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Archives for 161 – You are loved

One of the things I was taught growing up in church, over and over again, is that sometimes love doesn’t feel like love. For instance, if someone is doing something wrong that could potentially hurt them, it may not feel like love to confront them, but that is actually the loving thing to do. Or you might have to risk hurting someone’s feelings if you see them falling into sin. It may not feel like you are doing something loving, but if you keep them away from sin you are loving them. I learned very clearly that a loving act might appear to be quite unloving. 

Today I could have a long conversation with you about “tough love.” I have five children and if there is one thing I know it is that sometimes the most loving thing I can do for one of my children may not feel like love to them. Sometimes being a loving parent means making your child go to bed when she promises you that she is not at all tired. (Trust me, she is.) And sometimes the most loving thing my husband and I can do is make one of our teenagers create flash cards for a test, even though he feels very confident that he learned everything he needed to know while reviewing his notes and watching The Office. (Trust me, he didn’t.) My kids may not think we are showing love to them by insisting that they do the exact things they don’t want to do, but we are. We love them and we want what’s best for them.

If a relationship is abusive, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to leave. It may not feel like love to the one being left, but ultimately it is a loving act that may lead to change. Tough love is often about loving ourselves enough to protect ourselves from someone who is hurting us. It doesn’t always feel like love, but it is a courageous way to love our neighbor as well as our selves.  

But sometimes I wonder if the Christianity of my childhood had a preference for tough love. I wonder if we actually preferred tough love to tender love. I think we may have been concerned that any love that wasn’t tough would be mushy and lazy and weak. We felt like we needed to be careful; to hold tight to a rigorous, holy sort of love. A warm, caring love made us nervous. We worried that we might overlook dangerous sinful behaviors if we fell under the influence of compassionate, cozy, emotional love. We couldn’t imagine that God might be calling us to a vulnerable love. 

I still believe in tough love, but now I believe that most real love actually looks like love. The vast majority of the time, love looks like love, and feels like love, and sounds like love. If someone is hurting you and they say it’s because they love you, you need to think and pray really hard about whether it’s true. You must talk to someone you trust who can help you discern, because if it doesn’t feel like love it might not be love. Love is patient and kind. Love is generous, humble and seeks to honor other people. Love stays calm and does not get angry easily. Love finds no pleasure in another person’s sin, but rejoices when people are true and honest. Love protects, trusts, hopes and endures.

“This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16)

Recently, my reading of the Old Testament has been greatly enhanced by John Goldingay’s excellent new translation, The First Testament. Goldingay, a well-respected Old Testament scholar, uses his Hebrew fluency to defamiliarize the ancient text for modern readers. For many readers of the Bible, terms like “salvation” and “righteousness” have become so familiar as to be devoid of much currency today. Thus, Goldingay uses words like “deliverance” and “faithfulness” as substitutes to jar us into a deeper understanding of well known texts.

One such passage that has resonated with me in my reading is Jeremiah 31, particularly Goldingay’s rendering of verse 3:

Yahweh said this: The people found grace in the wilderness, those who survived the sword. As Yisra’el went to find its rest, ‘From afar Yahweh appeared to me.’ With permanent love I loved you; therefore I’ve drawn you out with commitment.

Jeremiah 31:2-3, The First Testament

In the wake of judgment and exile, this word comes from on high: God’s love is permanent love. It is grace in the wilderness. It is rest. What follows is a vibrant promise of restoration, the ostensible outworking of this permanent love.

I shall build you up again so that you are built up, Miss Yisra’el. You will again deck yourself with your tambourine and go out in the dance of people having fun. You will again plant vineyards on Shomron’s mountains; planters will have planted and will begin to have the use of them. Because there will be a day when lookouts call out on Ephrayim’s highland, ‘Set off so we may go up to Tsiyyon, to Yahweh our God.’

Jeremiah 31:4-6, The First Testament

The realm of Yahweh’s permanent love is characterized by music and movement; by the sounds of joy; by the freedom to cultivate and enjoy the land once more and to safely journey into the presence of God. The realm of Yahweh’s permanent love is even described as a place where people are “having fun.”

Mission accomplished, Goldingay. Can you remember the last time you heard someone use the word “fun” to describe the realm of God’s love?

“With permanent love, I love you.”

_________________________

I went to our local deli the other day and I noticed that the guy behind the counter had a lady’s name tattooed on the inside of his arm, right at the bicep. I caught myself thinking, “Boy, I sure hope it works out for them.” Maybe it says something about me, but I wondered what he would do about the tattoo if they split up.

But this is Yahweh. After all the times she has violated the terms of the covenant, he still speaks graciously to “Miss Yisra’el,” offering her grace in the wilderness with permanent love tattooed on his bicep.

_________________________

Last weekend I spoke at a mental health conference spearheaded by several Christian counselors in our community and hosted by a local church. I am not a mental health professional but based on my 20-year ministry career, I was asked to speak on ways the church can respond to mental health stigma. I arrived a few hours before the opening session to work through some of the technical details for my presentation. The church lobby was filled with frantic “pre-game” energy as volunteers were busy setting up vendor booths and registration tables. But amid the clamor, I noticed a huge sign, unavoidable with massive block letters at the main entrance:

YOU ARE LOVED

The conference organizers were making a bold declaration along the lines of Jeremiah 31. They were announcing the realm of Yahweh’s permanent love. Entrants were to be met with this immediate proclamation: “This is a place of grace in the wilderness. As Israel went to find its rest, you can find rest here. God loves you with permanent love.”

As I made my way through the lobby into the hallway, I noticed these same words were plastered everywhere, on posters and signs taped up on the walls: YOU ARE LOVED. While I can’t be certain that Jeremiah 31 was at the forefront of anyone’s mind when those signs were being displayed throughout the church building, I also can’t help but think that these ancient words found some level of fulfillment in our midst.

“With permanent love, I love you.”

Over the course of the conference, I was reminded of the essential nature of this message. One attendee described the bitterness she still harbored toward members of her former church who literally demonized her depression, seeking to “exorcise” her condition which they erroneously believed to be the product of demon possession. Another family shared with me the fresh pain of losing a loved one to suicide just a few weeks earlier. Yet another attendee talked to me about her dissociative disorder and the anxiety and identity issues that accompany it. I lost track of the number of times people acknowledged the ways they had been abused.

As someone who is unqualified to speak deeply into issues related to mental illness, I knew I was out of my depth and I was grateful that so many trained mental health professionals were on hand to lend their expertise to the conference attendees. But I also choose to believe that the very articulation of these various circumstances are evidence that the Jeremiah declaration at the front door had been taken seriously. I choose to believe that these honest and unfiltered conversations occurred because these words were “tattooed” everywhere, announcing the realm of Yahweh’s permanent love. And I prayed that our dialogue represented a portion of Yahweh’s work of building up Miss Yisra’el once again.

This is the greatest knowledge of all: to know that you are loved. Maybe this knowledge will help my new friends find joy once again. I believe this knowledge leads us into a new realm. I believe it helps us survive the sword, to hear the sounds of tambourine and dancing again. I believe it delivers us into seasons of bounty and harvest and security once more.

There is grace in the wilderness.

You are loved.

Permanently.

At the end of the Civil War, there was a hope that finally the words of the Declaration of Independence would ring true across a nation that was struggling to repair the deep fracture that had occurred when brother turned against brother. The founding fathers had declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. As we now know, that was not going to be the case.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to live outside your culture. And, in the South the culture was not as willing to allow all men and women to be treated as equals. That’s why following reconstruction, the people in the South were quick to implement what would come to be known as Jim Crow Laws and continue the sinful practice of segregation. Under these laws, the southern governments claimed that services, housing, education, and transportation should be segregated because these services would be separate but equal. But, in 1954, the Supreme Court finally ruled that while these services were separate, they definitely weren’t equal. And, yet, even in the face of the Supreme Courts decision, Jim Crow laws still existed and were enforced in the South.

A full year after the Supreme Court’s decision, the buses in Montgomery, Alabama were still segregated with a section in the front reserved for white citizens, while the seats in the back of the bus were reserved for black citizens. That’s why the the events that unfolded on December 1 served as a beacon that would change our world for the better. At 6 pm Mrs. Rosa Parks got on the bus after leaving her job as a seamstress at a department store. She paid her fare and took a seat in the colored section and was seated there when a white man boarded the bus who was forced to stand since all the seats in the designated white section were taken. The bus driver told the four riders in the first row of the colored section to stand. Three of the riders got up and moved farther back. But, on this afternoon, Mrs. Parks simply slid towards the window, refusing to give up her seat. After being warned by the bus driver and still refusing to give up her seat, the driver called the police who came and arrested her.

Later, when describing the events of that December evening, Mrs. Parks would say that when she had made up her mind to do what was right, there was no fear in doing what needed to be done. Her strength would come from the Lord to take a stand, or keep her seat, as long as she was doing what was right. In her example of strength, we learn that if we will just settle in our minds what is right, we will be able to find the courage in our hearts. Yet, still the struggle continues because we have not settled in our minds what is truly right.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we are all products of our culture. The plight of the African American, as well as the plight of the Mexican American and Asian American, is a result of a culture that not only tolerated that type of behavior, but at times encouraged the mistreatment. As we continue to examine our history, we are faced with more and more examples of men and women who participated or silently stood by and accepted a culture that devalued people created in the image of God, based on the color of their skin or their gender. While we admire the courage of women like Rosa Parks, the truth is that there are far more of us who resemble the three riders who simply got up and changed seats because that’s what our culture would have us to do.

Paul urges us in Romans 12:2, Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. As the body of Christ, we are called to be a light; to stand against the hatred and evil that seems to persist in our culture and to lead with love. If you really trust that God desires for you to be a part of His Kingdom, that means you will trust in His strength and in His power to do the difficult work of changing your culture, starting in your own little corner of the world. Who knows, maybe Mrs. Parks had been reading the book of Romans when she said settle in your mind what is right and you will be able to find courage in your heart. Maybe it’s time we stopped looking at all the evil that persists in our communities, and settle in our minds what is right and allow God to place the courage in our hearts to make a change. It’s time for our churches, and for all Christians, to take the lead in making our culture reflect the character of God. It will not be easy, but you were created and empowered to do difficult things. It’s time for those who have been saved by the love of Christ, to once again lead with a bold love.

If you had asked me this question some years ago, I would have immediately replied:

Absolutely!

Yet, the truth was that I typically found my value elsewhere.  At times, I put my value in my abilities, the number of speaking opportunities I might have, or in whether or not I felt valued by certain people.  The affirmation of others was far too important to me.  Consequently, instead of living as a person deeply loved by God, I lived in order to receive the affirmation, love, and pleasure of others.  Again, I would have affirmed that I believed that I was loved by God, but my life said that I really sought value and love elsewhere.

Do you relate to any of these?

*Perhaps you are constantly talking about how smart and exceptional your child is.  Could it be that you are finding your worth in how well she is performing academically?

*Perhaps you talk on and on about your child’s athletic ability.  Could it be that you are finding your worth in how well he is performing on the basketball court?

*Do you ever find yourself really disturbed about any change in your body?  Could it be that you are finding your worth in your physical attractiveness?

*Could it be that you are finding too much of your identity and self-worth in the size or location of your house, the car you drive, or your vacation destination?

I recently read Psalm 103 again.  The chapter saturates the reader with the absolute, incomprehensible love of God for his children — including you and me.  Within this Psalm are these amazing words, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (103:11-12).  If I am certain of his love for me, my life then takes on a much different flavor.  If I live out of the riches of his love for me, then I am not always functioning in order to get someone’s affirmation, attention, compliment, etc.  

In other words, I am a “full” person (full and confident of God’s love) relating to others out of the overflow of God’s love for me.   If I am confident of God’s love for me, I am living in his love, secure in his love, and treasured in his love.  I then relate to others as a person who can give and serve, not looking for what I can get out of the relationship.

This is very different than trying to live out of my emptiness and relating to people in order to get filled up with love, affirmation, and applause.  Living out of my emptiness can cause me to see people for what I can get from them.  I may use my children, my possessions, my beauty, or any other asset to somehow get more affirmation and approval.  Living this way is a dead-end street.

To be absolutely convinced of God’s love for me, allows me to see myself as a person valued, loved, and affirmed fully.  Perhaps then, as an answer to Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3, we can begin to grasp the depth of God’s love for us. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19)

I really thought we belonged to a loving church, the kind that accepts broken and wounded people.  Lately I’ve learned it’s easy to pay lip service to being a loving and welcoming church, the type that doesn’t judge people. It’s easy to claim this when it’s in the abstract. It’s another story when you have a concrete opportunity to test out just how loving a church is.  

You never really know how healthy a church is until it’s faced with the chance to manifest its true colors.  We had just that type of opportunity recently where I preach, when one of our sons returned home after a month in rehab.

Our son wrapped up 2018 wrecking two vehicles and he kicked off 2019 racking up two DUI’s in the first month.  That’s when he decided he was ready for rehab. He spent a month there. Two days ago I drove over 100 miles to pick him up from rehab, and when he came to church today, no one shunned him or treated him differently.  

Our church has been loving and supportive, and this is a breath of fresh air for me.  There are enough people trashing “the church” these days, which is why I’d like to share our family’s experience — to let you know there are good churches out there who do love people even when they make major mistakes, even in a minister’s family.  

I realize in some churches, I would’ve been taken into the boardroom and the elders would’ve “quietly” asked me to relocate when our son’s recent problems became public.  For us, that wasn’t the case at all. Our church has been praying for our son weekly during the worship service and we’ve received a lot of encouragement.

I’m not now, nor through this whole process have I been ashamed of our son.  He’s the preacher’s kid with the tattoos and the child out of wedlock. He’s also the one with a heart of gold, and a sense of compassion that reaches beyond my understanding.  My love for him hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Am I sad and disappointed? Have I cried, have I grieved, have I been frustrated? Sure. But not once did it ever enter my mind to be embarrassed of him.  In fact, as troubling as this situation has been, we’re proud of our son for admitting he has a problem and for taking steps to recover.

How did we get here?  I’m sure there’s a multifaceted answer as to how our son fell into this abyss, but I know of at least one contributing factor.  Sadly, ministry can be tough on its families. Our son was at the wrong age when we went through the fallout from a catastrophic church conflict.  Our older two sons were more stable emotionally being college-age at that time and our youngest son was too young to know what was going on then. But our son who just finished rehab was in his mid-teens back then and he was hit the hardest.  Coincidentally, he shared with my wife and me, he wasn’t the only preacher’s kid in the rehab.

It’s one thing to wait for the prodigal to return, it’s another to have them home and try to navigate through the emotional minefields.  None of our ministry classes at Harding prepared me for this, none of my professors ever admitted to dealing with this type of struggle.  There have been many sleepless night, many tears, and a lot of stress. I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy. Drug addiction is like cancer or layoffs, you always think, “That happens to other people, not us.”  

While our son was in rehab we’ve had a lot, I mean tons of folks encouraging us.  At first I was surprised, but it really only makes sense. For starters, we aren’t alone in this problem; lots of people are going or have gone through this (many, sadly silent out of shame).  And secondly, authentic christians rally around those who are hurting and they minster to each other. I’m thankful for the love we’ve received in the midst of this turmoil — especially from our church family.  

There are awesome congregations out there, yes even in our Restoration Movement!  And while sometimes “church” takes its toll on us, not all churches are backwards and legalistic.  If you haven’t already, may you find a church family that “practices what they preach” and may your church family grow in grace and mercy.    

Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry   [Actually, it is closer to 56 years of ministry, but 50 sounds much better – and who’s counting?] I was one of those guys who, from his mid-teens, knew what he wanted to do and be – at least in general terms. I wanted to be a preacher. I had a great mentor in my home congregation in Temple, Texas (James LeFan), who was at the Western Hills Church of Christ for 39 years. Looking back, my life in ministry took me to places and situations and positions I could never have dreamed of at age 15, or even age 30. But I never forsook my calling to ministry.

Two dimensions of my life and ministry stand out as being particularly influential. First, my formal education at Abilene Christian University and later at Baylor University helped shape my ministry in profound ways. In particular, I recall a love of church history, planted in my mind and soul by Dr. Bill Humble (’48) in the mid-1960s in my graduate work; and it is still there. The ability to reflect on the past and let it inform and contextualize the present is a true blessing to me, even to this day. To be sure, Christian history is not deterministic, but it certainly is repetitive and “circular” in many aspects. That perspective helps me frame many of the current controversies and pressing issues of the time, and frequently helps me chart a solution going forward.

The second major dimension of influence came more from circumstance than from the formal route, though it still involved education. In my years of full-time congregational ministry, I became overwhelmed by the amount of human suffering and struggles my congregants were having to endure. The complex, virtually unanswerable situations in which they found themselves sent me searching for additional tools to give them some relief. In the late 1970s, I, along with two other ministers in my area, decided to do some graduate work in counseling and become better equipped to deal with the pastoral issues we were facing. That decision proved to be pivotal in my coming to ACU to focus on teaching pastoral ministry in 1981 – another unexpected turn in my career. Then came other opportunities in Christian higher education I could never have dreamed of in my early years of ministry.

I thank God for professors, mentors and church members who shaped my lifetime of ministry. Let me invite you to reflect upon men and women who have shaped your heart for ministry, and then say a prayer of gratitude for them. And you never know what the Lord still has in store for you.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Royce Money (’64)
NEWS
Still time to register for Journey: From Text to Congregation!
We are excited to bring Journey back to ACU’s campus, March 21-23!

Dr. Thomas Long (pictured), author of The Witness of Preaching, will be our featured speaker. Dr. Rodney Ashlock (’91 M.Div.), Dr. Amanda Pittman (’09) and Dr. James Thompson (’64) will each present two sessions on exegeting texts. In a special topic breakout session, participants will choose between “These Words Shall Be on Your Heart: Proclaiming Scripture through Performance,” featuring Dr. Cliff Barbarick, and “The Art of Preaching” featuring Dr. Heather Heflin Hodges (’94). Randy Harris will conclude Journey with a sermon. Click here for more information about all our speakers.

Additionally, the Center for the Study of Ancient Religious Texts (CSART) will co-sponsor a special lecture featuring Dr. Mark Hamilton (’90 M.Div.) as he discusses his new book, Jesus, King of Strangers: What the Bible Really Says About Immigration. A panel discussion will follow with experts on Scripture, immigration and refugees, as well as a book signing and reception.

For more information visit siburtinstitute.org/events.
On spiders and human complexity
A lighthearted conversation with a curious child about spiders’ potential danger to humans led Amy McLaughlin-Sheasby (’15 M.Div.) to reflect on our tendency to categorize the world – and the people – around us. In our effort to create tidy categories to help us navigate life, we often label people as “other” or even as “dangerous.” In the process, we wind up reducing them to a single feature, ignoring their complexity and missing the beauty in our vast diversity.

McLaughlin-Sheasby is a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University and teaches in ACU’s Department of Bible, Missions and Ministry. Read her full Mosaic article here.
2019 Ministers’ Salary Survey underway
You may already have received an invitation to take the 2019 Ministers’ Salary Survey. To those who have completed the survey and/or forwarded it to ministers in Churches of Christ, thank you! If you are planning to participate, please complete the survey by March 5. The survey is not long, and the secure link protects your privacy by avoiding the need for your email address or other identifying information. Results will be published on our website by May 1.
Summit 2019: Beverly Ross to speak on sorrow
Beverly (Jones ’79) Ross will walk with us through sorrow in the Psalms as a Summit 2019 keynote speaker. After losing her daughter in a car accident in 2010, Ross founded Jenny’s Hope, a grief center to help others work through deep sorrow and loss. She is experienced in dealing with marriage and family matters, as well as individual issues such as depression, anxiety and grief support.

Ross is a sought-after speaker and an international advocate for women’s ministries. She frequently conducts workshops about finding and experiencing God’s light when the way gets dark and about learning to walk in freedom.

Mark your calendars for 11 a.m., Monday, Sept. 16, and join us to hear heartfelt words of wisdom and experience as Ross speaks on the delicate and important topic of sorrow as a part of Summit 2019’s theme, “At Home in the Psalms: Sorrow, Hope and Joy.”

Summit 2019 will run from Sept. 15-18 on the ACU campus.
MARK YOUR CALENDARS
Ministers Support Network Retreat, Feb. 28 – March 3Journey: From Text to Congregation, March 21-23Dallas Racial Unity Leadership Summit, May 15-18 (Contact: carlspaincenter@gmail.com)Summit 2019, Sept. 15 – 18
THOUGHTS TO PONDER
“If we require children to behave as adults and think like adults in order to do ministry, very few will desire ministry and service. We are communicating that ministry is meant for someone else. However, by allowing children to be children and providing guidance and service opportunities alongside us that fit their sensibilities, we kindle in them a sense of purpose and desire that continues into adulthood.” – Dr. Ron Bruner (’10 D.Min.) and Dr. Dana Kennamer Pemberton (’81), Along the Way: Conversations About Children & Faith “The most important sermons you’ll ever hear aren’t the ones faithfully delivered in your church’s pulpit (vital as those are to your spiritual health), and they aren’t the ones you’ll hear on cable TV or Christian radio stations or CDs. The most important sin-defeating, hope-instilling, faith-sustaining, soul-nourishing, ministry-motivating sermons you’ll ever hear are the ones you preach to yourself!” – Dr. Terry Powell, Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants

On February 14, 1999, Valentine’s day as it turned out, I was employed by a church as their youth minister, and that was the day I made the decision to be baptized.

I’ll come back to that. But first, Philadelphia.

If you’ve ever been there, chances are you went to liberty hall, saw the bell, pretended you were in National Treasure, and ran up the steps like Rocky. But there’s also a pop art sculpture there that is a global icon. It is the LOVE sculpture: huge, red steel letters in Didone font, the L and O stacked on top of the V and E. The O is slanted so the negative space points to the V. It’s interesting and simple and quirky and fun and all the things you hope an art landmark will be. It was created by an artist named Robert Indiana and was brought to Philly in 1976–also the year I was born–on loan for display in the city’s U.S. Bicentennial celebrations. Indiana offered it to the city for $45,000, but they couldn’t afford it. He began prepping it for travel back home when the owner of Philadelphia’s NBA team, the 76ers, made him an offer of $35,000. He took it, and it’s been in JFK Plaza ever since, the quintessential photo backdrop.

This sculpture has been copied, translated, and mimicked in just about every way imaginable, even in Hebrew, which reads right-to-left. It’s been on postage stamps, posters, postcards, and pottery. It’s been Christmas ornamented, yard signed, and bumper stickered. It’s been mugged, tumblered, glassed, and gobleted. It’s been on the sides of buildings and made into bookmarks. Why?

Because when love becomes art, something transcendent happens. It touches your soul in a place reserved for the deepest and most profound moments.

Like on the side of a coffee shop in South Austin.

There’s a place called Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Ave., where in 2010, local musician scribed a simple, beautiful love letter to the Jo’s owner with a can of red spray paint. On the exterior wall of the shop.

The constant foot traffic took notice and soon people were coming specifically to seek out the wall, taking photos with friends and lovers alike. The site’s popularity exploded and went viral in no time. Now it is Austin’s “LOVE” sculpture, if only in 2D. The text?

“I love you so much.”

Not exactly Shakespeare, I know, but the more you read it…the more it packs a wallop. I certainly don’t condone vandalism, but there’s something about declaring one’s love with the written word that simply has no equal. You’ll never ever get tired of reading a love letter, or a sonnet composed for you, or lyrics and a tune written for you. Love written is love read. Over and over. Forever.

Which brings me to Harry Potter. Or more precisely, Lily Potter, Harry’s mum. In the final book, we get a flashback scene of her final, fateful moments. Voldemort’s attack on Harry is imminent, but instead of running, she’s making her stand and whispering to 1-year-old Harry:Harry, you are so loved, so loved. Harry, Mama loves you. Dada loves you. Harry, be safe. Be strong.”  This is what she chose as her final words before she faced death bravely and without hesitation. In the story, Voldemort tries to kill Harry after Lily, but the curse from his wand not only doesn’t kill Harry, but rebounds and hits him back, causing his body to be obliterated and raising all manner of questions in the process. And all of that turns out to be the backstory to Book 1 in the series.

But it made me wonder…why would Lily tell Harry to be safe and brave if she thought he were about to die as well? The answer is…she wouldn’t. Lily knew that casting herself in front of Harry and taking Voldemort’s death curse full blast would protect Harry with a power far greater than the magic of the Harry Potter universe. Aslan might call it the Deeper Magic. She knew her sacrifice would work. She was sure of it. Her knowing, her being absolutely without-a-shadow-of-a-doubt certain that it would work is the only possible thing that could give a person the courage to do such a thing. “You are so loved.” Those are the words of power, as much for her as for him.

Now back to my baptism when I was a full-time minister. See, I grew up in a very high-church infant-sprinkling protestant congregation, that of my parents. It was full of great folks and much ritual piety, but it was also thirty-eight minutes away from our home, which meant Sunday morning was about the only time I was there. Big church was really all I knew. Fast forward to March of my senior year of high school. My friend Brian leaned over in English class, and said, “Hey my youth group has this retreat next weekend. You should come.” I think I responded with something like, “what’s a youth group? ” I went to the retreat and God sent a million volts of Spirit straight into my soul in the form of bible teaching aimed at teenagers, singing bordering on the angelic, and the most amazing object lesson ever. I wasn’t baptized that weekend, but I certainly had discovered a whole new territory of faith that I wanted to explore, nay conquer. A ‘youth group,’ you say? Indeed. Tell me more.

But as I said, this was March. I didn’t have much time. By the time August rolled around, I had been to camp for the first time ever, learned many devotional songs, and was well on my way to ingratiation. There was a girl at this church who’d just graduated from the university I was about to start in the fall, and she told me about an amazing campus ministry there. I went, met everyone on a Thursday night, and thus began the college years of my faith exploration. Fast forward to my 21-hour senior semester, and I was president of that campus ministry organization and good friends with the youth minister at the church. At my graduation party, he offered me his summer youth internship, and I said yes. My life took another turn, this time toward ministry. It was an amazing summer to say the least, during which I learned so many things, chief among them being that I wanted to pursue ministry as a career.

At the end of the summer, the youth minister was let go and they asked me to be the interim while they went through the process of hiring a new guy. So I did grad school full time and youth ministry full time, and in four years of college and campus ministry, no ever asked me, “So tell me about your conversion story.” In hindsight, I think everyone assumed I’d grown up in a youth group so no one bothered to ask. But that left me in the awkward position of holding a ministry position whilst not having completed the faith pie with believer’s baptism.

Turns out there were a whole slough of bigger theological implications than simply infant sprinkling or believer’s submersion through which I had to wade. But on Valentine’s day, 1999, I decided to sit down with my bible (because no girlfriend, obvs) and not get up until I came to a conclusion. Two hours later, conclude I did, and called my preacher/colleague in his office to ask if I could come in and be baptized.

Silence.

I think he dropped the phone.

Then we had a great, deep laugh.

Every day since has been a journey of what it means to bring love into the world. Sometimes that love is painted, sculpted, hammered, hand-lettered, projected, caricatured, designed, or welded. Because when love becomes art, when love goes from abstract to the tangible, something transcendent happens. God wasn’t content to give us the Word. He sent us Word Who became Flesh.

Every day since has been an exploration of God saying I love you so much, not with red spray paint but with the red blood of Jesus. It is not written on walls, but on hearts in the pages of Scripture. Diving into these words is our love letter. It sounds much like God’s words in Jeremiah 31:3,”The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.”

Every day since has been a chapter in the story of God being for us–us!–that we are so loved and worth the sacrifice which he was beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt certain would end with resurrection. That he asks us to be brave and strong in the writing of the story seems a small ask by comparison.

These elements are so true, so universal, so common to the heart of humanity that even the world echoes it in places like Philadelphia, South Austin, and Godric’s Hollow. Truth is too vibrant, too robust, too alive to remain in places like bible pages and congregations. It is so vast, dangerous, and breathtaking that even the world sees it. The difference is love is not just something we create, display, or speak. It is who we Jesus-followers are meant to be, to the witness of the world. So says our Lord in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

May we be so known.

One of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something!) was the time I decided to surprise my then-fiance-now-wife with a day trip to King’s Island for her birthday. We lived in Nashville at the time and King’s Island is almost exactly 300 miles away from Music City – a five and a half hour drive according to Google. We were in college, and it seemed like a great idea to my young, smitten self. Had we spent the night in Cincinnati, we might look back at this as one of Adam’s successful birthday surprises. Instead, we look back and wonder in awe at my stupidity.

The trip there was full of excitement and anticipation. While we enjoyed our day together at Kings Island as a young couple in love, it was hard to ignore the impending long car trip that we knew awaited us. We had left Nashville early that morning, and we knew it was going to be a long, late night of driving after spending a full day at the amusement park. We hoped to leave earlier than we did because we were having so much fun – well, and because we were young and dumb.

When it came time to head back home, we stopped for a quick dinner, and headed south. The first few hours of the trip passed pretty quickly, but as the late summer sunset gave way to the darkness of twilight we got tired. Really tired. I feel like in those times when I am fighting back sleep behind the wheel of a car, I have a pretty good sense of what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane. Once sleepiness and fatigue begin to afflict your body its power is overwhelming.

Somehow, God saw to our safe return home in the wee hours of the morning, though we had at least two sleepy, dozed-off swerves into the shoulder. That ride home was the most tired I have ever been. I have come to realize, however, that there are different kinds of tired.

About a year and a half ago, I realized that I was really tired – but it was a different kind of tired. I was entering my fifteenth year of full-time ministry. I had been fortunate to serve that entire time at the same congregation – the same congregation where I still serve. It’s a small church and we’ve been through a lot together. As the only minister on staff, I dabble in every corner of ministry. I have come to love the diversity of my responsibilities, but I have also come to realize that the breadth of ministry was taking a toll on me. Fifteen years of ministry had made me tired. Tired more deeply than I was that night we drove back from Cincinnati. More tired than the word “tired” conveys. My body was tired. My spirit was tired. My soul and emotions were tired. I was more than tired – I was weary. I was a weary pastor. I am a weary pastor.

It wasn’t that I was feeling called to a new ministry. It wasn’t that our church was having major problems or falling apart. We could use more people. We need more money. There is conflict within the church. But these problems exist everywhere, and overall we were in a healthy place. I didn’t want to run away, and the church didn’t want me to run away – but I needed a break. I was beginning to experience the collective drain that is life in ministry. The incessant pouring out of myself into other people, the constantly being there for others, the devotion to preaching and teaching the Gospel from deep inside my bones, the pursuit of authenticity and empathy, and the increasingly difficult juggling of family life all were building an affront on my spirit . Paul might have said, “Don’t get tired of doing what is good” (Gal. 6:9), but I was on my way. I needed rest. My soul needed nourished. Our family had a nice vacation last summer, and it was refreshing, but only to a point. It helped cured the tired, but I still felt weary.

At the beginning of last year I began to explore the idea of taking a sabbatical. In our tradition the whole concept of sabbath is largely ignored, and the practice of a pastoral sabbatical is rare. So is a minister sticking around for 15 years. A weary pastor is not an effective one, and I believed a sabbatical would provide the refreshment that I needed to rejuvenate my soul and rekindle my passion for my current ministry.

Since around 2000, the Lilly Endowment has offered churches and their pastors what is known as the Pastoral Renewal Grant. The grant is for up to $50,000 to be shared between the pastor and the congregation. The beauty of the grant is that each applicant is encouraged to pray, dream, and create a custom and unique sabbatical experience. Approximately 150 grants are awarded to churches throughout the United States each year (many more are offered to churches in Indiana since Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis oversees the grants).

Early in 2018, I began the application process for our congregation to receive the grant for 2019. I found the application process itself to be life-giving and refreshing as I began to dream and pray and tend to my neglected soul. I worked hard on the application and met with a 2018 award winner who happened to live in Columbus too. He was generous to help and provide advice. I was convinced that whether I received the grant or not, the application process turned out to be a rewarding and worthwhile experience. I refused to get my hopes up too much as to stave off disappointment and focused on the positive experience that applying had been. The distraction of this opportunity was beginning to give this weary pastor some refreshment.

It was with a trembling heart that I pulled out a large envelope from Christian Theological Seminary out of our church’s mailbox in early September. I tried to keep my excitement at bay, but I immediately convinced myself that a consolation envelope would have been much smaller. Patiently, I decided I would wait until our family was around the dinner table that night to open the package that determined our fate together. Around our dining room table that night, we learned that we had been selected to receive a $50,000 grant, and that our family would be spending ten weeks in the summer of 2019 in Europe on a spiritual pilgrimage. My weariness was already beginning to fade.

One of the things that Joel (the local minister who received the grant last year) told me about his sabbatical experience was that it opened up so many doors and put countless things in action that he could have never foreseen. My relationship with Joel was an obvious one, but in the months since receiving the good news, I have met new people and we have had new experiences as a result of this grant. One of the things I really hope to do is to make more and more people aware of the Lilly grant opportunity, and also bring attention to the weary pastors across the country – particularly those in the Churches of Christ. I know of only one other minister in the Churches of Christ to have received this Lily grant. I know there are many of us who work in small and often thankless churches. We keep our noses to the grind and stay busy about our ministry. Our networks are small, we are seldom asked to speak at conferences, and we go relatively unnoticed. Those of us serving at churches with less than 100 members don’t find ourselves on the front of many brochures, and yet there are more of us serving these churches than large ones, and our challenges are different than what often get addressed.

I have started a blog to document the experience of applying for the grant but also for addressing the heart of the weary pastor. Whether I received the grant or not, I was going to have to do something to address my weary soul. I know there are many others out there in my shoes, and I hope these blog postings can be a blessing to you. As exhausting and tiring as driving back from an amusement park can make you feel, years and years of ministry take their toll on us in a more penetrating way. May your weary soul find rest.


A Reflection on Exodus 12

I remember that night in Egypt, our last night. It was dark and dreary, but it was mixed with a buzz of anticipation in the air. The buzz coursed through our camp like an electric current, finding outlets at every corner and bouncing onward gaining speed.

Bing. Bing. Bing.

Our leaders told us to use the blood from the sacrifice to draw an arch from frame to frame on the outside of our doors. I opened my door and quickly completed the task as the brisk desert wind rushed into our home. I tried to get it done before sundown. Heaven forbid I be confused as a victim of judgment and death, as the Egyptians would be.

Blessed souls.

Even the cruelest people do not deserve to grieve the loss of a child. But the destroyer was coming, they told us. He was almost here. We fell asleep that night, and I was abruptly awoken in a cold sweat by the shrieking wails. It was the Egyptian mothers. The children they bore from their own bodies now lay lifeless in their arms. Begging the hearts of their babies to go back to beating, they buried their faces in ashes and beat their bodies in shame. They would never be the same. I ran to my son, frantically hoping that he was spared. I checked his breathing, held my fingers over his pulse. Breath. Warmth. Deep inhale in. He was peacefully resting as his lungs filled up with air. And I began to mimic his breathing to calm myself down.

He’s ok. He’s ok. He’s ok. I told myself over and over again. And then the singing came. It was coming from outside. It was coming from our people. First it was a low hum, and I looked up in anticipation as it grew louder and louder, almost drowning out my heavy anxious heart. Light was coming. This meant it was time to move. It was time to go. I gathered the children and woke up my husband. We already packed all we could carry, and the animals were loaded.

Off we went, and I clung tightly to my first born as if he would be ripped out of my arms at any moment. I buried my face in his hair as my husband pulled us onward. Good-bye to Egypt, we all said.

I often wonder how tightly the Hebrew mothers clung to these words from Moses. I imagine them listening intently, leaning in and staring Moses down as he gave those sobering instructions. And then I see them repeating the instructions to their neighbors over and over to make sure they got it all right.

“The blood will be a sign to you on the houses where you are and when I see the blood I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” Exodus 12:13

 “…it is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.” Exodus 12:26

The Passover was more than just the last plague. It was more than just a sparing of the “home” of the Hebrew people. It was a moment in history where God showed God’s people where God dwells in the midst of the darkest night. Consider the verb “to pass over” used in these verses.

It has been noted by many Hebrew scholars that the word to “pass-over” found here is an inaccurate translation of the verbs describing God’s action. While the destroyer “passes over” or “passes through” the homes, it is YHWH who does not “pass over.” Instead YHWH “hovers over” as the verb “pesah” indicates in its most accurate translation.

The verb here, “pesah” translated “pass over,” parallels the verb we see in Isaiah 31:5 “to hover” or “to cover” or “to surround”:

As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver [it; and] passing over he will preserve it. Isaiah 31:5

According to Meredith Kline and others, this verb “pesah” is more accurately understood as an “abiding shielding presence” similar to the eagle hovering over her young in Isaiah. Therefore, a more accurate translation of the verb used to describe God’s action in Exodus 12 would be to “cover over” or “hover over” or “surround” instead of to “pass over.”

Imagery for God as a bird or eagle (avian imagery) is common throughout scripture. (Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 91:1, 4; Is 31:5).  In fact, it is the first metaphor we see for the Spirit of God at creation.

“The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.Genesis 1:1

God is hovering over the chaos at creation.

In Isaiah, we see a God who is flying over, hovering over, and rescuing God’s people. This is the same imagery used in Exodus 12. The Divine Presence is hovering over each Israelite home as an eagle hovers over the nest of her young when an attacker is out to destroy them. God is hovering over the chaos of death and destruction to stand in its way. The protective agent symbolizing this glorious and abiding presence is the blood of the lamb. The destroyer is seeking to take the treasured child. But the Hovering Over God stands in the way of the destroyer. The people of God are protected from the destroyer by the blood of the lamb.

Why does this distinction “hover-over” instead of “pass-over” matter so much to me? Because finding God in the midst of the darkest night has been my journey. I have experienced God as aloof and distant as I have faced a near death experience myself, and the near-death experiences of two of my own children. I saw only God’s backside, until this little verb. And as I sat before my Hebrew text and this word was explained to me, I wept.

I wept because I need a Hovering-Over God. I need a God who I can see more than the backside of in the midst of my own chaos and turmoil, trauma and grief. I need a God who does not move on but who moves in. I need a God who protects and does not destroy. I need a God who stands between me and the pain all around me. And this is the God that I find in Exodus 12. YHWH hovers over and stays close during the darkest night. In the moment of deepest despair, when all seems lost, when fear and anxiety have had their way and all that is left is wailing and desperation, God hovers over. This is who God is.

“In a desert land he found them, in a barren and howling waste. God shielded them and cared for them; God guarded them as the apple of God’s eye, like an eagle that stirs up her nest and hovers over her young, that spreads her wings to catch them and carries them on her pinions. The Lord alone led them; no foreign god was with them.”

 Deuteronomy 32:10-12

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the First Colony Church of Christ.


We were talking about God and the way he works on our behalf in a kid’s Bible class recently and one sweet kid sat on the edge of the seat. This child wants to go home but instead they go to someone else’s house everyday. It’s a good place but not what they want. The grief of what used to be is too much and leads us to pray each time we’re together for God to fix what’s broken in this young life. They just want to be with mom. Not the mom they are used to or the mom authorities had to remove them from. They want to be home with a healthy, happy, safe mom.

After we talked about the fact that God is for us and takes care of us, this sweet kid with teary eyes came to me quietly, took me by the arm, and asked, “But what if God doesn’t?”

I knew what those words meant. I remember losing my dad over Christmas break when I was in fourth grade and while my friends talked of their Christmas presents when we returned to school, my mind was on my father’s funeral. As a teen, I remember getting the phone call with the news of my mother’s death. The nights I spent asking why and finally accepting the fact that the why isn’t mine to know are countless. But I knew I needed something to say to the kid standing in front of me, so I silently prayed and offered a meager, “He wants to.” We hugged and the bell rang. And I was left alone with the reminder of how hurtful sin is, not only to adults but to the children around us.

What do we do when we feel as if God has forgotten us? And just as difficult, how do we deal with those in our lives who allow their brokenness to cause our own? It’s a difficult lesson when you’re an adult and nearly impossible for children but it’s happening all around us. Church, we have a responsibility to help those struggling.

Speak hope.

If God has gotten you through the dark valley, tell people! The church needs more God stories. People are starving to hear from Christians who have overcome trials by the power of God. Encourage sharing by creating avenues for people to talk about their journey. Take every opportunity to tell how God has rescued you.

Love the church.

We know the sad and frustrating stories of the many times Church has gotten love wrong. But the times she has gotten love right (and they outweigh the others) need to be celebrated. The church has enough critics. She needs more cheerleaders. Support her. Love her. Tell others about the good she has done and continues to do. Remember you’re an ambassador of the Christ. Your words and deeds should reflect your calling.

Serve.

We find healing from our past by the way we love and care for those in our present. Seek out those who are on the fringes of society. Reach out to the poor, oppressed, and unheard and love them. Listen to their stories. Make friends. Support your church’s outreach ministry and if you don’t have one, start one. Volunteer in the children’s ministry. Show them Jesus. Sit with those who sit alone. Service is not only a command, it is the key to our own healing.

Seek God’s face.

There’s a great verse in Colossians 3 that says to set your mind on things above. We tend to gloss over that verse but it is powerful. If we set our minds on the sadness, drama, darkness, and evil that permeates this world, we will be consumed by it. But if we resolve to see our Father through our struggles, we will have the strength to persevere. Spend time in the Gospels getting to know Jesus. Pray for the people around you. Practice loving your enemies and being for those you disagree with.

Fear has a way of telling us we’re alone but God is here, sitting with us in our grief, singing over us as we weep. Even if it seems he doesn’t care, he passionately does. God is for us. He wants the best for our lives and is working on our behalf. He did in the beginning. He did when we sabotaged ourselves in the garden. He did on the cross and he will when he wipes away every tear.

I have no doubt that God deeply loves that sweet kid as much as he dearly loves the child’s broken, addicted mother. Church, he expects us to go out of our way to show them both how much.

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