December 10, 2014

To the Child Baptized at a Church Meeting

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:1-6)

December 2, 2039

Dear Samuel,

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

We trust this letter finds you well.  We imagine you are now deep into your young adult years, out and about and on your own in God’s world, and, we pray, following God’s word and sharing in God’s work.

Indeed, that is why we write to you now, to beg you, in the words of the ancient apostle, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” (Ephesians 4)  More about that calling, momentarily.

First, who are we?  We are the elders and pastors from 50 churches who, on this date, 25 years ago, gathered in a sanctuary on the west end of Greenville, Pennsylvania, to baptize you with water and to welcome you into the great household of God.  Likely you don’t remember that cold and damp Tuesday evening, but with great warmth and gladness we remember it for you.  We poured the water.  We read the promises of scripture.  And we were witnesses to your parents’ profession of their faith in Jesus, as well as their public pledge to raise you in such a way that there would never be a time in your life when you did not know the word and the way of Jesus.  We made a pledge that night, too: that we would pray for you and, even if from afar, play whatever part we could in nurturing your discipleship.  Indeed, this word to you now, this letter, is an installment on that quarter-century old vow.

It brings us joy and a sense of good hope to imagine who you are and what you are up to, now that you are into your adult years.  And just as we gathered for worship and fellowship that night of your baptism, so it is our expectation that you yourself have found a place in some fellowship of believers—however great or small, however formal or informal.  You need the unity of the Spirit; you need the bond of peace.

You belong to God the Father through Jesus: this truth about your life is deeply personal.  But we also want to insist that it is not a private truth.  To enjoy a place at the table of Jesus is likewise to share it with all those whom he has called.  If you know not the fellowship of other Christians at this juncture, seek it out.  And if you do know it, if you are a part of a communion of saints that bears the name of Jesus, then we, in the spirit of the apostle’s teaching, urge you to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

We believe the Lord will use you, Samuel, to build up the body of Jesus in your own time, and this is not just because your dear parents are both preachers and pastors in the church.  That work is important; it is an honorable legacy.  But more significant than a recognizable religious profession is that basic calling to be what someone once called “a mere Christian.”  We entrust to you, Samuel, and to your fellow young believers, the next generation of the body of Christ.  We look to you for unity in the Spirit and for bonds of peace, for we believe you will be the first generation of a new era of Christian fellowship and Christian worship and Christian witness.

Yours is a fine Biblical name: Samuel.  He was what one might call an in-between character in God’s redemptive story.  He finished up one era and likewise saw the birth of a new one.  Samuel was the last in a long line of those called the Judges, and he was also the first of the prophets and priests who would watch over the new monarchs of ancient Israel.  Likewise, Samuel, we look to you to carry forth the best of our time as church, even as we urge you to be a part of what God will surely do next, and do differently.

This much we know: our time as Protestant Christians is drawing to a close.  All of us who gathered for your baptism, we are inheritors of a great and important movement in the universal body of Jesus.  We are proud of our deep Reformation roots, but as urgent and important as that movement was, we are aware that it has just about played out.  The great themes of scripture and faith alone, an emphasis on the individual believer, the importance of education and escape from religious tyranny, the voice of God’s people to choose their leaders: these were important correctives in their day.  But the world has changed.  The gospel must be – can be! – reinterpreted and re-announced against the backdrop of different concerns – just as it needed to be in the 15th century.

The great denominations that once loomed so large and promised such structure are now in great decline.  Our educational efforts, originally in the name of Jesus, now often ring hollow with secular themes.  The unity of Jesus’ body, established by his word, has been marred by constant splitting and fracturing; in some cases, entirely obscuring his love and light for many of our neighbors.  The personal, individual nature of salvation that needed to be emphasized then has now been hijacked by the narcissism of our era.  Many seem more enamored with their own experience of worship than with the One who is worthy of our worship.  Although there are, at times, bursts of familiar energy to rebuild what once was great, and votes and splits and new denominations seem to promise renewed vitality, humility demands that we admit our time is now ending.  Like the Judges before Samuel, our lead role in God’s redemptive drama – as Protestants and Americans – is being eclipsed.

But we who are gathered for your baptism, we do not despair.  Traditions come and go.  Movements rise and fall.  Generations grow up and fade away.  From one season to the next, from our time to your time, we cling to the apostle’s affirmation:  “There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

And so, Samuel, in the name of that God, our God, your God, we beg you to take your place in the body of Christ, to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Just as Samuel was a midwife in the birth a new era in Israel’s long walk with God, so we have hope that you, and many others with you, will help give birth to a new season of faithfulness, unity, and witness for Jesus.

We have no idea what this will look like.  Many of us present at the waters with you 25 years ago will not even be alive when at last you read these words.  And even those of us who will, our energy and imagination will likely have been spent.  We have no idea about the changes brought by time and technology, about political events or planetary realities.  We do not know if your Christian witness will be out in the open or far underground.  We confess how hard it is for most of us, on the tail end of one movement, to imagine how the Holy Spirit will be moving in the birthing of another.

But this we beg: lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, Samuel.  Devote yourself to the communion of the saints – whatever form that fellowship will need to take.  Offer the body of Christ the kind of humility, gentleness, and patience it needs in order to stay focused on the one who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  In him, there is a living unity. In his Spirit, there is a bond made of peace.

Don’t make the same mistakes of unity we made.

Many of us tried to forge Christian unity around a building or a place or a piece of land.  Space is a great gift, a part of God’s creation, but we have learned the hard way that, over time, buildings alone cannot form a holy people for holy work.  Sometimes our places have become bonds of burden rather than sources of strength.  Be a steward of what God gives you, but maintain a unity in the Spirit.

Some of us tried to forge Christian unity around certain political postures.  On both the left and the right, many in our time have used the church – its words and its people – to galvanize folks into certain philosophical tribes.  We have realized too late that unity for a cause, absent Jesus’ word and way, is an expensive unity, and usually short-lived.  We have watched as once great Protestant denominations have split and split and split some more.  Every time, a vote seems to promise renewal and freedom from evil.  But we always find ourselves right back in the same rooms with the same mere Christians.  Samuel, don’t make our mistake: learn Jesus’ salvation and his justice, and don’t ever split them for the sake of political unity.  Forge bonds made of his peace, which is both just and pure.

A great many of us tried to foster Christian unity by making Sunday morning church-going an expected part of being an American, of following the rules.  That worked for a while.  When things were socially stable in the church and the country, our churches were full on Sundays.  But then those folks had children, and many in that generation saw it as their duty to break the rules.  And then those folks had children, and then came a generation that questioned whether there were any rules to begin with – given all the hypocrisy.  And so the gospel of Jesus has been bent over the barrel of a three-generation fight about whether to keep or break or disbelieve the “rules.”

But Samuel, you are not saved by rules.  You are not bound by place or politics or personality.  You are spiritual prisoner to no one, save the Lord who has captured you by his grace and marked you as his own.  Believe this.  Trust this.  Live into this with a spiritual freedom that has been lacking in our own time.

If there is an upside to us old mainliners now being sideliners, it is that by your time, Samuel, the gospel will once again be free from the cultural captivity of our time.  You will be in fellowship with believers around the world.  You will enjoy a creative mix of justice and purity, evangelism and social witness, personal and public righteousness.  You will no longer have to carry the burden of public religious opinion, or to satisfy fickle religious tastes, or to meet every person’s felt need.  Our prayer is that you will be free to know the kind of living unity that is born of the Holy Spirit, refined in prayer, matured by scripture, enlivened in worship, disciplined in friendships, perfected in love, and completed in Christian community.  We hope for you a kind of human fellowship forged, not in prideful piety or political posture, but in peace—Jesus’ peace.

The Samuel in scripture was dedicated to God before he was born.  We do the same for you, at least at the moment of your baptism.  We dedicate you to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Know well the words and way of Jesus.  Worship the living God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in every circumstance, location, or dimension.  Build up the body of Christ around you so that others, too, will be strong in the Lord and not held captive by the programs or poisons of your time.  Wherever life in 2039 may take you: Do Jesus’ justice, love Jesus’ mercy, and walk humbly through your neighborhood in the power of his Holy Spirit.

Our time in God’s redemptive work has ended.
Yours has only just begun.
Go forth now, and lead a life worthy of the calling
to which you have been called.

Godspeed Samuel,
“prisoner of the Lord.”

the Elders and Pastors
of the Presbytery of Shenango

December 9, 2014

for Darrell, on retirement

Introduction of Darrell Guder
Shenango Presbytery Pastor’s Retreat – Spring 2009

Although I suspect he does not need it in this group, it is nevertheless a great honor to be able to introduce to you as our retreat leader Darrell Guder – Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology, and the Academic Dean of Princeton Seminary … the other PTS.

In terms of vocation, Darrell could be described any number of significant ways: theologian, scholar, translator, missiologist (a term, I might note, that Microsoft Word was not able to spellcheck.  It suggested instead, mycologist – one who studies fungi).  Darrell has been a prophet of a kind, a teacher, a mentor, and a pastor to many—the last of these, if not officially, certainly in function.
The author of five major works, and the translator of at least as many major publications of others, Darrell for some time now has been well-established as a leading voice in what, on his watch, has come to be called missional theology.  Indeed, he has taught us to ask, Is there another kind?  Darrell has lent scholarship, translation, and wisdom to this urgent effort of imagining the church’s vocation—not in bureaucratic or survivalist categories—but in the rich New Testament vision of God’s prior redemptive activity in the world in Jesus Christ.

In recent decades, Darrell has held teaching posts in three of our Presbyterian seminaries—Louisville, Columbia, and now Princeton.  In addition to being known among scholars as a respected colleague and an assertive voice for missional thinking, in all three institutions he has left in his wake a host of important friendships with students. It has been my privilege over the last decade to have been caught up in that generous wave.

In the fall of my middler year of seminary, I found myself in a course entitled Theological Foundations for Evangelistic Ministry.  Alas, in a mainline milieu, who knew there were any?  The nomenclature speaks volumes.  After all—at the risk of perpetuating stereotypes—systematic theologians of late have not always been known for their interest in purposeful, gospel evangelism—the telling of the good news.  For that matter, evangelists—what few we have—are not often marked for their commitment to a robust theological imagination.  But that’s Darrell – a kind of “Renaissance man” for the church … if I may baptize a term.

Darrell has taught us that sharing the faith of Jesus Christ and thinking the faith of Jesus Christ can be quite the happy bedfellows.  He has carefully warned us about our Western propensity for “reductionism” (a favorite term of his): our tendency to deflate the heights and breadth of the gospel “once and for all entrusted to the saints” to the shrill matter of, say, me going to heaven when I die.  And he has taught us that “missional theology” is not merely the thin effort to send money to Africa or your youth group to Mexico for a week, but the thick effort of teaching our congregations to imagine Jesus Christ himself in ministry on our corner of the neighborhood, in order then to teach our congregations to imagine their ministry during the other six days of the week.

In some ways, Darrell has made my life as a preacher a much harder one, even miserable at times, because after his tutelage I can no longer read or preach the New Testament merely devotionally or even scholastically.  After every passage, my Guder-shaped reflex is to ask of it: How might the Holy Spirit use this witness to call this congregation into ministry and witness this week?  How is this parable, proverb, or pericope shaping the peculiar people I serve into the priestly people of God?

It’s a lonely but life-giving vocation.

Turns out, this has been his aim all along. In 1985, in Be My Witnesses, Darrell wrote:

“In our education for ministry, we will work to overcome the false distinctions between clergy and laity.  The people of God will come to understand themselves not as consumers of religious services, but as partners in ministry, whose function and place in the work of God cannot be occupied by the clergy, and who therefore are absolutely essential where they are, carrying Christ into the world.”

Twenty plus years later, in the last gasps of the clergy-centered mainline project, that missional vision for ministry is no less urgent.

It’s an honor, therefore, to welcome back to Shenango Presbytery, my friend—our friend—Darrell Guder.

November 28, 2014

Wadi al Natroun

Somehow it seems right
that rooms built for Jesus
and to honor his Mother
are rank with body oder
They feel well worn, like
a milk farmer’s old barn
built as a sturdy shelter

The edge of every old relic
is worn to a smoothness
by the faithful fingers of
a million traveling pilgrims
They move about the tight
rooms like ants at a picnic
Touching, praying, hoping

We took shoes off outside
The carpets in here are thick
with the dust of two million
feet and the shuffle of many
centuries of pedestrian piety
They are not taking pictures
They are investing in power

Olfactory speaking, I swing
between strong impressions
In one corner, I feel a gravity
of millennia, lingering saints
But in a whiff the room sours
Hints of gym socks and fetor

My house shall be a house
of prayer, he said. Never did
he say his buildings would or
should smell of lavender and
sophistication. The Boy and
his Mother seem to welcome
all who come. My house will

a house
of perspiration

August 29, 2014

Corn Row Christians

My regular drive from my home in New Wilmington to the presbytery office on Route 18 brings me by several Amish farms with large planting fields adjacent to their homes.  I love catching a glimpse of Amish families working hard in their fields, always an inter-generational affair and often making use of interesting horse-drawn equipment.  Nothing says "work" like an Amish draft horse.  Amish cultivation efforts throughout the year are lately yielding row upon row of sturdy-looking corn.  As we are now well past the Fourth of July, so also their corn is now well beyond knee high.  The harvest soon cometh.  Go find your butter and salt.

Earlier this summer, I offered you a few articles outlining my own sense of call to maintain the best of what Shenango Presbytery has been about in recent years.  Some of our sturdy draft horses that continue to serve us well include our pastor retreats, LeaderFest, cross-cultural partnership visits, Partnership for the Missional Church training, digital communication, and our excellent presbytery office staff and resources.  My earlier writings indicated my gratitude that none of these workhorses need put out to pasture anytime soon.  But we must remember: Farm fields do not exist so that horses have work to do.  Rather, horses (tools) are kept in good shape so that the land might better produce its offering.  Let us measure the effectiveness of our efforts and events, not merely by how many attend, but by what worship, fellowship, and ministry blooms in the seasons that follow.  After all, our Lord has said, "each tree is known by its own fruit."  (Luke 6:44)

To that end, as summer begins to give way to fall, I want to turn out attention from horses to harvest, from maintenance to cultivation.  Both matter dearly, and indeed you likely wont' have the latter without the sturdiness of the former.  Cultivation (noun): the action of cultivating land, or the state of being cultivated, the act of preparing and using land for crops or gardening.  All farmers know, in the case of corn as much as with any crop: the harvest does not produce itself automatically, nor can the cultivation be unduly rushed.  Fruitfulness calls for attentiveness and patience, not to mention great trust in the Lord of the harvest.  (Matthew 9:38)

I believe the last 30 years of Presbyterian congregational life has reminded us of two important lessons:  First, our congregations will no longer replenish themselves automatically.  There was an era when decent American neighbors sought out churches like ours because there was a widely-shared notion that good citizenship included Sunday morning worship at your local (usually Protestant) church.  Presbyterians benefited from that cultural arrangement.  Offer Sunday School, call a halfway decent preacher/chaplain, maintain a bearable choir, and, by and large, folks came.  This is not to disparage fields of bygone eras, but rather it is to appreciate the reality that such soil no longer produces in the same way.  Expecting a flock of the faithful to grow, simply by existing, can now be better understood to be like expecting corn to grow from ground that has not been tilled or seeded.  Seeding is a burden, yes.  But anyone hungry for the outcome will find cultivation a great privilege.  And besides, the Holy Spirit does much of the work ahead of us.

Second, we now have enough hindsight on the 1980s and 90s to see that there are no quick-action fertilizers for forcing overnight congregational blooming in tired soil.   There is planting and tending, even fertilizing ... but there is also waiting.  Efforts and events drive up some numbers for a time (and nothing is ever wasted by the Holy Spirit), but a harvest calls for a long-range view.   Corn takes time, and so does Christian community.  Packages of programs and procedures may help to activate the ground, but -- as it has been observed -- disciples of Jesus are made, not born.  That takes time; most worthwhile matters do.  For example, nothing warms the heart like a gaggle of children down front for a children' sermon.  But that's a seed moment, not a harvest moment.  Wise congregations understand this.  In the case of our small children, the harvest of discipleship will only be known 15, 20, maybe 25 years down the row.  We adults ought not trade the short-term sweetness of childhood church moments for the lasting starch of forming mature disciples.   It is the same now with most of our neighbors:  We cannot expect to welcome into our worship only those folk who already "get church."  (Besides, if they have left other flocks, most nomadic worshippers will likely also leave yours.)  Instead, we can cultivate our willingness to walk with uninitiated neighbors long enough for them to get a taste of the generous gospel meal most of us have now known most of our lives.  (Luke 14)

And so, at our spring pastors retreat, friend of our presbytery Dr. Jannie Swart could talk to our pastors about understanding the ministry of the Teaching Elder (pastor) as one of -- Can you guess? -- cultivation.  Elders and Deacons and plenty of others play their farming part, too.  Tilling, planting, and watering turns out to be akin to preaching, practicing, and providing for the gospel.  This perspective of cultivation assumes that our congregations are not merely businesses to be run, or stores to be minded, or services to be offered, but rather living communions where the seeds of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are given space and support to bloom and grow into fruit for one another and for the neighborhoods all around us.  In this vision, even worn-out, tired, aging pastures can be tended back to life -- assuming there is a sincere openness to bearing new tastes and an pliable imagination for new flavors of fruit, all as the Spirit directs.  (Ezekiel 37)

My commitment as your Executive Presbyter is to continue the work of others before me -- and not by myself but with Deacons, Pastors, and Ruling Elders alongside -- to cultivate our presbytery to be more and more a communion of farmers and field hands, tending the soil of discipleship in and around -- and if necessary, beyond -- our congregations.  Cultivation is both our great burden and our greater blessing, and the Holy Spirit turns out to be both Provoker and Comforter along the way.  May it be, year after year, that there are blooming followers of Jesus, of all ages, sprinkled across our congregations, who are, by the measurement of the gospel, spiritually knee high by every fourth of July.  Corn row churches, anyone?

Next week: the first of several specific areas of cultivation for Shenango's next 5-10 years.

May 12, 2014


I entrust my life to Jesus, the Christ of God,

and love him as both my Savior and Sender.

I confess him Lord of all, Head of his church,

my eldest Brother and the true firstborn Son

in an ever-widening covenant family of God,

into which I have been so graciously adopted.

Through him I have come to worship one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Through the broad witness of the scriptures,

God is worshipped as Speaker, Word, Breath:

a living communion both sublime and simple.

In Jesus’ birth, Eternity stepped into our time.

By his death, our sins have been sequestered.

Since his rising, our humanity sits in Divinity.

With saints of every era, I sing the gospel song—“Christ is risen. He has risen indeed!”

I believe that the atonement of Jesus with us is the clue by which all other matters, divine and human, are to be interpreted. I can say no more about “God” than what we have seen and heard in the incarnation of Jesus: his birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and assured reappearance. Yet I give thanks that no more need be known for salvation or service. I believe that the same triune God who saves us from sin also sends us into ministry, and as such, the church dare not separate blessing from burden, promise from perspiration. I believe that the Holy Spirit is always and everywhere provoking the church, in all its forms, toward a continuing conversion of its common life: deeper shared discipleship and wider apostolic witness. I trust that the New Testament was providentially sanctified for that sacred purpose, and that with the Old Testament, the canon is the unique, inspired, and authoritative witness to Jesus as the one true Word of God. I gratefully receive baptism once and the communion meal again and again as signs and seals of our belonging and our vocation. I understand ordination to be a holy demotion within the universal Christian ministry, given for the equipping of Jesus’ people for his purposes in the world. I welcome the great themes of the Reformed tradition – transcendence, covenant, election, providence, stewardship, etc. – as reliable wisdom for interpreting scripture, providing for worship, equipping the saints, and living Christian hope. I believe the gathered church is not an end unto itself, but exists to serve the Servant of all and to be a witness to and worker for the reign of God in this life and in the life of the world to come. I am confident that the Holy Spirit uses the authority of scripture’s witness, the best of our theological heritage, and the trials of the global church to call disciples of Jesus in our own time and place to a more faithful witness in the personal, ecclesiastical, familial, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life. At its best, the visible church is a provisional demonstration of what the living God intends for the whole world. At its worst, the church is a reminder to the world that all is not yet as God will have it be. Even so, the triune God remains faithful: creating, redeeming, sustaining. How do I know? Jesus is alive—present to the Father, present in the Holy Spirit. That is the strange and wonderful news I have heard, and it has made all the difference in my broken, wayward life.

In the weakness of my fallen old flesh, I am but a sinner and an orphan.

Yet in the strength of Jesus’ risen new life, we are saints, children of God.

This is my story. 

This is our song.

January 16, 2014


There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Recently, I had the privilege of reading that singular sentence from the New Testament aloud in a room full of men who are struggling to put their lives back together. I was immediately reminded what a difference context makes in the hearing of scripture. When you've been down and out, have made a mess of things, or have had your life turned inside-out by the messy living of others, you simply recognize good news when you hear it. In these contexts, there is little interest in interpretation and counter-interpretation, no desire for point and counterpoint, no time for a "hermeneutic of suspicion." Good news simply reverberates within lives that are ready to hear it.

And these thirteen words from the 8th chapter of Romans do indeed combine to offer good news. The whole chapter moves along these lines: The death of Jesus has covered over all that deadliness that lurks around the edges of our lives. The new life of Jesus replaces fear with gladness as an engine for getting up in the morning and doing good. That Jesus is a brother, sharing our flesh, his status sequesters all condemnation and changes the sign over our door from "sinner" to "child of God." I appreciate the Message interpretation with Romans 8:1 -- "With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved."

Imagine the worst thing you have ever done.
Or imagine the worst matter ever done unto you.

Now imagine said action having no more power of your life.


These days, many are arguing that it is time for the church to move on from the personal salvation themes that defined the Protestant Reformation. I tend to agree. The gospel is more about "we" than "me," and more about a world that God loves than a church that hopes to survive. Even so, standing in a room full of struggling saints, I was reminded how much there is still a place for that first-person singular gospel song: It is okay now between you and God. Really, it is.

That's good news. Does it reverberate within your life?