First Cousins

As I write this, I’ve just found out that one of my first cousins died in a fiery car accident. Early speculation is that he suffered a heart attack and crossed into the other lane, hitting anotherYukky vehicle head on. When something like this happens, a myriad of thoughts, memories, and feelings flood one’s soul.

He was seventy-one. Tragically, two other people died in the accident if I understand the early reports correctly. This kind of event really drives some things home for me (and I suspect for anyone who goes through them).

As a pastor of thirty-five years, I’ve done dozens (maybe hundreds) of funerals and memorial services. Beyond the ones I have led, I’ve attended many more. Times like these seem to bring forth a flood of clichés: He’s in a better place; He’s with the Lord now; At least he went quickly; He was a great guy; He would have enjoyed seeing us all together; and on it goes ad nauseum. I’m not sure how much comfort any of these sayings give to people, but I guess they became cliché for a reason.

I will say, however, the most memorable responses to anything I have ever done in these types of situations are the ones when people say, “I’m so glad you’re here.” It was not that I said the right thing (even when I was preaching the funeral). It was not that I waxed poetic on the subject of death and dying. A lot of those times, I basically said nothing at all. But the fact that I was there with a hug, and maybe a tear, seemed to make all the difference.

I guess it stems back to the incarnate Christ. What I mean by that is Jesus came to be with us. He shared our grief and misery. He could have done things much differently, but he chose to be one of us and to be among us when things were tough. Our own presence in someone else’s life mirrors the incarnation. We’re there in the flesh for each other.

It’s not that words aren’t important. Our words can certainly express our love and condolences. But our words will not be the most important thing. We can put our arm around someone’s shoulder and say, “Jesus loves you.” But even that wonderfully assuring statement can ring hollow at times.  So we gather together to be there for each other.  After all, we are one of them just as Jesus was one of us.

I said before that this kind of event drives some things home for me. One of the things it drives home is that I could be next. I’d like to hang around for a few more years, but I’m not assured of that. I’m reminded of another old cliché. Life is short. I suggest we go out there and live our lives like they mean something…because they do. Rest in peace Cuz…

The Last Dinner in Zurich

UntitledI just ran across a picture of my wife and me in Zurich. We had taken a week long vacation in the Swiss Alps and were preparing to fly out the next day. We stayed in a hotel the evening prior to our flight and enjoyed a final dinner there that night. It was a great meal with some good friends to top off a lovely and memorable respite away from home.

The picture reminds me of those days spent driving up and down the Alps and taking daytrip adventures into places I never would have known existed had we not trekked there. It was an enjoyable trip, and we hated for it to end in many ways. The picture is labeled “The Last Dinner in Zurich.”

Sometimes, as a pastor, I look at the church and get that same feeling I had during our last night in Switzerland. I look at how things are, and I wonder if we are in the final moments of the church as we know her. Each time I serve our local congregation the sacrament of Holy Communion, I wonder if this is indeed OUR last supper. I do so because I think in many ways, we (the church universal) have lost our way. I think we have become something we were never intended to become. Maybe more aptly put, we have not become what we ought to have become.

We made that long flight back from Zurich and arrived worn out and tired. You know the feeling. It was worth the trip, but we needed to get back home to rest up so we could get back to work. Has the church done the same thing? Have we been on a vacation from which we need to rest and get back to work?

I don’t think there’s any question we need to get back to work. But as I see it, we’re really tired. We’re tired of being less than we could be. We’re tired of hiding from our calling. We’re tired of plodding through church life as though it were drudgery instead of an adventure. We’ve dumbed down our calling, and we need to get some smarts once again. We’ve fallen, and we can’t get up.

We’re tired in part because we carry around a lot of extra weight. We carry around traditions that no longer serve the purpose they once did. We carry around structures that are cumbersome and get in the way of real ministry. We carry around practices that have grown out of tangential beliefs that never were important to anyone but us. In short, we carry around an exoskeleton that needs to be shed.

Does anyone else feel like me? I’m sure there are many of you. What are you doing about it? What’s on the menu? What’s for dinner?

Guest Blog by Elaine Q. Potts

peace-sign-39484_640I came to Christ during the Jesus freak days of the early 1970’s. Then Go! Go! Go! Was the battle cry! Sadly, this message seems to have become engulfed with theology, meetings and programs.

I have had some pretty extraordinary moments in this journey. I have fed people at homeless shelters, visited the prisons, tent communities, hospitals and 3rd world nations. These events were more like excursions as most of my time was spent doing church work. Accounting, Sunday School teaching, Women’s ministry leader, Christian Ed director, Ministry Coordinator, you name it and I have probably done it. Sometimes paid, often times not. I loved to study church growth principles and have challenging discussions about the Bible with other believers. I even got a theology degree since in my heart I was out to change my world.

The only problem was my world wasn’t changing. I had success within the confines of the converted, but the unconverted world was not changing. Over time I had drifted further from the unreached (with the exceptions of a few ‘outreach opportunities’) and became more focused on the reached. The ministries I was involved in were good works-but were they the best work for me? This question haunted me—had I sacrificed the best for the good?

When I read about Jesus, I see Him extending Himself to engage others—especially those others dismissed.  As my career changed, I found myself in the company of a disenfranchised, broken world. A disconnect between my church life and the world around me emerged. I could not shake it. When I mentioned how disconnected I felt, my Christian friends and ministers often pointed to the ‘good works’ of the church. My heart yearned for authenticity-congruence in my corporate worship and my work.

It took a young, very impoverished, former gang banger to fully awaken me. One day he told me how he would sneak into churches and hide, listen and watch the services. I was intrigued with the hiding and his quest to know truth. His explanation, “The people were so clean, perfect and wealthy that I knew I could never fit, so I hid.” As tears ran down my face, a truth I had never thought of before, exited my mouth. I exclaimed, “Oh, it’s just a Sunday costume! Those people are more like you than they know. Or you know.”  

That encounter was riveting for me. I knew that we Christians were more like the fallen, unreached, and rejected than we wanted the world to know. I realized, gazing into the sullen eyes of that juvenile delinquent, how desperately he needed to know the truth—our truth.

I rediscovered that early passion. I left the institutional church with its great programs and people. This action may not be for everyone—but it was time to return to my truest calling—the lost. I am daily on a mission to reach people through the love of God. I am living my dream of changing the world through this love, face-to-face, fully engaged, one heart at a time.  This means I purpose to pause and listen, heal and restore, lift and encourage. I have lead more people to Christ in these few years than all the previous decades together. Yes, I escaped, the prison of agendas, good deeds and excellent associates—for a life that is fully engaged with those who are in need of the Great Physician, the Redeemer, the Restorer, the Peace of Peace—Jesus.

Elaine Q. Potts   Choose One Thing

Visit Elaine’s blog site


DSC_0001I drove up behind someone with the vanity license plate that read, “GODGOTM” in big bold letters. I tried to snap a photo of it, but the light changed before I could reconnoiter all my technology (couldn’t get to my cell phone camera app in time). I guess you’ll just have to trust me on this.

I spend a lot of time on the roads of Northern Virginia scoping out vanity plates and trying to decipher them. This particular one is intriguing (at least to me). What did this gal (or guy) mean? At first glance (which is what I’m going with) it appears that God got someone…M.

So who is “M”? Does that mean God got ‘em, as in them? Does it mean God got someone the owner of the car didn’t like? Was someone struck down by God after they committed some sort of road rage? Does M stand for Michelle or Mickey or Mike? Or—and this is what I hope is meant—God got me (the owner of the car).

People admit a lot of things on vanity license plates. Mine says “OR8” which stands for orate (what I do a lot). It seems quite clear to me what it means. But in the three or four years I’ve had it, it was only about a month ago that I finally ran into someone who understood it without a labored explanation. A young man helped me carry my groceries to the car (yes, I’ve apparently arrived in my golden years). As we were about to stow the food, he looked at my plates and asked, “Are you a speech writer?” I almost gave him a tip (don’t judge me).

But back to Mr. GOTM. If God HAS this person, what does that mean? Do they admit it beyond the bumper of their car? Is their faith something they merely convey on a bumper sticker, or is it lived out in the center of their life?

For many people, the extent of their service to God hangs on their back bumper. As long as they are making that great public witness, they’re cool…right? I’m afraid a lot of us have gotten to that point. As long as we somehow acknowledge a Creator of some sort, we’re covered. As a famous singer once asked, “Is that all there is?” It looks great in the church parking lot, but does it translate any further into life?

It seems to me that, whether you have a cool license plate like mine (and Mr. GOTM’s) or not, you are called by God for a purpose. I’m not sure if the cool plate enters into it, but I suspect it goes way beyond it for sure. Ya think I’m onto something?

By the way… If Mr. GOTM is reading this, please don’t take offense. We’re sure you’re the servant God has called you to be. Nothing personal… And could you please let us know exactly what that means?



DSC_0034An obituary in the small, online newspaper of my little home town simply said that my old high school buddy had died “after a brief illness.” Around that same time, the twenty-year-old son of a friend died in his sleep. And as if to remind me of that old adage about troubles coming in threes, one of my parishioner’s grandsons was about to be stillborn after a full-term, seemingly normal pregnancy. Sometimes it’s simply hard to be alive and be alert to what’s going on around you.

One day as Jesus was leaving the temple in Jerusalem, one of his disciples commented to him about the magnificence of the structures around them. Instead of agreeing how marvelous it all was, Jesus went into a mild diatribe bout end times. “None of this will be left standing” were basically his words to that unsuspecting follower. Then he warns everyone to be on guard, to be wary, to be on the lookout. For what?! Nothing good, frankly…

Then he relates one of his famous stories—a parable. You’ll probably remember this one. The master of the house leaves and “puts his servants in charge.” Like Jesus, the master tells the servants to be on the lookout. “Watch!” They have no idea when he’s coming back.

There’s one phrase in that parable that really catches my eye. In Mark 13:34 he says that the servants who were left in charge each has “their assigned task.” While I realize it’s not particularly good Biblical interpretation to read too much into that, I can’t seem to get away from it. Only one of them is told to watch the door. The rest have their assigned tasks. They’re all supposed to be alert, but yet continue with their regular duties.

Okay, so what are these duties? He doesn’t tell us—at least not in this particular parable. But throughout the length of his teaching ministry, Jesus (at least in my understanding) outlines and highlights many things, which I would categorize as falling under the category of duties. These duties, if you will, are what we (the church) should be about while we’re waiting for his return.

Over the next few weeks, I want to explore what I think these assigned tasks might be. I’d like you to help me out here. I want this to be a discussion. I’m not the high and mighty guru who will lead the church to the Promised Land. I’m just one of the servants like you trying to do my bit.

Things like obituaries, vacations, and taking out the garbage easily distract me. I’d rather watch the skies than be about my Father’s business. I suspect much of the church is like me. Our distractions imprison us, and we’re no longer aware of why we’re here. Is it possible for us to get back on track?

When Is Trash Time?

I live in a place, as I suppose many of you do, that has a covenant. The HOA (Homtrashe Owners’ Association) makes the rules. You know—what’s the earliest time you can put out your trash, how many cars can you park in your driveway, what color can your front door NOT be—things like that. I kind of chuckle when we call it a covenant. Technically, I have a say. Frankly speaking however, I’ve never exercised my right to say anything. The reason I don’t is because the HOA has a better idea than any of my pet peeves.

It’s not unlike Biblical covenants. God lays out the covenant and I let Him do it (in a manner of speaking—plus, I realize I’m not going to stop Him even if I wanted to do so). In other words, He knows a whole lot more about what I really need (and frankly want) than I do. I believe that, so I trust that.

Going with my theme of Local Church Prisoners, it is apparent to me that we’ve become Biblically illiterate to a major degree. That illiteracy adds to the thickness of our prison walls. We don’t seem to understand (or care) about covenantal history, which is a major part of the Scripture.

Our covenantal history is the framework of the Bible. It’s deeply woven into the fabric of who we are. Unfortunately, if we consider it at all, it’s usually as a means to an end. But it’s not. The end game is to be in covenant with God Almighty. In fact, I’ve heard it pointed out (and I believe it to be true) that everyone on the face of the earth is in covenant with God.

How can that be? A lot of folks don’t even believe in God. It’s a little like my HOA covenant. I’m sure I have a lot of neighbors who are oblivious to our covenant. Yet they’re still in covenant relationship with me, like it or not. So all human beings are in some kind of covenant with God. It’s either a covenant of works or a covenant of grace.

We already know from Scripture that a covenant of works hasn’t got a chance of fulfillment. I don’t know anyone who can live up to it. Every one of us will break that covenant before the day is out. We can’t give enough, do enough, or obey enough to earn our keep before a perfect God. So the only way it can work is if He does it for us.

That’s where the covenant of grace comes in. A covenant of grace has a mediator—someone who can fix what we’ve broken. Only Jesus can do that. He’s our mediator sent by God. We know that and give it lip service. Yet the church so often ignores the covenant of grace and tries to live by works. Will we ever learn? No wonder we find ourselves behind spiritual bars.

A Great Land Deal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I was a pastor in Western Pennsylvania, a young family moved into the area I served and bought some cheap, worthless land. Though it had virtually no value, they were excited because it was theirs. I came across them through a series of circumstances and was asked to visit them at their new property. It was hard to find, but when I finally got there, I was greeted with a rather crude, homemade sign with these words painted on it: “The Promised Land.”

One of the reasons it was worthless was because it was landlocked. There was no right of way into the property. You had to drive through someone else’s property to get there. The only upside was it was far enough out in the boonies that no one really cared. I guess it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Human beings have been in search of good land deals from time in memoriam. The best one I can remember is the one God gave to Abram. It involved a Promised Land and a Savior. The land was difficult to get to, but it was free and clear (sort of). There were a few obstacles, but the deed was his.

The deed (as well as the Savior) has been passed down from generation to generation up to this very moment. The Savior has expanded the definition of the Promised Land for us, but it still belongs to the children of Abraham. We think of it as Heaven or Paradise now, but the deal is the same…no strings attached…free and clear…bought and paid for by the blood of the Lamb.

That’s what the church believes. At lease that’s what we say we believe. But when it comes to sharing the property, we become land grabbers. We begin protecting our turf like there’s no tomorrow. How many different sects, denominations, and other divisions in the church have taken place because we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Everyone else is a squatter. We own the territory, and no one else can traipse across our lawn.

I know I’ve had those kinds of moments, seasons, maybe years in my life. I’m more than a bit ashamed of that. The Promised Land comes with no strings attached. I’m not sure why we feel that not only can we attach strings, but we can fill out the price tag as well. The price has been paid, folks. As people used to like to say back in the 1960’s, “Share the land.”

The Rainbow Dereliction

I always thought of Noah as a ship builder. After all, his most famous act was thDSC_0664 copyat of building the ark. And it wasn’t just any, old ship (especially for those days). It was large enough to hold two of every living species of animal. Quite a feat!

But if we read along far enough in the story of Noah, we find out that he was a farmer. Not only that, he seemed to specialize in grapes. On top of it all, he was at least an amateur vintner and maybe a drunkard. I won’t bore you with the entirety of his story (you can read it for yourself in Genesis 6 through 9), but he appears to be somewhat less than a model of righteousness. This is the guy who “walked faithfully with God.” (I guess that should give us all some hope.)

This is also the guy who had seen the rainbow. If you will recall, the Lord made a covenant with the human race at that time saying He would not destroy the earth with water ever again (although He’s flooded my basement a few times). The rainbow is the sign or symbol of that covenant. When we see the rainbow, we should be reminded of God’s graciousness.

But we’re not. Not usually, anyway. And the great thing about this sign is that it’s public. There’s nothing secret about it. It’s up there in the sky for all to see. Yet we ignore why it’s there or simply explain it away as some scientific phenomenon (like that makes any difference). And did I mention it’s public?

I emphasize that because this particular covenant was, and is, for everyone. Yet sometimes we in the church think we’ve got the market cornered on the ark of safety. I’m sorry, but the secret is out. God’s grace can extend far beyond the church. It’s not our choice…it’s His. If I have received the grace of God, it’s because He was gracious to me. I didn’t do anything special to get it.

We sometimes imprison ourselves in the belief that we’ve got what everyone else wants and they should come and get it. Really. Really? We need to learn that we are not the gatekeepers. The Holy Spirit handles that job rather nicely already. We are more like Noah. We’re farmers spreading seed, growing fruit, and yes, sometimes getting a bit tipsy.



All We Need Is Love?

Pittsburgh_16482013 copySeveral years ago I read somewhere that the church spends 83% of her money on herself. My guess is that it hasn’t gotten much better in recent years. I have to say, that’s more than a bit embarrassing. Does that figure bother anyone besides me? All I can say to that is it’s a good thing we serve a God of mercy.

As people of faith, we live by covenant. That word is derived from a Latin one that means “to come together” or “to agree.” In our covenant history with God, we come together and agree to certain things that we have always promptly messed up.

Take the Adamic Covenant for example. God created this awesome place for the pinnacle of His creation to live. Whatever you think about the stories of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis, there is an underlying theme that stands out. Creation (Eden in particular) was an intentional, purposeful gift of love. It wasn’t an accident, nor was it necessary. God needed neither it nor us. He was sufficient within Himself.

He gave it all to Adam and Eve and told them to do two things—tend the garden, and don’t eat from that tree over there. They blow it, of course; and it was our first clue that a covenant of works wouldn’t fly for human beings (at least not without leading to our destruction).

So what does this God of creation do? Does He get mad and destroy everything? No. He performs the first blood sacrifice, covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness with animal skin, and fixes the broken covenant with love (and mercy). There was some cursing going on, to be sure, but love abounded more.

That’s why years later when Nehemiah heard about the deplorable conditions that existed back in the Promised Land, he prayed to the Lord and called Him “the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love…” It’s also one of the reasons why John in his gospel made the simple, three-word statement, “God is Love.” God’s love for us is always creative, selfless, and life giving.

If we’re made in the image of that same God, why isn’t our love more creative, selfless, and life giving to others? Why do we withhold so much? Are we just that selfish, or are we simply ignorant? The God who created us doesn’t seem to hold anything back. Do we trust God so little that we think we’ll lose all our blessings if we give some of them away?

Bo Knows Church

Smith_ChapelFrom my limited experience, it seems to me that everyone (at least everyone who calls themselves Christian) knows what the church is. Before you jump down my throat, please allow me to qualify that. Even in the most institutionalized of congregations, the little children are taught songs lyrics like,

“I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all a round the world, yes we’re the church together.”

That same song says this:

“The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”

We know it. At least we know it in our heads. My point is this: we have an understanding, if only a superficial one, that the building we inhabit for worship is not “the church.” Our everyday usage of the term belies that fact, but we know it.

We know it, but we don’t live it.

Scripturally, the Greek word translated “church” means “gathering” or “assembly.” It’s never a place, and certainly not a building. The ecclesia (that Greek word I was talking about) was used to describe a public gathering of people. Today, when we use the term correctly, we are generally talking about a gathering of God’s people (you know—where two or more are gathered). At least, I wish that’s what we talking about. As you are well aware, we now mean the building more often than not. People ask you where you go to church, not who is your church.

I’m sure it’s much too optimistic to hope for a change in terminology—to stop using “church” and start using “gathering.” If we could, it might be a giant step toward addressing our shallow understanding of the concept. The label is important because we have used it to institutionalize who we are. In so doing, we have put ourselves in a box. We make ourselves prisoners of our own definition of church.

Our box contains things like what we wear, what music we prefer, what time we meet (or on what day), who we invite (or refuse to invite), who we make welcome, and which Scripture selections we choose (as well as which ones we don’t take seriously). I’m afraid many of us have become prisoners and our box has become our cell.

We place “the church” before “the Christ.” It’s a short step from there to placing ourselves first and others last. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to figure out the problem with that.