This is the Second in the a Three-Part series exploring the three core tenants of New Church “Authentic. Artistic. Adventurous.”

Genesis Chapter 1; Psalm 150

So here we are, back from Spring Break, and in the middle of this three week series where we are exploring the three “A’s” of New Church—Authentic, Artistic, and Adventurous. Last week, Alvin led us off with “Authentic”. Today is “Artistic”. Next week, we’ll explore “Adventurous”.

You know, it not difficult to understand why a new church in a community such as ours—intown Atlanta—would value an authentic faith. The church, with some degree of culpability, has earned the reputation of being inauthentic—saying one thing and then doing another, espousing high ideals and then getting wound up in petty differences. To be part of correcting this is not only laudable and noble. Its necessary as more and more see institutional religion as inauthentic and something to be suspicious of. An authentic faith leads to a more enriching life—one that doesn’t feel like our various parts of our lives are segmented and walled off.

This leads to this week—Artistic. We want to be a faith community that celebrates and supports that artistic spark that is in each of us—yes, all of us.

Why have Artistic as a core value? Well, God is an artist. Whether you want to begin from natural theology and consider the beauty and majesty of creation or you want begin in Scripture, this is a solid claim. John Muir, the man who inspired Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Parks said this about the Bitterroot Mountains, “Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted.”

We’ve all experienced this at some point. Whether it be standing on Cumberland Island, on the beach, staring out at the water with no one around, lingering at the rim of the Grand Canyon, marveling at the beauty, standing in the middle of a redwood forrest having your mind blown that trees can get that big, or scuba diving and seeing such color and detail underwater. Words, when in prose have their limits when trying to describe such beauty. Sometimes we need a poet because they, like preachers believe words can change the world (so says Anna Carter Florence). I believe God is an artist.

If we look at Scripture, it begins by exposing us to God’s love for humanity not by telling us the beginning of Creation as if we were being lined out IKEA instructions. Rather we have a ritual, a litany, a dramatic procession of creation. The Books of Psalms tells us every human emotion… all of it, poetry. And we can’t seem to go very far in Luke without someone breaking out in song.

All of this to say that there is a creative nature in each of us. And if we are going to live into our God-given potential, this needs to find expression. For me, I used to find it in music. Today, I find it in writing. I don’t think I’m very good when I try to write a poem but that’s not the point. Its not excellence its expression. I’ve invited a few others to share….


If we are created in God’s image and the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in our lives is restoring us to something more akin to what God envisions for us and hopes for the world, then our response as human beings is to create… make something as that Image of God in each of us becomes more apparent to ourselves and to others.

But back to our first question: why is this important, as Christians and as a Christian faith community? On the one hand, if we say this is part and parcel of who we are as being created in God’s image, then it should just happen, right?

If we don’t have intentionality behind this celebration of the arts as an expression of God’s presence in our lives, then other, more dominant strains of thought will become the default—like you aren’t worthy unless you produce and consume, preferably in large quantities.

But also, if we don’t have intentionality around celebrating the arts and helping people find the expression that resonates within their soul, then we’re missing out on a great way to communicate the Gospel of Jesus. We’ve long held forth that part of this endeavor that we’re in the very early stages of is being taken on in order to help people connect to a larger narrative for their life and we think that narrative is Jesus. And this is vitality important in our context where people already do many of the things we espouse as followers of Jesus—everything from intentional groups to volunteerism. We simply want to come alongside and help wrestle with the question of “why?”.

I believe one of the best ways we can do that is to help and encourage each other to sing, draw, sculpt, dance, make something, or tinker with something until it is new and better…. all of this and more so that the love of Christ may find expression in what you do. It does not matter if you consider yourself a master, you think of yourself as void of any creativity, or anywhere in between—we claim in our core vision that this is a community that helps people find and embrace that. We believe practicing your art can be considered a form of spiritual discipline, if approached with a mindset of finding an outlet for God’s imprint on your life. This edifies your soul, helping you to grow in grace. But it also becomes an avenue to communicate the Gospel. Maybe this is communicated in ways we aren’t entirely comfortable with yet—we might not readily attribute our art or ability to make as something that is gift from God. But growing into this awareness is a good thing. Then, as we will tell people—or better yet, they experience what we believe about God.

Let me close with this image. Back in 2013, NPR quoted research done in Sweden. What they were trying to get at is “is there some physiological component to attribute this ecstatic feeling we get when we sing or play music in a group.” They found answer. But they also found something else: when a group of people sing together, their heart rates synchronize. Their hearts literally begin to beat as one. I can’t think of a more fitting image than if we could not just literally sing together as a church but teach our community to sing so that our heart for God, for each other, and for our community could beat as one.

Image from Flickr, God Save the Green under CCL, some rights reserved by artist.

Palm Sunday 2016

Life is a journey. No doubt about it. From the moment we are born until (at least) we breathe our last we’re in caught up in some type of motion, movement, or growth. We might not acknowledge it, we might not feel it, and there might even be times when we don’t want to accept it. It’s true regardless of age, stage of life, or circumstance. It’s even true when we’re on the mountaintops of life, its true when we’re anxious, it is true when we’re at rest, and when we’re asleep.

We approached this Lenten season with a story about a journey—walking the Appalachian trail (remember the Bryson novel?). As we draw near to Easter, let me tell you a story about my own ventures on the “A.T.” Some of you know that 20 years ago, I chose to take a “gap year” between Alabama and Emory. This was of my own choice but it was influenced by several circumstances that were beyond my control. My best friend finds out I’m back in Birmingham. He calls me up and says to me, “Get your pack ready. We’re going hiking on Monday.” And off we go.

We drive into the mountains of North Carolina, pull off I-40, get our stuff out and lock the car. We hike north until about sundown. We set up camp, eat dinner, and stay up talking way too late. The next day: breakfast, break camp, and we set out. Before long, we get to this seemingly never-ending series of switchbacks. Before long I’m well-winded, my feet hurt, and my shoulders and hips are already sore. I stop and wait for my friend to look around and see I’ve stopped. I protest any further movement up the hill. And I begin making overtures that maybe we ought to head back to the car. “Hey, why don’t we go to Knoxville and see our friend who transferred there.” That didn’t work. “Hey, let’s turn this into a road trip—my dime. We’ll make our way to the beach and see what’s up.” That didn’t work either. Finally, I tried for the Hail Mary, “Isn’t your girlfriend over at Western Carolina University? That’s not far from here.”

But he wouldn’t hear it—none of it. See, he’d hiked that trail before and he knew the switchbacks would stop. But he also knew me. He knew that I would eventually stop complaining and that I’d regret if I quit. And he knew the beautiful vista that awaited us down the trail. If I had been left it my own devices, I would have quit and gone back to the car.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today, we observe the beginning of a different kind of journey. Here, Jesus knows his route and what’s at the end of his journey. And he still follows it. He doesn’t know the payoff that we know. He doesn’t know that there’s something else after the would-be end of the story. He doesn’t know that God will act and defeat death once and for all. To me, at least, Jesus goes to cross not anticipating Easter. This debunks any of the would be intellectual parlor tricks that would say that the action of the cross and empty tomb are somehow lessened because Jesus knew how things ultimately unfolded. So the parlor trick goes, to say otherwise implies God is somehow blind to the future. Yes, Jesus is God incarnate. Yes God is all knowing, all powerful, and all loving. And Jesus’s self-giving action in the cross is for real and sincere. There’s no “just kidding” or “smoke and mirrors” in the action of the cross. Anything else than saying Jesus willingly went to Jerusalem knowing what was in store for him implies that God’s love towards us is something less than full-voiced or sincere. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In Jesus’ self-giving we are shown how to live and what it means to love. But let’s not get to Good Friday too soon.

In Jesus undertaking the journey that begins with this palm-strewn, hosanna-provoking and donkey-summoning procession, Jesus affirms yet again that he embraces a life that spans the full gamut of human experience. Here, in the procession is the hopeful image of the promised Messiah coming into Jerusalem. By the end of the week, this same man is the criminal abandoned by almost everyone. Once again, we have the implicit affirmation that Jesus, having experienced adulations, ignominy, and everything in between we are not alone on our journeys.

Much like my friend on the Appalachian Trail who had been there before I had, Jesus has been wherever it is that we are and wherever it is that we might go. And if we will stop long enough to listen to God in the midst of those times when we aren’t sure, God might just have some wisdom for us. Oh, we might be like the disciples where we don’t understand in the moment what Jesus is about, where we don’t immediately understand what Jesus wants us to know. Oh, if we’re honest, I think we’re a lot like the disciples and we understand only afterward. But, if we can only for a moment listen, remember, and trust this Jesus who leads us in the great procession of life, then maybe our lives might be a little bit more rich, a little bit more full, and a little bit more gracious. And this happens simply because we chose to not stop or turn around to face what is familiar. Instead, we listen to Jesus’ gracious words “I’m with you”, “I’ve been there before”, “wait and see what’s beyond the horizon. I’ve got a surprise for you.”

We’re not alone. Thanks be to God.


Luke 4:21-30

It is always fun to think about the rags to riches story–the child of modest upbringing doing good. I know I always beam a little bit when folk talk about Dabo Sweeney, coach of the National Runners-Up in football Clemson Tigers. Dabo and I grew up together. Oh, we weren’t friends, mind you. He grew up in Pelham, proper…. over near the trailer park if memory serves me correct. I grew up in the subdivisions. Me a band geek, Dabo the kid who played Split End (that’s a wide receiver… the one’s who catch the ball when the quarterback throws it). But he hard brick for hands. In other words, he was the kid the quarterback hardly ever threw the football to.

Fast-forward a few years. Here I am at Alabama, in the band. The football tea is blowing out some cupcake of a team for homecoming. It’s the 4th quarter of the game and even the 3rd string players are resting. All the players on the field are walk-on players. Several of us were joking that we ought to go suit up. As we were celebrating another win, imagine my surprise when I look out there on the field and see Dabo Sweeney. He was never the fastest guy. He didn’t always catch the ball when it was thrown his way. But he did two things well. He ran precise routes and he was more than willing to block downfield…. two things that more gifted athlete playing the same position are want to do. Good for you kid. You walk-on, practice hard and get to wear the Crimson jersey all the way to the 1992 national championship.

If that wasn’t a good enough story, he gets hired to be on staff at Alabama specifically because he’s young and can relate in a way the older coaches couldn’t. Ultimately, he gets hired to be the offensive coordinator for Clemson. Mid-year they fire their coach. He is promoted to be the interim Head Coach, again because he relates well to the players. At the end of the season, he gets the job full-time. Fast forward a few years and he played against his alma mater for the national championship. A cinderella story, especially when you find out about just how poor his family was. He was so poor that he and his mom shared a room in Tuscaloosa so that he could go to college. Meanwhile, his mother drove every day to Birmingham to work at Parisian so that they could afford to eat.

A rags to riches story. One everyone loves.

That’s the way today’s story about Jesus sets up. Here’s the guy from Nazareth (remember the phrase “does anything good come from Nazareth). Word of his miracles and wise sayings have made their way from his home as an adult to his childhood home, where he is now in the synagogue, teaching. Everyone wants to see him perform deeds of power. They want to see the spectacle. The want to see the hometown boy make good.

And he defies their expectation. He doesn’t perform a deed of power… well, now exactly. Neither does he tell them comforting words that reaffirmed their status quo or tickled their ears. Here, Jesus challenges them. Reminding them of Elijah and the drought, then he reminds them that Elijah was not sent to the widows of orphans who were suffering. No. Elijah was sent to Sidon–Lebanon. He reminds that during Elisha’s time, Elisha did not heal the child of Israel but a Syrian.

The message is clear and scandalous–Jesus, claiming to stand in the long line of prophets, takes up their mantle saying, “I didn’t come here simply to comfort you. I do not come here to do as you wish, to put on a show and bring fame and notoriety to Nazareth. I didn’t even come here to aggrandize myself. I came to announce the kingdom is here. The kingdom is now.”

His words were condemning them in their expectations. Infuriating them. After all, they were suffering at the hand of Rome. Their lot was decreasing, not expanding. Here they came, expecting to witness the same kind of spectacle they had heard about—teachings and deeds of power that had everyone amazed. This kind talk was so infuriating that they wanted to kill him–was he flirting with blasphemy?

So often, we receive one of two scripts with it comes to our faith in Jesus. One script is similar to the Nazarenes. Here, Jesus is the one who comes to us, hears out every concern, responds to them in a fashion that meets both our expectations and timeline, and we go on with our life.

The other script is that Jesus the one who calls us out to challenge the status quo, to be a new voice crying out in the wilderness, to always be the one who always speaks truth to power, who always is the outlier, relishing bucking every trend and saying “no” to collective wisdom.

I think we gravitate to one of those two archtypes based upon our natural predilections. But make no mistake, there’s the temptation for sin here.

The sin, my friends, is not in the deeds, the actions or the disposition. After all, Jesus is the one who has lived our life and died our death. He intimately knows all our passions, hopes, and heart-breaks. The Holy Spirit always abides, ever so close to us. But Jesus is also the one who calls us to, like him, “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted”. He is the one who eats with sinners. He’s the one who chooses the 1 over the 99.

The sin that we are all guilty of, my friends, is when we do not let God be God. We bend Jesus to our whims, we align Jesus with our political party, we let the prompting of the Holy Spirit just happen to align perfectly with our  expectations for our life, our community, and our world. I know in my own prayer life, many times I ask, “God is that you or is it just me trying to convince myself that my desires and my wishes are yours”.

This sin is, ultimately, one of arrogance where we tell God how to act and intervene in our lives. We’re the ones setting the agenda, not God.

But here’s the wonderful part… last week’s Gospel Lesson in the Lectionary… with God’s Kingdom present and happening now, we don’t have to try to control God (as if we could). We get to let God surprise us in how we are called to act, reflect, and respond in the world. We get to let God summon to the forefront all the contradictions to our life as we expect it to be–or life as we think it “should” be.

Our next task is to decide what to do.

Are we going to charge to the edge of the cliff, flinging God (and ourselves) over the edge into oblivion so that we can go back to our self-reinforcing, self-centered lives? Or, are we going to listen to what Jesus has to say. Are we going to heed the call to really and truly allow ourselves to follow him, to allow him to make ourselves, our hopes, our dreams, and indeed all things, new.

Everyone Can Sing. We Just Need to Remember

Let’s start with a fun fact that I learned in my undergraduate studies in education:

everyone is born with the ability to sing.

Why this is? Who knows. But it seem that one of the intervals we are born with the ability to sing is a minor 3rd. Be it a child intoning “nanny-nanny boo-boo” or an arena full of basketball fans mockingly chanting, “aiiiir-ball, Aiiiir-ball”, we all to one degree or another can sing.

Now, that ability might not get nurtured or somehow we think our ability is something to be embarrassed about, saving it only for singing in the shower. Its almost like an amnesia sets in.

A very similar thing happens with our life. One of the more central, and yet wonk-ier, aspects of Christian theology is this concept of the Image of God. Now, we all know that we are made in God’s image. Each one of us wonderfully and beautifully. Then sin enters the equation. As United Methodists we say, contrary to most, that this image is obscured to the point where we can’t recognize the Image of God in us. And so we forget.

And here’s this wonderful story contained in this familiar story of Jesus and Nicodemus. Where Nicodemus is reminded that we need to relearn. One way of looking at this story, it seems that its a universal that we forget to sing we forget the song of our life… Jesus.

And much like a teacher teaches a new song by reflectively lining out the phrases, Jesus sings to us today this, in effect love song, of how much God loves us and the degrees to which God will go to help us begin to not just fathom but internalize the depth of that love for us. In doing so, the Image of God in us is restored. We remember who we are and the legacy we are adopted into.

Which leads to a question:

having heard Jesus line out to you, verse by verse the degree to which God loves you, giving you voice to sing anew, what will you song be?

Today is the day when we recognize peace with justice Sunday, when we sing again to one another the songs and words that remind each other in the world that God stands on the side of the oppressed. We remember that, as one far far wiser said, that the arch of history bends towards justice. Today we remember our song, too. What will your song be?

  • Will it be a song of thanksgiving?
  • Will it be a lament?
  • Will it be a song of praise?
  • Will it be a protest song?
  • A song of hope?
  • A song of peace
  • Who knows, maybe even a love song.
  • Maybe even a song that has no words.

Maybe its

  • in traditional form, or
  • maybe its a pop song.
  • Maybe its hip hop, or
  • maybe its country.
  • Maybe its a familiar song that you’ve heard before or
  • maybe its an original score.
  • Maybe its a mash up… something old, something new.

Whatever the case, hear again friends this invitation:

You have this wonderful, God-given ability to create something beautiful and inspiring. So sing. Sing the song to God and to the world you have been given.

And another observation. We as a congregation have a song, as well. Sometimes its slower than we like, sometimes it sounds foreign on our ears, sometimes not as many voices are carrying the lead. Over the years, we’ve altered the tune, changed the words to make them more inclusive, of course.

But the song remains. While we are in this season of our church trying to discern the path which is our future, I know it can be scary, anxious, troubling. In the midst of all this, lets remind each other to faithfully sing. We sing remembering that we’ll continue to change, maybe its like the two versions of The Church’s One Foundation with different lyrics or the two tunes to Crown Him With Many Crowns, or maybe its like the Mash Up that includes the hymn Amazing Grace with the Praise Song Amazing Love.

Whatever the case, its going to be new, its going to be different. Its going to be same. Its all the song that Jesus taught and still teaches.


Easter 2014: “Do Not Be Afraid”

Matthew 28:1-10

Can you imagine what it was like walking up to the tomb on that first Easter?





Yes, all of those things. But I think chief amongst all those emotions must have been fear. Fear for what was going to happen next. Fear of what was going to happen now that Jesus was gone Fear for their own lives. And then, fear went from something that was prompted by hypotheticals to something very real: this incredible scene unfolding before them.

“Do not be afraid” the angel said. Yeah, right. Petrified Roman centurions—the same soldiers that inspired fear in others were afraid. And if THEY were afraid, I think the two Mary’s had a right to be afraid. “Do not be afraid at this fantastical experience? How could they not be anything but?

Nonetheless, these were the words that greeted the Mary’s on that first Easter. And almost as if either they did not hear it enough to internalize or since what they had experienced had been so much, this same admonition–do not be afraid–were the first instructions Jesus gave, as well.

Before that Easter morning, all they knew was that their worst nightmare, the inconceivable came true. But that worst fear, most dreaded nightmare was rendered powerless. Just when it looked like all evidence was to the contrary, love won.

Indeed, love is still winning.

Just like the Mary’s, because of Easter, we don’t have to be afraid anymore, for ever. The burden and even, sometimes, privilege of fear are no longer viable options for us.

To put it another way, Alyce McKenzie tells us we don’t have to come afraid to something, expecting death when we have been promised life. Now she was was saying why were the attendees of the that first Easter afraid when Jesus only did what he said he would do.

In our life, the reality of Easter, of our celebrations of love and life being more powerful and more compelling than the entropic entity which is death means we no longer need to be afraid.

Jesus lives!

Whether its :

  • hearing the comforting word of the worst thing that happens to us isn’t the last thing that happens to us or
  • the reality that in the darkest parts of our lives, we do not have to be alone.
  • That the powers and principalities… people and institutions that wield power over us… do not hold ultimate sway.

We have hope.

  • That Jesus died our death.
  • That the dread that is our worst selves will win the day is over and that the God-inspired part of us that is more hopeful, more optimistic, and lives towards a greater ideal can come to the forefront.

However you need to hear it, however you need to approach it, hear this, hear it clear, and receive it as an amazing, loving gift:

do. not. be. afraid.

I found these words by Julia Esquivel appropriate for this day:

They have threatened us with Resurrection
because they are more alive than ever before,
because they transform our agonies
and fertilize our struggle,
because they pick us up when we fall,
because they loom like giants
before the crazed gorillas’ fear.

The threats no longer loom over us.

Truly, threats no longer loom over us. God’s love in Jesus abides, instead. That’s not to say that there won’t be difficult days, that there won’t be challenges, that there won’t be set backs. That is not what Jesus promised. He told Mary to tell the disciples to continue there journey and he will meet up with them.

And this news is just too good to keep to ourselves.

Just like the angel’s said do not be afraid. We have the joyous opportunity to tell the world that it does not have to be afraid, either. There’s so much people could fear, especially if we let it gain its own momentum, if we stay silent to the good news that Mary heard, the good news Mary told.

But as we have received good news, we also get share this same invitation to live into a life which is far better. We get to share, are Soren Kiekegegaard put it  “God’s presence is the decisive thing that changes all.” And it has transformed death into life. Dread into love. Fear into hope.

Christ is Risen.

Christ is risen, indeed.

Are You Thirsty?

John 4:5-42

”Come and see the a man who told me every thing I have ever done!”

Talk about burying a lead!

But maybe not. Maybe receiving this kind of good news is too much to take right after hello. But maybe its not as complicated and not as onerous as we think. Maybe it is a simple as taking a drink.

Have you ever been thirsty before? I don’t mean you could use something to “wet your whistle” but I mean the kind of thirst that survivalists talk about when they say you can go three days without water. I know I’ve felt that way before in my life, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a place where lack of fluids put my life in harm.

Maybe you have thirsted before, but it wasn’t for something to drink, but you’ve thirsted for the dignity that comes with steady, honest work. Or maybe you craved a way out of isolation and longed for deep connections and relationships. Maybe you have been rendered parched by the way elected officials seem to ignore the thirst being articulated by the people. Have you ever thirsted for a faith… or maybe faith is not even the right word…but you longed for a connection to something that was deeper, more significant. Have you ever been thirsty?

This woman at the well was thirsty. She was thirsty on a very basic level in that she was coming to the well to drink—That daily need to replenish herself as well as her water stores for cooking, cleaning. In that very mundane action, she experienced something she had not planned, she had a different kind of thirst quenched.

It is said that the average American walks around just a little bit dehydrated… not so much so as to cause confusion or for our bodies to start doing things like imagining that sand is water. But neither do we go around functioning as well as we could.

So the research goes, we go about our days drinking enough fluids each day but we drink the wrong kind. Either we go one way: soft drinks, beer and wine, or powdered drinks. But we forget that chemicals like caffein and alcohol works against the hydration process. And we forget that there are studies proving that the body metabolizes certain sugar substitutes that are supposed to be zero calories but actually your body treats in some ways as real sugar. So we’re not really hydrating, even though we think we are.

Have you ever been involved with something you thought was life-giving and it turned out to not be healthy at all? Maybe a job or a relationship. Maybe there was part of your faith journey that was not pointing you to life.

Or we go the other way, thinking that we need to have all these sports drinks that offer electrolytes, salt, even energy replenishment when the only people those drinks really help are folk like professionals or the folk who ran the marathon today. For most of us regular folk, water will do. And we do even need to water from the South Pacific, water that has gone through reverse osmosis or even water from a coconut. All we need is simply, water.

Have you ever been thirsty, even though you thought you were doing what you needed to and the thirst abided—it didn’t go away?

I wonder sometimes—and maybe this is just me—if with our evolved sensibilities we make things more complicated than we should. Have you ever wondered about that? I don’t mean that we need to force our faith into something that is simplistic or two-dimensional, something that ignores context, nuance, science, or history. Rather, I wonder if sometimes we need to remember that what are about is a relationship, its about having Jesus stand in front of us, too at the well, telling us everything about ourselves… him doing that with a sense of grace and invitation—not spite, wrath or judgement—and being invited to consider our lives in ways we never have before?

Simple? I would hope so. Difficult? Most definitely.

One of the stories I love to share about just this thing is a story from I think Florida. Imagine, if you will, it being summer time. Locked away in the basement of the church was a really great youth room with, among a bunch of other cool things, was a pool table. Like many youth spaces, this room was only used on a Sunday.

And so these two neighborhood middle school boys would perennially try and succeed in finding their ways into the church and the youth room to play pool. I can imagine that that church was not that different from ours and many others where, despite all best attempts, there’s no 100% way to ensure that our building is 100% secure all the time.

Well, one day, the pastor of the church finds the two boys playing pool in the basement. Instead of throwing them out, instead of calling the police, instead of giving the boys a lecture about respect of private property, what does he do? He gives them the keys to the church and tells the boys that they can come play pool any time they want. I’m not sure that would pass muster today, especially given child safe-guarding procesdures. But I think it proves a point about sometimes we “err” on the side of grace. And you know what? One of those two boys grew up to become a United Methodist clergy.

Have you ever been so thirsty that you’d soon defy convention just to drink?

Yes, I thirst for a church and a faith that is a little more intuitive, a little more trusting, a little more hope-filled and not so much caught up in helping everyone live into the letter of our polity—and that’s saying something coming from someone who is a rule-follower, like myself. And you know what, I think that most of us are like that, too. We go about our days, doing our daily ritual and all we really want is for that moment of cognition, of being known to someone.

I thirst for a church that calls for a return to something that we all seem to know—community built around the table, nurture that is rooted in the study and exploration of Scripture, and service to the world that puts the vision of the Reign of God before anything else. I’m sure that the slick ministry plans, timely title sequences with video production that would make Spielerg jealous, and exquisite lighting and smoke machines provides some body with a glimpse of how God desires the world to be, how God wants the church—the people of God—to be. I’m just not entirely sure I know who the are. That’s not to downplay technology, but which is in service to which? What’s primary?

Maybe a better question, given the day, is what’s in the water we’re drinking.

But I think that a better sense would be what happens here in Scripture. Here, this woman, as soon as she is offered this gift from Jesus and she turns and goes to share the news—the good news. Meals are shared, stories are told, people believe. People come into relationship with God and each other.

Are you thirsty? Are you thirsty for a church like that? Are you thirsty for a people like that? I am.

Let’s go to the well. Let’s go to the well and drink, Let’s go to the well and find out who is there waiting to tell us everything about ourselves.

Are you thirsty?

Lent 2014: Connect Week 1

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Note: Ezekiel is the Old Testament Lesson associate with the 5th Week in Lent. Because of the rhythm of the school year and a project where different groups creatively present the Scripture in worship during Lent, we are “flipping” the texts for Lent 1 and Lent 5 this year.

Have you ever experienced an injury, say an ankle injury, and had to go to the doctor? Upon inspection the doctor looks up at you, begins explaining the long, slow process of rehabilitation, talking about the long time and makes the observation,  “you know sometimes, its better to break an ankle than to sprain it.” I understand that what is implied in that observation is that ligaments stretch and sometimes fray, that joint stability is sometimes very difficult to obtain after a connective tissue injury. Sometimes things gets out of joint and its very difficult to get back to full strength or snug, much less back in alignment.

I believe that we all have places that are quite right in each of our lives and could use a little strengthening, snugging up, or alignment. Going back to the orthopedic analogy. Maybe something is not quite right, not ideal, and maybe something is really askew, has been for quite some time. Many times we can put things back right by ourselves, although sometimes it can be painful (like Mel Gibson’s should in the Lethal Weapon series!).

Sometimes we need help. One time I dislocated my shoulder skiing. There was no way I was getting up by myself, much less getting down to the bottom of the hill on my own volition. I needed someone’s help, in this case I volunteer.  Sometimes we need a professional.

Sometimes when things aren’t quite right in our lives, we can try force things back and go about our lives. Many times we do this and it usually works, though sometimes it can hurt. Other times we need help and there are plenty of resources to which we can turn. And other times we have places in our life where we know they are utterly broken, there’s nothing to be done. Maybe time has passed, so much time that we feel like those areas of our lives never healed, they are just the dry, disjointed bones of our life that might have crumbled to the point where we cannot remember what it was… or maybe who we were then.

But friends, I tell you, there can be new life. The dry bones of life can become new life.

One of the reasons I love institutions like Murphy Harpst in Rockmart, a United Methodist Women’s institution, is that they step into the juvenile justice system and stand, almost literally, between teenagers and jail. They take children whom the court system has worked with and are about to say there’s nothing to be done but put them in jail. Murphy Harpst believes that new life can happen in the lives of these teens.

Intown Collaborative Ministries has a key focus that we hold out to all whom we come in contact with that there can be a better way forward. You do not have to be abandoned to your current situation. For the folk we work with at Intown, we say “God doesn’t want anyone to be hungry, anyone to be homeless”

There can be renewal. There can be new life.

During Lent, we shift into a different season of the church and a different way of being in the world. I believe we approach this time with a little more introspection, a little more contemplation. Maybe part of that is to spend time appraising that which is our life, look at the places where we are confident in our all the various parts and pieces that makes up our life.

  • Maybe with a different rhythm we will see—maybe for the first time, maybe reminded anew—that there is something that is just not right.
  • maybe we can spend this season of Lent finding a new rhythm that will put right what is wrong
  • maybe we find something in our life, in our relationships where we could use a hand
  • And maybe, just maybe, we stumble across something that has been robbed of life and tossed asunder for so long, that we have abandoned all hope or forgot that part of our live.

Into all of this we proclaim the promise of Ezekiel’s vision: there can be new life. Ezekiel’s message to those who were exiled and thought that the promises made to them by God held no claim was this: that contrary to all evidence, God’s will restore life, God will bring new life.

  • Today in Sunday School we began looking at the plight of the Palestinian Christian community and that community’s cry for recognition, for help. The truth is, there are no easy answers. Nonetheless, we hold true to God’s vision of the possibility of new life.
  • I think that part of who we are as a Christian Community at Druid Hills is we are a place for folks to connect to the story of Jesus when they have given up on church, given up on God. Here, this community is not just a harbinger of new life, and incubator of new life, but we as a community of faith ARE new life.

This is hope, this is the good news embedded in Ezekiel’s vision:

  • Nothing can be rendered unsalvageable.
  • Nothing can rob life so as to render it unable to be restored by God.

The journey of Lent is not just one of solemn introspection. It is one that goes to Jerusalem, and yes to the cross, but also to the empty tomb. And, ultimately the story is one of new life.

This Lenten season, we are using the theme of “Connect”. Over this season, much of what we do be it worship, our learning opportunities, or even our wednesday night activities, we’ll be offering different ways to connect, connect to your own journey in a new way, connect to each other, and connect to God. It is our hope that in all we do, we will connect with this story, this hope, this promise.

Today, we are reminded that we are not left alone, we are not left desolate, we are not rendered to the valley of dry bones. God comes to us in Jesus, not only offering the idea of hope but infusing new life to our common life and individual lives in a fashion that knits us together, that connects us in such a fashion that we are once again whole as individuals, whole as a body of people who follow Jesus, and whole with God.


Hills and Valleys

Matthew 17:1-9

In much of Scripture the valleys are where the common occurs, where the are the work-a-day. The mountains are special, saved for holy experiences. It doesn’t matter if its Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the 10 Commandments, the places of worship at Dan and Bethel, or even the Temple in Jerusalem.

I think that there folk fall, generally, into one of two groups. Either the mountain-top experiences are where you feel more comfortable or the valleys are where you feel more at home. And how you respond to today’s Gospel lesson gives a hint of where you might lean.

I have a hunch, though, that for many of us, the valley’s are where we feel more comfortable. The valleys of life are where most folk congregate. Its where find meaning in our work, we are familiar with the surroundings, or maybe we say, “you know, I don’t have time to venture up that mountain. There’s so much work to do.” There are people to feed, folk to visit, injustices to confront, people to tell the story of Jesus to. There’s no time to stop.

And I will not contradict that observation. There’s is a lot to do in the name of Jesus. With violence continuing, Ukraine seeming to over-boil, and indicators like the reporting coming out showing that Atlanta is tops in the nation when it comes to disparity between the richest and the poorest in our city, we better no rest too easily. And even if we do all we can and more it seems like there’s still more to be done. And it just seems like its exactly at the times when we feel like that we must adhere to our tasks in the valley with all our efforts that this is the time when we are called to ascend the mountain.

When that call comes, or when we find ourselves summiting a mountain lets not resist. While the work remains and will not go away, sometimes we have to go up the mountain.

I know how difficult this can be. But we must go to the mountains

  1. to remind ourselves that its not “all about me”. It helps to remember and experience that things will not fall apart if we step away from good and important work.
  2. But it also helps to step away to remember that there’s a subtle difference between me doing what I do on behalf of Jesus and the church and me doing this for myself. The key is what’s in the middle AND is there any difference between outcomes if you “get your way” vs “what’s God’s vision”
  3. to remember why we do what we do when we are in the valley. The fields are ripe but the laborers are few. This is the language used in agrarian times. We get a sense that there’s this almost overwhelming sense of task to be done. Coming away to the mountain tops staves off burn-out and dissolution

It reminds us why we do what we do. We don’t do what we do as a church simply because we are great, interesting people (which we like to think we are) Peter, James and John experienced something Holy and this gave them a sense of purpose, even if they only understood on the other side of Easter.

What we do is holy work and it is work that we do because we, too, have experienced something holy. And these mountain top experiences give a sense of meaning, purpose, trajectory.

Radical Love sounds like a great centering thought but it takes on a completely different shape when we remind each other that we practice radical hospitality and radical love because tof the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry and Jesus’ life.

Finally, we go on the mountain to be changed ourselves. Surely Peter James and John were not transfigured as Jesus was but they cannot have come down from that mountain the same persons they were when they went up. They experienced something powerful, beautiful, and they could not be the same.

So how do we find mountain top experiences because its not like we go find Jesus, Elijah, and Moses hanging out just everywhere, right?

  1. The first way we can is to do what we will do today later in the service… participate in Holy Communion as frequently as we can.
  2. But then find some practices and spiritual disciplines that invite you to take some time away from your daily routine and daily work in order to not always be in the valley… alway be about the task, always be at work.

A few practices to consider maybe just for Lent that begins next week:

  • Place a basket by your door. Leave your smartphone in the basket once you walk in the door. Don’t pick it up until the next day. If that just isn’t possible, set a time in the evening after which you won’t plug into the various screens in our house.
  • Find time to prepare a meal and invite friends over for that meal. This is so important… from sharing table fellowship with others to practice of spending enough time to slow down to prepare and share in a meal.  Maybe we can’t do this every night but try to do this at least once.
  • Give yourself permission to find recreation. A walk in the morning. Go to the gym in the afternoon. Go for a run at night (if your community is well lit). Get out of town and even head to a mountain
  • Grab a Lenten Calendar and do what is suggested for each day.

These kind of practices are great, they create a space, which was part of the mountain experience. But they also experienced the holy while they were on that mountain:

  • Participate in one of the studies we’re offering during Lent
  • Adopt some pattern of engaging Scripture and prayer throughout this season of Lent. Upper Room is great (they’re here at the church, available on your tablet or smartphone)
  • Pray the daily office… a regular pattern of morning and evening prayer (reflection on district retreat).
  • Try to see if you can pray all 150 Psalms during Lent.
  • Read the scripture for the upcoming Sunday before coming to worship- this will change your expectations

It doesn’t matter what you do, ultimately, but try something. I promise you, you will at some point experience God, and your life will be changed.

If you do this, then the work that we are more comfortable with in the valley, those work a day tasks, that holy work that gives dignity to many who consider themselves unworthy, the work that sustains so many will become not just important, not just vital, not just life-giving but sacramental because what we experience on the mountain means what we do in the valleys in some ways conveys and expresses something about God’s great love for us.

Image: S.K. Lo


So we’ve been reading and studying different bits and pieces of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The part we’re studying today is the conclusion of the chapter. After laying out a vision of the Kingdom of God with the beatitudes and reframing of the 10 Commandments to demonstrate he wasn’t doing new, he concludes this part by a curious ending. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Perfect, really?

I think that the writer of Matthew intended something akin to a “mic drop” moment…. ‘nuff said, there’s nothing that can top this.

For me, the call to be perfect, like God is perfect is not only daunting, its off putting. “I can’t do THAT. Not even close.”

Who can blame anyone for that kind of response.

A quick google search on “perfect” returned a result that was almost entirely one thing: perfect body image. Think about how pervasive that topic is. So much so, that I thought it was a joke when I heard that Barbie was featured in Sports Illustrated. What we’ve got this image of perfect that is so warped that what would only be seen as satire is now reality.

Maybe body image isn’t a place you can connect. Maybe you live out this need to be perfect with an expectation: such as your house looking like it belongs in the pages of architectural digest or not being satisfied with your kid getting a 95 on a test but wanting the “100”. We say we want the best for our child in hoping like that but educators say the effect is otherwise.

Have y’all seen Frozen, yet? The older daughter has this gift of being able to create snow and ice. It delights her sister. But because it is different, because there’s the possibility it could cause harm, her parents teach her to hide her abilities, so as to appear perfect, normal. I won’t spoil the movie, but that lesson internalized and generalized.

Maybe we borrow from the puritans a definition of perfection where perfection is not attainment of ideal in some status but perfect is a moral category, where abstaining from anything that might be enjoyable or fun combined with an over-emphasis on duty and work made for a combination that did a lot but has proven to have it down side, too.

Maybe there’s another another to read the “be perfect” admonition.

Our very own Rex Matthews explored this very thing in one of the lectures he did in Brazil last May. Looking at texts and translations, both ancient and modern he proposes that maybe our other uses of the word “perfect” to mean without blemish or fault… like the perfect diamond… gets in the way of how we mean perfect here.

Perfection is not a finished-product state,without any faults. Perfection is a process. Growth is implied, moving towards a goal. John Wesley, himself, said that it was plausible that someone, probably as they were nearing death, could achieve as state that was near perfection, if not perfection itself. But he said that this was rare, if ever. And this perfection was not a perfect, without sin. It was perfect as in have perfections and intentions and perfect love.

I think another clue for us thinking about perfection being a process of growing in faith, growing in service to Jesus comes from what comes next in the Gospel of Matthew. Right after this “be perfect” are instructions on spiritual disciplines: how to pray, how fast, how to tithe, how to serve.

Its almost as if he’s saying, “you want to grow in faith, you want to join in? here’s how.”

That same invitation applies for us.

The way I was trained, formed, was to think about it this way: perfection is more of a process and less about a goal. In this process of perfection, our desires and intentions become more and more closely aligned with Gods desires and intentions as we participate in the life faith.

So our invitation to a process and not a goal has several knock-on effects, the first of which is that we can be as gracious with ourselves as we are with others. This is not an invitation to being a slacker for Jesus—but we do need to pay attention to rest, sabbath, and retreat.

There’s also the implication of not letting perfect being the enemy of the good. So many times, especially in church (and I’m particularly good… or bad, as it were, at this one which makes sense since this seems to be something that liberal congregations seem to have a penchant for, as well). We talk it out, leave it to discern, only to talk some more. We wait for the perfect plan with full funding and a perfectly laid out set of goals, expectations, and measurable outcomes that we wind up planning, and planning, and planning. And one day we look up only to realize that there’s lots of plans but a lot of good intentions.

A model for how to go about a new ministry with a little grace is our food pantry. Initially, we planned on having a small number served… I think 30 households. The plan was also to meet short-term needs. But need before us, is something different with on-going needs and a regularly served, community. We have been malleable, responsive to the need. And I appreciate that hard effort.

We also need to be a little patient with others until they are ready to receive the invitation to lay down idols of perfection. Some have more traditional notions of perfection deeply ingrained in their being. This is something folks can’t simply turn off or change. It takes time to believe and live out being more gracious, more forgiving to not only others but to ones self.

And we can look at ourselves, too.

In Frozen, Anna… one of the sisters… is told that an act of true love is needed. True to Disney Princess script, everyone thinks that the act is kissing her prince, falling in love and living happily ever after… everything tied up with a pretty bow, story book ending. But that’s not how the story goes. The act of true love that happens in the story is one that is not only sacrificial, but it is also just another part of the story.. though an important part.

If the loving, gracious actions that we live out can be just part of the journey that is that towards God and with each other, then that would be nothing less than… well, perfect.


Matthew 5:21-37


We’re all used to, at least in one venue or another a litany of “why’s”:

  • why is the sun yellow?
  • why is the sky blue?
  • why does it hurt my eyes to look at the sun?
  • why is the sky dark?
  • where’s the moon in the daytime?
  • why are there stars?
  • why can’t I build a snowman?

Why’s are all around us:

  • stars “move”, not because God sweeps God’s hand across the sky but because we are not the center of the universe.
  • particles behave the way they do because they are responding to smaller sub atomic particles that we are only beginning to learn about.
  • Why do earthquakes happen in Georgia? You’ve got me, there.

These why’s are in every discipline, even in the church. The biggest why that the church seems to be wrestling with is “why pay attention?”

Looking at Matthew, in this sermon on the mount, “why pay attention” is their salient question, as well.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount, part of the question that is being answered is, “how is this not doing something different than what Torah says.”

With every “you have heard it said” Jesus cites Torah. With every “but I tell you” is not so much a reinventing or saying anything new, but reappropriating, trying to say the same thing in a new and different context.

Let’s face it, the Torah, given to a nomadic tribe, sure of their identity but still searching for a place to call home is a lot different than being subject to the Roman Empire. Jesus skimmed beneath the surface of Torah, looked at the why does this exist in the first place, and appraised in a way that is faithful to tradition while also relating to a new context.

He saw Torah as a way for God’s people to live in covenant community with God and each other. He was merely finding ways to bring this same message forward into the period of Roman Empire.

The Church has done this, too.

Many in the church thought it good that clergy do not marry. Contexts change. Reappropriation happens. Likewise, many in the church saw Paul’s words as saying that women shouldn’t be ordained. We didn’t change Scripture. But folks looked at the “why’s”, what was Paul trying to get at, and realized that it was not a universal truth that for ever and all time gender should matter when it comes to discerning who is and who isn’t eligible for ordination.

As context changes, reappropriation, contextualization is made.

Why aren’t we speaking out against usary… high interest? Have we really gotten to a place where the community of faith has said that this is not a matter of faith? And why has it taken so long for the “middle” if you will to come around to the realization that how the immigrant, the stranger in our midst is, indeed, a reflection of what we believe about Scripture and how we understand our live and our livelihoods as being gift from God.

When it comes to the question of “why do we do this thing called church or faith, why is this important”, these are deeply felt question that convey some of things that we value this deepest and hold closest. In the midst of these questions, more and more folk are making the observation that faith is irrelevant.

And we’ve got three options for how to respond. The first is to look at what has been the primary source of understanding our faith, Scripture, and say “if it’s in here I believe it and I don’t care about relevance.” It seems to me that this kind of response turns faith into something heavy-handed, and not very respectful of the horizontal nature of faith… our life together… and the journey’s of others. Another kind of response is to say, “the Bible is no longer relevant. We agree. We need new and different books.” While this sounds appealing to some, every time the topic of re-opening the Cannon has come up in serious conversation, it has been dismissed, not because people shouldn’t read other books… which we should (Wesley even published a library), but because we have said that there’s something special about this volume. The third way to respond then, is to fall within the long tradition of faithful people and ask the question how do these words, written in another context, nearly 2,000 years ago bear any impact on our lives, today in 2014.

I think what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount gives us a clue for how to do this, giving us a model. Stay well within the tradition, but find new ways to say the same things, getting at the “why’s” behind what is said, and not so much worry about how to apply the same rules across the ages.

For example, Methodism and the Temperance movement have been linked. We know the temperance movement was rooted in the economics of the working poor, where hourly wage earners would spend their salary at the bar rather than buy their kids shoes. We all know the story about how Mr. Welch read about milk pasteurization and found a way to do that to grape juice so that his friend who was a recovering alcoholic could receive Communion. The United Methodist building in Washington DC was built to be the staging ground for the righteous battle to keep alcohol illegal. Well, guess what friends. For the past 12 years, things have been different. While the prohibition of alcohol being present on United Methodist property remains, the simply worded “don’t drink” now has this added section talking about the possible positive witness of responsible drinking.

So the question changes from “is it okay to drink or not” but changes to what does the fight for children’s rights and bringing people struggling with addiction fully into the life of the church look like in 2014?

Divorce: We have come to a place where we know that not every marriage than happens in a church, before a pastor, is blessed of God. Likewise, especially with the prohibition placed upon my life and work, there are marriages that don’t happen in the church that are, indeed, blessed of God.

Dr. Tom Frank, onetime professor at Candler, wrote an open letter to the bishops. In his letter his says that while the office of bishop is important, maybe the day has come when the office of bishop as rule-keeper has passed and the day of bishop as exemplar to fellow clergy has begun. In this case, he is saying that instead of trying clergy for presiding at same-gender marriages, why not find another way to faithful live into the covenant of ordination… you know, thinking about that, they ask us to keep the discipline for conscious sake and not for wrath. I wonder how many of the charges against clergy are made for wrath’s sake?

I think the words of Charles James Cook says it best, ”Scratch a true believer & you will not find a love of doctrine as much as the love of liturgy.” Now I don’t think he meant simply printed prayers and orders of service but I do think that worship is part. What he meant was that a true believer doesn’t look for more rules to keep, but loving the work of the people (what liturgy literally means), together.

 Henri Nouwen put it another way, when contemplating the “why” of his life… as he left the Ivy League and went to live with differently abled people, they didn’t care about his degrees, books, and list of published works. He said that for Christians to be fruitful, we need to be less moral (here defined as legalistic) more more mystical.

For us this means two things:

First of all, the Good News is that we don’t have to ditch the Bible to live as faithful witnesses in the world. Likewise, we do not have to twist ourselves up in knots worrying about relevance. The point is to be more, fluid, more gracious, but not in a way that is so soft that it makes our covenants between each other and God as if they do not matter.

But I also have to bad news… well maybe not bad news, but words of instruction. This is not the easier way. It means investing time in listening to God, in engaging Scripture alongside others in the difficult task of discerning ways to stand in that long line of faithful followers who reappropriate Good News for new and different contexts. And it means being patient, doing the slow, work of being a part of God’s gracious activity in the world.

So why do this, why pay attention, why listen, why? I can honestly look at each of you and tell you as honestly as I can tell anyone anything that I do not know, save for this prompting that says, this is good, this is right, this is the faithful way to respond and live.


Photo: Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License