Sutherland Springs and Springs of the Water of Life

“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” -Revelation 7:17

Little did I know as we worshiped on November 5 that a tragedy was befalling fellow saints of God in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  At Chapelwood UMC in Houston, we were gathering to worship God and to remember the saints who died this past year.  First Baptist in Sutherland Springs was worshiping as well.  This should have been a Sunday where the saints – living and dead – are united with one song of praise to the Lamb on the throne.  Methodists and Baptists, Protestants and Catholics – the untold number of saints gathered around the throne singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:12)

I have no words to speak or write that can help make sense of this awful tragedy.  Watching the news doesn’t help at all.  “It is a gun issue.”  “It is a mental health issue.”  “It is a sin issue.”  My friends, evil never limits the places and spaces where it works.  Evil will do anything it can to destroy life – to kill, steal, and destroy.  The devil is at work and will always seek to introduce fear and doubt into the lives of people of faith.  Evil will even work after the tragedy as we try to find some easy solution or explanation.  It’s not easy.  It never has been.

I have received quite a few emails asking ‘why’?  I don’t have the answer.  I took theology, psychology, and ethics in seminary and can articulate evil, sin, pain and suffering.  But the theology doesn’t do much for me in this moment.  I am more connected to the laments in the Psalms and the hoped for future in Revelation.  It’s not that I am avoiding anything.  It’s just that this seems to happen every week and words begin to echo into meaninglessness.  I need words to help me name the pain.

Like in Psalm 6, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.  My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.  The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.  All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”

And Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord!  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.  But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.  I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

So, right now and am in sackcloth and ashes.  I am weeping inside and out.

But there is something we can do.  Christians will need to be ready to step up our discipleship if we want to see our world changed.  We must lament…and they we must step forward.  We must give up time to disciple and be discipled.  We must give time to teach our teens and children.  We must open the pathways of the Holy Spirit to work not just in us, but to expand the influence of Christ in the world.

Join me as we weep and cry out.  Then join me as we step forward in faith to change the world.


Four Great Commissions Notes

This past Sunday, I led us through the four great commissions in the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  I thought I would share my word study notes for those who are interested.

Matthew 28:18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

  • Authority – Greek,Gk. exousia, (Latin,Lt. auctor) – Matt: 7:29 – Jesus taught as one having authority – root of the word author – it means originator or one who has the capacity to speak on the subject with direct insight
  • Disciples – metheteuo – to become a pupil, learner: the focus on “becoming” is vital
  • All nations – ethnos – people, not geographic boundaries, but all peoples of ages, nations, and races
  • Baptizing them – baptizo – Christian baptism, immersion,initiation, and incorporation; different meaning than bapto which also means immersion and used in NT.  (Usage explained: Nicander 200 AD, in his recipe for pickles – “bapto” is to immerse quickly in hot water and bring back up, nature unchanged; “baptizo” is to immerse in the vinegar brine that leads to permanent, substantive change in the cucumber – it becomes immersed and nature is different)
  • Teaching them – didasko – causative, prolonged of learn – process long term… impart, instill, discourse – emphasis on long term process, not a single moment of single learning
  • To observe, obey – tereo – military term to guard from loss to prevent from escaping, hold fast

Mark 16:15

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.

  • Go – poreuomai – to traverse, travel, lead over toward
  • Proclaim – kerysso – to herald as a public crier, preach, proclaim – carries with it authority and formality which must be listened to and obeyed, proclamation is major theme of Mark
    • Mark 1:4, 7, John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness as a herald,
    • Jesus in Mark 1:14 – Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
    • Mark 1:38 – Jesus says, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also for that is why I came out. And he went throughout Galilee preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
    • Mark 1:45 – the leper was told to say nothing by Jesus, but he went out and began to talk freely about it and spread the news – “talking” in v.45 is the word “kerysso” – proclaim, the leper is a herald and proclaimer in his talking about the intervention of Jesus.
    • Mark 6:12 – went out and proclaimed repentance
    • Many other examples of “kerysso” in Mark as a focus for Jesus

Luke 24:46-47

46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

  • Repentance – metanoia – a change of mind, a turning to a new direction (baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins was John’s baptism Luke 3:3)
    • Luke 3:8 – bear fruits in keeping with repentance
    • Luke 5:32 – not come to call righteous, but sinners to repentance
  • Forgiveness – aphesis – pardon, freedom, deliverance, liberty – cancellation of a debt – but not only limited to justification status before God…much more implied in Luke’s gospel (see Luke 4 below)
  • Proclaimed – kerysso – herald the message
  • To all nations – ethnos – every tribe, pagans, Gentiles ALL

Luke 4:18-21

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go freeto proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

  • Anointed me – chrio – consecrating one for the office with the powers necessary to accomplish the job – lit. smearing with oil
  • Proclaim – kerysso
  • Poor – ptochos – one who crouches, beggar, poor – hopeless and powerless to accomplish an end, not “spiritually poor” but literally without the proper resources needed
  • Sent me – apostello – set apart and sent out for a specific purpose (proclaim the kingdom of God, teaching, repentence, forgiveness, proclamation, and presence)
  • Release is same word as Forgiveness – aphesis – forgiveness, pardon, deliverance, remission, release from bondage
  • Captives – aichmalotos – a captive of war – from the tip of the spear
  • Blind – typlhos – cloudy, smoky, looking through a fog – blind both literal and figurative
  • Oppressed – thrauo – to crush, bruise, break, shatter
  • Free – aphesis – again, the same word from chapter 24 for “forgiveness”.  In Luke’s gospel, aphesis means forgiveness, liberty, freedom not JUST from spiritual sin, but also from powers of captivity and oppression that affect the real world people live in.
  • Favor – dektos – acceptable by God – this fullness and wholeness of “aphesis” is what is acceptable to the Lord.

John 20:21

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

  • Peace – eirene – the root “to join”, to become one literally and figuratively, set at one again.  Look at John 17 and Jesus’ prayer of unity.  Not just that the disciples be one (v.11 “that they may be one, as we are one”), but that they also be one with Jesus as Jesus is one with the Father (v.21-23, “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, [some ancient texts say “one in us”] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me
  • Sent me – apostello – (same phrase in John 17:18) not just “to send” but to send out properly on a mission specified, this means we are not just “sent out” as Jesus was “sent”, we are sent out in the same way Jesus was sent out into the world. As the Father sends Jesus to be he presence in the world, we are sent to be the presence of Christ in the world, the substance of Christ in the world, the Body of Christ and each members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
  • I send you – pempo – different word…to send something with someone, to thrust something forward through someone – to transmit and to bestow.  The usage here means we are not simply sent with a mission, but sent loaded with something transmitted through us – something thrusting through us.

Each of the four gospels has a unique commission that all fit together to form our one, Great Commission to invite and incorporate, to teach a lifelong process of learning, to proclaim and herald the Good News, to reconcile and set free those who are oppressed the fullness of forgiveness, and to be sent into the world to be the Body of Christ transmitting the presence of Christ to the world!

Hope this word study is edifying to you as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Our Heritage as Methodists, Part 1

I’ve discovered many amazing Christians in my life who love the Lord and seek to serve Him daily.  As a Methodist pastor, many of those Christians have lived out their faith in the United Methodist Church.  One of the things I’ve learned is that many Methodists are not that familiar with what it means to be a Methodist Christian.  I thought I would share a few posts to outline some of the key doctrines and the significant ways we live out our faith in the world…

  • We profess the historic Christian faith in God, incarnate in Jesus Christ for our salvation and always at work in human history in the Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in both the sovereignty of God and in God’s love and grace poured out to all of us.
  • We believe that the historic Christian message is applied anew in our current circumstances.
  • We believe out teachings are grounded in Scripture, informed by Christian tradition, enlivened by experience, and tested by reason.
  • Just as today, we believe the early Christian leaders were faced with diverse interpretations of God’s Word and even had severe disagreements over those differences (Acts 15, Galatians 2).  The Church came up with many creeds and catechisms to try and point to agreements and while they are all helpful in our faith, we believe that no formal creed or doctrinal standard can be the exhaustive authoritative Christian teaching.  No sets of words can express the fullness and completion of God’s Word.
  • We believe in the Trinity – the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This embraces the biblical witness.
  • We believe the created order is designed for the well-being of all creatures.
  • We believe that humans, as sinful creatures, have broken the covenant and become estranged from God.  We regularly wound ourselves and one another and we wreak havoc on God’s creation.
  • We believe we all need redemption.
  • We believe that we hold in common with all Christians that a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ is central to our faith.  God truly loves us all in spite of our sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.

I will continue in the days and weeks ahead to help us focus on our doctrines and our identity as Methodist Christians.  It is my hope that we will stand firm on the essentials of our faith!



Sarah Mac’s Baccalaureate Sermon

Proverbs 1:1-7:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: For learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young — Let the wise also hear and gain in learning…The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

 I have an 18 year old daughter who graduates this year.  Sharing at her baccalaureate service was very special.

I am convinced that wisdom is what all of us need in life as we live in a state of continual graduation to what God has us next. Wisdom is knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well in life. Wisdom is the application of knowledge. Some people call it common sense, others “discernment”. My grandmother called it “walking around sense.”

To some extent the terms wisdom and intelligence have similar and overlapping meanings. Wisdom, unlike intelligence, is a universal virtue recognized in almost every culture as having philosophical and religious connections – it’s not what you know, but how you use what you know. That’s wisdom and that’s what you need to make it from here on. I want my daughter to understand that high school graduation is only one in a series of graduations in life.  It’s like what Arie Pencovici once said, “Graduation is only a concept.  In real life every day you graduate.  Graduation is a process that goes on until the last day of your life.  If you can grasp that, you’ll make a difference.”

In the hope that she (and all of us) will graduate every day, I want to share seven practical nuggets of wisdom that come from a variety of sources: shared experience, philosophy, psychology, and religion. Listen to these wisdom reflections – use them well.

  1. Take Risks: The difference between mediocrity and greatness is in your willingness to take a chance and act.
    1. Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”
    2. Since the day you were born, you have learned that there is a way over, around or through the obstacles you have faced. It is not the obstacles that inhibit your progress but your lack of confidence and will. That’s what breaks through the doubt…faith in yourself, in others around you, and in God.
    3. Take action. Every story of accomplishment, every leader you’ve ever admired, amazing ‘aha’ moment are the results of someone taking action. Remember, you have a choice: You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life.
    4. Cultivate good judgment and discernment, and then trust your gut (there is actually some great science behind trusting your gut! Read Gut Feelings, by Gerd Gigerenzer). Act on the impulses cultivated in you. If you are going to fail, let it be on your terms.
  2. Stop Blame-Shifting Right Now
    1. If you want to resign yourself to failure forever, then keep blaming everyone else for you problems and your shortcomings. In psychology, there is a concept called “external locus of control”. It is the belief that events in one’s life, whether good or bad, are caused by uncontrollable factors such as the environment, other people, or a higher power.  Example: Whenever he fails a test, the boy always has an excuse ready: the room was too hot, he wasn’t feeling well, and the test was unfair. He never seems to feel culpable, even if he simply hasn’t studied enough.
    2. I can promise you this – if you don’t dig deep and learn to accept responsibility for your life and where you want to go, you won’t ever amount to anything worth being.
    3. Have the courage to accept that you’re not perfect, nothing is, and no one is — and that’s OK. Remember to look at yourself first when you are reflecting on failure. This requires a keen sense of self-awareness.
    4. On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” ― Michel de Montaigne
  3. Be a Ruthlessly Compassionate Truth Teller
    • Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, says that the only way to cultivate creative tension and break through organizational learning barriers (I would argue this is true in personal relationship barriers as well) is to become a “ruthlessly compassionate truthteller” or allow one to come alongside of you to speak truth in your situation. The key is that they are ruthlessly compassionate…not just ruthlessly honest.
    • First, you must be an assertive truth teller.  Be assertive.  Assertiveness is defined as your ability to express your wishes, your wants, your desires, your hopes and your dreams. You have to learn to develop this ability if you want to communicate well or be in healthy relationships with others. To be successful in life, you are going to have to be able to tell people what you want to see happen, what you wish to see happen, or express your feelings in a healthy way. If you are unable to find your voice and be assertive, then you will always be acted UPON in life.  So, be an assertive truth teller…but always do it compassionately.
    • Second, be ruthlessly compassionate.  Without love, a ruthless truth teller is just an aggressive and bossy person and people will only hang out with you for what you do for them, not for who you are. Assertiveness is the ability to express your wants, wishes and desires in a healthy way. Aggressiveness just makes you a jerk.
    • A compassionate person is an active listener…one who actually listens to others. They repeat back to the person what they hear to confirm shared understanding. When you do this, you “behold” people – which is a capacity that will draw people to you like moths to a flame. Some of the greatest, most charismatic leaders in the world would effectively “behold” people.  In order to be an effective active listener, you must place others in a place of prominence. Remember, you are not the center of creation; the cosmos does not revolve around you! As the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:3-4 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Listen more than you speak. That’s always good advice.
  4. Extend the Grace to Others That You Would Like Extended to You
    1. When people make mistakes, or drop the ball, or let you down – will you be willing to forgive them?  We tend to judge others by their actions, while we judge ourselves by our intentions.  Don’t fall into that trap.
    2. There is an ancient story of the desert monk Abba Moses. Some monks were going to discipline another brother who was guilty of sin. The assembled the brothers and sent a message to Abba Moses telling him to come, but Abba Moses would not come. They sent for him again telling him they were waiting for him to discipline this other brother. Moses got up and went. He took an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried it on his back. He put a little sand in his hand and carried it in front of him. When Abba Moses arrived, the brothers asked, “What does this mean Abba Moses?” Abba Moses said, “The basket on my back are my sins; they are many so I put them on my back and I shall not give notice or weep for them. The sand in the palm of my hand is the sin of our brother and they are in front of me. I see them and I judge them. This is not right, I ought to have my own sins in front of me and think on them and ask God to forgive me.” When the other monks heard this, they forgive their brother monk and said, “This is the true way of salvation.”
  5. Be Wise as Snakes, But Gentle as Doves (Matthew 10, Words of Jesus)
    1. You have to be wise in this world. You can make a lot of mistakes in life, and you will, but there are times when we make the wrong mistake at the wrong time in front of the wrong people – we don’t know when or where this will happen (that’s the problem with mistakes, we don’t control them).
    2. One DUI underage, one fight, one plagiarized paper, one brief moment in time, one mistake can cost you more than you know…we don’t control the consequences of our mistakes, but we can control the mistakes.
    3. This should not cause you to fear, but to be proactive and smart. You must think a few steps ahead of every action to put in place safety nets to be ready when you judgment is limited. To be wise as a snake means we must see that life is not easy and often is tries to trip us up…we must be proactive and make good decisions ahead of time.
    4. That’s why Jesus said, I want you to love and be gentle as doves, but be wise like a snake – watch out.
  6. Don’t Be Afraid of Hard Work
    1. Remember Aesop’s Fable of The Ants and the Grasshopper – The ants were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him, “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?’ He replied, “I spend my days in leisure enjoying the find spring and summer weather. I passed the days in singing.” Then the ants said in derision: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supper-less to bed in the winter.”
    2. You have to work hard to accomplish something worthwhile. Don’t look at your parents have right now…ask them to share their story with you of what they had to do to get here. You may learn a lot about life and work if you do.
    3. We expect to graduate college and start off with a life where our parents are now. That’s because we don’t realize the 20+ years of hard work that led them to this time and place.
    4. “In the business world, everyone is paid in two coins:  cash and experience.  Take the experience first; the cash will come later.”  ~Harold Geneen
  7. Finally, Always Be Yourself
    1. You can Google for an answer. You can Google for a mate. You can Google for a career. But you can’t Google to find what’s in your heart, the passion that lifts you skyward.  Ask Siri what your purpose is in life.  She can’t give you an answer.
    2. “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”  ~e.e. cummings, 1955
    3. The world will try to dismantle you every day and make you into something you do not want to be. Don’t sell out. Hold fast. Be who God created you to be. If you try to be someone you are not, you are nothing by an imposter.
    4. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Be wise! Heed the wisdom that is given to you from your elders, your parents, your teachers, your mentors, and the teachings of your faith tradition. It’s a tough world out there, but you are well equipped. Don’t be afraid of the future. Embrace the chaos! Love deeply! Walk with humility!

“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”  ― Lao Tzu

The Open Table

In 22 years of being a pastor, I get all kinds of questions.  What do you think I get asked the most?  Most people would guess the question is related to suffering or evil, but actually the question I get asked the most usually comes from someone who just returned from a  wedding or a funeral.

“Why wouldn’t they let me take Holy Communion?”

The question doesn’t surprise me any more, but what does surprise me is how many people are still shocked that churches won’t let them share in this intimate sacrament.

In the 18th Century as John Wesley was leading a revival in the Church of England that would become the Methodist Church, Wesley attempted to make the Lord’s Supper more meaningful for the masses of people who found no spiritual meaning in the Church. Wesley would lead his Methodist followers into the local Anglican Church on a Sunday morning and bring them down the aisle to receive the elements. In a few incidences, there were so many that he would lead them down in groups of a hundred. And the people would sing as they came. John Wesley believed everyone could come to the table.  After all, it is God’s table…not the Church of England’s table.

We United Methodists believe in what is called ‘open communion’, or the ‘open table’, which means that we do not require someone to be a member of our church, or of any church, or even to be baptized in order to fellowship with us at the table.  The only requirement is that you are open to receiving whatever Jesus has to share with you. You don’t have to have it all figured out or recite a creed. It isn’t a matter of intellectual assent. This is why Wesley wanted to open up the sacrament to include the poor and forgotten. In the same way, we welcome all kinds of folk when we serve communion.

The ‘open table’, or ‘open communion’ is not just a ritualistic practice. It is a way of being the Church. Just as Jesus sat at the table and ate with sinners and tax collectors, we invite those who are ignored, misunderstood and rejected by society. In a world that scrutinizes you based on your outward appearance, the message of Holy Communion in our church is one of total acceptance in Christ. If nowhere else, Church is the one place where you can feel the unconditional acceptance of Jesus.

At the opening of Holy Communion, the pastor says,

“Christ our Lord invites to his table, all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another. Therefore, let us confess our sin before God and one another.”  If you are open and willing, you are invited.

Let me share three reasons why we practice the “Open Table” unlike many other churches.

  1. Jesus Modeled The Open Table For Us – If we want to do a study on the entire meal ministry of Jesus, we would find all people invited to feast with him. When Jesus fed the 5,000 or the 4,000, he fed them all.  He didn’t ask if they were Methodists or Baptists or Catholics. When he ate at the house of the tax collectors, or when he traveled to Samaria, or when he broke the bread with two strangers on the way to Emmaus, Jesus never asked, “Are you a member?”  He also didn’t ask if you believe every part of our creed or dogma.
  2. We Don’t Control God’s Grace – We cannot reify God’s grace! Reification is when one gives substance to something that has no substance. Reification of grace is when the church, preacher, or anyone says God’s grace is not available to you. I hold the grace, and we will dole it out to those who agree with us. As the Soup Nazi would say on Seinfield if you didn’t order the soup in just the right way, “No Grace For You!”, many churches treat grace in the same way.  We see this happen in many churches and denominations – you are divorced? You need to attend another church. You made some bad decisions in life? You might need to go somewhere else.  God’s grace cannot be given out by us.
  3. The Table is Open…But the Grace Is Not Cheap – In our understanding of the Open Table, Methodists may continue to invite all persons to the Lord’s table, as long as they understand that non-baptized seekers should be urged to enter the baptismal covenant and be taught the full truth about its costly dynamics. God’s grace is free and offered to all that is true. But it is not Cheap and Meaningless. If we are going to receive the Grace of God in our lives, we must be willing to be transformed by it. That means we must be willing to abide by the costs of discipleship and submit ourselves to it.

Wesley was convinced that communion was not only a confirming, but also a converting ordinance. It is not only for those who already believe and long to deepen their relationship with the Lord, but for those who truly want to believe, but seem to lack the grace to do so.

The table of Christ is always open, but once we kneel and receive His body and blood, we should never again be the same.

Recapturing the Language of Lament

by sculptor Anthony Quickle, St. Simons Island, Georgia

“Jesus Before Pilate” by sculptor Anthony Quickle, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I’ve met with a lot of folks lately who say they find it hard to pray.  These are good people who love the Lord and have strong prayer lives.  They talk with the Lord regularly.  But in seasons of difficulty, they find words hard to come by.  I think one of the reasons why we find it hard to pray when pain and difficulty come is because we have been taught that prayers only include the following: Adoration (where we praise God and let him know how awesome God is), Confession (where we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us), Thanksgiving (where we thank God for all the good things in our lives), and Supplication (where we pray for others who are struggling).  I grew up with this model called the ACTS model of prayer.

About 10 years ago, I learned that most of my prayer life was me talking all the time and never listening.  I found a love for contemplative prayer and it has changed my life and my relationship with God.  More on contemplative prayer later.

I also discovered how to recapture a biblical prayer language that many of us have either forgotten or refuse to use…the prayer of lament.  A lament is when we cry out to God from the pain of our hearts and lives.  We bear our souls – the pain, the struggle, the questions.  People of faith today don’t believe we should question God or even admit to struggle.  There are many churches that teach a prosperity gospel that says, “all you have to do is be faithful and believe and it will come to pass”.  “Don’t get caught up in the negative, defeating thoughts”, they say.  The irony?  The language of prayer in the first 10 chapters of the Bible’s prayerbook…the Psalms.

Psalm 1 – Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…

Psalm 2 – Why do the nations conspire and the people plot in vain?…

Psalm 3 – O Lord, how many are my foes!  How many rise up against me…

Psalm 4 – Answer me when I call, O God…hear my prayer…

Psalm 5 – Give ear to my words, O Lord, give heed to my sighing…

Psalm 6 – O Lord do not rebuke me in your anger…

Psalm 7 – O Lord, in you I take refuge, save me from all my pursuers…

Psalm 8 – O Lord, how majestic is your name…

Psalm 9 – I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…

Psalm 10 – Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?…

Seven of the first ten Psalms are cries of lament.  They are real, deep, passionate cries of pain and question.  Why do we think we can’t pray in the same way?  When you are feeling you don’t have the words to pray in your difficult seasons, open the book of Psalms and just walk through until you find the words that are your words.  God is not troubled when we cry out, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?…”

More than Remembering


Entrance to Zion Hope Cemetery

I never knew there was a Stephens family plot, especially one in Georgia, until March of 2008.  When my father died, my grandfather suggested we scatter his ashes at the Stephens family plot at the Zion Hope  Baptist Church Cemetery in Crisp County, Georgia, just outside Cordele.  The irony of it all?  My brother who is a Southern Baptist pastor lives nearby and Zion Hope was originally a Methodist Church!

As we walked around the Zion Hope Cemetery that day, I noticed all the headstones with the name Stephens.  My grandfather began to share stories with me.

“Here is where my father is buried, Rome O. Stephens,” he said. “He was born January 19, 1880 and he died September 30, 1937 when I was a teenager.”  My grandfather walked my down a little farther, “Over here is your great, great-grandfather, John Anderson Stephens, born 1848 and died 1926. He lied about his age at 15 to join up with the Confederacy because his father was killed in the Civil War at a battle in North Carolina.”  As we walked down some more he said, “And here is his father, Jasper B. Stephens.  Born 1820 and died 1864.  He never made it back home, but they brought his body back to be buried here in the family plot.”

I’m standing in this cemetery, with all of these headstones, hearing all this history and at first it was just information, remembering something that happened in the past. And then, for a brief moment, something transcendent occurred. I’m not going to tell you it was a spirit or spirits…nothing like that.  But for a moment, I was caught in the moment where time and space just seem to cease for a second.  I realize that I am standing among stories that are alive in me. Stories I never really realized, yet they are a part of who I am. I just marveled in the past, the present, and thinking of my girls in the future. I was overwhelmed by it all and I just stood there for a moment in gratitude, humility, awe, and respect.

In a way, this is part of what happens in Holy Communion.


Marker for my great, great grandfather.

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about the importance of the Lord’s Supper and recounts the words of Jesus when he shared Holy Communion with his disciples.  Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But the interesting thing about Jesus’ words, and Paul’s recounting, is that the word “remember” is not really a good translation of the original language.  The word in the Greek is ‘anamnesis’. It has been translated as remembrance, commemoration, and memorial but it means so much more.   In a way, it is remembrance combined with a “living knowledge”…a knowledge of the living presence of the Savior himself as if we were witnesses to his presence.  As James F. White says in his book, Sacraments as God’s Self Giving, “Christ is again present to give himself to us through our re-experiencing his past works.”

We are remembering, but the remembering actually makes Christ present in the now.   Something mysterious happens.  It is the actual presence of grace in Christ.  It is sacramental.  Anamnesis means past events become present; we overcome time for a moment.

When we come and share in Holy Communion, we do much more than remember. We participate again in the event of Christ saving work. May it always be real and present for us.

Unleashing Hope

Pandora’s Box was given to Epimetheus as a gift from the mythological god Zeus.  There was a warning on the box that it never be opened.  One day, while Epimetheus was away, his wife Pandora allowed her curiosity to get the best of her.  Pandora felt the box was a gift from the gods…so why not open it?  As she opened the box, all forms of ghastly forms burst forth unleashing all the evils humanity has ever known.  From then on, life would be different.  Humanity would now toil, grow tired, become sick, and even die – all because Pandora opened the box.  

After all the evil forces escaped, Pandora realized there was one thing remaining in the box.  It was hope.  It wasn’t evil at all.  As a matter of fact, the last thing to come out would be the one thing humanity would need to stand up to all the other ghastly powers.  

We feel that people all around us are unleashing evil and destructive powers.  It feels like Pandora’s Box is being opened every day.  We are confronted with injustice, suffering, pain, despair, exhaustion, war, and death.  Many times we feel like these are the only powers at work in the world.  But God reminds us…there is hope!

I truly believe hope is the one thing we need most in the world…hope in God’s grace that renews and restores.  Just as Pandora’s Box, we watch all the destructive forces fly around us and we wonder, “Is this all there is?”  Then, at the bottom of the box, we notice one more.  Peter and the other disciples noticed it at the bottom of the empty tomb.  Just when it seems the evil powers of the world will win, we discover hope.  Hope is always there and hope never disappoints.

Paul wrote, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope…and hope never disappoints.”

I hope you will join me Sunday as we spend time swimming in hope.  Also, if you haven’t been to, I encourage you to visit and find ways to get plugged into worship, education, and mission.

See you Sunday!



What Is a Disciple?

What is a disciple? In every church I’ve served, we spent time discussing this question. I wish I could say the answers have all been the same, but different people have different definitions of what a disciple really is. I would also love to say to you right now, “I know the answer and here it is,” but I hate disappoint.

Here is what I do know…we are called to make disciples. In Matthew 28:19-20, we find the ‘Great Commission’. It says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew is clear that Jesus sends us to make disciples of all nations through baptism and teaching – sacrament and education. For many Christians, that’s it…that’s the list.

But years ago, I read a great book by Mortimer Arias and Alan Johnson called, “The Great Commission: Biblical Models for Evanglism”. In it, they lay out a broader understanding of evangelism and disciple making by looking at the Great Commission from each of the four Gospels (did you know each Gospel has its own Great Commission?). It gives us a broader scope of what disciple making looks like.  (And please don’t judge too harshly if you feel I over-syntesize/simplify Arias/Johnson…)

Matthew’s Great Commission is a focus on Growth. We are called to teach disciples to obey what Jesus has commanded. Mark’s Great Commission is a focus on Proclamation/Preaching. Mark 16:15 says, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” Luke’s Great Commission is a focus on Jubilee and reconciliation (with God and neighbor). Luke 4:16-30 sets the stage for Jubilee and Luke 24:47 gives the commission, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations…” Finally, John’s Great Commission sends us to be the Divine Presence of Christ to the world. In John 20:23, Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Proclamation, Growth, and the Divine Presence of Christ to the world bringing Jubilee, reconciliation and wholeness to a world in need. Whatever a disciple is supposed to be, these are the core elements.


In keeping with the divine mandate, Chapelwood is fulfilling our mission of making disciples of all nations through experiencing God in worship, growing through education, and sharing through mission.

A disciple’s path should include EXPERIENCING God in worship in one of the Sanctuary, Mercy Street, Esperanza, Upper Room, and Contemplative worship services. Mark’s Great Commission of Proclamation is lived out!

A disciple’s path should include GROWING in knowledge by finding a place to grow in God’s Word. Matthew’s Great Commission of Teaching is lived out!

A disciple’s path should include SHARING our faith by becoming the hands and feet of Christ. We bring Jubilee, reconciliation, and the divine presence of Christ to places where people need hope and healing. Luke and John’s Great Commissions are lived out!


It’s not just an ad campaign. It’s not just a creative email or website. EXPERIENCE, GROW, SHARE is the path of becoming a disciple and making a disciple!

Join us on this journey… and if you are Chapelwood member/attendee, visit, today and get plugged in.

The Image Inside

Stephanie, my wife, and I went to Seagrove Beach, Florida on our one year anniversary in 1994.  One afternoon, we decided to drive down to the center of the cultural world on the Florida panhandle…Panama City Beach.  You can find just about anything you want in PCB.  And everything you want is at Alvin’s.

Alvin’s is a cross between WalMart, Stuckey’s, and the Flora-Bama Lounge.  Alvin’s has alligators, t-shirts, flip-flops, boogie boards and the PCB staple – air brush artists.  Steph and I thought it would be a great idea to capture the moment of our first anniversary with the classic, deep south (I won’t say ‘redneck’ because I’m from South Georgia and that is actually a complement) airbrushed car tag that says “John (hearts) Stephanie”.  The more we thought about the reality of riding around any city with that tag on the front of our car, the more we hesitated.  So we went with Plan B…the cartoon illustrator.

Now, let me make a few comments as I share this image with you.

  • I am opening my soul to you…so be kind.
  • The golf club speaks to my love of golf…the massive cell phone Steph is holding speaks to her job at the time selling cellular phones…in 1994.  That’s why it looks like an early massive Motorola phone from the early 90’s…it actually is.
  • Yes, Steph did have that haircut.
  • Yes, my hair was darker with less gray in 1993.
  • And yes, I still look at Steph that way after 21 years of marriage!

Finally, what strikes me most is the way the illustrator captured our “image”.  I’ve always been amazed at how it really captured the essence of who we were (and are).  In some ways, the image captured in 1994 is still who we are…and in other ways its hard to believe it is us.  I am glad that our “image” was captured and I’m glad I still have this picture.  If you ever want to see the actual picture, stop by my office sometime…it’s hanging on the wall.

Join us Sunday in the Chapelwood sanctuary at 8:25, 9:45, or 11:10 (or stream it live online at , as I bring the message, “The Image Inside”…


Stephens Cartoon

Cartoon Illustration