God’s LOVE Goes First


Deut. 9:23-10:5Heb: 4:1-10John 3:16-21

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This may be one of the most misused verses in the Bible.  Often taken out of context and plastered onto banners for use in protest marches or NFL games, it has been used to beat non-believers over the head, fear tactic and all, into changing their non-belief.

This illuminates a divide that we Presbyterians (and all Reformed Christians) have with our more Pentecostal/evangelical brothers and sisters.  We come at faith believing we are all a wretched mess and without God we are nothing.  And we see God through a different lens – primarily coming at us first and foremost with love and compassion, not exclusion and judgment.  Grace alone.  Grace first.

It’s not a better way to read scripture, just a different approach.  It is not our activity that is primary, but God’s then, in this approach.

When I see JOHN 3:16 signs I am tempted to hold up a sign that says “John 3:17”.  Read on!  John 3:17 declares “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  The passage goes on to talk about judgment as if it is something for God alone, and not for us to be deciding.  Our focus in on good deeds and staying in “the light.”

It turns out that John 3 warns against the very thing that people intentionally or unintentionally do with their “3:16” signs.  If we begin by casting judgment on people, we miss the point of God’s purposes for us.

Recently at a college campus here in the Toledo area, this kind of divide of faith came into play.  Some involved in the campus ministry were coming at their faith primarily through a lens of judgment, demands from God, or worse from fear.  The leadership thankfully was coming at things with a broader, fuller understanding of Scripture, primarily that God’s LOVE comes first, and if God’s love and desires for us to discover that love predominate our lives, we need to approach the campus in that way too.

This is the radical nature of John 3:17.  We need to suspend judgment and leave that up to God alone.  We need to embrace God’s love, and love God and neighbor as ourselves.  God’s welcome must comes first.  Everything else will follow.

For John, everything seems to stem back to the premise that he laid out at the beginning: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Everything that follows is an explanation and expansion of that main thought.

And where does that leave us as believers?  It means that our lives’ focus have changed.  We are to revel in the wisdom that is all around us.  We are to enjoy God, celebrate God, and feast on the goodness of God, sharing that feast with others.  We are not to disrespect God by taking on the position of judgment or condemnation.  We are to seek love in everything we do – in every relationship – in every place we go.

I am thankful that our campus ministry is on firm footing, deeply rooted in Scripture and washed in the LOVE of God



Lent: Change


Deut. 9:4-12Heb. 3:1-11John 2:13-22

Change is always hard.  I am sure you have heard the joke….  How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? …CHANGE??????  Presbyterians are notorious for not liking change.  Well, today’s scriptures deal with the demands that faith put on us and the change that is required within us.

The readings also deal with the difficulty of unbelief and stubbornness.  Both Deuteronomy and Hebrews deal with trying to keep the “hardening of hearts” in check, and a holy self-examination of motives.

In John, Jesus cleanses the Temple.  It is quite something to see Jesus driving people out of the temple and overturning the moneychangers’ tables.  “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned the tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

This is indeed extraordinary.  God’s plan, it turns out, is to bring about change and renewal in people’s daily lives.  It is extraordinary because people of the time were expecting a Messiah to be something quite different.  They were expecting the Messiah to come and lead them out of the oppression of Rome, not reprimand them and demand better behavior from them.

This is the conundrum of the Lenten journey, and of our Christian faith.  It is not all about validating our behavior, but about transforming our behavior to be more Christ-like.  Change will be demanded of all of us.

For me the Lenten journey is much more basic in terms of transforming behavior.  Many of you know my new position – not as a pastor but now in executive leadership.  It requires much more driving and meetings than before….in other words more sitting on my rear!  So I have realized I have to be intentional about yoga and running and going to the gym.  So that’s the change that is required of me right now.

Jesus’ stark behavior is a warning, and a much deeper call to change.  It warns us not to become too complacent in our spiritual practices, but constantly be on the lookout for how God may want us to conform our lives anew.  The people of the time saw nothing wrong with the moneychangers.  To buy doves and other sacrifices to God at the Temple was simply how things were done.  This was the vehicle of grace!

Jesus said no.  He was reinterpreting the spiritual trajectory of things.  He was demanding we be circumspect about our walks in faith, to make sure our actions match our hearts’ beliefs.

This is quite a task.  It will require our whole lives.  Body, Mind, Spirit, and Voice.  It will require a fair dose of God’s grace as well, as we journey this road our whole lives long.


Outward Rites and Inward Light


Jonah 3:1-4:11Heb. 12:1-14Luke 18:9-14

The shift from Mardi Gras to Lent can be jarring if you are on Bourbon Street at midnight having too much fun – “CLEAR THE STREETS….MARDI GRAS IS OVER.”  Indeed, the church calendar makes a sudden shift today and a more spiritual, disciplined life has begun.

Ash Wednesday: our readings not surprisingly take a sudden turn and we find ourselves in Jonah, one of my favorite books.  Jonah is almost comical when you understand how he grudgingly goes to Nineveh, and with only a few half-hearted words becomes an agent of transformation for that town.  It is a powerful story.  The king, and the town, follow this up with action, including sitting in ashes.  Outward rites reflect the inward reality.

Whenever I think of these kinds of outward rites like the Imposition of Ashes which many of us encounter today, I think of one of my favorite hymns, As a Chalice Cast of Gold, esp. the first and last verses:

1.  As a chalice cast of gold,
    Burnished, bright, and brimmed with wine,
    Make me, Lord, as fit to hold
    Grace and truth and love divine.
    Let my praise and worship start
    With the cleansing of my heart.

4.  When I dance or chant Your praise,
    When I sing a psalm or hymn,
    When I preach Your loving ways,
    Let my heart add its Amen.
    Let each cherished outward rite
    Thus reflect Your inward light.

Luke’s passage is of Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and tax collector, one who stands where all can see him saying, “God, thank you that I am not like other people….”  The tax collector was standing far off, not even looking up to heaven, beating his breast and saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

Repentance and humility are key themes for Lent.  It is clear that God wants us to take seriously our actions and do the best we can.  Yes, grace abounds, but that does not exempt us from serious introspection and a genuine turnaround in the areas of our lives that need it.  Outward rites to assist the inward desires.

This is the essence of Ash Wednesday.  And so as we take this day to seriously consider any Lenten discipline that may aid us in repentance and humility, self-sacrifice and introspection, may we look to the people of Nineveh or to the tax collector, both who come to understand inwardly and outwardly that change for them is important.


A Story That Is LIVED


Deut. 6:16-25Heb 2:1-10John 1:19-28

“And when your children ask you… ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’”

When I was studying in Israel, one of the things that impressed me the most was the way Jewish children were educated in the faith.  It wasn’t enough to hear a story being told, they were often enacted, lived out, felt in the heart and hands while spoken on the lips.  Stories like Pharaoh and Egypt and Moses came ALIVE, especially at Passover.

Every aspect of Jewish life seemed this way to me: It was to be lived, retold, and at the forefront of our lives.  The prayers and the depth of commitment to the story was overwhelming.

As we celebrate Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, we do so with a deep sense of time in our lives and time in the church.

This is when “catechesis” can take full form.  In order to truly learn, we build it into the calendar, mark it in our lives and in our hearts.  And while a King Cake can add to the festivities, it also becomes an opportunity to set today apart from tomorrow.  We joyfully embrace today, ending a party that began on Epiphany, Carnival season, and clearing our lives of the sweetness and indulgence of our lives.  (This is also an excuse to learn a little bit about New Orleans history, which is a rich piece of the history of America too and the gumbo pot that is American culture).

Tomorrow as Lent begins we embrace simplicity, reverence, and penitential solitude.

I encourage you to BUILD RITUAL into your day, into the life of your family.  It is a great instructive tool.  And do that tomorrow too.

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all.  Have a piece of Kings Cake for me.


For a little bit about the what and why of a King Cake, check out https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/king-cakes

Dignity, Respect, and Love – a day after the United Methodist Church reaffirms ban on same-sex weddings and gay clergy


Ruth 2:14-232 Cor. 3:1-18Matt. 5:27-37

Yesterday was a big news day for the United Methodist Church. They voted to reinforce bans on same-sex marriage and LGBTQIA+ clergy members.  In many ways the rules tightened.  And so my Methodist brothers and sisters awaken to a new day, many of whom are expressing to me feelings of being beaten down by the rules, tired, exhausted, disheartened.

In the midst of the hurt, I commit to walk with my friends through the pain.  I pray that they continue to proclaim the Law of Love and encourage their churches to do the same in the best ways they feel they can do that.

It also may come as little solace then to turn to our Matthew passage today and see Jesus tighten some rules, tightening the Ten Commandments, taking on adultery and bearing false witness.

Rules, rules, rules.  Sometimes they are a good thing.  Other times rules are used to restrict or control in unhealthy way.

It is easy to over-simplify the Bible and think that the Old Testament was about Law and rules, and the New Testament set us free from the Law.  As it turns out, some things are more strict in the New Testament.  So it is with today’s Rule of Love.

And this is where Jesus and the United Methodist Church seem to be at odds.  When Jesus tightens rules it is defaulting to being more loving.

Do I believe that if Jesus were alive today he would preside at a gay wedding?  Absolutely.  I believe this because I believe the gospel.

I believe this because I have read the New Testament, and I see that at every turn Jesus was a champion for people to love each other and love the world deeply and fully in healthy ways.

I believe this because, like Pope Francis recently said to a gay man, I believe that “God made you like that.”  And when you believe that, the equation changes.

Jesus fell squarely into this camp as well.  He did not look at people who were afflicted as people tainted with sin, or tainted with the sin of their parents.  He saw them as human beings.  He saw them as human beings afflicted by the world, beaten down by a world that did not understand their worth and value and dignity.

He was someone who saw people as created in the image of God, and he blessed, encouraged, and ushered them into a fuller experience of the Holy.  For many, marriage can be a prime avenue for a fuller expression of the most healthy, loving relationship possible.

So, of course Jesus would preside at a gay wedding!


At times throughout history the resounding NO of our institutions has been instructive.  Discipline and correction is one way to look at these issues.

But in my eyes, these decisions of yesterday in the United Methodist Church border on abuse.

This is not about human rights.  (Frankly I am sick and tired of people talking about these issues like it is about human rights).  It is not about human rights.  This is about human dignity.  It is about people being valued as people, and encouraged to live full and healthy lives in the eyes of God, seeking to follow God in the deepest and most profound ways possible.

Not everyone is going to see Scripture this way.  And I understand that.  I value that.  But as we continue to wrestle with scripture as God-fearing people, let us always remember that while God’s ethic of New Testament Law was not always a blanket yes (often calling for accountability and fortitude), that God also demanded the Law of Love be on our hearts at all times.

And let’s be honest.  The decisions of the UMC yesterday have little to do with accountability and fortitude.  They have to do with power and control.  And that is what saddens me the most.  Evil has crept into my friends’ church.  It was revealed the moment “the local option” was rejected, revealing how deeply power and authority is being used to bind. As an outsider looking in, it looks a lot like people in power beating others over the head with rules.  And as someone who has a position of power and authority in his church, I have to say warning bells are going off all over in my head.

Time to hit the pause button, UMC!

In Matthew today, Jesus’ whole point in tightening the rules was to incite everyone.  It wasn’t beating people over the head with rules or controlling others, but asking for them to hit the pause button and examine their own lives.  In the context of adultery, Jesus mentions that, “…everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery…. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.”  Holy cow!  Doesn’t this mean nearly every man on earth is guilty?  Wouldn’t most of the male population look like a bunch of pirates?

Jesus uses the Ten Commandments as a springboard to incite everyone.  We are all guilty.  No one can escape from the law, not even the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Martin Luther would say that this is what drives us to grace – the condemnation of the law.  It certainly shows the utter state of human sin, and that without Christ we would be nothing.

So as we walk forward with our Methodist brothers and sisters in what may seem for many like a frustrating and exhausting journey, let us commit to a season of humility and love.  Let us listen.  Let us walk with one another, and suspend judgment, whatever that may be.

We don’t want to be pirates here.  We want to be the most loving neighbors we can.  And we want to encourage others to use their power and authority wisely, take a posture of humility, and move forward with dignity and respect.

We don’t have to wrap ourselves in Pride flags here.  But we must get our hands dirty, with prayer and action.

Let us blaze a trail together with our Methodist brothers and sisters, to a day when all will feel the power of Jesus’ healing touch, when all will know love, when all will feel hope, and when all will have the dignity and respect and Love they deserve.

May God grant us a just world for all.


Bishops: Presbyterian style


Isa 63:15-64:91 Tim. 3:1-16Mark 11:27-12:12

In 1 Timothy today the qualifications of bishop are laid out.  Among the requirements: to be married only once, managing his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.  This news may come as a shock to some who thought celibacy was always a requirement in the Roman Catholic Church.  There are many things about the early church that look a bit different than today, for better or for worse.

The root of that word “bishop” is also the same word as how we get “presbyter”.  And those of us who are Presbyterian know what it means to be a “presbyter” – we are each “little bishops”, providing oversight and leadership as we engage as presbyters in committees.  And so in our system, both elders and ministers serve as presbyters, both being ordained, providing oversight to the churches, and in a very real sense, functioning as bishop.

In many other ways, the day to day work I engage in as the General Presbyter for this region, in another way, provides for the care for churches and ministers in the same way that other churches employ bishops.  But we don’t have that.  All leaders – all presbyters – are little bishops.

Qualifications of Deacons are also laid out in our passage today.  Here too we get an image of the church as the household of God.  This is of unfathomable importance in understanding the structures of the underground early church and its power struggles.

We live in a time when clergy sex abuse scandals abound.  We have seen church officials struggle with standards, discipline, power, and boundaries.

I have often said that one of the main functions of the presbytery is to protect its churches and protect its ministers.  For example: we require churches have adequate liability insurance; we require ministers to have boundary training; we teach safe practices; we work with our committees on ministry to enact discipline and structure and good matches between churches and ministers; we provide for ways for churches to care for their pastors and for pastors to effectively and safely lead their flocks.

This is something we did yesterday in Maumee Valley Presbytery as we adopted a Sacred Trust Boundary document, and the policies and procedures that will follow.

I am proud of how we function as Presbyterians.  I suppose I am biased, but I believe it is the best system for our world.  I like how we are organized.  We put ultimate power in groups, not individuals.  No one has absolute power.  No one is exempt from oversight.  There is a system of checks and balances.

Let us always strive to support one another, correcting each other where we need to, and protecting those among us as we strive for grace, blessing, and peace in this world that is hurting so much sometimes.


Turn Things On Its Head


Isa. 60:1-172 Tim. 2:14-26Mark 10:17-31

One of the recurring themes of Scripture is that God will turn things on its head.  The rich will become poor, the ones with power will have little power, the poor will be raised up, etc., etc.  We encounter this in Mark 10 today.

A rich young man comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. After telling him a litany of commandments, which he declares he has followed, Jesus answers with, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”

Unable to do so, the rich young man leaves grieving.

At points in scripture we see how great wealth can be a blessing and a vehicle of God’s grace or God’s wrath, but this is not the message we get from Jesus.  He is emphatic that money corrupts spiritual health.  He demands that our priority must be to follow him.  All else it seems is secondary.

How can we live into such words?

What in our lives do we need to turn on its head?

How is God challenging us to greater spiritual health in the midst of plenty?

How can God use us to build up treasure in heaven?

– Matt