“Empirical Thomas” Would Have Been a Bad Nickname

St. Thomas gets a bad rap. We don’t think of him as someone who was faithful for years, following Jesus, asking good questions. His nickname isn’t Thomas the Eastern Missionary, though it is widely held that he was the disciple who went east and took the gospel to India. We call him Doubting Thomas. Likely we have all heard this phrase used pejoratively. For two thousand years, this is his enduring legacy. Unfair!

What a perfectly rational thing to doubt the veracity of his fellow disciples’ claims! Even if he had seen Lazarus come to life (and who knows who else?), I cannot blame him for wanting proof. I suppose “Empirical Thomas” is less catchy.

Recently, our church staff studied demographics of our church membership vs our local area. Particularly, we were struck by the high proportion of young adults in our area who don’t belong to a faith tradition. This isn’t really news to anyone, but in our city, its easy to think of everyone as belonging to a church. Groups easily become blind to those who aren’t in. Our busy-ness tends to make us insular in focus. Any group will have a measure of uniformity that makes all of this harder to get over. No judgment; this is normal human social behavior.

Yet outsiders have something wonderful to offer. Their questions and critiques are just, (that Christians are judgmental and hypocritical). Truly, all churches are missing many voices. The questions of someone like St. Thomas may not always be welcome.

So, with that in mind, read John 20:24-29:

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

A key detail for us here is “a week later… Thomas was with them.” The disciples did not run him out. He was not made to feel unwelcome or that his doubts made him wrong. He still belonged to the community. He wasn’t seen as a weirdo, or worse, as a betrayer.

And now, a passage from The Sin of Certainty by Pete Enns, (currently, my favorite Biblical scholar/teacher). This wonderful book centers around the evergreen truth that Enns puts on the cover: “God desires our trust more than our ‘correct’ beliefs.” We church people may make a mistake when we make the core of our faith about deepening our knowledge of God and whatever orthodoxy we decide is right. I cannot recommend Enns work enough!

From page 158: “We might be accustomed to thinking of our faith as a castle- where we go to be safe and protected. … Doubt tears down the castle walls we have built, with the false security and permanence they give, and forces us outside to walk a lonely, trying, yet cleansing road. In those times, it definitely feels like God is against us, far away, or absent altogether. But what if the darkness is actually a moment of God’s presence that seems like absence, a gift of God to help us grow up out of our little ideas of God?”

That sure sounds like prevenient grace to me. Where can we go to be away from God? Do we honestly think he ever abandons us? Or do we claim that he is ahead of us? Walking with us? Perhaps, as Enns asserts, it is God himself who draws us out of the castle walls. Dare we judge those outside? Why? Because they cannot get on board with the church’s ideas about God? What if faith is always foreign to some people? Can we trust God’s work in people and be there to walk with them? Without judgment? Constantly ignoring the urge to correct them? Do we look for ways to give them a picture of what else there might be?

Let us make space at the table for those unlike ourselves. If they view spirituality and religion in ways that are uncomfortable to us, can we not still honor them, their presence, and whatever in them is seeking the Divine? Outsiders hold in themselves the image of God just as much as insiders do.

Human communities will always have boundary-making and uniformity as part of their identity. The truth is, though, that we get to decide how the boundaries function, and we can repent of our unconscious desire for uniformity.

The voice of these outsiders is missing from our conversations. Their ideas about healing the world are as powerful as ours. For some, their calling and giftedness await a mere connection with us. It is like the Body of Christ is missing a finger, or an organ. We are incomplete. Are we looking beyond what we know is familiar and comfortable? Are we open and receptive to the outsider? To those whose beliefs or practice aren’t perfectly aligned with ours?

I like St. Thomas. I identify with him. I would have been right there (behind him). Consider me a content skeptic. We needn’t demand everything be perfectly figured out. There is beauty in the wrestling, in the questions, and yes, in the doubts.


Aaaaand we brought Saran Wrap to Norway…

So, we have been super worried about how we were going to get our baby carrier onto the plane without having to check it. Problems with checking it: it could get damaged and mess with the whole trip, we needed it for our layover in Oslo for exploring, and we are cheap and didn’t want to pay like $130 to check it. So our plan was to either put temporary wheels on it and call it a stroller, or… Wrap it in Saran Wrap to protect it??? This was an idea I had at like 4am last week when I got up with Penelope. So we bought Saran Wrap, a giant thing of it, and needlessly brought it to Norway. We are dumb. We were very lucky, and the airline has been very accommodating. We did not have to check the bag, and it came in handy on our little afternoon excursion into Oslo. 

Oslo: We really wanted to visit since we had like a 5 hour layover. In order to make this happen, we skipped some necessary hygiene practices 😁. Whoopsie. We just really love exploring… I guess more than we love smelling good. We met some nice people (who almost immediately wanted to know what would happen if Trump becomes president) who played with P on the train ride back to the airport. We also got to eat some good food, and explore the city a little. It was awesome because we weren’t sure if we would have time, but we did because the Oslo airport is super efficient. The people were very friendly, and it was beautiful and chilly (something we have been excited about, as it is already in the 80’s in Orlando). We got to see a beautiful cathedral, palace, and a cool street. We also, of course, began consuming pastries. Oh, and there are skis everywhere. So many people were carrying around skis!

    The flight: Penelope has been incredible. She did not fuss on the flight. In fact, she slept through most of it, only waking up at random times to whine and adjust. She even received a compliment from our third seat mate, who said she was great. Nick and I didn’t necessarily sleep that well, but the little we did get + adrenaline was enough to sustain us. She has been an unbelievable travel companion. She “oohs” and “ahs” at the beautiful buildings, the train, and trashcans. 

  Anywho, we are off to a great start and are almost to Prague. Thank you all for your prayers! We have definitely been saying lots of those for the last few months. Super grateful to get to be doing this again!! 


Be Not So Fearful: The sin of cowardice

I was reading Revelation 21 in preparation for a memorial service one time and was struck by verse 8:

“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

This is part of the prophecy where God is saying what he will do for those who are a part of Him: give them the water from the spring of life, that sort of thing. Very good stuff. Then there is this exclusionary clause that’s not very exciting. I really don’t like anyone being left out of anything.

If you asked, most anyone could piece together a list of the type of people God might not be super excited about. Fornicators, idolaters, etc. There is one that is most striking to me, however.


Other translations have fearful or timid. About whom could this be speaking? We may think of sorcerers and murderers as outsiders, but I don’t really think “cowardly” is about outsiders, do you?

Here’s the thing though, since we believe that any of these “sinners,” having been redeemed by salvation, could find their way into the kingdom despite their past, what then are we to think about these cowards? That is, I have lied yet I believe my place is with God forever because of my faith in Christ. This is a weird sin to include with these others. Is being a coward on par with a faithless idolater?

I want to focus on the fact that being cowardly is listed along with other classic sins. Simply, it is wrong to be fearful and timid.

But in what context, John? Surely its not a sin to be afraid of giant wolves. I mean, if it were a small-ish coyote, and it was all by itself, I feel like I could potentially be okay. Just act big and wave my arms and scream. Be aggressive. I think I could come out okay. But a giant wolf, I mean, I’m no St. Francis.

Anyway, I think you see where I am going with this. God does not appreciate us being shy about belonging to him. What prompted this post was the fact that this is not rarely considered a sin. I don’t remember many sermons (outside of seminary) preached on the sin of cowardice. People don’t often list it. I’ve never even heard it proclaimed as a “sin” in a sermon. Its often couched in much friendlier terms, (though thats probably a good idea), usually the speaker would say “Be bold!” instead of “Don’t sin by being afraid!”

And also Jeff Tweedy rules. This song is originally by Bill Fay. Great tune.

Use Your Windshield

Recently I finished re-reading the Psalms in the CEV translation. I really enjoyed it, especially for the Psalms. There is a plainness to them, yet they are poetic. I was enjoying Psalm 106, which begins not unlike many of our modem praise song, when it suddenly took a turn down memory lame and recounted the travails of the ancient Israelites. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, because it feels like 80% of the Old Testament is referencing the Exodus and the Red Sea. This is an exaggeration, obviously, but it is true that that story is recounted a lot, especially in the Psalms, (poetry is the best history).

What does this say about God’s followers in the OT-era times? No serious student of the Bible can say that Israel was self-absorbed (entirely); there are far too many references to God making all nations his children to take that stance. However, we also know that the people of Israel didn’t fully live out the expectations if God and the prophets. It is probably fair to say that they too often looked backwards, and not enough living into God’s future.

Celebrating what God has done in your past is almost a requisite for following Christ, at least to do so as part of a faithfully worshipping community. But if we don’t look forward and speak prophetically and challenge ourselves, then we are missing the other side of the coin.

One of my favorite sports radio personalities is Colin Cowherd. He is very divisive and occasionally inflammatory, but I have found him to be very consistent and honest. Quite often he talks beyond sports into life. One of his go-to sayings is to look at life through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.

We should look forward FAR more than we look backward. A healthy grasp of the past is integral to a successful, well-rounded life, but we should learn from the past so that we can better comprehend what is coming. Looking in the rearview mirror can prevent us from navigating our way to God’s mission.

World Cup! (Sports as Worship) (No, not THAT kind of worship)

I’m pretty psyched about the World Cup. I make no bones about being a casual futbol fan. I am what I am. But my love for the WC and USMNT is genuine. I’m not trying to be cool. In 2010, I was enraptured. It is sincerely so intense and fun. For me, watching the USMNT play is the second closest anxiety-inducing sports-watching experience after Auburn football. It comes from within.

I was talking with my wife recently about how food can be a part of worship. For centuries, art and music have been a part of worship. How is an incredible meal not a praise-worthy thing to point to our God? We had dinner at fancy place recently and I felt closer to God than at most church services I’ve been to lately.

I think sports is a sign of God’s love, as well. He gave  Yes, competition can get insane and un-godly. Yes, FIFA is corrupt. Yes, Brazilians are protesting because their government ignored the cries of the poor to build soccer cathedrals. Yes, Qatar is killing people, essentially kidnapping foreign nationals, and has scary anti-homosexuality laws. Yes, the players often participate in self-promoting aggrandizement and make more money than the GDP of entire countries. You are correct. Humanity is capable of making beautiful things sinful. Welcome to life. No realm of God’s beautiful creation is exempt from sin’s hold. Sadly, even sport.

However! The familial feeling of belonging to a team is enriching to the soul. Contributing to a group purpose is so life-affirming. The way it binds together a group of disparate people who disagree wildly about everything else in life is wondrous to behold. The harmony of a group of strangers chanting together reminds us that we are all human together.

So thank God today for sports. While you watch the beautiful game, marvel at the unity of the fans, the graciousness of the sportsmanship between winners and losers, the camaraderie of a team united in purpose, and ask yourself if this is not a picture of God’s kingdom. Like Michelangelo or Beethoven or the chef at that restaurant at which we just ate, these players use their craft to point people to God.

I think I found *mouth vomit* Westboro Baptist Church’s Favorite Scripture?

A country music person mocks someone trying to bring the lost into the Kingdom of God. C’mon, just look at that smile! And yes, sin DOES breed violence!

Awhile back I was reading through Ezekiel and I must say that it is unequivocally my least favorite book in the Bible. Yes. I’d rather read about the holy wars in Joshua and Judges. The tedious lawmaking of Leviticus. The endless genealogies of Numbers and the Chronicles. All are welcome after weeks of Ezekiel. Below is a passage I pulled out. It seems every other chapter or so expresses this same idea: “Warn sinners or you will be responsible for their death.”

Ezekiel, I have appointed you to stand watch for the people of Israel. So listen to what I say, then warn them for me. When I tell wicked people they will die because of their sins, you must warn them to turn from their sinful ways. But if you refuse to warn them, you are responsible for their death. If you do warn them, and they keep sinning, they will die because of their sins, and you will be innocent.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9 CEV)

That sounds like Westboro Baptist Church, doesn’t it? While they do have a unique take on the word “evangelize,” they take it very seriously. So where and how does the WBC go wrong? That is a long list, admittedly, but let’s focus just on practical theology. If we’re honest, they hold steadfastly to this scripture. As I reflect on their practices, it wouldn’t feel weird at all to place them in the OT. They kind of function like pre-Jesus prophets. 

The problem is they seem incapable of tension in their faith. They are black and white. Christians do believe God is perfect, we’re sinful, and repentance is necessary, and the proclamation of that apparently has an incredibly wide array of options. They also never say anything positive about a relationship with Christ. They’re far too single-minded! They omit all the images of grace from the New Testament. Jesus forgives those who crucify him. He talks with the Smaritan woman in broad daylight. Paul writes about God using him despite his dark past. For them the only option is warning like Ezekiel was asked to do.

We all make some of the same decisions the WBC has made. Some churches are obsessed with justice and service. Some hold evangelism as the highest calling of a Christian’s life. Two of the most popular American Protestant denominations have ENTIRELY different definitions of the word “mission,” (Baptists and Methodists). Spreading the gospel has been redefined and reshaped countless times in the last 2000 years. Our past is not flawless. We should be grateful the WBC does not use swords. They are not the first group to wrongly spread the message of God.

Imagine being in a dedicated long-term small group. One member slowly slips into a pattern of sin that becomes more and more disruptive to their spiritual life. Would not an appropriate response be to intervene early on? Would the group stand outside the person’s house with signs saying “REPENT OR DIE!”? No one would do this to a friend or fellow church member. If the members of the group approach this person with love and hope, that person is still faced with the same decision as the “sinners” called out by the WBC: repentance or rejection. The gap between these two models is miles wide. One method has almost no chance of success, (I think its safe to guess), while the other is only possible in a committed small group relationship.

Do not pretend that any method is perfect or fool-proof. No methodology is inerrant. Scripture was not written in a post-Christian, post-modern world. We have to take what was given millenia ago and do our best to interpret it (and interpret our world!) and use it to reach people.

This reminder is probably offensive to some, but our ultimate goal is the same as the WBC, isn’t it? To bring unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ. Have you ever considered what shortcomings there are to your method and beliefs about evangelism? Have your efforts and those of your tradition been as scrutinized as those loonies? Does the WBC have any grounds upon which they could mock your feeble attempts to share the good news?

What is the ultimate acceptance?

This is one of those posts that’s really more about asking questions than trying to make any kind of point.

I have been working at the Children’s Home for about five months and the theme of ‘acceptance’ has continually been underlying my thoughts and discussions, (with both residents and adults). I’ll just list as many types of (personal) acceptance as I can.

God accepts us

Friends accept us

Family accepts us

Society accepts us

We accept ourselves

(I’m leaving out all of the times we accept others, because I want to really key in on the introspection side of acceptance. Yes, we can accept or reject in all of those relationships.)

It is different for each person and then also different at the varying stages of our lives. So much also depends on how our week is going. Acceptance, though, is always important. Isn’t that kind of what’s at the top half of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Once we are safe and healthy, we hope to make contact with others (and then ourselves) in meaningful ways. (Interestingly, the top of Maslow’s chart is mostly about self-acceptance, while the previous two levels are about social/familial acceptance.)

A shallow relationship or one with barriers feels stunted, right? Without acceptance, relationships cannot flourish and they cease growing. If this is withheld often enough across multiple relationships continually in someone’s life, imagine what a barrier to personal growth that is.

So which acceptance is most important? To Christians, God’s acceptance of us is most incredible by so very far, (because God is this holy, divine, perfect, wholly other kind of being) but it is also unconditional so one could say we could almost take it for granted (and sadly, we do!).

If one grows up unaccepted by their family, that is one of the most long-lasting hurts to a person’s psyche. The damage inflicted in youth often echoes for decades. Some hurts are passed down from generation to generation.

What about society? We just celebrated MLK, Jr. Day yesterday. Civil rights have a long way to go, but we have seen what great strides non-white racial groups have made as acceptance has been more and more widespread.

I may fall on family. I know a kid who knows and loves God. He has a great relationship with Jesus and has accepted that God accepts him. But this person has struggled mightily with acceptance from his family. He has struggled with others accepting him. This is an otherwise very solid person who really gets it a lot of the time, but keeps coming back to not being accepted by his family. This does cause problems in other areas of life, but it seems to originate with family.

After some reflection, I realized that if this guy would truly accept himself, then perhaps those rejections wouldn’t sting so much. They might or might not fall into place, but he would not count on others for his self worth.

Its terrible to watch someone be rejected by anyone in their sphere of life, but to see someone held up by the inability to accept themselves, its devastating.

How can we help others who are unaccepted? What can be done beyond accepting them ourselves?

Identifying the Win (and Who You Are to Help Win)

A few years back, I read Andy Stanley’s book “Seven Practices of Effective Ministry” with my ministry staff team. It is a very tidy book in that the simple concepts are relayed to you in effective and plain ways that make for easy remembering. Unless you are me. Then you forget things real easy-like. Thank you, internet, for making things easy to find and re-learn.

So I recently started a new job at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home. It is a campus on which live about 90 kids between the ages of 7 to 17, (and there is housing for 18-21 year olds across the street, to help ease the transition out of the foster care program or FUMCH itself). It is a unique place with unique people I’d rather share about in person than a blog. My role is to lead the music in a Sunday morning service and also help in a few other ministry-related studies and other things… I also lead a Sunday morning service at Orange City UMC and help the youth lead worship at FUMC-Winter Park on Sunday nights. Needless to say, Sundays be long.

Before my time here in Florida I was an associate youth director that involved many things, including leading the youth worship team. I was recently considering how vastly different my three current roles are (from each other and from my experience before Florida) and I recalled a concept from Stanley’s book. I was referring to it as “identify the win” when he uses “clarify the win.” I’m going to stick with identify because as I was thinking about my different roles, I realized that the “Win” in each of them is unique and perhaps not fully understood yet. I always focus on personal development and spiritual growth, but the manifestation of that can be quite varied. And unfortunately, they often fall farther down my list of “to do’s” than I would like to admit.

So in one place the win is to create a meaningful worship service for church members and visitors, in another it is to empower youth to lead each other in worship in Biblical ways, and in another it is still not yet perfectly clear. This was helpful to think about. And then when I realized how in none of the cases does the win involve me, I was quite struck.

Basically, it was great to remember that my role has little to do with benefiting me, or with me accomplishing something impressive or fun, or necessarily with me even growing. Primary in each of my contexts is helping other people. I don’t even need to use scripture here. Just google “servant leadership scriptures.” So I am working to identify (and then clarify) the win in each place I am called to be. I am not there to win; I am there to help others win.

Irvin Kershner: The Genius Guesser of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

The favorite of many of the hard-core Star Wars fans, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ sometimes gets the middle child treatment and is overlooked, despite having the iconic “I am your father” moment. Compared to ‘A New Hope’, ESB is darker and there’s no real resolution. Compared to ‘Return of the Jedi’, there are no cute teddy bear warriors.

George Lucas directed (and did pretty much everything else with) the first Star Wars film, but took a more CEO-type approach to episodes 5 and 6. He chose the director, but let them take the lead on day-to-day filming. He wrote the stories, but not the scripts. His primary focus seemed to be the special effects department with the next two films.

Irvin Kershner, his directorial choice for ESB, however, has yielded praise in the decades since its release in 1980. Kershner had plenty of directing experience, but upon watching the director’s commentary track, one becomes amazed at how the theme of his work on that film was “guessing.”

There were probably a dozen times he said that the work of a director is, when faced with a choice, you just guess and hope it works out. It got to the point that he didn’t sound confident at all. This is incredible when you consider the fact that, despite budget problems, the film that came out was incredible, (I imagine the resulting financial windfall atoned for any budgetary concerns). Kershner had a target and was satisfied just reaching for it; he refused to let the tiny things get him down.

I just thought this story was too cool not to share. What I find amazing is his apparent ability not to second-guess himself to the point of inhibiting his work. I confess that is something with which I struggle. In both ministry and life I rarely feel up to making all the decisions. For example, I almost cancelled a ministry event recently, but for some unquantifiable reason I decided to go through with it. I want to take a page from Kershner’s playbook and learn to accept that sometimes life is guessing, and then comes faith. You just have to faithfully pursue what course of action you chose, and continue to work hard at it. And hope that you make a cool movie.