Little Jimmy

untitled-2I don’t know how it is for you, but I am often harder on myself than on anyone else.  I can counsel with others and no matter what they have done I can usually nod my head sympathetically and show some understanding.  But not with myself.  Where I would forgive the shortcomings of others I often scold myself, wag my finger, and say, “How could you?!”  I tend to hold on to sins that God has forgiven long ago, sifting through them from time to time to remind myself just how wretched I really am.

And that’s where this picture comes in handy.

This is a picture of me when I was two years old.  I find that when I look at it I feel tender toward this little boy and far more forgiving than I might be otherwise.  I begin to understand that my inability to forgive myself can be crippling, in the same way Jesus understood that we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we cannot love ourselves.  It’s not that I use this picture to excuse my behavior, not that I look the other way and let “Little Jimmy” do whatever he wants.  It’s just that I begin to confront his behavior with love instead of anger, like someone who could be redeemed rather than someone who should be condemned.

I have a feeling that God is able to see what is most lovable about us even in our worst moments.  I have a feeling that’s what keeps him from blasting us straight to hell on most days, and instead keeps him opening his arms to receive all his prodigal sons and daughters.

Even Little Jimmy.

Does the Mission Have a Church?

globeinhandsWhen I started preaching 22 years ago, I started with the assumption that the preacher’s job is to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as possible to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to Him, or move their membership from another church to that one. 

I don’t assume that anymore.

The more I read the Gospels the more I find Jesus trying to establish the Kingdom of God, “on earth as it is in heaven.”  He does it by calling disciples, training them, and sending them into the world as he himself was sent.  To be a disciple, then, is to be someone who is called and trained and sent. 

For too long now we have built churches on the “attractional” model, believing that if we have a good enough preacher and good enough music people will come to us.  And in the era of the megachurch we also seem to believe that bigger is better, and that our success is defined by how many members we have and how much money is in the offering plate.  But author and activist Alan Hirsch talks about a “missional” model of doing church that is almost completely different.  Take the time to read the paragraphs below, and then click on “comments” to tell me what you think.


Hirsch writes:

First, let me say what missional does not mean. Missional is not synonymous with emerging. The emerging church is primarily a renewal movement attempting to contextualize Christianity for a postmodern generation. Missional is also not the same as evangelistic or seeker-sensitive. These terms generally apply to the attractional model of church that has dominated our understanding for many years. Missional is not a new way to talk about church growth. Although God clearly desires the church to grow numerically, it is only one part of the larger missional agenda. Finally, missional is more than social justice. Engaging the poor and correcting inequalities is part of being God’s agent in the world, but we should not confuse this with the whole.

A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”

Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.

The attractional model, which has dominated the church in the West, seeks to reach out to the culture and draw people into the church—what I call outreach and in-grab. But this model only works where no significant cultural shift is required when moving from outside to inside the church. And as Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, the attractional model has lost its effectiveness. The West looks more like a cross-cultural missionary context in which attractional church models are self-defeating. The process of extracting people from the culture and assimilating them into the church diminishes their ability to speak to those outside. People cease to be missional and instead leave that work to the clergy.

A missional theology is not content with mission being a church-based work. Rather, it applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life. We are all missionaries sent into a non-Christian culture.

Missional represents a significant shift in the way we think about the church. As the people of a missionary God, we ought to engage the world the same way he does—by going out rather than just reaching out. To obstruct this movement is to block God’s purposes in and through his people. When the church is in mission, it is the true church.


—from “Defining Missional” by Alan Hirsch, Leadership Journal, Fall 2008, p. 22.

The Church of Jesus Christ

woman-dancing-outside-green-dressAfter spending two days with my staff talking about what the church should be, what the church can be, what the church will be, it’s nice to remember what the church is in its best moments, something captured beautifully in this poem by Ann Weems:


The church of Jesus Christ is where a child brings a balloon…
is where old women come to dance . . .
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.
The church of Jesus Christ is where lepers come to be touched . . .
is where the blind see and the deaf hear . . .
is where the lame run and the dying live.
The church of Jesus Christ is where daisies bloom out of barren land . . .
is where children lead and wise men follow . . .
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down.
The church of Jesus Christ is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary
to feed the hungry . . .

is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked . . .
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together.
The church of Jesus Christ is where barefoot children run giggling in procession . . .
is where the minister is ministered unto . . .
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates
are full of people.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts . . .
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight . . .
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious.
The church of Jesus Christ is where the sea divides for the exiles . . .
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion . . .
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time.
The church of Jesus Christ is where night is day . . .
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God’s goodness . . .
is where lost lambs are found.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people write thank-you notes to God . . .
is where work is a holiday . . .
is where seeds are scattered and miracles grown.
The church of Jesus Christ is where home is . . .
is where heaven is . . .
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.
The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively to God’s coming . . .
even on Monday morning the world will hear . . .
an abundance of alleluias! 

                                                                               —Ann Weems

Ain’t Got Time to Blog

Dear Readers:

Please excuse my silence over the past few days. My weekend was packed and now I’m on my second day of an off-site staff retreat where we are discussing what it means to be “missional.”

If you have time, you can read the short article we’ve been looking at (click here) and help us answer the question: What’s the difference between saying “The church has a mission” and “The mission has a church”?

Until the next time I’ve got time,


Stronger Than Death

love3In just a little while I’ll be doing the funeral of Nancy LeSac, a faithful and courageous church member who died on Monday morning after a long struggle with brain cancer.  Her story reminded me of Joyce Maye, a member of my church in Wingate, North Carolina, who died after a very similar struggle.  I found the text of the message I delivered at her funeral and wanted to share an excerpt here as a reminder that even—and perhaps especially—in tragic circumstances, the gospel is good news.


The writer of that great poem we call the Song of Solomon says that “love is strong as death” (8:6), and I almost believe that he is right.  Love is strong!  It can haul you out of the pit.  It can put you on your feet again.  It can set your heart soaring.  It’s strong!  But so is death.  It can cut your legs out from under you.  It can smash you to the ground.  It can snuff your life out like a flame.  When we think of how love makes us feel, and how the death of a loved one makes us feel, I think we can agree that Solomon understood something that is common to human experience.  Love is strong as death and death is strong as love.  Exactly as strong.  The more love we have for someone the more it hurts when we lose them.  The less love we have the less it hurts.


In Joyce’s case this harmless piece of poetry becomes a terrifying equation.  She was so easy to love that many of us—most of you here—developed a love for her that was unusually strong.  As a consequence, the fact of her death has hit us with such force that we don’t know if we will be able to stand up against it. 


When I heard the news I was at Travis Family Restaurant, having lunch with my friend Jim Eastin.  A waitress came to tell me I had a telephone call and Christy, in a broken voice, broke the news to me.  I came back to the table and sat down hard, feeling the color drain from my face as I did so.  Jim tried to resume our conversation but suddenly stopped, reached out to touch my arm, and said, “Are you all right?”  “I don’t know,” I said, finally.  “I don’t know.”


For the rest of that day that’s how it was for me.  Love and death had collided at full speed, and the wreckage was everywhere.  I went to be with the family but I don’t know how much help I was.  After the initial hugs and condolences I simply sat at the kitchen counter, sighing and shaking my head.


If all we could depend on was our own love in time of death we might never know if we were going to be all right.  Love and death are equally matched; it could go either way.  But at the foundation of our faith is the truth that God has added to our love his own.  “God loved us so much,” The Bible says, “that he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  In other words the force of God’s love, in combination with ours, is too much for death.  What once looked like an even match becomes suddenly, miraculously, one-sided, and death doesn’t stand a chance.  “O death, where is your victory?” Paul says.  “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).  And as death lies dying at our feet he shouts, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:57).


What all this means is that Joyce was right when she said to me, more than two years ago, “I believe I’m going to be all right.”  By virtue of the strong love and amazing grace of God she is all right this morning.  Strong as death is it will never be strong enough to snuff out the light that was and is…


…Joyce Maye   

Inauguration Day 2009

rJust before 11:00 this morning Mary Hiteman, Director of the Weekday Early Education ministry at First Baptist Church, asked me if I had “two minutes.” 

“Sure,” I said.

She led me down the hall to one of the children’s classrooms, and introduced me to a two-year-old girl who was wearing a T-shirt with Barack Obama’s picture on the front. 

“Who’s that?” Mary asked, pointing at the shirt.

“Obama!” said the girl.

I had squatted down to her level to say hello and told her, “I like your shirt.”

“I’m glad you do!” said one of the teachers, making it obvious that Mr. Obama had not been her first choice for president. 

“Well,” I said, “this is one of those days when we come together as a country, regardless of who we voted for.   On November 4th you vote your conscience—and I’m glad you did—but on January 20th we support our president.”

As I watched coverage of the inauguration later I marveled at how well we seemed to be doing that.  This orderly transfer of power, almost unique among the nations of the world, was carried off with a generosity that made me proud to be an American.  Mr. Bush was extraordinarily gracious in handing over the reins of leadership, and Mr. Obama was equally gracious about receiving them.  There were no overtly partisan remarks; very few boos from the crowd.  On the whole we seemed to understand that there were larger issues at stake, and that if we were going to prosper as a nation it would take all of us working together. 

So, three cheers for Mr. Obama and three cheers for Mr. Bush and all the cheers in the world for the way power was passed from one president to another on this day.  Just before Bush boarded the helicopter that would carry him away to his new civilian life he and Obama not only shook hands, they hugged.

Where else but America?

Here Cometh the Dreamer

mlkI went to the daily eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston last Thursday, January 15. It was Martin Luther King’s birthday, which the Episcopal Church observes as a feast day.

The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery was the preacher that day, and while she apologized for the informality of her remarks she said something that will stick with me for a long time. She said that there is a marker in front of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the motel where Martin Luther King was shot, that is inscribed with words from the Book of Genesis. “You might expect something like an excerpt from his ‘I have a dream’ speech,” she said. “You might expect the words that are on his tombstone: ‘Free at last.’ But what is written on that marker is a verse from the story of Joseph in Genesis, where his brothers say, ‘Behold, here cometh the Dreamer. Let us slay him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams’ (Genesis 37:19-20).”

I’m grateful for Martin Luther King and what he stood for. I will find a quiet moment in this day to say thank you. But today I find myself even more grateful for the fact that dreams are hard to kill, that more than forty years after Martin Luther King was struck down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel his dream is alive.  It reminds me of another dreamer who was struck down in his prime, one who used to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I wonder what will become of that dream.