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."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Looking for a View

I’m spoiled. Spoiled by the views I’ve been allowed to see. Our years in Washington and Colorado were filled with the intoxication of creation. We have been given the extraordinary honor of gawking at bald eagles in southwest Alaska, slithering through slot canyons in the San Rafael Swell, backpacking on glacial moraines in Banff National Park, sitting mouth agape on Chinook Pass staring at the massive hulk of Mt. Rainier, reflecting in an unmarked Anasazi fortress on Cedar Mesa where some apparently made their last stand, clinging to the sides of monster peaks that threaten to throw you off in order to see something that not a dozen other lucky people will see that year or maybe ever. You see, I really am spoiled. Sometimes, on low days I cry because I miss belonging in that world of views.

In contrast, I had never found a view that came remotely close to this in the Midwest, where we now live. I had gone off excited for daytime adventures in many directions from Kansas City, returning sad and lonely and discouraged from many. . .no, most of those attempts. I couldn’t find a view which made my heart beat fast and filled my eyes with tears because what I was seeing was so filled with glory that I could hardly bear it.

But I found one. I found a view in the Midwest.

A year ago this month, after studying the Buffalo National River guidebooks and maps for a year, I got up one day at 4:30 AM and drove to Arkansas. I picked my way through Harrison and traveled winding roads up into the Ozarks. I hiked to the Hawksbill Crag, which, I must say, was a disappointment. I hiked on a meandering loop trail for several miles to caves and waterfalls and, honestly, it was better than city streets. . .but I’m confessing to you that I’m a snob. I’m SPOILED, okay?! And finally, as the sun was dropping, I sped down the Center Point Trail to Hemmed-in Hollow (only in the Ozarks, eh?)to get as much mileage as I could before dark, in search for a little side trail called Billy Goat Bluff. Because I had a hunch that something might await me there.

After finding the turnoff, I proceeded to move further and further across the face of this limestone face, until the Buffalo River, with greens and blues and silt showed down to my right and ahead of me. And then, all of a sudden I was seized by joy and sat down in wonder and took the picture you see below, looking straight down through my feet. . . at a view. A really, really great view. One that made me cry for happiness, one filled with such glory that I could hardly bear it.

It all reminds me that there is another, far more important view that we are to long for and to seek. David said, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD” (Psalm 27:4, ESV) The apostle Paul said, “Remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened. . .” (Ephesians 1:17) Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40) We are to long for eyes to see. To see what really matters, what is the true, the good and the beautiful. That is, to see God and, by gazing upon Him, to see everything else around you through His eyes.

So, when we look at our neighbor we might remember, “that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . There are no ordinary people. You never talked to a mere mortal.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). Do you see people as God does? And that includes yourself?

And when you look at the desperate wreckage of the circumstances surrounding you, do you see the possibilities of God? “[A person] who does not know the rhythm of desperation and deliverance must have his sights only on what man can achieve.” (John Piper)

And when you stare stunned at the awe-full realities of creation, are you so impoverished that that is all you can see? Or is there more? “The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. . . There was a man who dwelt in the east centuries ago. And now I cannot look at a sheep or a sparrow, or a lily or cornfield, or a raven or a sunset, a vineyard or a mountain without thinking of him.” (G.K.Chesterton)

Now, that’s a view.

Monday, February 4, 2008


I'll tell you what I'm passionate about. I love coffee.

I love the coffee bean itself. Especially the darkest of dark, bold coffee beans. The kind that make wimpish people faint. The kind that keep untrained people up all night, or leaves them jittery at their desks after the first two sips.

I love espresso (triple-tall-with-room Americano). Or a great French press coffee, like my son makes. But it has to be strong.

I love my "with-room" filled with a shot of heavy whipping cream, or, if there's none available, half and half. It doesn't doll up the coffee as if it's a desert, but the sweetness is nonetheless like a vacation.

I love my coffee in a ceramic cup. Just because it feels right. And not a "busy" cup with all kinds of writing or drawings on it. A simple cup that says, if anything, something like "Colorado Smiles" on it.

I love the right coffee shop. Like Homer's or Hattie's or the Coffee Trader. Someplace that doesn't remind me of a franchise. And has used newspapers laying around.

I love it when I get the right barista. The ones that know my name and who pray for me when there's a death in my family and who have never met my wife but always ask how she's been doing since her brain surgery.

You see, I love coffee. It's one of the few pleasures that I cultivate. I'm pretty simple when it comes to desires, and this is one of my favorite.

St. Augustine had a lot to say about desires. He believed, he knew, that desires are not to be cast aside as if obstructions to the Christian life. Rather, he came to understand that God takes our desires, as warped and corrupted as many of them begin, and transforms them. "You drove all fruitless joys from me, You who are the true, the sovereign Joy. You drove them from me and took their place, You who are sweeter than all pleasure." (Augustine, Confessions) Such talk is riveting. . . and alarming. I have a lot invested in coffee. Some things, I say to myself, would be better left untransformed. . . don't you think, God?

And so it was that our daughter Sarah popped up with an idea recently. Sarah, our youngest, a sophomore nursing student at William Jewell College, and passionate about Africa. A dangerous woman, dangerous to the accepted norms of suburban, consumeristic, self-centered living, Sarah said, "I want to give up drinking anything but water over Lent this year, and give all that I would have spent on drinks to Blood:Water Mission. And to get as many people as I can to join me in doing this." For those of you who've never heard of Blood:Water Mission, it's a mission started by Jars of Clay to drill clean water wells in villages all over Africa. For $1, you can supply clean water to a child for a year in Africa. Of all of Africa's challenges, one of the most crippling and most easily solved is the lack of clean water. Sarah wants to make a difference, and here she was saying, "I'm going to do something about it."

So am I. And so is my wife Susan (as usual, she made up her mind before I did). And yesterday, far more importantly than anything related to the Super Bowl, three women in my wife's Sunday School class said, "Count me in." And they were going to go tell their friends and family about it.

That's why I'm telling you. Lent starts on Wednesday. And not only is the chance to do something for others, but it might, just might, be a part of the providential and sovereign hand of God transforming desire in you.