With Trembling Hands

Yesterday at church my hands were trembling as I stood up to teach.

I’m not a nervous speaker. When I used to pastor at a megachurch, standing in front of large crowds didn’t unnerve me in the least. And while putting on a microphone and talking about the mysteries of God and the universe, doubts, and abstract ideas like love, justice and forgiveness would freak most people out, it’s just the thing I do. No big deal.

Except for yesterday.

We’ve been having a tense conversation in our church for the last couple of months. We’ve been having a conversation about what the church should say to our LGBT brothers and sisters. And really it has been a conversation as we wrestle with the Bible, tradition, reason and our own experiences. (We’re not Wesleyans, per se, but we’ve always found the Wesleyan Quadrilateral useful in our deliberations.)

And so, since the beginning of the year, we’ve collapsed our two morning services into one service during which I teach, and we’ve set aside the second service time for conversation. We’ve welcomed people to ask questions and make comments, and every week during this series, I’ve walked away feeling so in love with these brave midwesterners wrestling with big issues.

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As the pastor, I probably think about these things differently than most. As pastor, it’s not about theoretical ideas about morality, but rather about relationships. And it’s not just about my own story and experiences, but rather the collective story and experiences of everyone in the church. Ken Wilson, in his excellent book A Letter to My Congregation describes it this way:

“The members of a congregation have a commonly held conscience on many, but not all, matters. A pastor stands at the crossroads of a congregation’s conflicted conscience. It’s a congested intersection, this place. Standing in the middle of it can be dizzying, frightening, awful, especially under the intense scrutiny that comes with religious controversy.”

And so, yesterday, as I prepared to stand up and say things that would challenge nearly every one of us, my hands shook in nervousness and anxiety.

Help me, Lord Jesus, to be faithful to the pathway you seem to be leading me down. Help me to say what I say with grace, humility and kindness.

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I’m a lucky guy. I sometimes hear stories of pastors who come into conflict with their congregation and lose their jobs. Or I hear stories of how parishioners leave a church angrily, “telling off” the pastor as they go. Yes, we’ve had a few of those, but not very many. The church I pastor is filled with kind, lovely people who, I believe, really believe Jesus when he says that everything hangs on how we love. Again, my experience is reflected in Wilson,

“Strangely, very few of you have actually asked me this question directly. Congregations learn to read their pastors. And many of you sense that I’ve been wrestling with this one for a long time. You’ve heard sermons that indicate a certain lean away from the traditional consensus, perhaps. I suspect that some of you haven’t asked me where I draw the line because you haven’t wanted to put me on the spot. Others haven’t wanted to situate me, your pastor, on what you may regard as the wrong side of an important moral issue. Or you may just be nervous for me, for us. In any case, I want to say: thank you.”

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I’m writing this on Monday morning. I feel emotionally spent. I could have spent the day in bed, which is why so many pastors take Mondays off. (They also tell us to never write our resignations on a Monday. Good advice!)

I actually don’t remember much of what I said. I don’t know if it’s this way for everyone, but there are times when I’m so “in it,” so focused on what I’m doing, that afterward I don’t remember the specifics. I’ve thought about listening to the podcast, but that sometimes leads to self-loathing. (Oh do I hate the sound of my own voice!) We’ll see how I feel in a couple days.

What I do know is that when I preach that kind of sermon, with that kind of emotion and intensity, I feel super-vulnerable afterwards. (I know from talking to pastors, musicians and other artists this is common.) I feel vulnerable because it’s not just a task I performed but, rather, I feel like I’ve given a part of myself to a whole bunch of people at once. And so, my tendency is to want to run and hide – to find any excuse to get to my office and close the door as fast as possible.

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In my younger years, I needed a lot of praise in these fragile moments just after the sermon to satisfy my fragile ego-self. But I’m learning that what my ego wants almost always leaves my soul feeling hollow. So I’m trying to learn to pay attention to my soul. My honorary-big-sister-even-if-she-doesn’t-know-who-I-am Liz Gilbert says,

“I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

I would add, in addition to wonder, my soul also longs for intimacy. In that moment, I need connection with my wife, boys and friends. I need my most intimate friends to tell me, “You are loved.”

[This by the way, is the greatest gift a church can give to their pastor: the freedom to have their own intimate circle of friends, even if those friends don’t attend your church. Yes, your pastor should be friends with everyone at some level, but your pastor also needs an intimate space of people who can authentically say, “We will love you regardless of anything about you that is ‘pastor.’” Let your pastor have a circle of people to whom they can say, “I need something from you,” so they don’t need it from the congregation.]

After the service, my wife grabbed me in the center aisle and hugged me, and my good friend sought me out as I was trying to escape into my office and gave me a hug and reminded me that I’m loved. And my closest circle – the ones who know that I need them – tended to my fragile self throughout the day with texts and love. That’s what my soul needed.

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My hands were trembling yesterday before I got up to speak to these beautiful people that I get to lead. But there’s goodness here. I think I said some things to challenge all of us. And, to the best of my knowledge, I’m leading our church down the pathway that is right for us. It’s not easy. And there will be sadness and tears to come.

But we’re together in this.

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Jesus at the National Prayer Breakfast

Sorry I haven’t posted recently. I’ve had lots of things I’ve wanted to write about, but frankly I’ve just been super busy and then last week I was away at The National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. And while I had good intentions to write some posts between meetings, there was so much going on, and I got a cold, and when I had downtime, I slept.

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I had no expectations of the trip. I went because our best friends asked us to go. His family had been involved with the breakfast for a long time. And while I had heard of the breakfast in the news, I didn’t really know anything about it. In fact, prior to meeting Tim and his family, I probably assumed that if politicians were involved then it was probably a generic, watered-down “Christian” type of thing that wouldn’t be of much interest to me.

But last year I sat with Tim and Peggy just hours after they got home from the 2015 breakfast and heard all the things that excited them about the event. And it piqued my interest. (And when you have friends like these who are excited about something and really, really want you to be a part of it, you just go.) (Oh, and Tim doesn’t take “no” for as answer very graciously.) So, since the second week of February last year, the 2016 prayer breakfast has been on our calendar. My parents were good to watch our kids (thanks mom!), so we went. Follow your curiosity!

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There’s a lot I could tell you. I have notes and quotable lines from nearly every speaker. And it’s pretty cool to be in the same room as the President of the United States and hear how he commands a room. And between sessions, Tim’s mom set up great meetings with all kinds of interesting people. But if I had to condense it all into three paragraphs – and let’s be honest, I do need to do that here; you don’t want a novel – here it is:

At the closing dinner on Thursday night there was a comedian named Mike Ashburn. He had us all laughing, then told a beautiful story about his fictional grandma, then finished by having us all sing “Jesus Loves Me.” And as I sang, hot tears started running down my face.  I grabbed Peggy’s dinner napkin away from her, since mine had already been cleared, and wiped my tears. I wasn’t the only one crying, but it felt kind of ridiculous to cry during such a simple song that I’ve probably sung thousands of times in my life. For me, in that moment, I cried because I was reminded that the core of my faith is so simple. It felt like the simplicity that comes after complexity.

The church sometimes is so complicated.  There are organizational issues, leadership challenges, budget constraints, differences in belief, relational conflicts…ugh! Some days it’s just really, really complicated. But the message we heard at the prayer breakfast is that following Jesus simplifies things. Jesus’ message was super simple: love God by loving everyone as we love ourselves.  Yes, that’s sometimes difficult to do, but it’s not complicated.  We only complicate it because we don’t want to do it. We’d rather judge, condemn, distance and smugly assert our “truth.”

At the heart of the prayer breakfast is this fact: in our nation’s Capitol, there are people – namely congressmen and -women, senators, generals – who are so dedicated to Jesus that they’ll lay down all their differences to unite around Jesus in prayer. No, these people don’t wear their faith on their sleeves — you probably don’t even know who they are — and yes, they have a wide range of beliefs about what it means to be followers of Jesus. But following Jesus — doing their best to love God and love people — is at the center of why they gather.

“If a lefty Chicano democrat from Southern California and a conservative judge from Alabama can do it, why can’t you?” Co-host Rep. Juan Vargas (D – California) from the opening remarks with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R- Alabama), talking about joint prayer between republicans and democrats.

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This has been brewing for awhile inside of me, but this week put some things into words for me in my own journey. There’s a simplicity that’s slowly been emerging in my own mind when it comes to my own spiritual journey. Yes, I’m capable of reading thick, complicated tomes on theological nuance. And I’m more than capable of holding my own in a philosophical or theological discussion of many issues. And yet, for the last couple of years, the simplicity of following Jesus has been calling to me. I’m more interested these days in “how do I embrace Jesus’ love and how do I love others,” than I am in, say, theories of atonement. I have a growing conviction that there are no theological exams at the pearly gates, but rather there is only one question that matters: “Are you following Jesus?”

I’m so thankful that I got this opportunity. I’ll be chewing on this for awhile.

 

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Your Pastor Isn’t Your Authority

At my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, ILwe’re having a conversation about generous orthodoxy. Each Sunday I’m teaching during our first service, then during the second we’re doing a question and response; a moderated discussion. I intend to post thoughts here over the next couple of weeks. For the first week we started with “what is a church?” which led us to “what authority does a church have?” Who knew our church was so full of anti-authoritarians?

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Boy, do church people love talking about authority. Does the Bible have authority? Does the church? What is the extent of the authority of a pastor? Who’s the final authority in a marriage?

If you don’t know “church world” very well, this might seem like an odd conversation to be having — especially when the American zeitgeist is so strongly anti-authoritarian, all the way back to the Boston Tea Party.

But I think this obsession mostly comes from a good place. I think most Christians genuinely believe that there is a best way to live and so all the discussion about authority is really a discussion about “how do I know who to trust to tell me the right way to live that will please God?” In other words, what authority is going to tell me how to live?

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Sincere woman in our church in our question and response: “Charlie, as the pastor of Imago Dei what do you think is the basis for your authority?”

Me: “Ummmm…..Next question?” (laughter)

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I believe pretty radically in the “priesthood of all believers.” This is a doctrine that emerged out of the Protestant Reformation and asserted that we don’t need priests or “the church” to mediate our experience of God. All Christians believe in this priesthood to a varying degree. For example, the Roman Catholic Church believes that the priesthood of all believers applies to the spread of the Gospel, while most liturgical and sacramental functions are reserved for the ordained priesthood.

There is a whole range of ideas about what the “priesthood of all believers” means, and I fall on pretty much the exact opposite side of the Roman Catholic Church on this one. I’ll give credit to my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist upbringing here. (See? I DO say good things about Baptists sometimes!) While we granted the pastor a degree of authority, we were fiercely (and might I say, proudly) independent of any denominational interference.  We believed authority rested in the congregation, not in any one man (as there were no women pastors in that particular context).

So, in this conversation about the authority of the local church and by extension the authority of the local pastor, I’m radically committed to the priesthood of all believers. I don’t claim any authority for the church as the pastor. None. Zilch.

Rather, I believe any “authority” I have is something my parishioners have voluntarily granted to me. It’s not because of the title. It’s because of the relationship.

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When it comes to the news, I consider NPR an authority. Because of its reputation, because of its journalistic standards, because I think NPR works to maintain balance in its reporting, I trust NPR in a way that I don’t trust a random article that someone posts to Facebook declaring President Obama the spawn of Muslim aliens from the planet Zorg.

I think this is how authority works in the spiritual life too. There are pastors, writers, teachers, organizations and close friends I trust when it comes to helping me follow Jesus, and I’ve granted them various levels of authority in my life. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything they teach, say, write or do, but it does mean that on the whole, I trust them. They’ve proven effective at helping me along in my spiritual journey.

Of course, it’s a sliding scale. I’ve granted a lot of authority to some people in my life, much less to others and to some, none at all. Some people are on the rise — I’m granting them more and more authority — while others are waning and I’m not listening to their voice in the same way that I used to. Some authorities in my life I know very well, others I only know from a distance. Some I grant authority because of the investment they’ve made in me, others, I grant authority because of a position or expertise they hold. Some have an authority in one area but none in another (think of your accountant, lawyer or doctor in this regard).

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Back to my church…I don’t believe I have an innate authority over the people of my church because I have an advanced degree or because I have a particular title or because I’ve been ordained by a particular group (I haven’t been ordained at all, by the way). I don’t believe I get “special rewards in heaven” or have a “direct line to God.”

However, in the context of my local ecclesia, because I stand up in front of a group of people week after week, and because I have a role that gives me the freedom to study, to think, to meet with people, to listen to their stories, to stand at their bedside when they’re sick and to stand with them at the altar when they marry, they in turn, grant me a lot of authority (in fact, probably more than I’m comfortable with, most of the time!). Or, as I summarized it on Sunday, because of my role in the church I have a greater opportunity to be granted a degree of authority in individuals’ lives.

I know that many of you have religious contexts that may teach something quite different from what I’m saying here about pastoral authority. But this is the one that seems most comfortable to me. How do you think about it?

 

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From the Vault: Jimmy, Bono & Joe

On Mondays, I’m going into the vault, reworking an old post, and then reposting it with some comments attached. This morning’s post comes from February 18, 2014. Additional thoughts have been added at the end of the post.

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Facing a mix of “winter blues” and the remnants of a head cold, I was ready to pull the covers over my head by about nine o’clock last night. But, like many of you, I was excited to see Jimmy Fallon take the reigns of The Tonight Show, so I stayed up to watch, but channel surfing during commercials.

On AXS.tv I came across a re-airing of Def Leppard‘s “Viva! Hysteria” concert shot in late-2013 in Las Vegas. I was in 7th grade when “Hysteria” came out and Def Leppard was my favorite of the “hair bands.” When I started driving, Def Leppard was always in heavy rotation as I attempted to blow out the speakers of my red Buick Skyhawk. So, I was intrigued to hear what Def Leppard sounded like 25 years later.

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Back to Fallon, U2 was performing their new song “Invisible” on the roof of The Rockefeller Center. It was beautifully shot with the sun setting in the background over New York City. (You can watch it here.) And performing with a drum line from Rutger’s University, U2 sounded amazing. What an iconic kickoff for The Tonight Show returning to NYC.

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Commerical. Jump back to Def Leppard. Joe Elliott is trying to get through their 1987 hit “Love Bites,” but he’s having a hard time finding the notes that came so easily 25 years ago. My friend Jamie, who saw them when they came through Peoria in the late 80’s told me that they could never reproduce in concert the background vocals that gave them their unique sound. And if that was true in the fall of 1987, it’s more true today. While the music is still there, the vocals – lead and background – are long gone.

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Back to The Tonight Show, Jimmy has U2 on the couch and wants people to hear how good U2 is even when they’re not in front of an arena, so he asks them to do a song acoustically. And they perform their Golden Globe Winning “Ordinary Love,” the song they wrote as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. The Edge starts off playing the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven,” they laugh, then he starts “Ordinary Love” and it’s so good. No, Bono doesn’t have the strength of vocals that he had back in the 80’s or 90’s, but because they’re writing new stuff, they create things that work today.

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One one channel, an 80’s hair band trying to re-live the glory days, to reproduce something that is long past. They still dress much the same way. Phil Collen still has his shirt off, they’re doing the same old songs and it comes off as tired, sad, and not very good or particularly relevant. I don’t see anyone in the crowd much younger than 40.

On the other channel there’s another band from the 80’s, except this band is constantly writing new material, “reinventing” themselves, still pursuing something, not looking back. They’re as relevant as they were when they recorded “The Joshua Tree,” in 1987.

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It seems like many religious people are like the 80’s band trying to relive their glory days. They pine for “the way it used to be,” they talk about “getting back to the good ol’ day when…” They ask the same old questions, belt out the same old answers, and wonder why the next generation chooses to stay home on Sunday mornings.

But for me, faith is like the 80’s band that isn’t resting on their laurels, simply replaying all the songs that made them famous. Instead it’s forward facing, asking new questions, offering new answers, describing new ways of what it means to be God’s people in the world. It’s relevant and significant because it’s interacting with the world now, as it is, and not as they wish it would be again.

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This was fun to go back and revisit about a year-and-a-half later. My writing has gotten stronger – I changed some words, cut a lot, and reworked probably 10-12 sentences. In the original post, the links had been uploaded yet, but I’ve included them here. 

I had a conversation 6 months ago with someone who was asking me about how our church is relevant to young adults. The church I pastor is the desired demographic for many churches – young adults, young families. I told him that it’s not because of music, or because we serve coffee or wear jeans, but rather it’s because of what I describe in this last paragraph.

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Why the “Decline of the Church” is Good News

“Today there seems to be a breach in almost every wall. Some have said, the ‘cosmic egg’ that seemed to hold us together for a long time is now broken: ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ find themselves unable to put it back together again. It feels as if the earth moved beneath us somewhere in the mid or late sixties: the old certitudes, the agreed-upon assumptions, the core values of Western civilization came up for major questioning. Our presuppositions dissolved, and the questioning has not stopped for decades. We now find ourselves engaged in major and sometimes minor culture wars on almost every personal and social issue.”   – Fr. Richard Rohr, What the Mystics Know

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I’m sitting in a cafe late at night talking to a couple of new friends and I ask one, “What does your religious journey look like?” And I can see the discomfort on her face as, knowing I’m a pastor, she struggles to say that church isn’t really working for her right now, the old answers just don’t seem to satisfy and it’s frankly easier to not go through the hassle of finding a church, when she’s not even sure what she believes.

Of course I gasped; said “you heathen!”; upended the water glass and stormed off, avoiding her the rest of the trip.  (Spoiler:  No I didn’t.)

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I was listening to NPR on my way into the office yesterday morning (one of the things I missed about actually going to work), and they were reporting about a study of religious life in America. And despite the volume of the Evangelical right, and the growth of mega-churches across the country, fewer and fewer people are actually going to church. I think that’s telling. Not that one has to attend a church to be on a spiritual journey, but in my experience, most people who are on such a journey desire to be around others on a similar journey.

Which makes me wonder about the contemporary church. I think most people (clergy included) think of church as an institution with a product. They have a particular way of seeing the world (we call this a theology) and their job is to communicate that product, instead of seeing the church as a gathering space for spiritual pilgrims of various beliefs. (This, by the way, is the heart of my church.)

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I can count about 5 conversations like the one I recounted above during my Sabbatical; conversations with people who are deeply spiritual, but decidedly not religious. And rather than discouraging me, these are the kinds of conversations that I thrive upon. Talking the finer points of particular theologies may have given me life in my early twenties as a young seminarian, but it now drains me.

I’ve come to believe that we’re all deeply spiritual – if you just ask the right questions – and that many of us mistrust institutional religious structures, or at least are having a hard time figuring out the role of the church these days. I’m not against religion per se – except when it keeps people away from the love of God, when it teaches hate, not love, when it’s more about preserving “our tribal identity” than being the hands and feet of God and throwing open the doors to the world and saying, “God already loves you all.”

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You know, some people get discouraged about these kinds of things and bemoan the loss of America’s moral compass or the demise of the church. But I’m actually excited to live in the time that we do. I’m excited that people are open and searching. Of course, for some, the loss of certainty is the pathway towards despair, but to paraphrase the Bible, “those who seek, will find (eventually).”  

As for the church, this really is a great time. It’s a great time for the church to refine itself, to question everything, to think about the ways we’ve lost our way and to recover the heart of Jesus for the world. It an opportunity for the church to remake itself not in the form of a monolithic institution but rather a safe place for those on spiritual journeys, seeking to find their way home.

[photo credit]

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Am I Ready to Go Back to Church?

Tonight, I’m leading a wedding rehearsal. Tomorrow, I’m officiating a wedding. Sabbatical over.

And as the end of my Sabbatical has rapidly approached, I’ve had more people ask, “Are you ready to go back?” Truthfully, I haven’t really had a good answer, and so I’ve been ruminating a bit on it. But I’ve finally found the words, and here’s my answer: No, I’m not ready to go back to church, but I’m ready to begin churching again.

Maybe I ought to explain myself.

When I think about church, I do so through the lens of being a career pastor. While I had lots of odd jobs through high school, college and graduate school, being a pastor is the only real, adult job I know. So, for me, there’s a component of my thinking about church as the grind; setting my alarm, getting up every morning, punching the clock, preparing a talk, meeting with committees, giving a talk, staring over. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. And actually, I tend to thrive in a certain level of routine. But, seriously, who misses setting the alarm and going to work? If you had 3 months where you weren’t required to be any specific place, at any specific time, and could stay in your pajama pants every morning reading and writing, would you want to go back to the grind? Of course not!

But I miss churching. I miss being with people, having meaningful conversations – whether one-on-one or in a group setting or even in the Sunday morning setting. I miss having bigger conversations about faith, life and meaning. And besides conversations with Jennifer, my life during Sabbatical has been devoid of those kinds of meaningful interactions, except for these highlights:

Talking yarn-spinning and Jesus and Ghandi with the owner of a haunted biker-bar/hotel in a small town in Nebraska. (post link)

Meeting the Rainbow Family in Southern Illinois and talking about how God loves us all. (post link)

Reading Psalms together on the trail and talking theology with Justin.

Talking to teammates late at night at the cafe attached to our hotel in Phnom Penh about spiritual journey and finding God’s love to be more expansive and inclusive than our upbringings taught us.

Gathering with other like-minded pastors at the OPEN Network Summit in Minneapolis last week, meaningful conversations over meals, meeting up with my friend Steve… (link)

This is what I’ve missed on Sabbatical: meaningful conversation. I can’t wait to get back into a routine where I meet people for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or beer and assist them in their spiritual journey, encourage them to keep searching, and to look for God everywhere. To quote a Facebook rant from Steve:

We are pastors, called to walk alongside people in all seasons of life, whether they are “growing” or dying (and whether we are growing or dying).

Yes, this is what I miss. This is what I’m anxious to get back to: walking alongside people in all seasons of life. I just noticed today, in the short bio in the sidebar, I describe myself like this:

I love to laugh (loudly), cook, drink good beer, run long distances, hang out with my family (4 boys!) and friends and read novels. More than anything, I love to sit with people and have meaningful conversations.

This is my calling. This is why I’m a pastor.

Am I ready to go back? Not necessarily to the “job,” but absolutely yes to the calling; no to church, yes to churching.

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Why I Believe in The OPEN Network

I get asked all the time, “what kind of church ARE you?”

Cue stuttering, hemming, hawing, and rambling answers.

“Well, we’re not exactly evangelical, but that’s our roots, and we try to love our roots, and we’re not Catholic, although we like the Catholics a lot and we try to follow some of the liturgical practices of Catholics and Anglicans and Episcopalians, and technically we’re nondenominational in that we don’t belong to a denomination, but we’re not against denominations per se, so we prefer to use the term intradenominational to say that we’re a group of people who come from all kinds of different denominations…”

Sigh.

Almost 8 years into the life of our church and I still have a hard time explaining our quirky little community in Peoria, IL.

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I was invited by my friend Michael to Minneapolis to join a conversation last week with what Doug Pagitt described as “junk-drawer churches” churches; churches that don’t belong to a denomination or network, who describe their theology and practice as progressive, and their history as evangelical. We came from different parts of the country, with differing styles of worship, differing creeds, practices, politics and contexts. But what united us is our progressive theology has left most of us feeling disenfranchised and alone in our contexts. Almost everyone I met said something like, “we’re the only church of our kind in our city.”

It was so good for my soul to hear other pastors – some of whom I’ve known by reputation for years – say the same things as me: “We’re the only church of our type in our town,” “I don’t regularly get to hang out with pastors like me,” and “I feel alone as a pastor.”

Last week, in Minneapolis, I found my people.

Tuesday evening, after dinner with new friends, I looked around the room at Solomon’s Porch, where we were gathering, and tears filled my eyes. Finding one’s people is one of the best things in life.

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I’m super-hopeful for what this may become. I’m proud to be in at the ground floor. I’m excited to have made new friends in Denver, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and various other places. I’m hopeful to make more.

I believe that a sea-change is coming; has actually already begun in the American church. Yes, I can quibble about terminology. Many of us talked about how both labels – progressive and evangelical don’t quite fit. But something is happening. The old narratives don’t carry the same weight as they once did, and more people are waking up, looking around the world and asking themselves “who is God?” and “what is the Good News?” It’s a good time to be a pastor.

I’m proud to be an early supporter of OPEN.

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