno) who gets pregnant, decides she’s too immature to raise the baby, and seeks a couple who would adopt the child. There’s barely a hint of the Judeo-Christian worldview at most turns. Everything seems to be playing out in a postmodern, post-Christian setting. The Church is treated as irrelevant.

But there’s something there nonetheless. The characters, easily boxed and labeled early in the movie, become real as the movie progresses. As the drama unfolds and the conflict builds, it’s as if their true selves are revealed. Indeed, in some notable cases, they mature and develop. Juno’s dad comes off as a brusque, distant, judgmental type when Juno tells him she’s pregnant; later, he embraces Juno with something akin to what you and I might call hesed, that covenant love in the Old Testament that makes promises that bind us to others unconditionally. Juno’s stepmother is sensible and cold towards Juno in the beginning; later, she blooms in courage and protectiveness for her. Vanessa, the woman who is seeking to be the baby’s adopting mother, is revealed at first to be anxious, controlling, and fearful; but in one of the most tender scenes in the movie, she melts, pressing her hands and face up to Juno’s belly, to feel the baby moving. Vanessa becomes increasingly transformed into a woman of centeredness and strength.
But Juno herself goes through the most significant transformation. She grows from child to young woman. She discovers and affirms that the fetus has feet, is a live human being, and must not be aborted. She sorts out who is authentic and trustworthy because of their honesty, compassion, faithfulness, and courage. Juno faces the rejection and marginalization from many of her peers with her own courage.

Through it all these characters manifest something like what C.S.Lewis highlights in The Great Divorce. In this thin volume, surely one of the most brilliant works he ever wrote, Lewis shows people arriving in heaven from hell as ghosts. “Now that they were in the light, they were transparent. . . man-shaped stains in the brightness of that air.” But the longer beings remained in heaven, the more solid they became. They were transformed. They became who they were meant to be, real, in their glory.

That’s what God is up to in this life. God is making us real. We’re meant to be solid selves, not whispy images. We are meant to be in all our glory, which is borrowed, of course, from Jesus Himself. Juno has the right idea. Jesus has the right stuff to make it happen.

I am thinking that watching movies, like reading books, is the exactly right setting to call us into prayer. To prompt us to pray for God to work what is good and right in what we are seeing and hearing in our lives as well. Seen any good movies lately?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Canyonlands as Sign

When you turn onto Utah 211, you have the sense that you're near the end of the earth. For one thing, you haven't seen a house for miles and miles. There are no lights showing. There's a strand of barbed wire fence, sketchy cell phone service, almost no cars, definitely no towns. I mean, you're on your own if you break down out there. And then, there's this sign: "Canyonlands National Park: Needles District", and Utah 211. That's it. Oh, and that the road goes 34 miles. No outlet.

If you don't get it at the intersection, you get it as you drive towards the Park. There is one house 3 miles in, old Marie's House, the lady who started a cult and planted it here on the top of the first rise. But after that, there's nothing. Not a telephone pole, not a store, not a house, not a human created light. No phone service, no intersecting roads, seldom a car coming up behind you or coming at you. You're alone, more alone then many of us have ever been in our whole lives. And to tell you the truth, the first time you do it, it's unnerving, especially for those who grew up in a city or in the East where there are people everywhere.
Along the way you pass through a gallery of monoliths, huge red rock sentinels, mesas called collectively the Vermillion Cliffs, where I think Tom Cruise was filmed in his free climb at the beginning of Mission:Impossible. And if you're lucky, the only people you'll see on your drive in are rock climbers 300 feet up, with hands jammed into the vertical cracks in these cliffs. It'll take your breath away. But what it adds to is the sense that you are out on an edge, far from the familiar, stripped of most of what you've come to trust for your health and stability and security.

At last, you cross the National Park Boundary, and the thought is, "Now at last all will be well. People, services, lights." But as you pass the one lone person in the entrance booth, you miss the Visitors' Center because it's so well hidden and blending in with the scenery, and there's only 5 people there anyway, and you drive to your camping spot, get out of your car to. . . silence. No car sounds, no airplane sounds, no people sounds, no sound at all. And you realize for the first time that maybe, just maybe, Canyonlands Needles is a sign. A sign that points to your desperate need for silence and absence of distraction. A place of such total wilderness that you might find God there, because there's nothing left to get in the way.

When you finally get the chance to hike, the sense of sign intensifies. The beauty is enormous, huge, breathtaking. A lot of it has to do with contrast. A tree growing out of a rock isn't simply incongruous and unexpected; it thrust the color of flora life into the very different color of red rocks. The life in the desert is a sign of the beauty of God. It teaches us to have eyes to see Him in the midst of that which we may have been lured to believe is a wasteland.

And the longer one is there, the "sign" of Canyonlands grows louder. It is a place that points beyond itself, reminding us that we are powerless, small, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. . . unless of course the One who fashioned all of this fashioned us as well. And more than simply creating us that He spoke us into being as the very crown of the beauty and creation we are walking dumbfounded in. We find ourselves honored in such places as the very best of what He has made, and yet, reminded that we would do well to receive this honoring with an abject humility. In the end it is all about God who made us.

As C.S.Lewis said, "these manifestations [that is, you and me, in addition to the hoodoos of Canyonlands] are not the hope of glory, they are an exposition of the glory itself." Canyonlands are a sign, you see, that point to the hope of glory.

So, when you see the sign for Utah 211, make the turn. But remember, what lies ahead are signs which are far more important.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


Sorry I'm out of touch with whomever reads this blog. I was in Canyonlands National Park, Needles District. I'll write about that as soon as I have pictures to add. Needless to say, for those of you who have ever stepped on that earth, I have been to the portal of heaven.

But what I am so intrigued by on this Holy Saturday is something Desmond Tutu said in an interview in Vanity Fair magazine in July 2007. It has to do with a word in one of the African languages, the word ubuntu:

"Ubuntu is the essence of being human. . . something you find especially in the Old Testament, when you're not quite sure sometimes - when you are reading, say, the Psalms - whether the Psalm is speaking, where it says 'I', only of an individual, or is it speaking in a corporate sense? We [Africans] say a person is a person through other persons. You can't be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships."

This confronts the dominant Western view that what it means to be human is first and foremost defined individually. We never even question it. To be human is to be "me." Finding one's humanity means finding one's self.

But Tutu, speaking on behalf of most Africans, is saying that what it means to be human can only be found by finding oneself as a part of a people. As N.T. Wright says, significance and personhood can only be known by being a part of a people. In other words, as a Christian I am led to confess that the Church, the people of God, is what I am born into, and it is only from the Church that I come to find out who I am. It is only in the Church that I can know why I was dreamed up and placed here. One's true identity is only to be found by immersion in the people of God.

I think that's exactly what I experienced last night after the Good Friday service at the church I serve. The couple who have not been able to have children, and who have sought adoption of a baby, and who held that baby in their arms, and who had that baby taken back by the birth mother on Thursday last week - I hugged them and listened to them, and realized that what life is really all about is being in relationship together as we suffer our way through this Veil of Tears. The couple who have just returned from Serbia, where their lives were in danger because of political hatred for the U.S.A. - I hugged them and listened to them, and realized that what life is really all about is reunion with loved ones, safely home. The young man from South Carolina who has just arrived to be our Senior Pastor, broken hearted by the absence from their dear, dear friends in Hilton Head, in the midst of strangers - I hugged him and introduced him to some of his new family in Christ, realizing that it is in the midst of the family of God that he and I will find out the will of God for our lives.

Ubuntu. Now that's something worth pursuing.

Monday, March 10, 2008


"All basic decisions are based emotionally. The difficulty is not 'knowing the Bible'; it's getting it into experience. We must feel deeply."
Howard Hendricks

"These affections are the 'spring of action,' the things that set us moving in our lives, that move us to engage in activities. . . I believe that no one is ever changed. either by doctrine, by hearing the Word, or by the preaching or teaching of another, unless the affections are moved by these things." (holy fear, hope, love, holy desire, joy, holy sorrow, gratitude, compassion, zeal, delight)

Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Religious Affections

So, what is delight-full in my life, that moves me to act?

Delight is an exquisite song that captivates both head and heart at the same time.

Delight is the richly connecting, revelatory, heart-to-heart conversation.

Delight is the feel of pen on paper, the written word, the idea or quote that comes alive on the page, revealing what I could only sense, or giving in words that which I knew was true but could not say.

Delight is walking above tree line in an alpine meadow, and walking a sawtooth ridge with dropoffs on each side.

Delight is my body working as it was meant to work.

Delight is the companionship of a faithful dog, and the charm of a carefree puppy.

Delight is the first cup of coffee in the morning, in the silence and darkness of a new day.

Delight is knowing You in the Word when I'm alone, and in worship in the midst of the people of God.

Delight is speaking just the right words, those that match Your exquisite truth with the emotions appropriate to that truth.

Delight is taking part in the emergence of a disciple, as that person enters into his or her glory.

Delight is in the innocence, and sense of humor, and cuteness of grandsons!

Delight is laying down one's head at the end of the day.

Delight is a fruit pie, homemade, topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Delight is the freedom of driving into the sunset.

Delight is a high camp, backpacking, where every bite of food is the best you've ever had.

Delight is when Susan affirms me.

Delight is watching my adult kids interact around the dining room table.

Delight is seeing the dry hills of eastern Washington and western Colorado, dotted by those first trees, filled out with sage brush and pasture grasses, crisscrossed by meandering creeks - and evoking in me that uncanny sense of home, Your pleasure for Your creation, wonderment like I've at last come to the place I was made to inhabit before the world began, a foretaste of heaven, the edge of wilderness.

But even then, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has the last word: "If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness. Seek God, not happiness."

How about you? What brings you delight?

Friday, March 7, 2008


Modernity, the Enlightenment's 20th century legacy, was and still is characterized by an immoderate and conspicuous self-preoccupation. That is, centered on the individual, it proclaims that man/woman is the measure of all things, the center of the universe; and that through reason, humanity is able not only to discover the principles, nature, and metanarrative (overarching story) of the universe, but also through this to rule all things, solve all things, systematize and order all things. In other words, modernity reeks of arrogance.

The Church (at least that part of the Church most influenced by western European history) in the 20th century, breathing in these toxic fumes, was and still is characterized by the same arrogance. Dressed up in Christian thought forms and terminology, our expression of the Christian faith has suffered a cultural captivity that most of us do not see. We speak of God as at the center of all things but operate as if the individual and his/her choices lie at the center of universe. We speak boldly of faith, but we pray little, and only then about things that mostly have to do with our comfort and experience of life. With respect to the world around us, we pour ourselves into strategic planning, seeking and disseminating principles, which enable us supposedly to rule all things, solve all things, systematize and order all things. Just look at the shelves of our standard Christian bookstores - they are filled with "10 steps to success" solutions. In much of evangelical Christianity in particular, the message is clear: just do the right things, and God will provide the solution we seek, for God has placed His freedom under our choices. His goal is our happiness. In other words, we also reek of arrogance.

What is missing in all of this is mystery. Who can begin to fathom the mystery of the Triune God, who is in His Being three Persons in covenant love, perfectly and mutually indwelling and coinhering in One Another, and yet distinctly three? Who can discern where the common grace of God, by which He blesses all the world and not simply those who are saved, ends and the saving grace of God begins? Which of us has a clue as to how the sovereignty of God interacts with the very real freedom, limited as it is, of human beings? Or how Jesus changed the molecular structure of water into wine? Or how a pianist with crippled hands reached out to touch the bread of Communion one Sunday and was instantly healed - in a Presbyterian church no less? Or how to understand the phenomenon described by practically every significant Christian who has written of the Christian life, that of God withdrawing from His children for seasons - where is the love of God in this? Who knows how God can soften and transform the human heart? And yet, even in what I believe to be the greatest of the schools of theology, that which is called the Reformed faith, there are many who have squeezed all but a few drops out of the mysteries, claiming certainty (and thus control) where there is none.

I am exhausted by the pursuit of human control and certainty, both within and outside the Church. I am saddened by how much I have bought into a modernity-infected Christianity. I am embarrassed by the damage that has been done, is being done even still, by well-meaning believers in Christ.

It takes me back to something Bob Dylan wrote 40-plus years ago.

"Crimson flames tied through my years
Rollin' high and mighty trapped
Countless violent flamin' roads
Using ideas as my map
We'll meet on edges soon said I
Proud neath heated brow
Ah but I was so much older then
I'm younger than that now"

My Back Pages, Bob Dylan

In other words, the older I get, the more mystery I find. The less certainty, spoken of as modernists speak, but the more assurance of faith.

As St.Augustine said, our quest is "faith seeking understanding." Not understanding that leads to faith.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


My wife and I served a church for 14 years in Western Colorado. Montrose was all the home we ever wanted, and First Presbyterian Church was all the church home we ever wanted. It was where we raised our kids. Every Christmas Eve, it was our family that made up the choir for "Peace, Peace" alongside the Claders. We were the ones to shut down the church building after 3 services, with wax on the carpet and the elements of Communion to be disposed of. I buried 92 of the church's members while I was there, and married 36 of their young ones. I preached 534 sermons in 732 Sundays. I loved every person that God gave to us. Susan was the first to greet every new person on a Sunday morning, taking note of who was new from her station behind the piano, leading worship. By the grace of God, we helped grow that church from 200 to 500 in average attendance in our years there.

In the last few days, we got word that the pastor who followed me to that congregation has resigned, because of a no-confidence vote by the elders. During the three years he has been there, they have lost a lot of their people, including some who I would consider pillars of the church. I can't tell how much of that is because of his blunders or how much of it is because of other issues or people. All I know is that the remnant who are still in that church are bitterly divided over whether he should be leaving. There is some question in many minds whether the church will survive the trauma and division of it all. All of this in an intensely short period of time, as time goes. A vibrant, healthy congregation mostly destroyed in a few months.

The truth is that I have served 4 different churches, and most of what I have invested my life in for 32 years has fallen apart in all of them.

Now, I know that to most of you reading this, what happens to this congregation in a distant town, one that you will never visit, matters little. But it raises the question of significance for us all.

Where does personal significance come from? How do you measure it? Is personal significance something you or I control? I won't pretend that I know the answers to all of this. But I think God keeps impressing upon me a sense of what really matters.

I think significance is experienced in suffering, far more than what is taken to be success. Even as the apostle Paul wrestled with personal significance and concluded that it had something to do with knowing Jesus Christ "and the power of His resurrection, sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I might attain to the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:10-11) It would appear that significance has more to do with knowing God through Jesus Christ, which will ultimately come by finding Him in the midst of our sufferings, than with the outer trappings of accomplishment.

And I also believe this: significance is a gift from God, not a reward for what we have accomplished. At the very least, as Augustine said, He is the only One who discerns the ultimate significance of any moment in a person's life (The Way That Leads There, G. Meilander). It's not a work or the result of our work. Our worth and significance in this broken world is something God chose in His hesed love, that particular love out of which He makes promises that bind us to Him and to His people. It is conferred upon us, and upon the emotionally and mentally and physically challenged, and upon the poor and weak and the depressed and the have-nots and the outsiders and the marginalized. . . because it is what is in His heart, not because of what we have done. "For if while we were still enemies of God we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more . . . shall we be saved by His life." (Romans 5:10)

Something else seems clear to me. Significance is manifested in relationships. That is, when God's gift of value and meaningfulness dawns on us, the way it shows up, is reflected, is in relationships. In love. What we believe is no small matter. But the only way it is clear that one knows God and thus "believes" is by its fruit: love. "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?. . .I will show you my faith by my works." (James 2:14, 18) "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." (I John 4:8)

It says to me that the weightiness of our lives will be found in the long run in knowing God through suffering. And that we will see it in the eyes of the people we love.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Written Word

Call me a dinosaur, but I am in love with the written word. Push your cute PDA's at me, and I will respond with my Day-Timer. Promote your "every-Bible-translation-known-to-man/woman-on-one-software-program" and I'll reach for one translation at a time off of my library shelf, fingering the paper pages, rubbing my hands over their texture and writing in their ample margins. At the end of the day, in spite of the wonder of technology and its ability to connect us, I will always choose paper over computer screen. Books, you see, are among my best friends.

So, in the course of amassing a library these last 35 years, and reading most of that library, what have I discovered? What would I recommend that you simply should not be without, should not come to the end of your life never having read? I'll take a shot at it. And here's my criteria: each one of these books God used to change my life.

New Testament Backgrounds and Exegesis

The New Testament and the People of God, N.T.Wright
Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright
The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T.Wright
The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey
Poet and Peasant/Through Peasant's Eyes, Kenneth Bailey
Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson


On Being Human, Ray Anderson
The Cross of Christ, John Stott
The Trinitarian Faith, T.F.Torrance
On the Incarnation, Athanasius
Confessions, Augustine
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin
Knowing God, J.I.Packer
Orthodoxy, G.K.Chesterton
Worship, Theology, and The Triune God of Grace, James Torrance
Escape From Reason, Francis Schaeffer
The Weight of Glory, C.S.Lewis
The Great Divorce, C.S.Lewis
Speaking the Christian God, ed. Alan Kimel
The Way That Leads There, Gilbert Meilander
A Theology of Word and Spirit, Donald Bloesch
God the Almighty, Donald Bloesch
Holy Scripture, Donald Bloesch

The Church

Resident Aliens, Willimon and Hauerwas
Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Church, Donald Bloesch

Christian Practice

What's So Amazing About Grace?, Phillip Yancey
In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen
The Fountain of Life, John Flavel
The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax, Richard Sibbes
The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence
Treatise on the Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards
Forgive and Forget, Lewes Smedes
Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen
Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster
The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard
The Pursuit of God, A.W.Tozer
Letters to Malcolm, C.S.Lewis
The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace

The Missional Life

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Ruth Tucker
The Missional Church, ed. Darrell Guder
Declare His Glory, ed. J.Anderson
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin


Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
Godric, Frederick Beuchner
Death Comes to the Archbishop, Willa Cather
The Greek Passion, Kazantzakis
The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
Silence, Endo Shisatsku
Diary of a Country Priest, Carlos Bernanos
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarre
Plainsong, Haruf
Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R.Tolkien
The Last Battle, C.S.Lewis
The Complete Works of Flannery O'Connor
Short Stories, Wendell Berry


The Culture of Interpretation, Robert Lundin
Good to Great, Jim Collins
Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose
Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose
Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer

So, now it's your turn. What has changed your life?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Good Son

When my mother's health began to fail in earnest in 2005, tiny strokes whittled her down to a memory of her real self. My wife Susan and I cared for her daily for the next two years, visiting her and taking care of her as best we could in the skilled care facilities in which she lived. And even though she showed signs that the end was coming, I still was not prepared to watch her suddenly die in front of my eyes. On Father's Day, 2007.

In the time that followed that afternoon, Susan needed to help take care of our grandsons back at home. And so I waited for the funeral home to come pick up Mother's body, all alone for a while in her nursing home room, trying to fathom the presence of body and absence of person. I was quiet and a bit numb. Before anyone from the funeral home arrived, in walked my son Jeremy and daughter-in-law Ashley. I stood up to hug them and, to my surprise, fell into my son's arms, crying. Gasping out the words, "I hope Daddy would have been proud of me." A good son.

You see, when my father was dying from cancer 18 years earlier, he confessed to my brother and me in private that he feared dying because it would leave Mother all alone. He was worried about what would happen to her. He knew she was emotionally fragile and had been highly dependent on him all their married life. Both my brother and I immediately promised him that we would take care of her, and that he had no need to worry. A week later, Daddy was gone. A year later, my brother died at his own hand. I had lived with the promise I made to my father ever since. A promise to be "a good son."

And now, with no more chance to live this promise out, the first thing that burst out of me was this yearning to have my father's approval, to hear his "well done," to know that he was proud of me, and that indeed, in the heart of the one man from whom it most mattered, I was valued as a good son. An approval I cannot access.

But there was mystery being unveiled at Mother's bedside that day. I guess that in the months since June, I have gained eyes to see that the young man who held me is the very definition of what it means to be a good son. Emotionally vulnerable and accessible, responsible, compassionate, a great husband, a 5-star father, playful, easy-going, funny, a bridge-builder, a godly man, sincere, complimentary, complementary, honest. . .Jeremy is all I ever could have wanted in a son. I am so very proud of him. I cannot take credit for most of what is good in that man's heart and life; his mother and his Master I believe are far more of the story.

A good son. Who was born today, 28 years ago.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Blue Chip or Mutt?

Did you happen to see the Westminster Dog Show this year? The winner, for the first time ever in this venue, was a beagle. A beagle named Uno, who was funny and happy, full of life and obedience and faithfulness. Uno is bristling with giftedness. And most of all, in that realm of purebred dogs, he had the pedigree, the blood line of a champion. He’s what we might call a “blue chip” dog.

For my part, though, as great as dogs like Uno are, I’ll take a mutt anyday. Actually, I like to call them “hybrids.” You know, the best of lots of breeds, built into one! Hybrids are all that the Parsons have ever had, with the exception of one eccentric Dalmatian. Through the influence of our daughter Becca, we have adopted into our family “rescue dogs,” meaning dogs primarily from animal shelters, dogs that no one might have chosen and who might eventually have been euthanized. The great thing about hybrids is that they are usually less afflicted with the kinds of defects being increasingly bred into pedigree dog lines (if you want my counsel, stay away from anything that has anything to do EVER with puppy mills), they are often very smart, they are absolutely devoted to their owners, and they're humble.

Take Gabe, for example.

A few months ago, our daughter Becca headed off to dog training school in Texas, with a ball of fur in the back seat named Gabe. They’re home now, Becca having graduated from Triple Crown Academy and looking to start a dog training business, and Gabe is 11 months young. He’s hilarious. Full of energy. Relentless in his pursuit of whatever he’s drawn to. Smart. Faithful. Enthusiastic. He’s an amazing combination of what appears to be Golden Retriever (you know, a best-friend-for-all-life kind of dog; a “I will be faithful to you forever” kind of dog who is playful and full of joy all the time); and Border Collie (you know, a serioius let’s-get-it-done kind of dog; a dog on a mission; a dog that insists on being a factor and that you can’t ignore). I’m telling you, one of the great things about hybrids is that they take the best of different breeds and live them out embodied in one dog. But even more importantly, it seems as if the mutt, er, hybrid, has a sense that they were on death row. There's a humility to mutts. Sure, you always take a small risk with them. But in contrast, for whatever my opinion is worth, blue chip dogs can be boring. . . or worse yet, arrogant.

Senior pastors can be like that, too. The church I serve has been seeking a new senior pastor over the last year and a half. And the temptation they faced was to seek a “blue chip” kind of pastor – one of those handful who are bristling with gifts - those who either have distinguished themselves as being superstars or have been groomed in certain large churches as heirs-apparent for large church pastorates. Blue chippers.

Now, don’t get me wrong - in the Kingdom of God, all are beloved, without a doubt. All are useful, all are precious to God. But there’s something VERY useful and precious about hybrids. Like Baptist-Presbyterian hybrids who have had to do the hard work of wrestling through a wide swath of significant theological differences in order to get a mature, realistic grasp of who God is, and how He works. A hybrid who embodies both the faithfulness and playfulness and joy of a Golden Retriever and also the seriousness, get-it-done, on-a-mission-from-God mentality of a Border Collie. But best of all, mutts, er, hybrids usually are the ones who remember they were on death row. There's a humility in them that makes them peculiarly useful.

Like the young man our church has called to be our senior pastor.

Do you ever feel like a "mutt"? Second rate? Not allowed into the big show? I do, more than you might believe. But the good news is that it is to those who know they were on death row and have been delivered are given the Kingdom. Who are most like their Master, who was "little" on behalf of others. I'll just bet He calls us "hybrids."