Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

Calvin & Hobbes, expert sabbatical takers

(Blog Note: Letter I wrote in October 2014)

Dear Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church,

One of the greatest gifts this church gives to its pastoral staff is a “sabbatical” after they have served at Pleasant Hill for several years. With my 10th anniversary in ordained ministry and my 7th year of ministry at Pleasant Hill coming up next summer, the Session has approved my plans to take a sabbatical in late winter/early spring of 2015.

“Sabbatical” comes from the Hebrew word and the traditions around ‘sabat.’ You’re probably familiar that one of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus is about keeping the Sabbath and in Leviticus we find two more references: one concerns letting the land lie fallow every seven years and another refers to the Jubilee Year in which debts are forgiven.

As the author Wayne Muller puts it:

Sabbath time can be a revolutionary challenge to the violence of overwork, mindless accumulation, and the endless multiplication of desires, responsibilities and accomplishments. Sabbath is a way of being in time where we remember who we are, remember what we know, and taste the gifts of spirit and eternity…Sabbath honors the necessary wisdom of dormancy. If certain plant species, for example, do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. …We, too, must have a period in which we lie fallow, and restore our souls.

The church’s sabbatical policy allows for a pastor to take two months away from their ministry in the parish. Mine will begin on Monday February 2, a couple of weeks before the start of the Lenten season, and end Wednesday April 1 of Holy Week. I will not be around on Sundays or responding to emails, phone calls, social media messages during this time. (But know that youth, missions and other ministries I do at Pleasant Hill are in the good hands of many wonderful people in this faith community).

My hope for my sabbatical is to engage in Lenten practices which will fully immerse me into a time of Sabbath and quiet contemplation about who I am as a minister, husband, father and disciple. I plan to spend quality time with my family as well as find opportunities to worship, pray and reflect in different contexts around Greater Atlanta. I will attend the NEXT Church conference in mid-February in Chicago and also being preparing for my first time as a keynote speaker at Weeks V and VI of the Montreat Youth Conferences (which occur from late July to early August). I also have a nice stack of books to delve into that relate to the ministries I oversee at Pleasant Hill. Overall, I’m looking forward to just “being”—of “lying fallow” and allowing God in the Spirit to renew my heart, mind, soul and body so that I may continue to serve this congregation with energy, intelligence, creativity, imagination and love.

Thank you for this amazing gift of Sabbath. I look forward to seeing what God has in store for you and me during this sacred time.

In Christ,

The Rev. Andy Acton, Associate for Youth and Mission & Outreach

A Year Ago Interview With Rachel Held Evans

DSC_0090In honor of author Rachel Held Evans completion of her latest book on the Church (coming to bookstores and smart tablets this Fall) and the re-release of her best-seller Evolving in Monkey Town (Zondervan, 2010, now titled Faith Unraveled), here is my interview from June 2013 with one of the most important voices on matters of faith, belief, and justice.

The interview was first printed in the 4th and final issue of the ground-breaking independent Christian progressive magazine PLGRM, published by Landon Whitsitt and entitled “Woman of Valor: An Interview with Rachel Held Evans.”

It’s hands down one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done (I used to do quite a bit of them as a newspaper reporter in Birmingham, Alabama from 1998-2001) and best conversations I’ve had about faith. It was also fun to chat with a favorite author, a heroine in the faith and another Southerner and SEC Football fan (albeit one who cheers for the Crimson Tide. War Eagle Rachel!)

I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did talking to and learning from Rachel Held Evans:

A self-described “skeptic, creative and follower of Jesus, figuring out this journey of faith one shaky step at a time,” Rachel Held Evans is daily asking big questions, fostering dialogue and engaging people’s hearts and minds on her blog, …PLGRM got an opportunity to talk to Rachel about her two books, Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Thomas Nelson, 2012. Top 20 on NYT Bestseller List).

static.squarespaceLet’s start things off by talking about your first book, Evolving in Monkey Town. you write early on:

“Throughout history) Believers found a way to rethink and re-imagine their faith in the context of a new environment, one in which they no longer sat in the center of the universe.” (p. 19)

What are some of the current environmental shifts causing 21st century Christians to rethink  and reimagine their faith?

For Christians in the U.S., particularly evangelicals, there is a big shift from faith being centered in the Global West to the Global East and South. The movement is building elsewhere and that’s a big change to contend with. There are changes in what people of faith look like. The image of the White American Protestant at the forefront of faith is waning and evangelicals have to deal with that. We can go down screaming about it or say, ‘This is interesting and what can we learn from it and how can we connect with a servant heart like Christ.’

What are the ways in which believers are rethinking and reimagining faith?

I see this desire of evangelicals in America to move toward monastic communities, more rituals and connecting to the historical church. Evangelicals are asking, “What is my story and my past?” and are looking for ways to be more ecumenical and less self-centered and fractured. Families of faith are not the stereotypical nuclear family model anymore and we as evangelicals can either be freaked out by that or embrace it. We have to stop with the mentality of us v. the world and be more like agents of peace. We have to be less about power. We have to become less entangled in politics and patriarchy and become part of the change that is happening.

Evangelicals can infuse that fire in the belly, that emotion, that Spiritual fervor and passion for the Bible. They can bring an openness and progressiveness married with passion and excitement. They can be passionate about the gospel and social justice.

A couple of pages later in the book, you state:

“I’m an evolutionist because I believe that the best way to reclaim the gospel in times of change is not to cling more tightly to our convictions but to hold them with an open hand. I’m an evolutionist because I believe that sometimes God uses changes in the environment to pry idols from our grip and teach us something new. I’m an evolutionist because my own story is one of unlikely survival. If it hadn’t been for evolution, I might have lost my faith.”(page 21)

What are the convictions that the Church needs to hold with an open hand and heart?

When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment or law, he said, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, body and soul.” We start our theology there with love. (The apostle) Paul reiterates this. For evangelical Christians, it’s about letting go of assumptions that our interpretation of scripture is inerrant or that our interpretation equals truth. At the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves if our theology and interpretation of scripture makes us more loving and helps us to understand a more loving God. We have to be able to have different interpretations of scripture and still respect and love one another. We have to use the Bible or our view less as a weapon. Instead of our interpretations being a conversation ender, they should be a conversation starter.

You have shared in Monkey Town and on your blog that the catalyst which caused you to evolve more than a decade ago, and thus grab a deeper hold on your faith instead of clinging tightly to convictions was the story of Zarmina (a 35-year-old Muslim mother of five who was executed in Fall 2001 by the Taliban for allegedly killing her abusive husband.)

How does Zarmina’s story still impact your faith journey today?

(Learning about Zarmina) really was a moment when the worldview I constructed as a tower of cards fell apart. Zarmina was the card that got pulled ‘cause it stirred up these questions I long had about our circumstances in life and whether there was a hell. I asked myself, ‘Is it all about a cosmic lottery or luck of the draw?’ That’s when I started wrestling with faith.

Today, I see the questions that permeated around Zarmina’s story surface with recent events like the tornadoes in Oklahoma. I have a hard time saying God made that happen (and caused tragedy and death). I can’t imagine saying to a parent that there child died because God made the tornado. It makes sense on paper but if theology doesn’t work on the ground, it doesn’t work.

Zarmina’s story, particularly the image of her tennis shoes peeking out from underneath her burqa after she is executed, leads you to a reflection on the incarnation of Jesus in which you say:

“Being a Christian is about embodying a certain way…about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being Jesus…in tennis shoes.”

What does “being Jesus in tennis shoes” look like in the world? Where have you seen Jesus in tennis shoes?

I don’t write about her often but it would be my sister Amanda. Doesn’t matter where she’s planted, she loves the people around her like crazy. She lives in North Carolina and has a neighbor, a 98-year-old woman, whom she looks after. She washes her clothes for her and brings her meals. Amanda went to India once and she is still invested in families she met and the relationships she made there. She gets invitations to weddings of family members she stays in touch with. Amanda went to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and still stays in contact with the people she served. Amanda loves her neighbor no matter what. She’s my little sister but I took up to her.

My husband Dan and I were visiting Amanda and her husband in North Carolina recently and we weren’t the only ones there. There was this perpetual cycle of people in and out of their home, visiting and eating. There’s this idea out there that you have to go to a poor place to find Jesus or a suffering area to see how much Jesus is loved or to love others like Jesus. But that’s not true. You can love Jesus in the suburbs. (Being Jesus in tennis shoes) is about loving your neighbor wherever you are.

In our culture where it’s about being busy, it’s hard to stop what you are doing and love your neighbor. I struggle with that all the time.

At the end of Chapter 19 on “Adaptation” you write that “I’m convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change.” (page 207)

It would probably be fair to say that you challenge those false fundamentals in prophetic, though-provoking and heart-felt ways through your blog posts, i.e. women’s rights, sexual abuse in the church, gay rights, mixed gender and mixed faith marriages, etc.

Which of the false fundamentals do you think suffocates faith the most?

Inerrancy of scripture and holding tightly to the idea that you have to choose between faith and science. We as evangelical Christians set up a false dichotomy and it’s a shame, this idea that (the science of) evolution is contrary to faith. But I do see us moving past it and I do see some serious progress.

What is the best way for the Church to deal with false fundamentals so that it can be about “loving God and loving other people” instead of “being right or getting the facts straight.” (p. 209)

Be appreciative of diverse perspectives. I get angry sometimes when people perpetuate beliefs that are hurting others. Now, there is a place for (righteous anger) for people who are suffering. Jesus was angry about people’s suffering and we should be angry too. But what I struggle with and have to remind myself is that the purpose of my writing or speaking out is not to change the minds of the “gatekeepers”. I have to say ‘Rachel, you are writing to help people through the day, those who are doubting and have been laid with burdens,’ and that helps me do my work with grace.

It’s about seeking out the suffering and marginalized. The motivation for me is to help out folks who are hurt by things that are said and equip them with ways to respond.

A Year Biblical Womanhood-med-whiteLet’s move onto A Year of Living Biblical Womanhood…You confess right away that “I’m the sort of person who likes to identify the things that most terrify and intrigue me in this world and plunge headlong into them like Alice down the rabbit hole.”

Alice in Wonderland is a terrific metaphor for your journey of biblical womanhood because, like Alice, you learn that things are not always what they seem and often the opposite of what you believed was true.

What did you discover about yourself as a woman and about the relationship between the Bible and women? What were the most strange, whimsical, wondrous or astonishing parts?

I think when we put limits on ourselves or give ourselves boundaries or rules, it’s amazing how much creativity can come about. I was continually surprised by the practice of taking the Bible literally. Covering my head when praying added an extra layer of reverence. It was mystical even as I stopped to do something physical.

What do you hope the Church will discover from your journey and experience? In your travels talking about the book, have you seen the impact your year of biblical womanhood has had on religious communities, Christian and otherwise?

It’s been encouraging to hear from women who, because of the book or a conversation on the blog, decided that maybe going to seminary wasn’t a waste of time after all, that maybe this passion they have for teaching and leading is a gift, not a curse. It’s also been rewarding to see how respond so positively to Proverbs 31 as a blessing rather than a to-do list or prescription. My hope is that readers will see that the Bible does not prescribe just one right way to be a woman of faith, that this notion of “biblical womanhood” as a list of rules and roles is a myth.  A woman who loves the Lord with all her heart, soul, mind and strength and loves her neighbor as herself is practicing “biblical womanhood.” Really, at the end of the day, it’s more about biblical personhood than anything else.  

Early on in the book, you paint this beautiful picture of how cultivating a gentle and quite spirit through prayer and contemplation is like becoming a great tree. And the roots you planted helped you confront your uglier tendencies, i.e. reacting less, listening more, holding back, choosing words carefully, avoiding gossip. A year later, do you find that you’re still able to root yourself more firmly in gentleness and a quiet spirit when “storms of nasty comments and critiques” come through?

Nothing beats praying the hours, which I’ve been able to practice with more consistency now that I’m not travelling as much. There’s something about working through the Psalms and praying the same prayers that have been prayed by Christians for many centuries and continue to be prayed around world today that reminds me that this faith thing isn’t really about me or about being right; it’s about being in relationship, part of a very big, very old community.

In the chapter on Domesticity which clearly had a lot of challenges and offered valuable learning experiences, you focus on your mother’s philosophy “It has to get messy before it gets clean” and you say further that “sometimes you’ve just got to tear everything out, expose all the innards and start over again.”

 What does the Church have to get messy, what does it need to tear out? What innards need to be exposed to start over or become relevant or survive in the 21st century and beyond?

Sexuality. There are a lot of presuppositions and prejudices. The most radical thing we can do is become better listeners. As we deconstruct, we can start treating women and homosexuals as people and not an issue. We can have a conversation that is constructive and helpful. It’s why I do guest posts on my blog and a series called “Ask A…”

It’s easy to keep everything in place you encounter somebody whose story challenges what you believe. A lot has changed about how we think about sexuality and we need to toss out everything we thought we knew and start over from scratch to understand all the concepts. Those of us who are straight really don’t know anything about being gay. We need to step aside and let others share their story.

During your exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman, you learn about “eshet chayil!” –women of valor and immediately your eyes are opened to the “acts of raw bravery” that occur daily in the lives of women.

It’s a poetic and prophetic reality that is lived out in small and large ways, which is particularly noteworthy when considering that human trafficking and the sex trade and violence toward women around the world is highly prevalent … and the back-sliding of women’s rights in this country i.e. over women’s health choices, right to have a voice, and the crude stereotypical portrayals of women in advertising/media

Can you speak more about the importance and power of “eshet chayil” in today’s divisive religious and socio-political climate? 

I like reclaiming Proverbs 31 from the fundamental way its been treated as a job description, making women feel bad how domestic they were or weren’t in life. It’s actually a poem celebrating what women accomplish in the everyday.

Proverbs 31 is also encouraging us as women to celebrate one another more. We don’t do that often because our culture says only a few are allowed to succeed. Competition (among women) is fostered. Once at a speaking engagement for women, I asked them to celebrate other important women in their lives. Their reaction was amazing. They immediately stood up and started sharing and crying and leaning on one another. We as women don’t do that enough.  I’m glad women are connecting to Proverbs 31 and that it’s being used to celebrate women instead of condemning them.

How can the Church be a better advocate for “women of valor?” How can the Church see and revere women as the solution instead of the problem? (page 242-246)

 I think we have to start by dropping all these notions of “ideal womanhood” or “real women.” We get it from the culture; we shouldn’t get it from the Church. Then it’s a matter of cultivating and celebrating the many gifts women bring to the world. In developing countries, it means partnering with women to ensure they receive the sort of education, job opportunities, and resources that enable them to live and work with dignity, provide for their families, and serve their communities. Everywhere it means treating women as human beings, not as some sort of sub-category. I love this quote from Dorothy Sayers:

“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as ‘The women, God help us!’ or “The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.

“But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe, though One rose from the dead.”



Filled Up and Ready for What’s NEXT


This summer I will have spent:

6 years serving one PC(USA) church as associate pastor for youth and mission.
9 years being an ordained minister of the word and sacrament in the PC(USA).
16 years working with youth in PC(USA) churches.

Many hours, days and months and yet at the age of 38, I still have my looks albeit with several
extra pounds. (Har, har, har). However as Indiana Jones tells Marian in Raiders of The Lost Ark, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage.” When it comes to ministry these days…

I’m hitting the wall.

I’m burning out.

I’m drying up.

I’m stagnating.

(Perfect time to have a second child, born in November, right?)

Knowing that a significant part of my life–God’s call of me to serve–is broken, I flew out to Minneapolis, MN at the beginning of the week to get some repairs done.

But what I got from The PC(USA)s  2014 NEXT Church Annual Conference (held at Westminster Presbyterian Church) wasn’t a quick fix or an easy answer that would allow me to apply a technical change in my life, i.e. get 12 hours of sleep and you’ll be good as new or attend these workshops and worship services and your frustrations/apathy/pain will instantly disappear.

While technical solutions are applicable when the heat goes out or a pipe burst in the church building, they are useless when it comes to nurturing the holistic being of a church or inspiring a gifted church leader who is feeling spiritually empty.


What I received from the NEXT Church Conference was…

an invitation to consider an adaptive approach,

an invitation to be still and listen for God (Psalm 46:10) who is actively speaking and moving in the world in God’s own way and time

an invitation to be moved by the Spirit to reflect, ask questions and imagine new ways to be whom God calls me to be and do what God calls me to do.

an invitation to discover the welfare God has for me by seeking the welfare of the city and its people (Jeremiah 29:7) who have been exiled into a concrete jungle of poverty, homelessness, addiction, abuse, and violence.

an invitation to be part of a present and future that God infuses with hope (Jeremiah 29:11)

an invitation, per the theme of NEXT, to Lead. Create. Discern.

Accepting that invitation to be and let God move me wherever I needed to go was invigorating and liberating. A beautiful gift…

Sermons by Alika Galloway, Daniel Vigilante, J. Herbert Nelson and Maryann McKibben Dana reminded me that I have to let go of my fears, worries and self-doubts (something I struggle with daily as I take medicine and go to counseling for depression and anxiety) and not allow myself to get stuck in the muck.  I have to let it go. (Or as my wife says, not let my frustrations make me the victim.)

Leader Testimonies, Ignite presentations and workshops like Not ChurchTheocademy and  90 Second Sermon and fellowship with friends (old and new) sparked my imagination and tapped into a yearning I’ve been having to smash clay pots and create something different from the shards.

Worship (which I don’t get to do much strictly as a participant) stirred up my passion for serving God and doing ministry. Listening to varieties of music styles and songs (African-American and Native-American and Taize) and hearing scripture retold in unique ways refreshed my weary soul. An afternoon of prayer, in particular, moved me greatly as our individual petitions to God regarding the heaviness of pain we carry inside were read out loud.

NEXT Bulletin


NEXT river


The centerpiece of worship as well as the conference and our lives and ministry was a communion table that NEXT artist in residence Shawna Bowman created during morning worship on the first day and which we decorated in the days following. As Shawna proclaimed: “Isn’t it amazing that when we build something new, it gets filled up.”


NEXT Communion table 2


I also have been filled beyond measure and beyond what I deserve from this conference.

The challenge, though–as I find myself re-entering the routines of everyday life, family and church–is not getting stuck in a particular way of being and doing that depletes my energy, intelligence and imagination.

I wish I knew exactly what I needed to do (a series of steps or a one-size-fits all solution) to ensure that I don’t lose this newfound sense of creativity, leadership and discernment that I want to share with others. The last thing I want is to dry up to the point where I have nothing life sustaining to give to God, my family & friends, and the church.

I wish I knew for sure that the ideas I’d like to try–in an effort to enrich ministry and life–are going to stick and flourish beyond my wildest dreams.

There are, of course, no guarantees.

All I can do is take a risk and trust in God who only knows what’s next.

NEXT Communion table

Photo Credits:  “Dry Land” courtesy of Google Images,  other photos from The NEXT Church Conference by Andy Acton, 2014.

A Pile of Good Things

 A Sermon for Sunday August 18, 2013, Galatians 6:6, 9-10 and Ephesians 2:10

Screen Shot 2013-08-18 at 3.34.32 PMLast month, I finished up a whirlwind of summer youth trips with the High School Mission Trip at Urban Mission Camp in Mobile, AL, and the Middle School Montreat Conference at Maryville College in Maryville, TN.

But in between these two incredible faith-shaping experiences, I managed to squeeze in just enough time to watch an hour-long episode of my new favorite TV series…Doctor Who!

Produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Doctor Who is the longest-running sci-fi program in the world and considered to be the most successful sci-fi series of all time.

Doctor Who originally ran from 1963-1989 and then went on hiatus for more than a decade. But in 2005, the series was re-launched, resulting in high ratings and a huge cult following among new generations of viewers (known as Whovians). Even the legendary director Steven Spielberg has said, “The world would be a poorer place without Doctor Who.”[1]

If you’ve never watched the show, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a mysterious humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box but is much bigger on the inside. The Doctor is a thin man with a whimsical grin who is intrigued by every aspect of life and who has a penchant for tweed jackets and bow ties because “they’re cool.”

With the aid of a human friend and his trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor faces a variety of foes while trying to save civilizations, right wrongs, and help various humans and aliens throughout the galaxy and at different periods in history—past, future and present.

In the episode of Doctor Who that I viewed amid the last two youth trips of the summer, the Doctor and his friend Amy Pond travel to the year 1890 to visit the post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, weeks before the artist (known for his frequent bouts with mental illness) commits suicide.

They soon discover that an alien monster that only Van Gogh can see is killing villagers throughout the villages of southeast France.  And after defeating the creature, the Doctor and Amy decide to take Vincent to a modern day museum in Paris so that he can discover his legacy as an artist[2]:


[For those who were unable to see the scene shown today in worship, here are some pictures and synopsis, along with key dialogue]


Upon their arrival at the museum, the Doctor, Amy and Vincent make their way to the Van Gogh exhibit. Vincent’s eyes light up in astonishment as he realizes that the museum visitors are admiring his entire life’s work on the walls.

As Vincent gazes around the room, the Doctor pulls the museum curator aside (but within enough distance for Van Gogh to hear) and asks him:

“Where do you think Van Gogh rates in the history of art?”

 The curator responds passionately:

“To me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world—no-one had ever done it before. Perhaps no-one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”

A tear-filled Vincent turns toward the curator, gives him a warm embrace and thanks him for his kind words. Before the curator has time to process what has happened—that he has been embraced by the greatest painter of all time—Vincent has disappeared with the Doctor and Amy.

Upon their return to 19th century Provence, Vincent steps off the TARDIS and exclaims:

“This changes everything! I’ll step out tomorrow with my easel on my back a different man.”

The Doctor thanks the artists for a wonderful adventure, and Vincent replies enthusiastically:

“You’ve turned out to be the first doctor ever actually to make a different to my life.”

The Doctor and Amy say their goodbyes and then board the TARDIS where Amy suggests they immediately return to the museum in Paris.


Amy is convinced that Vincent Van Gogh will not have taken his life and that his newfound hope will have inspired hundreds of new paintings for the world to treasure. But when she arrives at the museum, she realizes that Van Gogh never painted another canvas because the artist, overwrought with his mental illness, fatally shot himself not long after saying goodbye to Amy and the Doctor.

With tears running down her cheeks, Amy says to the Doctor:

“We didn’t make a difference at all.”

The kind Doctor embraces his friend and compassionately says to her:

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”


We didn’t make a difference at all—how often do we say to ourselves those exact words uttered by Amy Pond?

We fed the hungry and gave financial resources to the homeless…but they are still starving and sleeping on the streets.

We sent our youth to a conference to hear about God’s love…but at home, they still spend time with teens that have a bad influence on them.

We embody love and mercy in our lives… but there is still violence and bloodshed in our cities and world.

We make policies and establish laws and rules to protect people from harm…but there are still folks who find a way to destroy others’ lives.

“We didn’t make a difference,” it seems.

And that crushing feeling of failure makes us throw our hands in the air and say: Why bother?

Why should I even try doing the good thing when all of these bad things keep on happening in spite of what any of us do?


It’s the question I’m asked most often in ministry.


Why do church people go on mission trips in the U.S. and other countries to help the poor and oppressed?

Why do youth want to spend a week at a conference learning about Jesus, the Bible and their faith?

Why do we serve when it doesn’t appear to be effecting the way people treat one another?

Why do we pray for peace when war rages around us?

The poor are still poor.

The hungry are still hungry.

The violent are still killing the innocent.

The oppressors are still stepping on the oppressed.

The broken are still broken.

Nothing is changing, so …


I imagine the early Christian church of Jews and Gentiles were asking that same question of Why? as they hid from the Roman Empire that wanted them dead for choosing Jesus over the emperor Caesar:

Why do we keep following Christ’s teachings and keeping God’s commandments to love when our neighbors are being dragged from their homes and into the streets to die?

Why do we keep on with the faith of our ancestors when we are being persecuted for our beliefs?

Nothing has changed. We worship, serve and love in the name of God who is sovereign in our lives…but the Roman Empire still comes after us.

We live a life devoted to God but “we didn’t make a difference.”

Why keep on keeping on? Why?

The apostle Paul, who was redeemed by God for his vile acts of persecution toward Jews and Jesus followers, answers the early Church’s Why?  in letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians.

The way Paul sees it, we are what God has made us, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

The reason why we are to do good and to keep on doing good is because that is how God has made us. It is in our design as human beings and beloved creations of the Divine. It is the way of life that God intends for us to have and embody every…single…day.

Paul is not being unrealistic or naïve in making such a statement. The apostle as much as much as anyone recognizes the difficulty of doing good in a world where badness and brokenness reside. So he encourages churches that even in the midst of pain, they must share in all good things:

 Let us not grow weary in doing what is right…So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

The Doctor echoes this truth beautifully when he says to Amy Pond:

The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant…And we definitely added to his pile of good things.

Yes, Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t escape his demons.

Yes, the poor continue to look for their next meal or a roof over their heads.

Yes, the oppressed struggle to survive in a system where the powers try to silence their voice.

Yes, people are hurt and killed because of the cruelty and hate of others.

But not a single bad thing or act of brokenness can tarnish the good things or render them insignificant.

As the musician Christine Kane says in her 2004 song “The Good You Do” which will be played for today’s Offertory: “No lost hope, no violent point of view…no fast pace, no jaded attitude…no dark place, no debt and no abuse can erase all the good you do.”

Last week, I emailed Christine Kane to ask her what inspired her to write such a beautiful piece. Through a spokesperson she answered the email by saying:

The song came as I spoke with so many people who were doing good things in the world, but were becoming a little bitter as things did not seem to change. The song is a reminder to keep doing good no matter what. There is the light in every person—it is our choice to share the light and no bad thing can take that light away. You just keep sharing it.

Kane’s reply to me as well as her song reminded me of another message that Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, familiar words that remind us to keep faith and keep doing good:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose…What then are we to say about these things? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Each and every one of you has done and is doing good in this church, this community and world…

You’ve gone on youth conferences and youth mission trips to stretch your faith and to nurture the faith of our young people. You’ve built relationships with those who are often ignored like the poor, the underprivileged, the developmentally challenged and the geeky pimple-faced teenager.

You’ve fed the hungry and housed the homeless by volunteering at the Duluth Co-Op, providing a meal through Rainbow Village and by helping out with Family Promise Host Week.

You’ve donated blood to save lives.

You’ve signed up to teach church school or be a youth adviser.

You’ve prepared communion, been an usher or acolyte, collected and counted the offering.

You’ve brought food to put on the Fellowship Table between worship services and you’ve participated in numerous Fellowship  events.

You’ve agreed to be a prayer partner for someone attending the Adult Mission Trip to Honduras.

You’ve comforted a friend who grieves over a broken relationship.

You’ve shown kindness to a neighbor, prepared your children for school, dropped off clothes at the Goodwill.

You’ve planted gardens and cared for your pets and other animals.

You’ve shared your gifts in song to help illumine God’s presence for someone who sits alone in the dark.

You’ve delivered a meal to someone who was ill.

You’ve been patient and respectful with a church member whose opinion was different from yours.

You’ve served as an elder on Session to discern how we are to be the body of Christ within and beyond these walls.

You’ve welcomed the stranger and loved those who are kept on the margins of society.

You’ve added to the pile of good things.

You’ve made a difference.

Well done, good and faithful servants.

Continue to add to the pile of good things.

And never stop doing what you were made to do.



[1] and Dr. Who celebrates its 50th year in the Fall and is awaiting its 8th season since the 2005 relaunch. If you are interested in watching Dr. Who but don’t have time to view all 7 seasons (currently available on Netflix streaming and DVD) you can start with Season 5 in which Matt Smith became the 11th Doctor and found new companions to explore the universe.

[2] Trailer for the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and The Doctor” Season 5, 2010, BBC:

Doctor and Amy, ‘Pile of Good Things’ quote-clip:

The song that plays during the scenes at the museum is “Chances” by the British indie-rock band Athlete, and youtube=

“Here & Be Heard”

A Worship Service Reflecting on the HS Montreat Youth Conference, Sunday June 16, 2013

Call to Worship: John 1:1-18 (The Voice-A New Bible Translation)

Hymn: “Come and Find The Quiet Center”

Scripture:  Romans 10:15-11:2a, James 2:5-9 (The Voice-A New Bible Translation

High School Montreat Youth Conference Video


As a long-time movie fanatic and comic book geek, I eagerly read nearly every review about the new Superman film Man of Steel. While there were varying opinions on whether the story was stupendous or stupid, the critics did mostly agree one aspect of the latest reincarnation of the 75-year-old hero: IT’S LOUD!

“Busy, bombastic,” said a reviewer.[1]

“Lots of noise and clutter,” claimed another.[2]

“When I came out,” wrote one columnist. “My ears were ringing as though I’d been beaten around the head with tin trays.”[3]

According to the critics, the movie might even be too loud for the red caped hero who is known for his super hearing among other abilities.

It’s not too surprising, I suppose, that a blockbuster summer film is noisy. On average, the big budget action-adventure films register at 100 decibels in a movie theater, which is like having a running chain saw sitting in the seat next to you!

And I guess it’s not too shocking that manufactured noise is such a common complaint…when we are surrounded by so much of it on a daily basis! Finding a quiet space to escape the cacophony of noises made by human hands seems near impossible in the early 21st century.

Bernie Krause, an author and musician who records nature sounds for film and TV, said that in 1968, in order to capture one hour of natural sound, it would take him 15 hours of recording time.

But today, to get the same hour of undisturbed sound, requires 2,000 hours of recording time![4]

Think about that for a moment. Less than 50 years ago, Krause would only need to record for a little more than half a day to get an hour’s worth of a blue jay singing because of the rare truck that passed by on the highway. noise2

And now that process would take him nearly 3 months due to the overwhelming noise from airplanes, cars, businesses, factories, gadgets and every beep, blip, bop, boop, crash, bang, zoom in between. That’s A LOT OF NOISE!

Scientists and health care professionals have determined that 183 million people are regularly exposed to noise levels labeled as excessive by the EPA.[5]

Studies by the World Health Organization reveal that North American children “may receive more noise at school than workers who spend eight hours in a factory.”[6]


Researchers also have concluded that 40-50 million Americans have a condition known as tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear when no sound is actually present. And one-quarter of them experience tinnitus so severely they have to seek medical help.[7]

We live in a noisy world. And it’s getting louder and louder and louder every day.

With no long hours of sheer silence in sight, this leads many of us to wonder:

In the midst of this ever-increasing noise in our lives, when do we ever have the chance to be still and listen for God? When do we ever cease an opportunity to be fully present to what God is saying to us in the stillness? When do we ever carve out space in the here and now to speak to God and be heard?

255648_10151400578276517_106725758_nThese are the questions that I and a group of 27 High School youth and 5 adults from Pleasant Hill (along with hundreds of others) had to ponder and discern during the recent Montreat Youth Conference in North Carolina.

Through the Montreat experience, we learned that we have to first let go of a lot of the balls we are trying to juggle in the air— some of the busyness and responsibilities and distractions that keep our attention from God. And as we let go of those things that sidetrack us, we have to make space so we can hear God’s Word/Call/Voice. The Voice of God that has always been present in Creation…

In the beginning,

Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking.

The Voice was and is God.

This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator;

His speech shaped the entire cosmos.

Immersed in the practice of creating,

all things that exist were birthed in Him.

His breath filled all things

with a living, breathing light—

A light that thrives in the depths of the darkness,

blazes through murky bottoms.

It cannot and will not be quenched….

He entered our world, a world He made;

yet the world did not recognize Him.

Even though He came to His own people,

they refused to listen and receive him….

But Jesus the Anointed offered us gifts of grace and truth.

God, unseen until now, is revealed in the Voice,

God’s only Son,

straight from the Father’s heart.”

God is with us and God speaks to us,

and God hears us,

God listens to our hopes, our dreams, our joys,

our anger, our sorrow and our cries.

God listens even when we are angry at God and have hit the ground with our knees.

God listens despite the mess and brokenness and pain we find ourselves in.

God listens because God knows we are complex human beings for whom life is a daily struggle and never 100 percent easy all the time.

God listens actively, not passively. God engages us in the struggle and expects us to engage the Divine.

God listens to us with a deep, unconditional and abiding love, and God expects us to give the same attention to our Creator and to all whom have been created.

And the devotion we give to God and others through active listening is a ministry.

Listening is a ministry we are called to do. Therefore the Church has to always strive to be a place where people feel listened to.

Because God listens to the voices in our culture whom the majority tries to suppress—

the lonely

the lost

the abused

the addict

the prisoner

the slave

the sick

the homeless

the malnourished

the immigrant

the gay teen

the single parent waitress

the black school janitor

the foreign convenient store employee


turning-to-one-another-lIn her book, Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley says that listening moves us closer (to the other) and enables us to become more whole, more healthy and more holy:

Not listening creates fragmentation, and fragmentation always causes more suffering…This is a very noisy era. I believe the volume is directly related to our need to be listened to. In public places, in the media, we reward the loudest and most outrageous. People are literally clamoring for attention, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be noticed. Things will only get louder until we figure out how to sit down and listen.[8]

Once we have truly listened, we must then go out to speak …boldly, courageously and lovingly for those whose voices are quieted.

“It is good that we are here,” the Montreat conference keynoter reminded us the last day we spent on that sacred mountaintop, “but it is better when we take the experience out there.”[9]

We must share the message found throughout scripture—particularly in today’s readings from the letters of Paul and James—

that God is faithful 

God has not, and will not, abandon His covenant people

God has picked the poor of this world (and the down trodden)  

and we are to Remember God’s call to love others as you love yourself

It’s a message that our youth took seriously as they came down the mountains of Montreat to bring what they heard into the world.

One of them, Molly S., a recent high school graduate, said she feels more convicted than ever that she is called to speak to others about God:

I am being called to courageously speak to new people I meet in college. The ones that are starting over new from high school. I want to encourage them. I want to reach out to those who are on the outside.

Another youth, Courtney H./Lauren B., who just completed her freshman/sophomore year in high school, discovered that speaking courageously starts with one step, as she will share with you now:


(Courtney—8:30 am service)                    

At the beginning of the week, Claire Keyser, one of our adult advisers, told the group that Montreat was like a bubble. It was a bubble that you could come into and be loved and cared for and listened to no matter what. For me this was exciting! As a freshman I had dreamed of going to Montreat for as long as I could remember.  Now I had finally made it. The theme “be here and be heard” would play an important part in my week. From my past, I have been excluded and pushed around for a long time. Montreat gave me a place that I could be listened to and my own voice be heard.                    

In one sermon, Amos, the conference preacher, told us “to have the courage to speak up for others” now that is not the easiest thing to do but it what we are being called to do. The first night we were at Montreat, Colby Geil pushed me into a Montreat “tradition” of yelling out your small group numbers to find other members. To begin he called my number, “22! 22!” I soon caught on and my voice grew stronger and my call was answered with others yelling back “22!” Colby had the courage to speak up for me and help my voice to be heard.  From that night, I met people who I am now good friends with. I enjoyed getting to hear their beliefs and also their struggles; some of which many people in our group were going through.                

At the end of the week, Scott, the conference keynoter told us, “We all have to come down the mountain sometime” we cannot be protected by the Montreat bubble forever. We have to step outside of our comfort zone. For me that will be going up to those, who like me have been pushed around and becoming friends with them or simply lending a helping hand. It might just make a world of difference for that person. For others that risk could also be simply asking to talk to someone when you are feeling down or that risk could being going on a mission trip. It differs for each person. But by going up to those in need, we can be there and be heard.


(Lauren—11 am service)

I was a paranoid child. I checked to make sure the doors were locked at least five times before hesitantly falling into restless sleep each night. I went to school praying to God that I hadn’t left my straightener on and I washed my hands at least thirty times every day. I embraced my overactive imagination as a curse, creating all sorts of “worst case scenarios.”                  

Middle school taught me one thing: “look out for yourself, watch your back because trust is a weakness.” If I could adopt the “every man for himself” principle then maybe I would be okay. Life is only good for those on top. And I definitely did not want to know what it was like being crushed at the bottom. For me, the most terrifying thing in the world is letting go. To feel a vast nothing below me and trust that God will catch me.              

Trust is not a weakness but strength because it requires the greatest bravery I’ve ever encountered. Jesus calls us to leave our doors unlocked, our hearts open, and our souls free falling. God is not in the deadbolts, the germaphobia, the anxiety, and the need for control.             

Serving in the Dominican Republic with my family during Spring Break taught me one thing: “my life is a gift for others.” I found security in “the least of these.” While holding a Dominican child, I not did stop once to think about her lack hygiene or even shoes. I was set free from the ropes of trivial, earthly things that had been ho


lding me down, keeping me from God. Those who are “on the bottom” taught me more in a week then I had ever learned in my whole life. Yeah, it’s great that I was born in America where I have the ability to go to college and come home knowing that there is going to be plenty of food for me and my family.            

But the Dominican Republic taught me that I have an obligation to God and to myself to provide for those who have nothing. God is reckless, restless, and limitless. He lives in me; he lives in you; and he lives in a little Dominican girl.            

And he’s always on the move. I know when I tried to control my life, I almost broke it. Life is waiting for the ones who let go. And letting go has given me the courage to speak for impoverished, those deemed less fortunate. Who am I to doubt what the Holy Spirit can do through me? Jesus calls us to leave our doors unlocked, our hearts open, and our souls free falling. 


Like these youth and many more who have gone ahead on this journey of faith,

let us make time to listen to God,

let us make time to recognize God’s presence among us,

let us make time for our voices—which proclaim God’s love and grace for the least of these—to be heard!



“Revolution” by Kirck Franklin (Montreat Youth Conference Energizer)

“It is good to be here (in this sanctuary) but it is even better to share what we have heard and experienced out there. Do so in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit this day and forever more. Amen.”

Hymn: “Here I Am, Lord”

Week Links: “Good Friday”

"Wit" starring Emma Thompson, 2001

“Wit” starring Emma Thompson, 2001

As Christians around the world observe Good Friday, it seemed appropriate to offer some links that offered some perspective on this darkest of holy days:

Good Friday/Easter Lessons on Dying and Death

In a column for the Huffington Post, Jaweed Kaleem turns to those who regularly deal with death and dying for wise and heartfelt reflections on the meaning of Good Friday and Easter:

If you are not clear in your head about your understanding about somebody dying tragically, if you cannot reconcile that with the higher power of God or force of nature, this will be tough work for you,” said Handzo, who teaches chaplains and palliative care specialists. “You will probably not do it well, and you will burn out. You have to go through death to get to resurrection.

It’s important for me to be reminded that this part of the of the Christian story. … It’s painful, but it’s also what can make things meaningful,” he said. “We can make a mistake a lot of times with people who are dying. We can take our beliefs and say ‘the resurrection is coming,’ or ‘things will get better.’ But some people are not ready for that, they are still hurting and mourning, and they don’t need that happy good news stuff. They need to be allowed to be where they are, to have that Good Friday time.

Emily and Ronan Rapp, courtesy of CNN and

Emily and Ronan Rapp, courtesy of CNN and

Parenting a Child With No Future

A moving interview with mother Emily Rapp who has just published a book on the experience of losing her 2-year-old child Ronan to a devastating and un-curable disease known as Tay-Sachs:

I went through what I think any parent who loses their child suddenly goes through. I was out of my mind. When he died, he was ready to die. Anyone who has witnessed a death or knows someone who died knows that in that final moment the body is unraveling. It will do its thing and you just have to witness it. It’s really wrenching but he was really, really sick when he died, and I wanted him to go because I didn’t want him to suffer any more. I miss him, but there was nothing for him here.

Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way, Philadelphia

Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way, Philadelphia

Taking Good Friday to the Streets

Renown author, activist and Jesus follower, Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia writes about the importance of taking the story of Jesus’ death, found in the scriptures, into the streets. He recalls courageous acts of worship and witnessing of Christ’s non-violent and loving way smack dab in the middle of grand symbols of violence and hate within the city:

As we approached the final station of the cross, about 20 of us crossed onto the property at Lockheed Martin. We bowed on our knees and began to pray the Lord’s prayer, interrupted by police officers who placed us under arrest. As we stepped into the police van, there was a solemn sense of peace. It was the right place to be. It was a magnificent thing to hear folks honk as they went by. We even had a police officer who had arrested us thank us for our witness and decry the evils of violence and war.

Pope Francis washing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center, Huffington Post.

Pope Francis washing the feet of inmates at a juvenile detention center, AP and Huffington Post.

Pope Francis Washes Feet of Young Inmates, Women

While Pope Francis may be deserving of criticism for refusing to take a stand on particular issues when he was an archbishop in Argentina or his antiquated views of homosexuality, it’s hard to deny that his affinity for the prisoner, the poor and the stranger is not genuine. Clearly, Francis is trying to break down barriers put up by the Catholic Church that has strayed away from Jesus’ command to proclaim good news and care for the least of these. Francis put his compassion on display on Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of 12 young inmates, two who were women. Although Francis has washed the feet of the people throughout his ministry, this marks the first time a Pope has ever washed the feet of those who were not bishops or priests:

The pope’s washing the feet of women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on – and even banned – in some dioceses,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide. “It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.

Don’t lose hope,” Francis said. “Understand? With hope you can always go on.


"Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall" by James Janknegt, 1985

“Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall” by James Janknegt, 1985

Love One Another, Even Those Who Hate

What Pope Francis so beautifully practices, Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry brilliantly describes in words as she urges readers on this Good Friday and beyond to love one another, even our enemies:

Those of us in the Christian tradition are mandated to love one another. Period. But Jesus pushed the issue: “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5). (Excellent examples of such love exist in Bishop Oscar Romero and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.) Archbishop Tutu, who endured the hate and injustice of Apartheid, insists: “God Love Your Enemies As Much As God Loves You” which brings shocking comfort. (“Shocking” because it’s so wrong — and “comfort” because it’s so right.)

Creating Lent

Drawing Hands by MC Escher, 1948

Drawing Hands by MC Escher, 1948

Over the past couple of days, seminary classmate and colleague in ministry, Teri Peterson, and I have been having a good discussion on Lenten practices. While I stick to this view on how Presbyterians can best observe the season, Terri makes an excellent point about how Reformed Christians get too caught up in the busyness of doing-doing-doing, thus ignoring the importance of rest and discernment.

It certainly makes sense from a theological standpoint to put more emphasis on how we ought to give of ourselves to follow Christ and build God’s kingdom, as opposed to giving up trivial things like chocolate and beer.  And yet, there is a real danger in making a commitment to do more during Lent when it’s abundantly clear (at least in the PC(USA)) that many church professionals and congregations are doing much in the ways of justice already.  Instead of being in the midst of Jesus’ ministry-filled journey to the cross, we are burned out and lying face down in the sandy road to Jerusalem after only taken a couple of steps. Even active ministry or the joy of serving others in the name of God’s love and mercy can be too much of a good thing.

So then what? I pondered this much of last evening before going to bed and this morning as I got into the shower. As the water cascaded over my head, I recalled how Teri said in our discussion that giving up things for Lent can be meaningful to one’s faith if it “makes space.”

“Makes space…That’s it!” The light bulb went off, it became much clearer as I thought about Terri’s words as well as a podcast I heard over the weekend on God Complex Radio.

The focus shouldn’t be on what we give up nor on what we give to, but on making or creating space–an act of being and receiving more so than doing and giving.

And when I say creating space, I specifically mean creating space for sabbath and sabbath practices.

If we create MORE space for rest and renewal, i.e. sleeping, making/looking at art, running, reading, praying, listening to/playing music, wood-working, playing with our kids on the playground, sitting on the front porch talking to a friend for a couple of hours, going to a movie, etc…then we automatically do LESS of the things that keep us busy-busy-busy-doing-doing-doing.

We tend to get lost in the sabbath practices and make time for things that truly matter–things that sustain us and give us life; tha refresh and reshape us; that remind us who we are and whose we are. Instantly, we do away with or fast from the things that weigh us down and cause burn out, i.e. over-working and the bad habits that can come with it like unhealthy eating, shorter tempers, worry, frustration, impatience, and so on.

By creating space, we just might allow room for God in the Spirit to dwell inside our minds, our hearts, our bodies and souls–freeing us from the trappings of busyness and burn-out so that we can fully experience a journey of…

pain and joy

sinfulness and sacredness

destruction and re-creation

brokenness and redemption

death and resurrection