Sunday, September 11, 2011


On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.
September 11 has changed me. I'm going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what's wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God's own Son.
Will Willimon, presiding bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


   They say that over 80% of church plants fail. This is the statistic that is shared at church planting labs and church planting conferences and just about anytime church planters gather to talk about church planting. It is the statistic that weighed heavily on my mind when my wife and I moved to Austin, just over 6 years ago, to begin a church plant.
    It was a year after we moved that we finally had a core team of folks ready to think and do church in a different way. Our impulses weren't born from a desire to finally do church "right," but to approach it differently, to go for something more real and raw, simple and small.
    What we did was to plant a house church that eventually became a collection of house churches that gathered separately to focus more intently on discipleship and then gathered together for a time of worship. We were all new to this, my wife and I included, and there was a lot of stumbling and mistakes and correcting and moving forward. A lot of times it felt like one step forward and two steps back, but even that is a kind of moving forward; the kind that teaches patience and perseverance, the kind that forms individuals into a community.
    That is certainly what happened with the Immanuel Austin community. Our house church gatherings came to look like AA meetings, with the goal to become more like Jesus and the understanding being that this is a difficult thing to do. We would often say when sharing our story that there were "no promises of an easy road, just people to walk it with you." We understood that we weren't going anywhere without the promise of "God with us."
    As the years progressed we adopted, as a community, what we dubbed the Immanuel "way of life." It was a list of commitments that we would hold each other to, our version of the 12 steps; things like praying daily and meditating on scripture, having our neighbors into our homes, and serving in our communities. This "way of life" served to draw us even closer together than we had ever been, and closer to God as well.
    And then, just a few months ago, as my wife and I were feeling as good about Immanuel as we had ever felt, we came to realize that our 6 year old son was missing out on an essential element of community; that of having peers. Of the folks who had gathered with Immanuel, there was no one, other than ourselves, with children over the age of 3. It was a problem we brought to our community in the hopes of discovering a solution. After months of praying and thinking and talking and listening, we discerned that the solution was to disband Immanuel and to find our way into other Austin churches. It was one of the roughest nights in the short history of Immanuel and, for all the crying I did over it, it will certainly not be the last crying that I do.
    They say that over 80% of church plants fail, but the question they don't ask is; fail to do what? In our 5 years serving as pastors of the Immanuel Austin community we have witnessed relationships healed, tragic mistakes atoned for, sins confessed, and forgiveness offered. We have seen love shared with those most in need and given to those who seemed least deserving of love. We've helped people to grow in faith and experience church less as a series of events and more as a way of life. We have watched as folks on the fringes of faithfulness have changed into true followers of Christ, committed to the kind of life that calls for risk and sacrifice and ultimately brings hope and joy. We can testify to the sorts of slow everyday transformations that are nothing short of miraculous.
    A high percentage of churches fail; fail to challenge believers to become disciples, fail to offer hospitality to those that are different, fail to offer grace to those on the outside, fail to offer love to those most in need. The Immanuel Austin community is not a church that failed to do these things. We didn't do them perfectly, but we learned to do them well. I am proud of our church and proud to have served as its pastor. The people of Immanuel have helped to restore my faith in what church can be and I thank God for that. My prayer is that we will each take with us this vision of church that seeks simply to walk in the way of Jesus and to support one another in the effort. My hope is that we, "being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

An Unnatural Extreme

On September 11, 2001, I was working as a New Testament teacher at a private Christian school. Less in an attempt to preach and more in an attempt to keep my head and speak against my own anger and confusion, I read these words of Jesus to my 11th graders:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

Within a few days, an angry parent had cornered me and said, "You are teaching our kids to love to an unnatural extreme."

I empathize with her anger. I do now and I did at the time. My reading was an attempt to let God's truth speak into my own head and heart as much as it was for my students. Furthermore, she may be the first person I ever met who understood the scandal that is the gospel. Love to an unnatural extreme.

God, I hope so. Wouldn't that be something to see?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

-John Updike

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Running On Empty

One of the things I give up every year for Lent is pop (many of you know this as soda or "Coke"). There are various reasons I do this, the two main ones being that it's difficult to do and that it's something I have too much of.

But I've been thinking about how pop also serves as the perfect metaphor for Lent as well. Pop is marketed to those who are thirsty and yet its ingredients insure that those who drink it will only be thirstier. It promises to fill you up, but is full of nothing that actually satisfies. It's like drinking a bottle full of empty, but still feeling full.

And that's what the season of Lent asks us to stop doing. We aren't meant to arbitrarily eliminate something from our schedules or diets, but to purposefully have less of something that is making us feel full while simultaneously making us more empty. It may be shopping, it may be food, it may be facebook, but we all have something empty that we're getting too much of. And that's what Lent is meant to help us have less of.

But the point of Lent isn't simply to have less of a bad thing, but more of a good thing; and that good thing is God. God whose fullness actually fills us and doesn't simply make us feel full. God whose fullness may begin with emptiness, but only as a way to cleanse and to make room.

The fact is that we all take in something that is fairly shallow or even empty. We give those things up for Lent in order to have less of them and more of God. The idea(l) is for the principles of Lent to carry over into life. Because, while it's true that a Coke a week won't hurt you, a lifetime of filling up on emptiness will destroy you completely.