Together in Guidance

Who tells you the truth?

Today’s lesson is about the importance of truth tellers. King David is at the peak of his powers. He is expanding the Israelite kingdom with each and every battle. And at his side is Nathan, his trusted prophet and adviser, who is confronting him with a reality he has blissfully compartmentalized.

One of David’s greatest warriors is Uriah. Uriah is not an Israelite, but a Hittite. And yet, he has thrown his lot in with King David. He is out in the battlefield when David spies Uriah’s wife Bathsheba and is immediately, lustfully taken with her. In Uriah’s absence, they have an affair, in which Bathsheba becomes pregnant.

That’s the moment when David elevates the deceit to new levels: he calls Uriah home and urges him to, um, “spend quality time in his wife’s company”. That way, Uriah will think that the child is his. But unlike David, Uriah is a man of integrity. He refuses to enjoy the, um, “comforts of home” while his soldiers suffer in the field. After several tries, David then changes tactics: he sends Uriah back to the front lines carrying his own death sentence. The army is to charge; as soon as Uriah does, though, the rest of the army is to fall back. Uriah is killed in battle.

Nathan sees all of this transpire and confronts David. From the lesson, we don’t have any idea if Nathan was eager to do this or was quaking in his sandals. What we do know is that Nathan masterfully allows David to condemn himself with the parable of the rich and powerful man stealing all the poor man has. David loses himself in the story, becoming outraged at this tale of injustice. “This man deserves to die for what he did,” David shouts. “Not only does he need to repay the man, but repay him several times over. There’s no two ways about it: what this man did was flat out wrong!”

And that’s when Nathan drops the bomb: “You have condemned yourself! God has blessed you with riches and power beyond your wildest imagination. Have you forgotten that you were the youngest child of a shepherd in Bethlehem? And now, at the height of your power, in the palace God has built for you, you do evil. You said so yourself!”

With all of the authority that David commands, he is still subject to God’s word. And he is still capable of listening to the words of truth from the mouth of the prophet.

So: who tells you the truth?

This, to me, is a crucial question in the world we live in. It is the odd irony of the internet age that while the world is far smaller than ever before, we are able to silo ourselves off from others, condemning ourselves to isolation in echo chambers where all we hear are the voices of those who agree with us. We can even choose how we receive our news based on what it is that we want to believe. What we have lost is our ability to hear the unvarnished truth, especially when it’s hard for us to swallow.

So: who is it that tells you the truth?

Let me be clear: I’m less interested in who it is you tell the truth to. In some ways, that’s the easier task. What’s more difficult, and more needful, is to humble yourself to let others tell you where you have gone off track. In short, each of us needs a Nathan to keep us honest.

One of the reasons I am drawn to this idea of truth tellers is that I am struck a lot these days by the question of where the Church is headed. What we know is that what used to work doesn’t work any more. What we also know is that nobody knows what the answer is, what will cure our ill. The truth is that we can’t simply rely on “what we’ve always done” to keep the doors open. And for some of us, that’s a terrifying, even threatening, truth.

We don’t need to look much further than right here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian to recognize this. On the one hand, I see signs of God truly at work in our midst. We are a healthy church, one of the healthiest I’ve ever seen, in terms of ability to work through challenges and chart a course forward. There are a lot of dysfunctional congregations out there, and we are not one of them. I also see, time and time again, a leadership team that is willing to wrestle with difficult questions and think creatively. We are halfway through a successful Capital Campaign that has allowed us to deal with some of the more pressing issues in our facility.

Financially speaking, we ended 2013 with a surplus for the first time in years. We are almost on course for doing so in 2014, and are aiming for the same in 2015. We are in the middle of a new members’ class, the largest group we have had in a couple of years. And we continue to support a number of critical ministries outside of this building with our time, energy, and money.

At the same time, our attendance and membership numbers have been on the slow decline since last century. Depending on whose rule of thumb you follow, our Sanctuary can accommodate somewhere between 290 and 330 people, a capacity we have exceeded exactly once in the last fifteen years. That is, one Sunday out of 800. In fourteen of the last fifteen years, our average attendance has been less than 50% of capacity.

These are sobering statistics. What we are facing, my friends, is what churches across the nation are facing. And depending on your point of view, that is either welcome or distressing news. And what I know about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is what gives me hope. There are congregations who see realities like this and circle the wagons, clinging desperately to what once was, reminiscing in the glory days of decades gone by. I don’t think I have ever experienced that here.

And therein lies my hope for us, that God is still at work, that Christ is still in our midst. I am confident that this is not a time for despair, but a time for creativity. It is a time to be a part of the solution, not the problem. It is a time to see that we have an opportunity, a ministry here, one that the world needs.

Let me put it this way: think about the public face of Christianity today, and see if it matches up to the way I would describe us: We are a church where critical thinking and abiding faith go hand in hand. We are a church that doesn’t think it’s enough to say what we believe, but want to live that out as well. We are a church that thrives on transparency in our decision making, our financial management, in our joys and in our challenges. Is it just possible that we have been blessed with the distinctive and wondrous gifts of the Spirit that are God’s for the sharing? Is it conceivable that our ministry is a healthy antidote to the Americanized Christianity of 2014?

In short, we live in a time that calls us to be together in the guidance we seek from beyond ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I issued a challenge, one that I reiterate today. I invited each of us to reach out to someone we would like to get to know better, someone beyond this church community. The purpose is straightforward: to find out what makes them tick, what it is that moves them, what they find of value. I suggested that we each do this before the end of October. If you’re keeping score at home, you’ve got about two weeks left.

And the reason for this is simple. We, in the church, need relationships that are beyond these walls. We need to hear voices outside of our echo chambers. Because when we do, as a community, we begin to have a sense of what it is that matters to the world around us and where it is that we can connect with those deeper values.

In other words, we can see these voices as the truth tellers we seek. What is it that they desire? What are the barriers we unknowingly construct to keep them out? And where are those prophets, those modern-day Nathans, willing to confront us with the things to which we are otherwise blind?

My prayer today is that we would allow our eyes to be opened, to welcome the opening of our hearts, our lives, and ourselves. In doing so, may we become open to the truth of God’s creative possibilities, calling us more fully into who we might be!

Together in Openness

How fluent are you in the language of faith?

In today’s lesson, Joshua finds himself at the head of a people who have been through a great deal. In the course of forty years, they have gone from their enslavement in Egypt to victorious warriors about to inhabit land and begin the job of building a stable society. On the one hand, Joshua is leading a people who are marked by PTSD more than anything else. On the other hand, very few of the people Joshua leads are the ones who started the journey with Moses two generations before.

So as he gathers the people at Schechem, the northern city that will become the capital of Samaria, he relates the story of God’s amazing presence in their lives, reminding them that their whole inherited history is one of journey and wandering. He begins with Abraham, living in Ur of the Chaldeans, whom God brought through Canaan. Within a couple of generations, famine drove them into Egypt, and there they found themselves shackled. From there, Moses led them across the Red Sea and into the Transjordan desert. Joshua then reminds them of battles where God made them triumphant, until they have now crossed the Jordan River and stand in the valley between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim.

The truth is that forty years is a long time. Since few of them have lived the events Joshua describes, it’s likely that few of them have heard these stories, let alone know them. And so, Joshua lays it all out for them: in short, God has guided us along this amazing journey. We have picked up bits and pieces of other practices, rituals, gods along the way. It’s time to put them aside and focus on the God who has made all of this possible. In short, Joshua recognizes they have little fluency in the language of faith. It’s time they started to learn how to talk about God.

How fluent are we? How well do we know the language and stories of Scripture? How well are we able to describe our own personal experiences of God at work in our lives, guiding us through incredible journeys, giving us freedom and victory in the places we least expect it? Do we have the vocabulary? Or are we even open to learning in the first place?

My wife Elizabeth has family in Finland. One of their favorite jokes goes like this: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

Whether or not that’s literally true, what is true is that most of us, regardless of nationality, learn languages because of necessity. If we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where English was not the international tongue, I’m pretty sure sales of Rosetta Stone would skyrocket.

I remember traveling through France in my twenties knowing no French whatsoever. I knew it would be a challenge to find my way around, and that I wasn’t going to be there long enough to learn functional French. I quickly learned that there were others ways to communicate.

At a train station, I approached the ticket window looking for timetables. I asked the man if he spoke English. Nope. Spanish? No. German? No. He then looked at me with a grin and said, “A little French.” We then found our way around the language barrier, thanks to pen, paper, and miming.

At the next station, I planned to do the same thing, and received the same answers: no English, no Spanish, no German, no grin. When I pulled out my notebook and started writing, the man was clearly frustrated because he thought he would get rid of me. Flustered, he then shouted in perfect English, “The next train to Paris is at 10:00!”

The reality is that it is a risk to cross those boundaries of language, culture, nationality, you name it. It takes an openness to try and, possibly, fail. It takes the willingness to be creative, to try again and again.

What language do we speak? And what language do we need to learn?

The truth is that while language is, in some ways, the most obvious barrier to communication, speaking the same tongue is not a guarantee that we will understand each other. One friend says to another “Got the keys”, to which the other replies, “OK”. It’s not until they’re locked out with no way to get back in that they realize she was asking about the keys, not telling.

Context is everything, and that’s something churches need to understand. We have a massive language barrier in our culture that has nothing to do with Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic or English or Hindi or Swahili. It has to do with the role that faith, that the church, plays in people’s lives. When we speak of God, when we talk about what church and community means, when we lift up the name of Christ, are we even speaking the same language as our neighbors?

Let’s put it this way: if you’re an English speaker living in a place where everyone speaks Portuguese, are you going to continue to speak English because it’s in their best interest, or are you going to learn Portuguese so you can communicate with them? Or to put it into an example from Christian history, are we going to be like the church of the 1300s, speaking Latin when no one else does?

You see, Presbyterians are inheritors of those folks who decided that praying, singing, reading Scripture in languages that people spoke was an important decision to make. It tore the church apart during the Reformation, but it also meant that the life of faith and the stories of Scripture immediately became accessible to whole communities of people who had been shut out before.

And here’s the amazing thing about that moment: it illuminated what was already so unique and important about Christianity in the first place! You see, Christianity has never been about the right language. The written Greek of the New Testament was, itself, already a linguistic mongrel of Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. It was almost immediately translated into other languages to make it understandable, which is how it ended up in Latin in the first place. And at the heart of it all was the fact that ours is an incarnational faith, one that knows God most intimately in Jesus, the very one who bridges what is inaccessible with what is accessible! If the church is going to remain faithful to that same Jesus, we need to question ourselves constantly as to whether we are putting up barriers, barriers that keep us in, barrier that keep others out.

A few weeks ago, I invited us to try an exercise. Some of you who have followed through have told me what an experience it was. I want to make that same invitation today, as a kind of exercise in openness and fluency. Some time before the end of October, I want you to invite one person to lunch or coffee or a walk, something that will give you a chance to get better acquainted, someone you know but have thought regularly, “I would love to get to know this person better.” The only caveat I would put is that it should not be someone within your church family.

What I want to encourage you to do is to get to know them better. Find out what makes them tick. Find out what matters to them, what is important to them. In short, learn the language of their values. If you’re willing, I would love to hear what you find out – about them, about yourself.

The goal, as I see it, is cultural fluency: learning the language of those who are just outside our door. Because when we do, we’ll stop speaking Latin. Instead, we’ll know, like Joshua, what it is that we need to be reminded of and what it is we have forgotten. As we stand in this place, it is a time to look back on where it is that God has brought us. It is also a time to look around us to remember where it is that we see the Spirit here and now.

And even more than all of this, it is a time to look forward. What we don’t know is what the future will bring. What we need are the tools, the language, to talk about God. And what we do know is that what is to come is known to Christ and Christ alone. And that should be the greatest news of all. After all, Christ is the one who will lead us and carry us forward into Christ’s future.

Are you ready?

Together in Love

What does it take to build our life together?

We start our worship series journey at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, at God’s command, has led the people out of slavery, through the plagues and the Red Sea, out into the wilderness, on their way to their promised freedom. And here, at the relative beginning of that journey, they pause at the foot of a mountain so that Moses can confer with God and receive further instructions.

When he returns, among the words he shares with the people are those in our lesson this morning, which are often referred to as the Ten Commandments. There is more to be said about these rules for living than time permits this morning, so let us keep this in mind: these commandments are meant to shape the life of a people. They are meant to guide a community learning to live together in love.

Whatever instincts they might have had toward building a society are long gone due to the ravages of slavery. And so, God takes special care to lead them by the hand into the land of promise as they build a new and promising life together.

Moments like these, these Sinai moments, are important ones in the life of faith. And over the next few weeks as we journey through this worship series, we will touch on several key ones in our Scriptures. These moments act as markers, reminders of what is at stake and what is expected of us. They act as guideposts, pointing out the path we have trod and reminding us of what it has taken to get us where we are.

At its best, our Stewardship Campaigns should act as such a moment, a time when we gather together at a crossroads, remembering what God has done for us already and envisioning what God has in store for us in the years to come.

I do not, for a moment, claim to be Moses. And while I have had profound experiences of God, I do not pretend to have had the mountaintop “written in stone” kind of experience we have heard this morning. Instead, I hope you hear my thoughts this morning as just that: thoughts from your pastor, steeped in prayer and reflection, as we celebrate our 65th Anniversary as a congregation and look forward to what God has in store.

Every year when we begin our Stewardship Campaign, I am reminded that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we hold two important realities in tension. The first is that it takes money to do ministry. All you have to do is look around this Sanctuary to be reminded of that. We have lights, heat, a sound system. We buy paper and equipment to have bulletins every Sunday. Tim, Cheryl, and I are all on staff. You compensate us for our time and work. It takes money to do ministry. And the second reality is this: we give away everything we do. If we truly believe that grace is God’s free gift to us, how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? There are no membership dues, no entrance fees. And if there are, my conviction is that something has gone very wrong.

This is an unworkable economic model. And yet, we make it work. Or should I say, God makes it work. Every year, we ask you to make a prayerful financial commitment to the work of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And every year, you do. And every year, it more or less works out.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course. We have leaders working very hard behind the scenes, keeping costs down, monitoring our books, and thinking through how we ask for your commitment. Your donations and gifts come in weekly, monthly, annually to keep us going. And we make our accounting as transparent as possible. It’s an open book, which we believe is the most faithful way to manage what God has given us.

It’s in that Spirit of openness that I want to spend a few moments looking at numbers. You will have many chances to see these over the course of the next few months, so consider this a first look. I’m hoping that some of you will find this helpful.

For 2015, Session is asking the congregation for a total of $255,000 in pledged giving. We have several sources of income, the largest other one being building usage, but congregational giving is the single largest source of income. The goal this year is to make our ask during Stewardship season only. The past two years we have done an additional mid-year ask in order to fill in the gap, and you all have responded generously. But I get the feeling that we’re all getting a little tired of doing that. So let’s put it all on the table here: $255,000 in pledge giving is what Session projects we will need in order to have enough income to pay all of our expenses in 2015.

If you want to break it down, there are a couple of different ways to do so. For example, we have 131 members on the roles. Per member, that total works out to about $1,950 for the year, or $37.50 per week. Membership is one way to look at this, but there are many who support Oglethorpe with time and energy and finances that are not officially members of the church.

If we break it down by worship attendance, we average about 90 people on a Sunday morning. That works out to $2,850 per person per year, or $55 per person per week. Of course, we have members who give but are unable to attend due to health or work.

One other way to look at it is by income. A few years ago, we surveyed the congregation and learned that our average household income is $117,452. With about seventy pledges coming in, that works out to about 3% of household income, or about $3,650 per pledging household per year, or $70 per week.

I thought he was going to preach today!

Look: the whole reason I share all of these numbers with you today is in hopes that it might be helpful to some of you. These are some of the figures that help paint the financial picture of what it takes to build our life together. None of this is prescriptive. Some of you are able to give above average, and others below. And, above all, I trust you to know what is possible in your own life. All I ask is that you make your consideration steeped in prayer.

The point in all of this is that we make our commitments not as a collection of individuals, but as a community of faith who share life together. Faith is meant to be a shared enterprise. That tends to fly in the face of what our culture teaches us about the centrality of self-reliance and independence. 77% of Americans consider themselves Christians. A third of those attend services less than twice a month. In other words, the number of Americans who self-identify as “Christian” without participating in any kind of church or faith community is staggering.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe for a moment that the Spirit is magically contained by the four walls of a church building, or that somehow Christ can only be present in the lives of those who are on the membership rolls, or that the most important thing to God is your attendance record. That said, what we know – from the stories of Scripture to the way our very bodies and brains are wired – is that the life of faith is meant to be shared together. It’s how we build our life together. It’s how we encourage one another, how we challenge one another, how we teach and learn from one another. It’s how we pool our resources, how we move out into the world, how we become Christ’s hands and feet.

It is, ultimately, how we become partners with God in building God’s beloved kingdom, making mercy and grace something tangible to the world around us! It is how we come together in love and share that love with one another and with the world around us.

We do not charge for God’s free gift of grace. Instead, my prayer today is that it would give us a charge, sending us forward from the foot of this mountain and on into that place of promise that awaits us.


Home: A Place

What we say should be reflected in what we do.

I love this story. The lesson that it’s heart is a simple one: don’t forget to ask God.

Initially, we are led to believe that King David is right on track. His idea is to build God a Temple. After all, as he says, he has this luxurious house made out of sturdy cedars. Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant, which has traveled with the people since the days of the wilderness of Mt. Sinai, is stuck in a tent.

It makes so much sense, in fact, that Nathan gives David the go-ahead. Nathan is David’s prophet, God’s mouthpiece to the king. He’s there to keep David on track when it comes to faithfulness. As powerful as David is, Nathan has no problem calling him to accountability, correcting him when he has strayed from the straight and narrow.

In this case, though, there doesn’t seem to be an issue. David’s construction project seems straightforward, even righteous, and Nathan tells him to go for it. God, however, has different plans. And so, when Nathan heads home that evening, God breaks into his dreams to be sure he does the right thing.

It turns out that God wants to take care of David; David doesn’t need to take care of God. The Temple? That’s for the next generation to worry about. In other words, Nathan seems to forget that prophets have two jobs:

  • Ask God what to say
  • Say what God says

In this case, he seems to be batting .500. If you’re going to put “prophet” on your resume, you should act like a prophet. What you say should be reflected in what you do.

How often do we get it right? What would our batting average be?

There is, in faith in Christ, a call to integrity. If Jesus really is the embodiment of God, then every fiber of his being is imbued with Godliness. And as part of the church, as members of Christ’s body, that same holiness ought to flow through us. What we say we believe should be reflected in what how we treat others. Even more than that, it should show forth in every aspect of our lives.

We’ve been speaking about the concept of “home” the past few weeks. First of all, home requires a plan. Most importantly, it requires a plan to open ourselves to God’s plan. Secondly, home requires people. In God’s home, there is room for all people from all walks of life.

Today, we’re talking about how home requires a place. And what that place looks like should be a reflection of what we say and what we do.

Let’s take our home here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. What does this place say about us? How do you get in the building in the first place? Are those inviting red doors where you start your journey, or do you get in by way of a secret entrance at the back of the property? What about our seeming fondness for stairs? Or the fact that a three story building has seven different elevations? Are we puzzle fans, or devotees of MC Escher?

And what about our Sanctuary, with its row upon row of straight-back pews, all facing forward? Or how about our worship service, for that matter, a largely traditional practice with contemporary moments here and there?

In short, what we say should be reflected in what we do. And what we do should be reflected in the places we find ourselves.

This all came home for me last year when I sat down to lunch with a group of Oglethorpe University students. Over the course of a year, we probably have twenty of them worship with us – and almost never on the same Sunday. Last Spring, I invited them to lunch to talk about faith, college, church, and how the three might come together. I told them I was surprised to learn how many Oglethorpe University students ended up worshiping at places like Buckhead Church. After all, the college prides itself on being a forward-thinking, open and welcoming place. Didn’t they know that Buckhead Church was an outgrowth of the Southern Baptists?

Their response came as a jolt: Buckhead looks and sounds contemporary, so they assumed that their outlook mirrored that look. Meanwhile, Oglethorpe Presbyterian looks and sounds traditional, with robes and organ and the like, so it must be populated with people who are just as traditional.

Is what we say about ourselves reflected in what we do, in how we act, in where we live, in who we are?

This past summer, you all gave me the gift of time away in Chicago. Among the many things I did was to visit a different church each Sunday. My experience was probably very similar to that of someone church shopping. I was new every week, automatically disoriented by entering the building. I didn’t know the traditions or expectations. I didn’t even know how I was expected to dress. My sense of welcome was all over the map: some churches struck that perfect balance between greeting me without pouncing. Other churches ignored me altogether.

There was one church in particular that really drew me in. During announcements, the pastor struck all the right notes of welcome. After worship, he let us know he was going to have lunch nearby. “If you’re a first time visitor,” he said, “I would like to buy you lunch.” If I’m honest, I was probably more excited about the free lunch than getting to know more about the church, but I thought to myself, “This is a church that gets it right.” I made a mental note that I would be having lunch with the pastor that day.

As the service drew to a close, the pastor gave the benediction and headed to the back of the sanctuary. I rose with everyone else and walked toward the lobby, right out the door, and onto the street. No one said a word to me. And off I went, to have lunch by myself.

I know it wasn’t intentional. They were so busy loving on each other, saying hi and catching up, that they didn’t even notice me. And that was the problem: from what I experienced, what they said was not reflected in what they did.

Look: I’m very much aware that we at Oglethorpe Presbyterian live with a disconnect between how we act and what this home of ours looks like. And I am also aware that we know this, too. If you can find the right door, you are almost certain to be greeted warmly and welcomed here. If you don’t know where you’re going, there’s a high probability that someone will escort you there, because we know that our building is a baffling labyrinth of hallways and half-levels. And I know that we are doing what we can to transform this place into a building that more honestly reflects our personality.

That said, we are not there yet. And there are some significant hurdles, which I’m confident we will address the coming years. But in the meantime, we need to be creative about how it is that we build that integrity into who we are.

So here’s my invitation, my challenge, to each you. And I really want you to take this seriously.

Some time in the next month, I want you to invite one person to have lunch or coffee with you. It could be a co-worker or a neighbor, someone outside your church family, someone that you have interacted with that you thought, “I would really like to get to know this person better.” And that’s exactly what I want you to do: get to know them better. Find out more about their life story, what makes them tick, what’s important to them. Ask them questions about faith, about God, about church – not because you have some kind of secret agenda, because that would betray any sense of integrity; but because those are things that matter to you and you want to know what matters to them.

And if you’re so inclined, I would love to hear what happens. I would be interested to know what that experience is like for you. I plan to do it, too, and I would love to tell you how it goes.

Why should you do this? Because it is an act that demonstrates who you are. And in the echoes of today’s text about David and Nathan and Solomon and the Temple, it is an obvious way to move beyond this place where we find God and to go out to meet God in the tent.

Friends, is what we say reflected in what we do? Can we commit ourselves to pulling those pieces closer and closer together?


Home: A People

What does your family look like?

I met my friend Eric the summer before senior year of high school. At first, we got to be friends through a large of people who hung out together. Pretty soon, though, we became inseparable. What sealed the deal was the fact that Eric had no curfew, so I often ended up spending the night over there. Truth be told, though, we were rarely up to anything more adventurous than drinking gallons of Mountain Dew to stay awake, driving around listening to R.E.M.

As I describe it that way, this doesn’t really seem like the sturdiest basis for a friendship. But even now, I would consider Eric one of my closest friends. He lives with his family in Denver, and I don’t see him very often – maybe once a year or so – but it’s a friendship that still feels like it can pick up where we left off.

Who is like that for you? What does your family look like?

There is something crucial about this kind of friendship. They seem to exist to remind us that we are not alone in the universe. Literal family relations can be complicated – we know that. No one knows you like family, and that’s a double-edged sword. Families remember things about you, like that time you lied about spending the night at a friend’s house, and they can get stuck in the assumption that nothing has changed, that those temper tantrums you threw when you were seven years old are still the way you operate in your 30s or 40s. That said, families can be there for you when no one else is.

At the same time, there’s nothing truly universal we can say about families. They can be messy, even destructive. And in those situations, the healthiest thing we can do is protect ourselves and those we love, even if it means we have to sever relationships with those whose DNA is closest to our own. We can’t choose our families. But we can choose our friends. And sometimes, they can become our truest family.

There is something powerful about redefining family. There is also something deeply Christian about it, too. Jesus inherited the assumptions about bloodline of his day, and chose to challenge them directly. “Who is my mother?” he asked. “Who are my brothers?” The letter to the Ephesians takes these questions and runs with them.

Paul, the originator of the letter, was in a unique position. He had once been known as Saul, a fierce Pharisee, a scholar of the sacred Law, a persecutor of the fledgling Christian community. He oversaw the murder of Stephen and was on his way to Damascus to stamp out the movement when he was struck blind so that his eyes might be truly opened.

Paul was, as the saying goes, more Catholic than the Pope. He had all of the tribal bonafides of Jewish observance of Law and blood relation. So it is intriguing, to say the least, that his call ends up being not to those he is like, but to those very different from himself. Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish nations and peoples.

This was a controversial issue within the early church leadership. All of them were Jewish, and in the earliest days, most of those who had become Christian were Jewish as well. In fact, Christianity began not as a separate religion, but as a sect of Judaism, meeting in synagogues and following Jewish rituals. Paul broke all of that wide open, and pretty soon, other apostles were being confronted with similar revelations about the universal purpose of Jesus and his gospel.

By the time we get to Ephesians, things have evolved to the point that we have this radical statement: “Christ is our peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together.” It goes on to say, “You are no longer strangers or aliens. You are citizens with the saints, members of the household of God.” In other words, family within the church is a very different reality.

I’m struck by that truth – or by the vision it paints, at least – in light of developments in the Middle East. In many ways, the place that gave birth to Christianity seems more divided than ever. Our own nation is gearing up for war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, a brutal movement sweeping through Syria and Iraq. They seem intent on wiping out what little cultural and religious diversity is left in that region.

Some of you know that Elizabeth and I spent a significant part of our lives living in the Middle East. We were blessed to visit with Christian communities in Syria and Iraq – communities that, in some cases, no longer exist thanks to ISIS. Churches where we worshiped ten years ago are now shuttered. Friends have been threatened, a few even killed. If we as a church take Ephesians seriously, that means that our family is in danger.

What does your family look like?

I don’t plan to get into the politics of all of this today. In fact, I don’t even know what I think about any of it. On the one hand, I know that ISIL is a horrific threat. You know you’re out there when even Al-Qaeda looks at you and says, “What ever happened to subtlety?” On the other hand, if Jesus is the Prince of Peace as we say he is, then what place, if any, does war have for those who call him Lord?

Even if I knew what to do, I struggle with what I could do as only one person to affect some kind of change. But today, I am convicted by this idea that we can do more, much more, to build the family of faith, the household of God, within our own lives and communities. Long before we get to the point of having to decide whether or not to pull the trigger, we should expend our energy strengthening God’s family – that is, our family.

One of the things that sticks with me from our time in the Middle East is the overwhelming presence of hospitality. When you are welcomed into an Arab household, you are greeted with a beautiful phrase: ahlan wa-sahlan. Most people will tell you it translates to “welcome”, and that’s more or less true. The more literal translation, however, reveals something potent: “May your way be easy; and may we welcome you as though you were family.”

We heard this phrase from Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims alike, this desire, this hope, to be knit together as family. So even as I hear this lesson from Ephesians, I can’t help but wonder: do we try to limit God’s grand vision for humanity by building walls to divide? According to our text today, that walls are not meant to go up, but to come down. Whatever confessional divisions we might create, no matter how important those connections within the community of faith might be, I’m pretty sure that God has a bigger picture than any of that for who matters and who is in God’s circle of grace.

That’s one of the reasons I’m committed to participating in Oglethorpe University’s interfaith panel each year. I am a Christian. And on good days, I’m fairly sure I know what that means. That said, if I treat faith as a way to keep others out or keep myself in, then I think I might be missing the point.

The more we are able to put ourselves out there, the more likely we are to be moved by the things that move the heart of God. It may not be the easy thing to do. But it’s almost certainly the faithful thing to do. And in our highly mobile world, especially within the odd and wonderful diversity of this nation, we have more opportunities to erase those lines and enter into new and challenging relationships. The Oglethorpe University panel is just one opportunity of many before us.

At the same time, I don’t have any illusions that what I do today will change the world. But if that’s the requirement we put before we act, then we won’t get much done, will we? It always starts with something small. And yet, those small things can build together to change the world, to shape little corners of it into grace-filled corners of the kingdom of God.

Today, I want you to think of people in your life who are not blood family and who are not part of your church community. And I want you to send them a simple note, saying something like, “When I think about my life, I am grateful that you are in it.” Feel free to link to this blog.

It’s a small step. And yet, it’s one that can help us remember who is important to us. And when we do that, we begin to take down those walls and open ourselves up to the promises of what it looks like to live in the household of God!

May it be so.


As a pastor, I have the chance to talk with many people about what they are looking for in a church. Some have landed at Oglethorpe, others have not. Here are a couple of things that I have learned along the way:

1) You’re Shopping. And That’s OK.

Some people are troubled by the idea that they are doing something as crass as “shopping” for something as important as church. If you are “brand loyal” (i.e. your theology is only at home in a Catholic, or Associate Reformed, or Orthodox, or COGIC church), then you shouldn’t shop. Otherwise, get over it. Even if a congregation has a denominational affiliation, this label probably says more about how they are governed than about how they worship or what they do.

In our case, we are Presbyterian, which means that we are connected to other churches in accountability and support, and that our decision-making is an open process. While our worship style comes out of a Presbyterian background, we incorporate things we have learned from both high church (communion, baptism, ordination) and low church (the roof doesn’t collapse when the drums come out).

In other words, finding a church where you are at home is important enough to give it the time and energy it deserves.

2) Don’t Judge a Church by Its Cover.

Many people make the mistaken assumption that how a church appears says everything about what they believe. If there are bright lights, casual clothing, and modern music, then the church must be “hip” to the 21st century. If there’s an organ and the preacher wears a robe, then they must be hopelessly stuck in the past. The reality is that this is almost never the case; in fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.

Dig deeper, ask questions, and don’t be bullied. Does this church allow women to participate in all leadership roles, or just some? What is their stance on marriage equality? How transparent are they about leadership and decision-making, money and salaries? If there is a crisis (in case you didn’t know, churches make the headlines from time to time, and not for the right reasons), who will hold them accountable?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not about finding people who already agree with you. That’s the subject for another day. In fact, any church that is worthwhile is going to stretch you and change you. But if you have deeply held convictions, be sure that they will be respected, not merely tolerated until you “see the light”.

3) One Visit Is Rarely Enough.

Churches have off days. And they have exceptional days. You won’t know which is which until you go back. Was the sermon lackluster? Maybe the pastor had a head cold. Did the choir hit a sour note? Maybe the best singers were on vacation that day. Did they sing that hymn that you hate? Maybe they had to do that in order to figure out that they hate it, too. Did no one speak to you? Or did they swarm you like “fresh meat”? Maybe their best greeters were in charge of the luncheon after worship.

When you encounter worship that’s a little “bumpy”, that probably means they think grace is important, where you can try new things, fall flat on your face, and get up again. That’s not always the case, of course. Some churches just worship poorly, and that’s a problem. But you won’t know if you only go once.

A word of caution: there are those churches that break out the “Kool Aid” on your first visit. You might want to refuse politely and be sure you know where the exits are.

4) For Parents: Be Selfish.

I often meet with parents who are looking for the right church for their children. I think that’s a mistake. If you find a church that your kids enjoy but you hate (or tolerate mildly), they will know. What they learn is that church doesn’t matter to you. And one day, they will follow suit. However: if you find a church that feeds you and stretches you in all the right ways but doesn’t have a strong children’s program, what they will learn is that church and faith matter for the long haul.

I watch parents drag their children out of bed when they hate school. I see them force their kids to play sports when they’d rather play in the dirt. For some reason, though, making it clear that faith is central isn’t “worth the fight.” If that describes you, that might say more about you than you wish it did.

5) The Church Where You Grew Up Is Gone.

Let’s be clear: nostalgia is not good. And when it comes to finding a church home, it’s a problem. If you are looking for a church that is “just like the one I grew up in”, you will never find it.

There’s the simple fact of history. Whether you grew up in the 1980s or 1950s or the 2000s, the world is a very different place than it was. When you grew up, was FourSquare how you checked in, or a playground game? Did your childhood church eschew PowerPoint because they had a problem with it, or because it hadn’t been invented yet? If you find a church that treats the world as if it hasn’t changed, then there’s usually something very wrong.

And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you probably don’t even know what you mean when you say that about your childhood church. What does “just like” mean? Are you fixated on a single pastor? Are you looking for your grandmother’s pew or your mom in the choir? Do you need someone to pat you on the head or offer you a cookie during coffee hour? If you can’t explain it, then you just need to let this one go.

If you do know what you mean, then this aspect of a search can actually be helpful, if you do it right. You have to be sure you can articulate the characteristics of your childhood experience that mattered, and that can translate to other churches. Those points can be the launching pads to a new church home. Just be sure you’re going deep enough.

Home: A Plan

What is your plan to know God’s plan?

I got a kick out of revisiting this Jeremiah lesson. Some of you will recognize it as the prophecy in which we rooted our Capital Campaign here almost two years ago. We had mapped out this whole worship series about Home back in May, including texts, themes, and music. Planning worship so far ahead can be dicey business at times. So today, as I read of God’s promise to God’s people through the prophet Jeremiah, I can’t help but see myself in this promise to return home; and if that’s the case, then I guess that means that Chicago was my land of exile, my Babylon.

For the ancient Israelites, though, this promise could not have come at a more bitter time for them. They had lost it all, everything God had promised them, because they had lost both their gratitude and their memory of who had been the source of all their bounty. They had been dragged away into exile, in that faraway land of the Babylonian Empire. And there, as they grieved and mourned, the prophet Jeremiah came to them with this promise directly from God, that they would be restored, that their exile would come to an end, and that they would go home again.

That said, this promise of God can tempt us to leap right over what might be the most important part of the whole lesson: God tells the people to make a home right where they are. Build houses! Have children! Marry them off! Even more than that, though, seek the welfare of your place of exile! Don’t just wall yourselves off and make the best of it. Even though you are a conquered people, make the society you find yourself in the best it can be. It’s in your own best interest, after all.

Think about that from the perspective of those who first heard this prophecy. What God is telling a people living with the consequences of military defeat is that they are to do right by their captors! If you were in their shoes, could you handle following through such a demand?

The point for us in all of this, I think, is that home is what you make of it.

I grew up in a construction family. My father and grandfather, my namesakes, were both general contractors. I spent summers working in the field and office for their company, marveling at the way line drawings on a sheet of paper would be turned into actually, physical structures.

When I was a teenager, we moved into the house my dad grew up in. To put it mildly, it needed some work. And over the course of several months, I got to watch that work take place. It was downright miraculous. Areas that had once felt cramped and closed off were suddenly open and inviting. Rooms that had once been dark and cold were suddenly bathed in light. In short, what had once been my grandparents’ home had become ours. And what it took to get there was the vision of someone who could see a bigger picture than I could, who could imagine the potential within a space and craft the plan to forge it into reality.

Home requires a plan.

So what’s your plan?

I don’t know about you, but that’s where I get hung up. I tend to think that I’ve got to map out some grand course from here to there. And as soon as I do that, I am immediately tempted to pay more attention to what is wrong with “here”.

I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone, that many of you look at what you have and where you are and cast your eyes off toward the future. You don’t love your job, but you can gut it through until the right one comes along. Your teacher really grates on you, but you know there’s a long-term purpose to all of this. We are really good at putting caveats on our current situation, because it’s only temporary, deluding ourselves into thinking that perfection lies just beyond the horizon.

The hard truth is that, while perfection is real, none of us will ever see it fully in our lifetimes.

You didn’t know Chicago was going to turn me into such an optimist, did you?

I think there’s actually a gift in recognizing that we live imperfectly in an imperfect reality. It’s not that we lower our expectations. It’s that we realize what a gift grace can be. When we are honest about our own imperfections, we are more likely to be gracious to the imperfections of others, giving them the blessing we so desperately desire. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that we lose sight of accountability; instead, we temper it with healthy doses of mercy.

Even more, I think, it’s the message of Jeremiah that should cut through: make your home here. Yes: whatever situation we are in is a temporary one. But it is the one we are in! Seek its welfare! Live your life now! For the time being, whether it’s a matter of days, or weeks, or months, or years, this is home, and God is here. In fact, God is the one who embodied that for us in Jesus Christ, not just putting up with us, but physically making home in the midst of humanity.

And here’s the best part of it all, right there in what Jeremiah tells us: the plan belongs to God! Like that gifted architect that can look at an existing structure and imagine it transformed, God looks into our lives and imagine what we could be. If you’re tracking the comparison, that makes us the house. Have you ever seen a house plan its own renovation?

So here’s my question for us today: how can we tap into God’s plan for our lives? Or, to put it another way, what is your plan to know God’s plan?

First and foremost, it takes intention. We spent much of the Spring talking about how important it is that we build practices of intention into our own lives. And that’s a point worth returning to again and again and again. Is it a discipline of daily prayer? Is it one of weekly worship? Is it regular service to others? Is the physical activity of biking, or walking, or running?

This isn’t the kind of thing that can happen by accident, though it may take an accident for us to wake up to the need for it.

When we do this, when we forge our own plan to know God’s plan as individuals beloved of God, then we as a community can better forge our plan to know God’s plan for all us, so that this church can become more and more the home that God intends!

It is so easy to dwell on the ways that we’re not there yet. But as Jeremiah reminds us, God invites us to make our home in the here and now. Even though it might be temporary, it’s still home.



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