Monday, March 30, 2009

Spread the Word to End the Word The Word. The r-word.

President Obama made a controversial comment as Jay Leno was giving him polite praise for working to improve his bowling skills. Some people saw the comment as "people in Special Olympics are bad bowlers;" and some saw it as "we praise effort in Special Olympics, not an absolute measure of achievement."

I believe that, as a Christian, I'm asked to "praise effort" as a general course, not just in the case of those that don't perform at a level generally accepted as typical or successful. I love watching my young, intellectually disabled daughter try to learn and do new things, even when she isn't successful, even when she's 2+ years behind her peers. It is frustrating. Sometimes sad. Sometimes scared. Every single time, though, she deserves my praise for the hard work and effort she put into trying. Only when she doesn't try am I disappointed.

The same goes true for those that we sometimes declare as successful or label overachievers. If they aren't pushing themselves to achieve their fullest potential, then they aren't contributing to their fullest. I believe that is what God asks us to do - our best and our fullest. We when do, we should praise each other for that as well - not just for the achievement; but also for the effort, dedication, inspiration, and courage that lead to the achivement.

Welcome Mat / Lenten Devotions

Lenten Devotions: Collected, Edited, and Published by Presbyterian Women of First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

"Presbyterian Women of First Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Michigan have been publishing a daily devotional during the season of Lent for many years. Meditations are contributed by people of the church. 2008 and 2009 are available here."

Welcome to the community!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Seeing Jesus

Lectionary verse: John 12:21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus."

This is one of my favorite verses from the Bible because it encapsulates the work of the church. Congregations can get caught up in building programs, financial campaigns, and missional projects, but in the end, if no one comes to see Jesus, then they’re busy doing nothing.

Churches exist to bring people to Christ. They have no other function. Christians can do as much good in their lives and strengthen their community through acts of kindness and well-being, but if no one comes to Jesus, then the deeds are empty of any eternal blessings. This is why it is so important to remember that our faith is missional. We seek others to tell them about Jesus. We try to fill our sanctuaries with those seekers of Christ, not to boost our numbers, but to get more souls into heaven.

Jesus was overjoyed when Andrew and Philip brought the Greeks to meet Him. It meant that His ministry was beginning to travel around the world. That’s why He says it was for this reason that He came. His ministry was to teach the world about God. His mission was to die for the world. On both counts, He succeeded, which is why He is elated at this point in His life. God’s plan of salvation is working. God’s Kingdom is being extended outside of Palestine.

So, the challenge for all of us today is this: what am I going to do or say today that will encourage others to seek and find Jesus? Who am I going to contact or meet today that needs to hear the Gospel? What am I going to do today to extend God’s Kingdom outside of my own personal world and bring it into someone else’s life?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You have called all of us to do Your bidding and to serve Your will. Grant us the courage to express our faith today to all whom we meet. Give us opportunities to talk about You, Your church, and Your mission, so that others may seek You, too. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor at Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. he writes the presbyterian daily devotional "Heaven's Highway."

Today's image is taken from one of John's stained glass designs depicting John Bunyan's great story, "Pilgrim's Progress." The image is called "Pointing the Way."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Thursday Read And Learn--What the Moderator Thinks About People Leaving the Denomination

PCUSA Moderator (and fellow PresbyBlogger) Bruce Reyes-Chow has written a response to a question that he has been frequently asked as he travels around the country in his role as Moderator.

That question is: What do you think about people leaving the denomination? You can read his answer in the post Stay, Leave, Return or Hold.

Bruce's thoughts are drawing a lot of comments, so be sure to check those out as well. Join in the conversation by commenting on his post or commenting here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Special Devotional: Elizabeti

Lamentations 5:7 Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.

Last summer, my youngest daughter Lauren went on a mission trip to Tabora, Tanzania. She wanted to work with children who were orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

For three months, Lauren taught, looked after, and played with these unfortunate children – unfortunate, not just because their parents had died of AIDS, but because the ‘sin’ of their fathers was visited upon the children, most of whom had AIDS themselves. In some of the communities where they live, these children are treated as outcasts. They face harsh realties with no one to protect or provide for them. Their childhood is blighted by illness, prejudice, and hopelessness.

The workers at the organization where Lauren was stationed try to do as much as they can to make the lives of these AIDS kids as pleasant as they can. They give of their time, skills, and resources to ease the suffering, insecurity, and sicknesses of the children. They do something beautiful and worthwhile, which is largely ignored and forgotten by the rest of the world.

When Lauren came back from Tabora, she decided to help one little girl called Elizabeti. She sponsored her so that Elizabeti could go to a private school and be given a good education. Lauren proudly possesses a photograph of Elizabeti in her school uniform. The wee lassie’s eyes gleam with pride and happiness in the photograph. She has been given an opportunity that was beyond any of her dreams.

Sadly, we received news this morning that Elizabeti died. Her sickness was too much to bear for her wee body and the dreaded disease that claimed her parents has taken another victim. Lauren’s heart is broken and she is angry with God.

This war against AIDS in Africa has been going on for over thirty years. How can we keep this going on? The war against terrorism has preoccupied our western nations. Thousand of civilians and soldiers have died fighting terrorism, and yet millions upon millions of people have died in Africa from the scourge of AIDS. With all of our resources, when will we truly begin to wage the war against a real foe?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, why are children dying in Africa from AIDS? Why are we so preoccupied with international criminals instead of dreaded diseases? What are You calling and expecting us to do to wage this war against an evil illness that is destroying people all over this planet? When will the ‘sins’ of the fathers stop becoming the punishment inflicted upon their children? How long, O Lord, will this continue? Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send him an email to

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pandering or PR

In the past couple of years, I've had a few of experiences with church PR that have made me jealous -- and made me wonder if I should be jealous of another church's PR skills or if they're just pandering to a particular audience:

The first was the UCC comma logo, and the motto "God is still speaking." I love the message of a living word and world in which God is still working with us and continually giving us new experiences to help us understand the message. The oversized comma makes an easily recognizable, powerful, and very simple logo that is easy to produce and very versatile. You see commas every where you look!

The United Methodist church up the street has a "progressive" service that they refer to as Ignite. I've never been to the service and don't know if I agree with the message or not, but they've done an outstanding job marketting it. They have a great logo and a powerful, single-word message that seems exciting!

And today, I got a provocative flyer in the mail today about the opening celebration of a new church in St. Louis that really spoke to me. It simply says "church." with the "ur" offset with a different color scheme. So, the message is "u r church." I don't know much about this non-denominational movement either, but I do know that it caught my attention enough to make me visit their website and post this message.

This kind of PR excites me. The contrasting feeling I get, though, is one that hesitates to believe that some of these can possibly be backed up by a sound system of faith and beliefs. I want faith that I have to chew, not faith that melts in my mouth. If a church is putting so much energy into the face they show the outside world, can they possibly be putting enough energy into understanding and practising?

Do I have the wrong impression of churches that put that much energy into PR? Are there examples of really solid, hard-working, learning/service focussed churches that have also been very successful from a formal PR perspective?

Welcome Mat

Welcome to our newest blog ring member, an Australian called Peter Stone!

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong: If we establish Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, or foundation upon which we build our lives, through His strength we can endure and overcome life’s trials and tribulations. In this blog I examine trials I have experienced such as depression, anxiety attacks, epilepsy and deafness, and how learning to rely upon the strength of Jesus, rather than on my own, helped me get through them to live a normal life.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Devotions: Chess Sets

Lectionary Verse: Ephesians 2:10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (NIV)

When I have the time, I love making chess sets. Over the years I have molded, modeled and painted several different sets, which include soldiers from the Civil War, elves and goblins from Tolkein's books, and a medieval Scottish set that was discovered on the Isle of Lewis and was consequently seen in the first Harry Potter movie.

Most of the finished sets are in my church office and I am delighted when people enjoy looking at them. The only thing is, I never play chess anymore. I can't quite make the time, so these wonderful game pieces just stay on their boards, never to be moved. Some day I'll get round to playing, but at the moment, these chess sets are immobile.

Today's verse reminded me that God makes us in much the same way, but that we are not destined to be immobile, indifferent or insensitive to things and events around us. Paul states it clearly when he writes that we are created to do good works, which God has prepared for us to accomplish. In other words, each one of us was created for a purpose; all of us were made for a significant reason.

Wherever we are today, and whatever we face, let's take and fulfill the opportunities to do good that God gives us. After all, He made us in Christ Jesus to do them, bringing help to other people and glorifying His holy name.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, give us the courage to help other people who are in need today. Grant us willing hearts to serve God's kingdom in this special, pre-determined and purposeful way, so that we may also bring those others closer to You. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes a daily devotional blog called Heaven's Highway.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on March 29, 2009

Here are the passages for March 29th, 2009, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • Jeremiah references the covenant made when God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. If the Israelites broke that covenant (indeed, they didn't seem to waste any time doing so), why should God make another? Does God intend that this new covenant be "unbreakable" when Jeremiah writes of the law being "written on their hearts" and how there will no need to teach about God, because they will know God already?
  • Should we understand this new covenant to be fulfilled with the coming, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If so, do we see evidence of the law being "written on people's hearts" in reality? Or should we understand the fulfillment of this new covenant to come in an eschatological sense? Are these concepts mutually exclusive?
Psalm 51:1-12
  • The Revised Common Lectionary suggests two options for the reading from the Psalms. Most churches will choose to read either Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16, but likely not both.
Psalm 119:9-16

Hebrews 5:5-10
  • What is the significance of Melchizidek (who is only mentioned twice in the entire Bible, if one doesn't count the multiple mentions of the name in Hebrews, of which this passage contains the first)? Why should the idea of Jesus being a high priest "after the order of Melchizidek" be significant?
  • What should we understand from the idea that Jesus had to be made perfect?
John 12:20-33
  • Why does Jesus reply with all this language about seeds dying in response to a request from some Greeks to see him?
  • When the voice from heaven was heard, why does it seem to be the case that some people heard different things (thunder, angel...)?
  • Does the fact that Jesus spoke the words "Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" in the context of preparing for his trial and crucifixion, and indeed the fact that he immediately thereafter voices his difficulty with this upcoming ordeal, affect how we should understand these words and their implication for our lives? How should we respond?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Question for the Community: First Time Visitors

I am an Elder at a church in Laurel, Maryland.  Our city and outskirts are expecting a boom of new residents thanks to the BRAC project that is closing some military installations and bulking up others.  The boom is about 22,000 people over the next three or four years(!) so our church wants to be prepared to not only handle potential visitors, but welcome them into our midst. 

To that end, our Session met with one of the City's planning employees who has been working on this project and others for Laurel for 20+ years.  He brought us a lot of insight and left us with some good talking points to discuss, and so we did.

There was a lot of converstaion about how we follow up with first-time visitors.  We do really well at identifying them after the service and giving each person/family a welcome bag with information about the church, a church coffee mug, and some tea and instant coffee.  Sounds trivial, but I got one a few years ago and it's my favorite mug at home.

Two of our older members remembered back to the 60's and remembered that the pastor would literally get in the car after church and go and visit with the new visitors in their home.  That would be completely foreign to me, but they were in agreement with each other that it is the best, if not only, way to retain visitors.  The rest of the room, more or less, thought that it would not be feasible in our area in this day and age, but were not sure how best to follow up in other ways.

So, my Questions for the Community are:
Does your pastor (or you, if you're a pastor) make visits to visitors homes?
What do you do that you feel works?
What do you do that you feel does not work?
What have you always wanted to try but were too hesitant to?

(I've included what we do in the comments section.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Read and Learn -- Popular Culture Visit

In the last week two things have really caught my eye. The first was Kings a new NBC series based on the life of King David. The second was the current Time magazine cover story called, Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now. What I found so interesting about the Time magazine story was that Idea #3 is -- The New Calvinism.

I can't say that I am very impressed with either of them, frankly. That isn't really the point. (By the way, if you missed Kings it is now available free on Another piece of pop culture to get used to.) I am kind of impressed with NBC's choice in Kings and I find the choices being made to make it work interesting. I also think both of these things present a fabulous opportunity to talk about faith, religion and even that hard to deal with Old Testament and doctrinal stuff.

Although, so far, my favorite part has been the reviews of Kings. Being a life-long member of the Bible belt, I am really astonished at how little some people know of the life of King David and how unwilling they are to check the facts before writing a review destined for a major newspaper. Check out this review by Tim Goodman from San Francisco. This author clearly knows the basics of the David and Goliath story. He also clearly doesn't know that it is part of a whole, bigger story.

I thought it might be interesting to see what parts of these stories you find are the most interesting and how you plan on using them to address pop culture. So, comments anyone?


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Step Forward.

It's been a while, but I'm back - off-tempo, as it were, but here is my offering.

This is a time of scary transition for me. I'll be leaving student housing in May, and as of right now I have nowhere to move into when that happens. I'm also seeking my first ordained call, so this fall I have no idea, literally no idea, where I'll be living or where I'll be working. I find that I can only really function if I don't think about those two facts much.

Its always struck me as ironic that I feel called to become a pastor because I have trouble with simple faith. I'm a thinker, a proble-solver, a worrier, a meddler; timid in my bones, very aware of the tenuousness of my life and my situation. I've described myself as an eternally-disappointed idealist.

Simple trust comes hard for me. I really respect it when I see it in others. It's a real challenge for someone like me who has this (wrong-headed) feeling that if I can think clearly enough and long enough, if I can worry enough, if I can plan enough and sufficiently second-guess myself, if I can prepare as thoroughly as possible, then I'll be in control. Then things will turn out the way I want them to. Then my expectations will be fulfilled.

And I keep having to learn, over and over, that I am quite wrong.

My life has never turned out the way I planned - and I'm glad, because it has been, for the most part, better and more surprising. I graduated from a high school in a city I'd only lived in for a year. I went to college because I won an essay contest that I entered on the last day before the deadline. I majored in a field (religious studies) that is entirely without economic merit (sorry other religious studies majors - do it for the love of it). I became a barista, of all things, for five years - when I started, I wasn't even a coffee-drinker. I got married to an absurdly wonderful woman who, despite all odds, continues to tolerate me. We survived our last year in OH because my mom found savings bonds given to me when I was in elementary school, yellowed with age, and because our friends sent, of all things, a care package filled with food. I went to the last seminary I thought I'd attend. I served in an internship church where a majority of the parishioners spoke Mandarin or Cantonese or another Chinese dialect. And right now I'm a hospital chaplain serving one of the most diverse patient populations in the entire country.

And that's just the short version. My life has not turned out like I planned, but it has turned out. Here I am. I have survived some pretty tough times, and I am almost never where I thought I'd be.

I can't justify believing it is because of some kind of personal merit I posess. I'm stuck looking back on the failure of my planning to see me through. So something else, someone else, has done so.

I am my testimony. (What a scary thought, but there you have it!). At my best moments, I can look forward, like Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade film, when he steps out into what looks like the open air of a chasm, and his foot lands on solid ground. I feel foolish worrying so much, staying up late writing blog posts...

It seems that time is pushing me from behind, so like it or not, ready or not, I'm going to find out whether it really is a chasm before me, or whether it is solid ground. Looking back, I'll see that of course, it had to work out this way; of course this was the plan from the start. And I'll keep trying to find a way to see that same way when I look forward.

When, instead of the rush of air and a long fall, my foot slams down on stone, the shiver running up my leg and jarring my bones - holler hallelujah.



Our Sunday school class happens to be a group of 30-40 something couples, most of us with young kids. This year, we've been using a marriage enrichment program for our curriculum and, as part of that, decided to do a movie-night where we all watched Fireproof together.

If you aren't familiar with the film, it's the story of a young couple struggling to understand what it means to be in a covenant marriage together. To be honest, I was very unsure of what the quality of the movie would be and how well I'd be able to hear the message amidst any politics or faith that might be a bit too conservative for me, personally, to identify with.

I was right about the quality of the acting, with the exception of less than half a dozen main characters who were excellent actors. Rather than being a distraction, though, the fact that all of the actors were real people (mostly church and community members) impressed me greatly. Likewise, the message had just the right tone for me to really identify with it.

It was a excellent movie with an excellent message for anyone in a covenant relationship. I don't even think that you have to be having a rough time with your marriage or be struggling with issues to get something out of the film. I highly recommend it!

As a quick preview - here's a light hearted "cliff's notes" version of the film that the actors and director put together as a "refresher." It makes an hilarious preview, but is even better if you've already seen the film.

Erin Go Bragh! (Ireland Forever)

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

St. Paddy

St. Paddy's Benediction...or he's ordering another two green beers! Cheers!

John Stuart is the pastor of ERIN Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Welcome, Ken and Karen!

Our newest addition to the blog roll and web ring is eMMAUS: "An Attempt at nontraditional Sunday School as a part of Christian Education at Pickens Presbyterian Church (South Carolina). Weekly scripture lessons in light of current events and culture, and from a reformed perspective."

An example of the thought-provoking things they have to say:

Friday thoughts - if we are seeing Jesus everywhere, why don't we see him in each other.


Brian McLaren discusses a "Second Coming Jesus" that he believes many people have created in direct opposition to the Jesus of love and grace that we are given in the Gospels. Many people interpret Revelation to describe a second coming of Christ that is characterized by violence, killing, domination, and eternal torture. McLaren questions why Jesus's life would be considered just a warm-up act for the real deal -- do we believe that Second Coming Jesus will achieve with violence what First Coming Jesus failed to do?

Interesting discussion starters, all! I hesitated to post the latter quote - part of an ongoing book discussion - in a welcoming post because I expect some to have a rather strong reaction to it and don't want to welcome our newest members with a flame war. I love that we have such variety of experiences and opinions and understandings within our denomination. And I appreciate the challenging ideas Ken and Karen are bringing up in their daily Lenten posts.

Welcome, friends!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Psalm 19 - Precept

Lectionary verse - Psalm 19:8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

"Precept" is not a word that we use everyday, yet it is something that we apply daily. It means "teaching" and, more specifically, a rule that helps us make the right choice or head in the proper direction. Teachers were once known as preceptors and, when the Knights Templars were around, their place of instruction was called a "preceptory."

According to David, God's precepts give joy to our hearts. Why? Because it makes us feel good when we follow God's guidance and know that we are fulfilling His wishes. We've all felt that before, either when we've been praised by our parents for completing a heavy chore, or when our teacher has awarded us with an "A" for a special homework project, or when our boss and co-workers celebrate the successful ending of a team presentation. It's a great feeling and something that David says we can enjoy when we follow and fulfill the precepts of God.

Wherever you are today, there will be plenty of opportunities to apply God's precepts and experience His joy. Do all that you can to please Him. Give Him the glory for the teachings you fulfill.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You taught us many lessons through the teachings of the Gospel. Help us to apply God's precepts in our lives amongst the people we meet today and in all the things that we do. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. he writes the daily devotionsal "Heaven's Highway" and podcasts as "Stushie's Stuff."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on March 22, 2009

Here are the passages for March 22nd, 2009, the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

Numbers 21:4-9
  • This is a hard passage. First off all, we see God punishing Israelites (even to the point of death) for complaining. On top of that, God's command to Moses to create a bronze snake (well, God commanded Moses to make a snake. I guess Moses wasn't told what to make it out of...) would seem to be a command to create an idol, which clearly goes against God's commandment against such idols. How are we to deal with such a story in Scripture?
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Ephesians 2:1-10
  • As I reflect on this passage, I am reminded of the consequences of sin. But as think on the nature of sin itself, I am reminded of how radically differently Christians of different persuasions think of what constitutes sin. What can we learn that is of value from those who think of the nature of sin differently than we do?
  • What kinds of "good works" do you think of when you think of what God has "prepared in advance for us to do"?
John 3:14-21
  • The first couple of verses of this passage reference the passage from Numbers read earlier. Does the analogy to the Son of Man eliminate any of the difficulties in interpreting that passage? Does it create new ones? How does the Moses story help us to understand what Jesus is talking about?
  • Why does John use the language of "light" so much in this passage? Why not something more concrete?
  • To borrow a phrase from Pontius Pilate, used in a rather different context, "what is truth?" How might we live in it?

Friday, March 13, 2009

King David on NBC Sunday night

I am not trying to obscure Adam's very interesting post below. I just wanted to put up an alert that this Sunday evening at 8:00 ET/PT NBC is premiering a series that is a modern day retelling of the story of King David. The actual review of it that ran in USA Today this morning is not great. However, I found this secondary article about the Biblical history behind the modern story (and the interpretive choices made) to be quite interesting. Not everyone here will agree with the interpretive calls made. The series may not be worth watching, but the line about the censors backing down every time an OT chapter and verse was cited is priceless.

If you watch it, let's talk about it here next Thursday. Oh, the name of the series is, Kings.


Seminary Reflections: Read any good books lately?

So what have you been reading lately? I’ve been reading God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations by Jackson W. Carroll for my Church Leadership and Administration class. It’s a very interesting read, mostly communicating the results and reflecting upon the massive Pew and Pulpit study of US pastors. I found one chart particularly interesting.
Most-Read Authors in the Mainline Protestant Tradition
(as reported by what pastors deemed the “three authors they most often read”)

  1. Henri J.M. Nouwen
  2. William Willimon
  3. Frederick Buechner
  4. Max Lucado
  5. Eugene Peterson
  6. S. Lewis
  7. Marcus Borg
  8. Lyle Schaller
  9. Philip Yancey
  10. Walter Bruggemann
A few things jump out. First, of course, there are no women on the list (though Barbara Brown Taylor just barely missed it). Second, most of these authors write about ministry or spirituality rather than heavy theology. Third, many of them are getting on in years -- which makes sense regarding the list -- but it also begs the question: who will be on the list ten or twenty years down the road? This all got me to thinking about the many books I’ve read at Columbia Seminary. Curiously, of those who made the Pew and Pulpit list, I think I’ve only been assigned Bruggemann and Borg to read for class -- and both of those very small pieces, not whole books. So, it looks like there’s a rather large difference in what I read in seminary and what I may read as a pastor (curiously, Carroll reports the Roman Catholic priests surveyed read much more theology than protestants).

I guess it makes sense that preparing for ministry requires a different reading list than doing ministry, but I wouldn’t have predicted such a clear shift. In fact, I think a lot of pastors out there would really love to read what we’re reading in Columbia classes, they just don’t for whatever reason or another.
So here, in no particular order, are the top ten books I’ve read for class at Columbia Seminary:
  • Chuck Campbell, “The Word Before the Powers”
  • Wendy Farley, “The Wounding and Healing of Desire”
  • Justo Gonzalez, “The Changing Shape of Church History”
  • David Lose, “Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World”
  • Shirley Guthrie, “Christian Doctrine”
  • Daniel Migliore, “Faith Seeking Understanding”
  • Charlie Cousar, “Galatians”
  • Pauw and Jones, “Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics”
  • Marilyn Robinson, “Gilead”
  • Leif Enger, “Peace Like a River”
Boy, that was a tough exercise! I’m already feeling bad for all the great books I left out. Man, there’s been a lot of good ones (and I really do love Calvin, the Book of Order, and Book of Common Worship, but I count them as given). So, what’s your favorite book from seminary, or your favorite author now? Of if you’re not a pastor -- bless you -- and, please share your favs as well.

image by lusi

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Read and Learn Thursday: My Jesus Year

Here's another book by a Jewish journalist with a reality-show flavor. It reminded me of The Year of Living Biblically in some ways and I wasn't surprised to see A. J. Jacobs, the author of YOLB, endorsing the book.

Although both YOLB and My Jesus Year are about Jews seeking to connect with their faith, the difference is that while Jacobs was an agnostic (and remained one), Benyamin Cohen, the author of My Jesus Year, is a believing and observant Orthodox Jew.

This is NOT a book about conversion, but a record of the author's hope that by investigating Christianity, Jesus lead him back to Judaism. And He does, by the way!

Cohen is the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, and the only one of his siblings not to become a rabbi or marry one. In fact, his wife is the daughter of a Methodist minister who embraced Judiasm when they married.

Cohen writes that he felt estranged from his faith and found no meaning in its rituals and services. With the permission from his own rabbi (because Orthodox Jews are not supposed to attend church services) he embarked on his "Jesus Year", which involved attending as many Christian church services as he could, mostly in the greater Atlanta area where he lives.

The value in this book for the Christian reader lies in the sage observation of Robert Burns:
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursl's as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.
Cohen's viewpoint is that of a sympathetic outsider to the Christian faith. One of the things he is seeking to discover is how some Christian churches attract and keep their attendance and the devotion of their members. He hopes that he will find ideas that would translate to the synagogue.

The book is both humorous and instructive. Cohen writes extensively about the evangelical mega-churches and some odd sects like the Black Jews, but not much about the mainline Protestant churches. I think this shows his journalistic bias because these groups provide more entertaining and sometimes sensational copy.

Cohen spent some time in Catholic churches where he found he could identify with the emphasis on ritual in their services. There was one odd chapter in which he goes to confession and has a discussion with the priest about his loss of faith without telling the priest he is a Jew and not Catholic., although he knows that confession is meant for Catholics only. I'm really not sure what to make of this, not being Catholic myself, but it made me uncomfortable.

At the beginning of the book Cohen writes of his fascination with the Cokesbury Methodist Church which was in his neighborhood when he grew up. At the end of the book he visits that church and finds that the congregation has aged, dwindled away and the church is hanging on by a thread. In the afterword he notes that this church was closed not long after his visit. A parable for our time?

The book is well written and the author is likable and sincere. It's always a good thing to learn how Christians appear to others.

Note: This review is cross-posted from Quotidian Grace. If you would like to share a book review on Presbyterian Bloggers, please leave a comment below. We'd love to have more contributors!


It's always a treat to have someone comment on my book reviews, but when I got an email from Benyamin Cohen today thanking me for this review of his book --- well, it really made my day!

Cohen sent me a link to a highlights video of a talk he gave at an Episcopal Church and said that he welcomes the opportunity to discuss his book at other churches. If you're interested, watch the video and email him: theauthor at myjesusyear dot com. The book's website is:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lent Art: Meditation on Psalm 5


Today's lectionary reading is Psalm 5:1-8

1 Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.
2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.
5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

Monday, March 09, 2009


I'm in IT management and that means I spend some of my time meeting with account representatives from staffing/contracting companies. It's nice because they always take me out to lunch at places I wouldn't typically go for lunch. Not Ruth's Chris, but more than I'd typically spend on lunch.

A couple of years ago, I was chatting with one of these account reps over lunch and we started talking about our church lives. I mentioned that I'd just gotten back from a mission trip to southern Mississippi, following hurricane Katrina. It was such an incredibly fulfilling trip and I really felt like I was able to do even just a little something to help the people whose lives were (and still are) devastated.

My lunch guest reciprocated with her "me, too" story about a mission trip that she had coming up to Costa Rica. She told me all about the hotel that she and her husband were going to be staying in (in Mississippi, our accommodations were military tents) and how proud she was of the clever service that she would be able to provide the people of a nearby village: salvation.

"See," she explained to me. "There's a local man in our church who makes these 'JESUS' road signs."

I'd seen those (like the picture in this post) around.

"He's making some especially for my mission trip." Big smile on her face. "What's really clever, is that he's making some that have a Bible verse in Spanish on the back! They wouldn't be able to be saved if it were in English."

I tend to find that kind of language "being saved" uncomfortable. So, I changed the subject to the kind of mission work we did in Mississippi and opened the door in our conversation for her to respond with the mission work they'd be doing. All I ever got from her was how they'd be sharing the story of Jesus Christ with the people of this small town. I hope everyone found Jesus somewhere along that journey.

It reminds me of one of my father's favorite jokes:
"Have you found Jesus, yet?!"
"Found Jesus? I didn't know he was lost!"

Migrant Workers

Senior High Work Camp is a Really Big Deal at our church. We're a relatively large and affluent church in a relatively large and affluent community, and the work camp - which has been happening for 2 weeks every summer for the past 40 years - has varied in terms of how seriously participants take it. Some years in the past there have been a lot of kids on the trip, not all of whom are church members or participate with the life of the church in any other way. Sometimes there have been problems (allegedly!) with smoking, drugs, alcohol, or respecting the authority of the chaperones. New leadership, stricter rules, and time have successfully addressed many of those issues. But sometimes the "work camps" just sound a little . . . cushy to me. Sometimes it seems more like a sight-seeing hostel vacation than an actual work trip. Sure there's painting and hammering and you're sleeping on a church floor, but . . . there also an awful lot of special events fun stuff.

I was excited to learn that our kids are going to Alamosa, Colorado this summer, and I think this summer's work camp will be great. Part of their work experience will be field work. This, I believe, has the power to be a hugely significant experience for the participants.

See, I have this idea that work camp is - ideally - a transformative experience. A time for introspection and reflection, a time of hard physical labor, a time of being exposed to things so far removed from your own daily experience that it changes the way you see the world.

I remember traveling to Chinle, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation as a teenager on a work camp. Obviously, we couldn't sleep 8 hours and work 16; there needed to be a constructive way to fill the time. We went on hikes and nature walks, we explored nearby national parks and monuments, we had outdoor prayer and meditation services, we had communion under the big western sky. It was an immersive experience, and it was transformative.

There does have to be some fun; there does have to be a way to blow off steam. But how much is too much?

One church I attended as a teen "bribed" kids to attend events by paying for things. The youth group leader would pay for movies and ice cream out of his own pocket - an expense I did not find trivial. The Sunday School teacher would take all kids with perfect attendance to a concert in the city at the end of the year. I had a good time at the movies and concerts, don't get me wrong. But I am uncomfortable with the feeling of bribing kids to do what is "right," especially within the context of a work camp experience.

One year our youth were working in Michigan, and spent a couple of afternoons in Chicago sight-seeing. This seemed incongruous with the work camp experience, to me. But maybe it wasn't.

My husband and I disagree on this. What do you think? Is it OK to drive a few hours to a nearby big city and go to expensive museums and shows? A major league baseball game? What is the right balance between "work" and "play" in a work camp experience?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sunday Devotions: Lent 2 - Confrontation

Lectionary verse

Mark 8: 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (NIV)

Peter was perhaps Jesus' greatest friend. The Big Fisherman probably prided himself in being such a key person in Christ's life. But even friends make mistakes. Peter oversteps his mark here and begins to meddle in Christ's ministry. He thinks that he can persuade Jesus not to go to Jerusalem to face his foes. Peter is trying to protect Jesus, but in actual fact, he is innocently placing a huge temptation on Christ's path.

It would have been easy for Jesus to say, "You know what, Peter? You are absolutely right. There's no need to head into trouble right now. We can spend a couple of more years travelling up and down the country, healing more people and preaching the Good news to more villages, towns and cities. In a couple of years time, all of this opposition will have been won over and we can make our move on Jerusalem then."

But Jesus didn't respond that way, instead He fiercely confronts Peter, calling his friend the Devil incarnate. Those words must have stung Peter and perhaps their friendship was soured for a while. But it had to be done. If Jesus hadn't called Peter to task then, He would have failed in His mission and the world would not have been saved.

Sometimes Jesus has to rebuke us too. There are things that we think is right and we choose to sincerely justify them. But we can sincerely wrong and when Jesus confronts us and challenges our choices, we need to be open to His guidance, His advice, His way of doing things.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, many things are going to happen to me today and I will have a lot of choices to make. Help me to be open to Your counsel, Your words and Your ways. In Your Holy Name, I pray. Amen.

John Stuart, aka Stushie, is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. he writes the daily devotional Heaven's Highway, which he podcasts as "Stushie's Stuff."

Today's art is called "Sleep On, Simon Peter" - by Stushie

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on March 15, 2009

Here are the passages for March 15th, 2009, the Third Sunday in Lent (Year B). All links are to the TNIV via, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead (either with your own Bible, or via the drop-down menu at

Exodus 20:1-17
  • Most Christians will readily recognize these as the Ten Commandments. Out of all the things God could require God's people to obey, why are these items singled out? Why not other laws?
Psalm 19:1-14

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
  • A popular Christian song of the 1990's called Christ's death on the cross "such a strange way to save the world." Why should God use such an inscrutable means of salvation, that others would see it as foolishness? If God wishes to save all of humanity, why not use a method that would be more readily recognized?
John 2:13-22
  • If Jesus got so upset at the things being sold at the Jewish temple, how might he react to some of the commerce that takes place around our churches, or otherwise attached to various Christian ministries? Are certain things appropriate, while others aren't? How are we to know?
  • This is one of those passages that comes right out and says that an action taken by Jesus before his death and resurrection took on newly understood meaning after the resurrection. What Scripture is being referred to in verse 22, that the disciples now understood?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Read and Learn -- ITunes

I suggested to Grace that I should do a review of religious materials and applications available for the Blackberry and iPhone -- I kind of thought that would make me get around to loading Mobi Reader on my Blackberry. Oh, how naive I was. That would have been the world's longest blog post. So, here is the first installment -- church stuff and iTunes -- no iphone required.

There are three main areas in iTunes to discuss: 1. Podcasts, 2. iTunes U; and 3. Applications. Only the third, applications requires an iphone or itouch. The other two can work with any mp3 player. Oh, and I am leaving out the music. I figure if you really need me to tell you that iTunes has Christian music available -- you probably aren't able to read this without help, anyway.

So, let's start with Podcasts. If you go to iTunes, select Podcasts and then narrow down to Religion and Spirituality; you still get way more Podcasts than I ever want to listen to. However, if you would rather listen to the Bible than read it (or need resources for someone who has little or no sight), you can listen to the Bible in a year (1 year Daily Audio Bible) -- or in five years (Thru the Bible at Oneplace). You can also get help memorizing Biblical passages (The Scripture Memory Podcast). You can check out the new and notable; do a search on a favorite writer, preacher or both (John Piper, Joyce Meyer, Mark Driscoll, R.C. Sproul, Andy Stanley, and pages more). There are literally screen after screen of religious or spiritual podcasts, most of which are Christian. They run the gamut from emergent and liberal to scary, right-wing to Joel Osteen (who I think should be in a class by himself).

The podcasts loaded on my ipod at the moment include Pray-as-you-go (English Jesuits) and more John Ortberg sermons than I will ever get listened to.

What's on your mp3 player?


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Lent Art: Meditation on Psalm 43

Psalm 43

1 Vindicate me, O God,and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.

2 You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?

3 Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

4 Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.

5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God,for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (NIV)

Monday, March 02, 2009

Shoveling off the Welcome Mat

Welcome to Rev. Andy Little of Andy Little's Ramblings and Writings: Ministry from Two Poles . . . or, Preaching from Both Ends.

Andy's really funny. Go check him out!

I am a second career minister currently serving Westminster United Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, NY. [I'll wait for the applause to die down.] My first career of 25 years was as an optician and a greedy, unscrupulous businessperson. Yes, well, thank you but I am feeling much better now. After the battle between my relentless need to accumulate and my conscience reached the point where there was nothing left to do but fall down and curl up into a ball, I walked away from the rat race and became poor and happy.

Read more . . .

Also, welcome to newbie blogger Susan from GodPots: reflection, expression, justice: a place of hospitality and conversation.

Godpots is intended to be a place of hospitality, a place of open conversation, a place to consider new ideas and reflect on actions that may reveal a more whole and holy way to live with one another and with the world. The name reflects creation as vessels for the Creator’s spirit – our usefulness, our fragility, our center being filled by the divine being. It is a place to reveal the heart, the struggle, the hope we have.
Susan, we look forward to hearing more from you!

I hope that all our friends in the South and East are staying safe and warm and dry. I envy you your snow! (In my corner of the Midwest, we had only one snowfall this winter, and I enjoy snowstorms . . . as long as the pantry's stocked and the furnace is all fired up.) At any rate, if you're blanketed by a late season snow, hunker down, snuggle up, grab yourself a mug of hot chocolate (or other Lent-appropriate beverage) and spend a cozy Monday catching up with PC(USA) Bloggers!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sunday Devotions: Back to the Future

Lectionary verse: Psalm 25:7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O LORD.

Most of the psalms in the Bible are written by David, Israel’s greatest king. Usually, they have been written during his moments of great strength, faith, and creativity. It’s as if the vitality of David made him want to write some wonderful songs. And, if you think of it, most songwriters compose their best songs, lyrics, and tunes when they are between the ages of 25 – 45.

Today’s sacred poem is a bit different. I think that it’s written by an elderly David who is reflecting upon his life, his past mistakes, and deepest regrets. He’s looking back on some of his rash choices and poor decisions in his long life. And like anyone else who happens to be an elderly citizen, he wishes that things had been different and hopes that God will be merciful. You see, David is preparing for his final finals – he knows that one day soon, he will be face to face with God.

I don’t know about you, but when I look back at my own crazy past I want to give myself a good shaking down - especially when I was a teenager and in my early twenties. In my mind’s eye, I see myself saying and doing foolish and despicable things, or what David so eloquently calls ‘the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.’ I wish that I could go back to the past and alter things, but I can’t. And if, at the end of my life, anyone asks me “would you change anything?” I would have to answer with a resounding “yes!”

David’s problem with his past causes him concern for his eternal future. He wants God to forget about the many mistakes and wicked deeds that even he, the greatest Israelite King, had committed. He’s begging God to set aside all of those sinful times that contaminated his faith, his family, and his friendships. In other words, David is looking for a mulligan, as far as his life is concerned. He wants God to bend the rules, show some mercy, and apply some grace so that he can die and rest peacefully.

You see David did not have the wonderful opportunity to cast his sins upon Christ’s Cross to be redeemed, and although he made many sacrifices in the Holy Temple each year, the king still carried the burden of a sinful past. Today, we are more fortunate because we can directly, sincerely, and humbly appeal to Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. We can go back beyond our own sinful past to centuries before we were born and hang our mistakes, our guilt, and our regrets on a tree called Calvary.

We can also come to a Table full of mercy, forgiveness, and peace, instead of an altar streaming with blood, terror, and fear. If David knew then what we know today, then his anxiety and angst, troubles and tribulation over his youthful sins and rebellious ways would have been swept away by the blood of our precious Savior, Jesus Christ.

So, when we read today’s psalm and Gospel lesson, let’s give thanks to God that we live in a merciful time, where the Good News of salvation can be given to every sinner, just like ourselves, who personally comes to Jesus, seeks His mercy, and receives God grace. We go back to the past in order to move on to the eternal future where faith sets us free from fear, hope handles all our doubts, and love cleanses our sins forever.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He regularily writes a devotional blog called Heaven's Highway.

The illustration was drawn by John. It is called "Lenten Prayer." You can see more of John's liturgical art at his webpage Stushie's Art.