Share The Best Stuff

Here is my daughter, Avery (10), crushing Latin homework on a Thursday morning and enjoying the “Pink Drink” from Starbucks.

On a visit to Starbucks, Avery usually gets one of three drinks, the Pink Drink being one of them.

From the backseat of the car, Avery exclaimed, “This is the best Pink Drink I’ve had!”

She would know. She gets them all of the time.

The next thing she did stunned me. Avery asked her brother and I if we’d like to have some.

Instead of hoarding the best stuff, Avery felt compelled to share it.

Deep down, we know we ought to share the best stuff.

Beastie Boys and Discipleship

Yesterday, Ginger took our kids to a bargain store for some shopping and my oldest, Avery (daughter, 10) came home with a Beastie Boys shirt.

And all of heaven and earth rejoiced! And all of God’s people said, “Mmm drop!”

This morning, we were polishing off the typical Saturday morning donuts and listening to some of the great Beastie Boy hits when it hit me… “Uhhh, I need to skip a few of these songs, for now.”

Avery and Ezra’s entry into Beastie Boy songs needed to be slow; just a bit of sampling for now and we will move on to more songs after they realize more about the world around them.

A little bit for now, to get a start. Then more later.

I feel that it is the same way in Christian discipleship. The Christian life is equated to being born again, starting over, unlearning things, etc. One New Testament writer says that new Christians are like newborn babies who need milk in order to grow in their salvation. (see 1 Peter 2:1-3) One of the goals in the early stages of Christian discipleship is developing rhythms of steady growth that promotes sustainability and longevity in the faith.

Different Christian communities have different starting points for their new participants. Some may try to anchor a new believer into a storied tradition while another might emphasize personal Bible Study. Another might lead them to a contemplative life while another a life of social service. Christianity is a big tradition and we should trust that Christ is in the midst of all of it, even among its faults and discrepancies.

This early phase of discipleship is important, a lot of imprinting of what matters most is conceived during this time. We should take great care as we help our young ones with those first, initial steps.

Something to think about: if a brand new believer wanted to learn about Christ from you, what would you want to convey before anything else?

Feel free to comment below. It’d be fun to hear from you.

The Thing about those chairs from The Voice

The Voice - Season 4
THE VOICE — “Blind Auditions” Episode 405 — Pictured: (l-r) Blake Shelton, Usher, Shakira, Adam Levine, Michelle Raitzin — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)
Preachers in our contemporary moment have used the rotating chairs on The Voice to convey the essence of the grace of God. The basic gist is this:

We are the singer on the stage; God is in the chair. We are trying to earn God’s love like the contestants are trying to sing well enough for one of the hosts to turn their chair around, to tell the singer that they are wanted.

“You don’t need to wait for the chair to turn around,” the preacher aptly says. “God already loves you. And not one of us can earn God’s love, to begin with.”

This is punctuated with a peculiar reading of Ephesians 2:8-10, which suggests that we cannot be saved by “works,” but by grace and faith (which one or both are gifts from God).

This rendering is pleasant and draws our attention to the love of God that we find in Jesus Christ.

My curiosity runs wild, though, while thinking on this, further. Particularly because, as a minister and practicing Christian, this proclamation (though true because it points to Jesus) struggles to carry the freight of transformation within the individual. To use the careful observation of James Bryan Smith, we seem to only become “stabilized” with this “gospel” instead of being healed.

Perhaps it’s because, behind it all, this narrative simply tries to “improve” a narrative that is troubling for us. The human person experiences rejection by his or her parents at some point, mostly out of necessity for the individual to develop a self, not always reliant upon his/her parents for everything. One day, we cry and are not picked up immediately, but are left there all alone.

This deep wound causes us to hustle for approval, whether it is from peers, employers, coaches, parents, etc.

In the proclamation above, however, God becomes a hyper-parent, one who exceeds the limitations of our familial parents, for the chair turns around before we try to earn it, we are rescued from even the attempt of trying to be approved. The initial phase of this new relationship may be pleasant, but the wound isn’t fully addressed. Us and our needs still dominant the center, leading the individual to seek God for what they can get, instead of simply falling in love with God. The individual can actually develop an interesting “humble-pride,” having found a better parent-child relationship than others who have not become Christians.

This salvation might be “therapeutic,” but it might not provoke repentance, in the long run.

What if we could change where everyone is sitting in this metaphor?

What if God is the One on the stage, appealing to God’s world that has walked away? Instead of bailing on the world, God enters its mess to win it back, with a song.

What if we are in the chairs and are exposed to different songs and invitations to experience the fullness of life?

What if, halfway through the show, we hear a peculiar voice, One who speaks of love, sacrifice, faith? The unique shape of the song doesn’t draw our eyes “back” to a distant ideal that existed before we messed up, but “forward” to a day that God is constructed with the ruins of a 1000 broken dreams and disappointments.

As we listen to the song, we can’t help but think that this is the reason why we exist and that, even though the song will help heal us, it also beckons us to sing the song into every broken part of God’s world.

If we reach out to press the button that moves the chair, we sense that it will cause everything to change within us and it will alter how we want to see the world around us.

I can imagine that this song would cause each of us to push the button to turn our chairs around to see the singer and to take in the song. As we do so, we might just say that the whole experience is good news.


JC + Nothing = Everything


I had a conversation in my freshman year of undergraduate school that changed my life. I was one year removed from my youth-group-all-star days, full of passion and zeal, and spending more time praying and listening to Passion worship CDs than studying theology. I was fortunate to live near some patient (and smart) friends who found my energy for the faith endearing (I hope…).

We were all returning from dinner one night when we started to talk of theology. (Yes, we were the coolest kids you’d ever met.) I remember getting impatient with the conversation and exclaiming,

“I don’t care about theology… I just care about Jesus.”

“Who is Jesus?” one of my thoughtful friends, suggested.

“He’s the son of God and messiah of Israel,” I said.

“You’ll have to do a bunch of theology to substantiate that claim. Those statements are so complex and monumental that there answers dwell where angels fear to tread,” He replied. (In all honesty, I don’t think that he said this verbatim, but my embellishments animate how important this conversation was for me.)

My friend was right and I find his comments to be helpful today.

That conversation provoked my theological quests to understand what those confessions about Jesus might have meant from the beginning, and what the faithful, church community has said about them over church history. Relying upon scholarship and research that is more faithful to the original story of Jesus (well, as much as we can know, at least) has led me to new and different ideas about what those same confessions mean and how it informs my commitments for living out the Christian faith.

My initial interest in “just being about Jesus,” was ultimately occupied by so many commitments that may or may not have much to do with the historical Jesus.

This is why I’m concerned, I guess, with the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” sentiment. On the one hand, it’s an endearing confession, one borne out of the common experience of so many Christians, “Can we quit the silly stuff of religion and get going with the stuff that Jesus would want us to do?”

On the other hand, it can be another one of those empty statements that is usually used in an argument between two Christians. It’s an unkind accusation, suggesting that the one Christian has a purer view of Jesus while the other is loading down with a part-time job of blessings their personal commitments.

Here’s the deal… we all load Jesus down with personal commitments.


Our preferred blend of American politics,

Our view about war and conflict,

Our view about possessions,

Our view about our interactions with other people groups,


I’m beginning to think that we naturally want recruit Jesus for our intended purposes if we recognize it or not. What might be more healthy is to admit it when we do it, instead of assuming that everyone else is doing it and we have moved beyond doing it.

Even the Canonical Gospels themselves, illustrating the same historical figure and foundational events, sketch Jesus in a unique tone:

Matthew: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus as the faithful Jew from Abraham and David’s family that can free us from the tyranny of false, Jewish kings like Herod and re-launch God’s promise to Abraham and re-seed Israel within Israel) = Everything

Mark: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the apocalyptic and signs and wonders prophet that will awaken Israel to faithfulness in its God) = Everything

Luke: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the fulfillment to God’s goal in Israel so that Jesus can be the faithful, benevolent representative from Israel to the rest of the Gentile world, too) = Everything

John: Jesus + Nothing (other than the eternal Logos from the Hellenistic tradition because I am preaching to a Gentile world for crying out loud) = Everything

Yes, our Canonical Gospels are shaped by the local expression from communities of Jesus in real zip codes. Real people in real churches facing real… realities.

The early church didn’t seem to be too rattled by such a notion. They deemed Tatian’s attempt to construct one gospel out of the four erroneous because they seemed to like a four-part harmony over-and-against the futile attempt to have a sterile Jesus + Nothing = Everything. The New Testament communities were “incarnational” allowing the God that we find in the incarnate Christ to inhabit every square inch of God’s world, a great, big world.

Talk about Jesus, and talk religion in general, is a high-speed freeway these days. Let’s be careful to look both ways and to refuse to live in an acute denial that we somehow have all of it nailed down.

So here’s my attempt:

Joe: Jesus + Nothing (other than:

Along with over 6 of every 7 people who wake up today, I want there to be a God. I find the One God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

A good God who punctuates every second with hope. Even though there are signs of entropy in this life, there are also signs of resurrection to which Jesus is the only rationale for such a happening.

I believe that the human life fully lived is one where I can give a gift “without why” and to also receive life as a gift without a debt. I wasn’t born with that framework, I’ve been shaped to expect life to be the opposite of that. So, I believe practicing the way of Jesus energizes me to live life differently.

I believe that the world is bending towards a renewal, even from within its own mess, where beauty, justice, spirituality, and community will be its norms and where faith, hope, and love will be its song.

Among a host of others things for another time.)

= Everything



Settlers: TV Ad and the Church


We’ve been watching a lot of football around the Skillen home and we’ve loved a few of the advertising campaigns that we’ve seen in the commercial breaks.

Our favorite: The Settler’s.

I think that these are not only funny ads, but they remind me of who we can be as the Church, at times.

  1. We tend to think that there isn’t much that we need to adjust in order to move ahead in a changing world. This impulse to resist change is more precisely found in a contentment to continue what we know rather than a fear of try something new.
  2. The Church is not “old,” but at times people feel like they are stepping back in time while interacting with our communities.
  3. Outsiders may look at the people in their lives who go to church in a sympathetic way, rather than with disdain. A generation ago, when people quoted 1 Peter 3:15 they’d paraphrase by saying, “Be prepared to give a defense (an apologia) for the hope that you have.” In our time, it appears to be said a bit differently: Be prepared to give a reason…” Non-churchgoers seem to wonder, “You mean, after scientific inquiry, hyper-religious-and-political-ideology, constant apocalyptic paranoia, scandals and controversies, etc… you still go to church? What’s your reason?”

The answer going forward isn’t as easy as dumping all of the old stuff for the newest thing nor is it to resist the new for the “tried and true ways.” The way of Jesus has always been attracted to “treasures old and new,” a great mashup of what has gone before us while not being afraid to creatively interact with the present and anticipated future.

James D.G. Dunn suggests that this is one of the compelling ideas of the gospel, that it is both a tradition and a revelation. On the one hand, Paul suggested that the gospel was “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15) and, on the other hand, a “revelation” that no one person revealed to him. (Galatians 1)

The church functions as its best when it can be accurate in its curating of the past, all-the-while agile enough to navigate the contours of the arriving future.





The Mirror in the Other

I’ve been doing some work for a sermon for next Sunday that will reflect on the story of Jesus and his parents meeting Simeon in the temple courts of Jerusalem just 8 days after Jesus’ birth. (see Luke 2:22-40)

Jesus’ parents were fulfilling their purification obligations as good Jewish parents when they were interrupted by Simeon, a “righteous and devout” man who had been promised that he’d see Israel’s Messiah before he passed away.

We should note this dramatic change in scenery as they meet Simeon. The first few verses are shaped by tradition, law, and ritual… Mary and Joseph are sticking to the book that is steady, timeless, and predictable.

Simeon’s presence, on the other hand, is “spirited.” Note the way Luke mentions Simeon’s response to the Holy Spirit three times in as many verses. (verses 25-27) Not mention this outstanding promise Simeon was given… that he wouldn’t die until the Messiah was born? Imagine being Simeon’s friend who heard of this outrageous promise that Simeon was given and the corresponding commitment Simeon had to bear in these waning years of his life.

Simeon saw Jesus, invaded the young family’s “personal space,” and spoke wonderful words of life and truth over Jesus. I can imagine that his family had mixed reactions to Simeon’s words for they were not only comfort but also warning and woe.

Earlier in Luke, a similar affirmation was given over John the Baptist when he was born, but it was from his father Zechariah in the form of a song. Jesus is celebrated, not by a family member, but by a complete stranger.

There is something to be said about receiving affirmation from someone that you’ve known for your entire life. They’ve been able to see “all of you,” the ups and the downs and have hung around long enough to see you grow up.

I’ve also noticed that some of the most familiar people in our lives, and some of our biggest fans, have a hard time allowing us to grow up… they have the temptation seeing us solely in the image of who we’ve been earlier in life. That type of pressure can be unhelpful and impossible to uphold.

Therefore, its important to allow our wings to be spread out, in some way, to get around “the other” in order to see ourselves within their reflection, too. We don’t need to abandon where we’ve come from, but we also do not need to allow our village to cast the only vote in our lives.

Perhaps this early encounter with Simeon in the Temple only 8 days in Jesus’ early life paved the way for his second visit to Jerusalem, some 12 years later, where he was able to capture a bit more of what was ahead for him, to allow his reflection to be seen “in his father’s house” among the wise and learned as they all shared their knowledge of God.

Our aim is to never betray where we’ve come from and, at the same time, allow the reflections of the stranger to be as comforting as parental blessing.

Something More from the Sermon: Presumption


I listened, with gladness, to Pastor Vic’s sermon yesterday to launch our church into the Advent season. Yesterday, we lit the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that Jesus’ arrival did not appear out of thin air, nor did the early followers of Jesus invent it. God’s purpose and plan was something that was whispered and hinted at from the very beginning.

Vic’s treatment of John the Baptist’s ministry, as it is mentioned in Luke 3, was important for me and for our congregation to consider. John came to give a warning, to prepare a highway through rough and uncertain terrain.

His baptism of repentance was striking in so many ways.

  • Only non-Jews were baptized in 1st century Judaism. Outsiders needed to be cleansed in order to participate in the life of the community. John’s urgent call for all to be baptized signaled a clear message: it doesn’t matter what family you were born into; we are all outsiders and we need to think again about how we are living life.
  • This baptism was taking place “along the Jordan River” instead of Jerusalem and John believed that this baptism was for the “forgiveness of sins.” That type of transaction was supposed to take place in view of official priesthood in the shadow of Israel’s Temple. But here is John, breaking out holiness in the wilderness. This bold move had political, religious, and economical implications.

I suggest that the heart of John’s critique of Jewish insiders was their presumption for being in Abraham’s family, that their national identity gave them some sort of certainty within the life of God. John is clear, the fruit of one’s life is the determining factor of whether or not one is located within this community.

Presumption is a powerful force. A man can presume that he and his spouse have a romantic relationship because they sleep in the same bed and share meals together. A mother can presume to have a good relationship with her child because they “talk” everyday. A worker can presume to have a certain standing within a company because he has worked their for a certain amount of years.

Those outside of the faith struggle with the sins of pride claiming that they don’t need a god in order to have an ultimate ground of being.

Those inside the faith struggle with sins of presumption, claiming that affiliation is the same as participation.

John’s riverside chats are haunting and I must admit that his message stings and spooks. As not only a religious person but also a professional Christian, John’s words have pointed me to Paul’s haunting words to the Corinthian church,

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5)

May our craving to inhabit the life of Jesus exceed even our desire to be affiliated with the community of faith.

May God see us as faithful servants, not merely enthusiasts.