Skillen Family News

Here is a quick news update from the Skillen family.

On November 10th, I shared with Advent Presbyterian Church that our family would be leaving the Memphis area at the end of the year and will be relocating to our hometown Wichita, KS. In Wichita, I’ll be joining the Eastminster Presbyterian Church staff as an Assistant Pastor. Pastor Stan shared the news with Eastminster this past week.

This decision came with a heavy heart. It’s been a thrill to serve on the Advent Presbyterian staff. We have done great ministry together over the past 2.5 years and we have made friends that we will have for a lifetime. My favorite thing about Advent is how they follow Jesus with great intention and a light-hearted attitude. Advent has taught me so much about how to love God and to serve others. I will be forever grateful for the ways that I have been shaped as a Christian and as a pastor.

The decision came down to desiring to be near family, many of whom are situated in the South Central Kansas area. The chance to live near family is one that is near impossible to pass up. We are grateful for this wonderful opportunity to do so.

I’ll remain on Advent’s staff until the end of the year, which I am grateful for. Our family gets to enjoy one more Christmas season with that wonderful family of believers.

That’s all the news from Lake Wobegon. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday Post: Healing Prayer

I send out a weekly email to Advent to preview the weekend. I thought I’d begin to post it on my personal blog, as well:

A few months ago, Advent engaged in a study series called “This is Us” which highlighted five, critical practices for the Christian life in a post-Christian era. Those practices are highlighted in a short book Surprise the World by Michael Frost. For those who did not get a chance to read that book, we have a few more copies in our office area that we’d like to share with you.

Frost organizes these practices in the form of a handy acronym: B.E.L.L.S:

Bless three people each week, including one person who is not a church member

Eat with three people each week, including one person who is not a church member

Learn the way of Jesus by studying God’s word (especially the New Testament Gospels) each week

Listen to the Spirit by connecting with God through prayer and following through with how He leads you

Sending oneself into God’s world as a person on mission, not just hanging in the “Holy Huddle” of church life

 

As a pastor, I often wonder how far this series would go before it is placed in the library of sermons that we hear within church life. A few of the questions that fill my mind are:

  • Would it be good for just one month of Sundays?

  • Or will it “get legs” and continue to travel within the social consciousness of our church?

  • How could we have equipped our church to life into this more deeply during the series?

  • How much money would it cost to hire Michael Frost to fly over from Australia to speak at Advent so we have more exposure to this paradigm? (I don’t know about you, but the Australian accent makes things sound more convincing.)

 

I’ve been thrilled to hear the language (and practices) being used. Here are a few that come immediately to mind:

  • I hear of people going out of their way to bless others.

  • I am stoked by over 100 participants in the “Eating with Eight” event, recognizing it as a vital way of connection and fellowship.

  • I am amazed that our Cordova Wednesday EPIC curriculum will cover Jesus’ words in the Beattitudes of Matthew 5.

  • Just this past Tuesday, there were two groups discussing how clean water projects could be funded by Advent.

  • This Sunday, our Honduras mission team will host an information meeting for those interested in travelling as short term missionaries.

As we continue in our Vitals sermon series this weekend, we have another chance to participate with BELLS. Our governing theme for the sermon will be “the Heart of Christ,” that compassionate, merciful heart that never ceased to bind up the brokenhearted and to set captives free.

One unique way we will do that this weekend during worship is to pray for those seeking healing from God at the end of each worship service at the Cordova campus. Matthew 9 says that Jesus saw the multitudes and he “had compassion” on them and that he healed their sicknesses and diseases. The New Testament encourages the on-going ministry of healing prayer for the church, with specific instructions in James 5. At the conclusion of the worship services, the Elders and I will anoint anyone seeking healing with oil and pray that God would minister his healing work in their lives. We encourage those of you seeking healing to join us this Sunday and to bring loved ones that you have been praying for, as well.

 

 

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What I am Currently Reading: God’s Long Summer by Charles Marsh

What I am Currently Watching: Season 9 of The Office

What I am Currently Listening To: The UnSeminary Podcast

An App I Find Helpful: Apple News

Creative Minority (Book) – 6 Practices

I’m working my way through A Creative Minority by Tyson and Grizzle. It’s a neat little book that is worth the read for leaders within the church. I highly recommend it.

The authors are seeking to persuade the modern-day Church, which is diminishing in participation and power, to resist the urge to seek “cultural dominance” or to daydream of recovering its “unrealistic and nostalgic past.” Instead, seeking to be a counter-community within the world, not removed from it, or as Karl Barth suggested:

The church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way that is full of promise.

This counter-community must have two elements, working in tandem: radical dissimilarity and hopeful promise. There’s a good chance that if you or I have participated in a community that makes much of Jesus, we would recognize these two elements.

The authors provide 6 characteristics of this type of community. I’ll cover those in two different posts, later.

This content reminds me of a Facebook conversation that Ginger and I were in several years ago. I can’t remember the exact subject that sparked the “delightful” back-and-forth, but I do remember an interesting perspective that someone shared.

“Jesus didn’t ask us to win a popularity contest… Jesus told us to be ‘in the world, but not of it.'”

This person’s sincere sentiment is relatively helpful, as a reminder that any of us can be susceptible to waning faithfulness in order to be accepted by outsiders. However, to base one’s entire life on picking the least popular thing doesn’t always lead to a faithful end, either. Even though the earliest Christians picked the least popular option of defying the Temple leadership, they also enjoyed the favor of all people. (Acts 2:42-47) Their risky unpopularity pointed to a greater, distinct, and redemptive reality. I have always enjoyed this idea from NT Wright,

“Jesus said that his kingdom was not from this world, but it is certainly for this world.”

The outworking of that takes some creative ingenuity, a lot of prayer, and some guts. May we find ourselves dedicated to such a task.

Skillen Family News: Tennessee (“You’re the only 10 I see”)

In a word: Tennessee

In a sentence: Earlier today, Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova and Arlington, TN voted to receive me as their next Senior Pastor.

In a paragraph (or two): Where do we begin? It was only two, short years ago that we joined Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta to join their fantastic staff. These two years have been fast and slow at the same time. Fast, because we had so much meaningful work to engage in together. Slow, because I feel like the Skillen 4 have learned so much and have grown by leaps and bounds.

Peachtree- you have been good and kind and thoughtful and blissful and delightful and (insert other such adjectives here). We’ve enjoyed the richness of your history as well as your spontaneity to be a Christ-centered church in a changing environment. To say that we’ve learned much from you is a mere understatement. We are going to miss your energy, your thoughtfulness, and your love. It might be a tad dramatic to compare our exit from you to Paul’s exit from Ephesus in Acts where they had to “pry one another apart” from that last embrace, but that’s certainly how we feel today. We will miss you to an incredible depth of our hearts.

Advent- when our family visited Memphis and your church for worship, we were so struck by how your church and your city remind us a bit of both Wichita and Atlanta. Advent, you are a synthesis of what we have known. As we join your community soon, we are beginning to let our imaginations run wild about what “could be.” God is good and will continue to show his goodness towards us in the days to come.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the reason he chose the Church was because it was a place with an order where “good things could run wild.” Wherever we find ourselves, we must see to it that we put our hands to such an phenomenon. We have certainly seen that in the lives of our Peachtree family and we look forward to such moments at Advent.

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Joe, Ginger, Avery, Ezra (and Cooper and Daphne)

Presentation Day

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February 2nd is traditionally set apart to remember the day that Jesus was carried to the Temple by his parents for his dedication. I find it interesting that Groundhog Day is the same day, for both express an unveiling of sorts as to what could happen in the days ahead.

There’s a great juxtaposition in the story of Jesus’ presentation. There’s probably a good chance that Jesus’ poor parents had trouble purchasing the two pigeons required for the offering, yet they held the priceless gift of salvation in their arms as they made their journey to worship. Salvation was closer to the poor and uneducated rather than the rich and elite class of Israel.

We tend to look outside of us for help in confusing times and the current day is no different. We tend to look up higher for someone “up there” to take care of us “down here.” The presentation day narrative from Luke 2 retrains our salvation-seeking ways: we need to look down and around for help, too.

An extra-biblical source, The Acts of Peter, conveys a similar idea,

“Unless you make what is right left, and what is left right, what is above into what is below, and what is behind into what is in front, you will not learn to know the Kingdom.”

To this end, I’ve begun to use different language as I pray in order to help my salvation-seeking pursuit. Instead of just praying “God Almighty,” I’m not choosing to say, “God among us.” Along with praying to “the King of Kings,” I am praying to “the Humble King.” I can already tell that this type of identification with God is causing me to see the world differently.

In an era where we frantically “troll” and “scroll” we need to come up with some better practices to search for answers, for help. For the most part, trolling and scrolling make us act sub-humanly. Being present and attentive to all, whether it is a short conversation in line at Publix or a phone call with someone we haven’t heard from in some time, helps us re-negotiate with the world around us and it helps us to see the signs pointing toward salvation that we’ve overlooked and missed.

What do you think? Could we all entertain the idea that sacred moments can be in disguise among the common elements of life? It’s worth taking a look, I’d say.

Start-Ups: Something More From the Sermon

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Yesterday we wrapped up our Fall parable series with a bang! I enjoyed sharing from Jesus’ parable of the 10 Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). This parable is unique to Matthew and is placed at the end for rhetorical purposes.

Robert Farrar Capon suggests that Matthew organizes the parables of Jesus into a progression of 3 phases:

  • Parables of the Kingdom (“Hey, look! A new Ruler is in charge and the rules have changed!”)
  • Parables of Grace (“You can only enter into this new kingdom by admitting that you cannot earn it, but it is only by the sheer grace of Jesus.”)
  • Parables of Judgment (“Hey, if you don’t want to enter into this kingdom and respond to this kind invitation, that’s on you. It’s time to make up your mind. Just know that you will be left out.”)

The way Matthew organizes the material and makes this appeal and warning of judgment is compelling. There’s a good chance that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience after Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in the war between 66-70AD. There’s a good chance, then, that the Jewish community had asked big questions about their future existence. Is Israel gone? Has God moved on after struggling with us for so long?

Matthew’s entire gospel can be boiled down into a single idea: the living God has not given up on Israel but has sent Jesus of Nazareth to fulfill Israel’s vocation and to bear the pain of it’s disobedience. God is re-seeding Israel from within it. This time, the faithful community will give Abraham what he was promised: a worldwide family. (Genesis 12, 17, 19, etc…)

What hope or evidence can Matthew provide to Israel in their time of searching?

This is just a thought. As we trace the themes of these closing parables, it seems that, after Jerusalem’s fall, the worship of Yahweh took more of a mobile, agile shape. Perhaps in a modern metaphor, God is likened to an investor Who is searching for start-up organizations to invigorate with wisdom and grace.

In Matthew 25:1-13, there are 10 wedding guests, 5 of which are wise and patient who are rewarded for their diligence. They haven’t earned it; they are only included because of the gift of invitation, but that invitation inspired them to endure.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (the infamous Sheep and Goats parable) we see a similar idea. God visits with two groups of people and rewards them on the basis of their work. The “Sheep” however, are unaware that they’ve been serving God all along. God has been in disguise as they carried out their selfless work. This group of people did not feel compelled to do these things because they knew God was watching; they did it “without a why.” Their work was, as philosophy would suggest, “unconditional.” Therefore, God sought them out and invested in their initiatives.

As that early, small, and courageous church faced its 1st century world, they had many questions and fears, I’m sure. What invigorated their work was the hope that God would empower them in spite of the lack of social or political power. And God did. Their start-ups changed the world.

Perhaps this could be encouragement for us, too. We are in a moment of profound complexity (even confusion) as to what the church should do in connection with the systems of power in our world. We have to be honest, the church’s dependence and collusion with power has short-circuited our ability to model the faithful life with it. Our political rhetoric is laughable, perhaps even a bit embarrassing.

Perhaps we’ll consider this early Galilean vision for our current day. Maybe the nameless, powerless start-up initiatives that we invest in during our slow, daily walks with God will be met by matchless grace and power.

 

Something More from the Sermon: Transformation

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Yesterday, we continued our Parables series and spent the morning examining the ramifications of Matthew’s “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.” (Matthew 20:1-16) Although much of the action revolves around the workers invited to work in a vineyard, my contention is that we should focus our attention on the vineyard owner character, too.

Many of us know the story: a vineyard owner went to the marketplace to hire day laborers, a common reality in Jesus’ day (and our own). Jesus shared that the owner went out several times the same day (6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and finally 5pm) to employ workers for the field. The vineyard owner seems stingy early in this story, employing as few workers as possible, perhaps to protect overhead costs and seeking to keep as much as he could for himself instead of employment costs.

We are surprised, then, when the vineyard owner decides to pay all workers the same wage at the end of the day, regardless of the amount of time the workers actually logged in the field. When the vineyard owner is critiqued by the 6am workers, who worked the entire day and received the same amount as the ones hired last at 5pm, he exclaims:

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” (Matthew 20:15)

We can see that the vineyard owner has been in control the whole time. Early in the parable, however, he seems stingy with his money, which actually was beneficially to this early, 6am labor force. Towards the end of the parable, however, his desire to be lavishly generous to all flattened the local labor force to include the stragglers in the market who had been excluded in the day’s work force (for obvious reasons).

Why the sudden change of heart?

My suggestion is that the vineyard owner was transformed when he engaged the forgotten and vulnerable workers in the marketplace at 5pm. Prior to this exchange, he’s following the art of exploitation: hire as few as possible, for as little time as possible. Be scrupulous in the amount you actually have to pay. Cut corners when needed, bend the rules in your favor.

When he actually looked into the eyes of other, vulnerable humans, though, his mind changed. His mind was opened. His wallet was opened, too. His desire to pay the vulnerable a super-abundant wage was an over-aching declaration: there are new rules in this vineyard; this will be a business for the sake of others.

This embrace of the vulnerable, however, includes an exclusion of others. Miroslav Volf has told us that every embrace has its implied exclusion, too. The 6am-ers, who benefited by the old rules are now victims of the new rules. The vineyard ruler suggests that their “envy” of his “generosity” is preventing them to see the greater vision. (Matthew 20:15)

What would be interesting would be to see the next scene in this story, perhaps “a morning after,” the parable. Imagine how the interaction between the vineyard owner and the 6am workers would go down the next day in the market. I wonder if the 6am-ers would resist the vineyard owner’s invitation to go work in his field on the day after? Would they resist the potential to earn their own day’s wage in his field because they could not handle the fact that someone might work less hours and receive the same wage?

We could conclude, then, that there is potential transformation in both the vineyard owner and in the 6am-ers, who sought to take advantage of the vineyard owner’s budding generosity. (compare the initial contract in Matthew 20:1-2 and their “opportunistic” expectation in Matthew 20:10)

Grace has the tendency to bring this type of transformation and clarity. Grace causes some of us to spend our lives for the sake of all others or the potential cause us to be utterly disgusted by its abundant “waste.”

I wonder if this might be a lingering issue for the Christian faith, too. Would we (like the 6am-ers) resist God’s offer of salvation for our lives as we consider that God also desires to forgive/restore/save those who we feel morally superior to?

The gospel is the grand invitation to consider that there is a new Ruler in our world and, because of that transfer of power, the rules of how the world runs has changed, too. May we respond to that invitation and be transformed by its profound work.