Brokering Forgiveness


I was in Starbucks last week and it was crowded. It is winter in Atlanta so people had large coats on as the tried to weave in between tables that were too close to one another. In the process of time, a woman knocked over another woman’s coffee as she passed by her table. Coffee was spilled everywhere. The woman whose coffee was spilled was upset because of the spill AND because it didn’t seem that the other woman either knew that she had spilled it or that she even cared about what happened.

I saw the whole thing go down and I felt like I needed to do something. Should I go buy the woman a new coffee so it is replaced? Should I also tell the woman who spilled the coffee what she did whether she knew about it or not? Ultimately I wondered if it was any of my business? The woman with spilled coffee could’ve talked to the other woman herself if she wanted to, I guess. I was in the middle; I felt helpless on the one hand and uneasy, wanting to do something on the other.

I believe that we find ourselves in the middle of two fractured parties often. Whether it is two neighbors within disagreement, two people at work who are angry with one another, or a couple of family members who are not speaking to one another. We constantly feel the pull of wanting to do something, not wanting to “meddle in another’s business,” and wondering if it is better to keep our eyes down and just let it play out.

We live in an angry world. Don’t believe me, open your Facebook account and scroll down the feed. Currently political candidates are being rewarded for saying loud, abusive things rather than proving that they could create a productive, political environment. I saw this clip on the Dan LeBatard show and I found agreement in his thesis statement: we are angry people. We pick up the pitchfork, light our torches, get angry, AND THEN go look for something to be angry about.

Perhaps the gift that the Christian community can give to our angry world is the hope of forgiveness and repair. Isn’t it interesting that Paul writes to his friend Philemon in a desperate attempt to broker forgiveness between he and Onesimus. It was upsetting to Paul that two of his friends were at odds. Paul is not seeking his own forgiveness but desiring to create a forgiving environment for others. Paul had a big gospel, one that extended his own quest for forgiveness and imagined a healed cosmos.

May we be those healers, those “shalomists” in a world full of terrorists of every kind of stripe and practice.


Something more from the Sermon: Poems and PowerPoints


Yesterday, we were looking at the story of Adam and Eve from Genesis 2 and 3, and exploring the theological/philosophical/sociological idea of “goodness.” I had a great time with this sermon. It was really the first time I was given a green light to talk about Adam and Eve in a sermon format.

First, a note of correction. I went on and on about the Hebrew word for “woman” in Genesis 2 and pronounced it incorrectly at 2nd service. It is “ish-ah” not “ish-ma.” 1000 apologies.

I spent a bit of time (not enough) looking at how Paul outlined redemption in Ephesians 2:1-10. In verse 10, Paul called Christians the “handiwork” of God. The Greek word poiema rings of something like “poem.”

So, I made a point to say that we are God’s “poems and not God’s PowerPoint presentations.” I didn’t have time to work all of that idea out. Such a theopoetic, rather than a precise-critical statement, needs a bit more work to convey the meaning.

Poems and PowerPoints are both mediums of communication. Truth is conveyed in each. However, we’d agree that there are certainly things that are suited for PowerPoints and things that are suited for Poems.

It’s my contention that much of Christianity is expressed through a PowerPoint-type of communication. (Note: I’m referring to the essence of communication rather than churches actually using the Microsoft program, itself.) Christianity is presented as facts, with coined sayings and predictable habits in a PowerPoint format. There is nothing wrong with presenting Christianity in a “just the facts, ma’am,” format. We simply need to be reminded that the medium is the message, too.

I want to be involved in a Christianity of the Poem, where a wider variety of vocabulary, imagery, and prose is leveraged to present its meaning. We are talking about the greatest story ever told, aren’t we? We might as well use all that we can to get the job done.

To put it another way. Do you remember that powerful scene in the film Contact where a Jodie Foster’s character, a scientist, looks out of a window from her space ship at the expanse of the universe? She kept repeating the phrase, “They should have sent a Poet. I have no words. So beautiful… so beautiful…”

There are so many things in life that a scientist can explain and we are grateful for them. There are other things, things which our words have trouble containing (and places where angels fear to tread), where we need the gifts of a poet to draw us closer.

Imagine, then, attempting to describe the micro and macro redemptive works that God does in this world. A poem may be fuzzy and it may escape our complete comprehension, but it certainly is enough to lead us to worship such an amazing God.

Each of us is a poem, one that the Creator is crafting through our windy road of experiences. Perhaps the role of the Church is to simply to help curate the process of each life around us and to allow God’s peculiar presence to be experienced through the careful construction of each story.

33 of my Favorite Birthday Salutations

I turned 33 today, so I thought I’d share my 33 favorite messages from FB, Twitter, and text messaging. Birthday salutations mean a lot to people so I thought that I’d say thanks to 33 of my favorites. If you didn’t make the cut this year, see ya next August 25.


Pictures add a bit of style points to the birthday salutation.

Al Schoonover, Barb Lenz, and Mom put these up:image image image





























The first post on FB came from Ukraine, Pastor Ignatenko Vadim, – “Happy birthday, and God’s blessings to you, Joe!”

Ukrainians have a way of sharing awesome birthday wishes, check out this one from my friend Valentina from Kiev – “I want to wish to you AWESOME productive and successful year, full of challenges (good ones), smiles, adventures, trips, family, love, great friends.”

Ryan Wallace sent me one last night. It was great because he used Hebrew, “mazoltoph.” It sure beats his usual, “Have a good one,” without the words Happy Birthday. Way to evolve, R Dub.

There have been apologetic ones. Rick Bartlett saw me at the Chiropractor before he knew it was my birthday and said, later, “Can’t believe I didn’t say Happy Birthday when I saw you this AM. Sorry and hope you have a great day!” He appears to be giving me a book to smooth it over.

Jenny Bradley, always with the flair of theology and humor, said, “I can’t think what birthday is in Greek. But have a happy one.”

A couple of folks used my given nickname in their salutation. BJJ coach extraordinaire Jake Fox said, “Happy Birthday Rev!” while Andy Williamson used an oldie but always a goodie, “Happy Birthday big BABY!” Long story…

My cousin Jessica Martin put two “Happys” in her salutation. We can always use a few more “happys,” right?

Mr. Mike Strong was, and is always, pragmatic, “Joe, it’s your birthday! Happy Birthday!!!”

Dr. Steve Marsh went late-90’s, chat style, using all lowercase in his message.

My new friend Chef O, on the other hand, used all uppercase letters.

Two of the funniest dudes I know, Kyle W. Croak and Terry Johnson, had the same message, “Happy Birthday, man.”

Megan Wohler took the extra time to say happy birthday to “Dr. Joe Skillen.” A little respect goes a long way… Brad Glanville said that at church yesterday, too.

Christy Bosma and Dabria VanGieson posted on FB at the same time with the exact same message, “Happy Birthday Joe! Have a great day!” Dabria added another “!” at the end of her message, though. Advantage: Dabria.

Tim Gibson, who is older than me, called me “OLD man.” I think that how my body feels today would suggest that he has a point.

My friend Aaron Coleman killed two birds with one stone, thanking me for a couple of audio sermons that I sent him as he wished me happy birthday. I ain’t mad at him. Andrew Young did the same thing, asking if the Starbucks that I go to would allow him to advertise for his studio. Hey everyone, go to Andrew Young with Potentials Music for voice and piano lessons!

A lot of folks said, “have a great day!” Kristy Jackson, on the other hand, used “fabulous” in her greeting. Great is… great. Fabulous, however, seemed have a bit more pop in it today, for some reason.

Hank Blase is an attorney and he said that I should take time to do something fun on my day. I’m sure that he could find a way to say it is illegal to do otherwise.

In that light, Debby Rogers said that I should party like a rock star, meaning, “have a great time with your family and friends while counting your blessings more than naming your sorrows.” Well played, Debby.

The cool thing about FB posting one’s birthday is that it allows me to feel connected to others that I haven’t heard from in a bit. Thanks for connecting DeWayne Sykes, Amanda Carrillo,  Bradley Haddock, and Alan Williams. The list could go on and on with this one.

These were birthday salutations that I received before 10am today. I know that a pile of them will come in the rest of the day, too. I am so blessed. This is not counting the impromptu singing at church yesterday or the fantastic time at my friends Steve and Lori Cloud’s home last night. I get to celebrate with my family next weekend… two weekends worth of birthday stuff. Amazing.


My 3 favorite salutations, though, were art projects from my kids, Avery and Ezra, and a sweet card from my wife, Ginger. I got to take Avery to school today and, before she burst into the classroom, she gave me a big hug and kiss and wished me happy birthday. Her teacher saw her do this and raved about how sweet Avery is.

That’s right, Ginger and I have great kids, an awesome family, great friends, and a full life.

St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is the human, fully alive.” Birthdays allow us to capture a piece of what that type of life looks like. So, for all of the kindness that everyone has shown to me, I pray that it would return to you all.


I’m (almost) 32, as well

My name is Joe Skillen and I am (almost) 32. I am also a nobody. Twitter allows folks like me to have a vantage point that we might not have had a few years ago.

There are a couple of writers out there who are also 32 and whom I think show a contour of what other 32 year olds are experiencing as they seek to speak of Jesus, Christianity, and our cultural moment.

Rachel Held Evans wrote a provocative piece that landed on the CNN Belief Blog this past Sunday examining the particular challenge the church has engaging the Millennial audience. Evans, who claimed to barely be a Millennial, speaks regularly for the Millennial mood to church leaders who are wondering how the church will engage this audience in the present and the future. After the article was posted on Sunday I saw it reposted on my Facebook friend’s timelines numerous times. Many of these reposts shared affirmation with Evans’ thoughts, yet some shared their disagreements with her words as well.

Yesterday, Trevin Wax from The Gospel Coalition, also 32, posted a response to Evans’ article. He spent the first few paragraphs attempting to find common ground with Evans and then offered a critical critique of her article, suggesting that the Millennial generation’s plight is grounded on their desire to make church “a mirror” of what they want without a full dedication to biblical holiness and to the biblical Jesus.

Both of these authors are 32, are highly educated, are published authors, show tremendous dedication to being a faithful witness of Jesus in our cultural moment, and have a tremendous audience.

Why do they go in different directions with their “common” observations of the Millennials and church?

As a fellow 30-something in a ministry context, I would suggest that we all learn something along the way. We have to make a commitment in one of two (general) directions. It can be quite awkward to have to make this choice. It feels like those moments when someone throws a ball you and you don’t know whether you should catch it with your hands cupped on your belly or hands in front of your face, all-the-while knowing that you need to do something because the ball is coming.


One direction of commitment is to hand off the tradition that you were handed. This commitment has many benefits, including camaraderie with peers (both older and younger), more job opportunities, less critique (from people that “matter”), and security.

This commitment can be painful, however. Inevitably the tradition that we are handed doesn’t make complete sense to us. Indeed, there is a germ we have in our 20’s and 30’s that resembles a John Mayer refrain “Who Says…” But, if we are committed to the tradition we probably should not ask those questions and should not speak up unless we are spoken to first. These traditions have ways of finding out potential detractors and helping them to change their minds or “assimilating” them out of the system.

Open Source

The other direction of commitment is to “lean into” the “Who Says,” germ and to make your own way, to bring progress to current discussions and to help start new ones. Instead of hiding discrepancies within our inherited tradition, we talk about them openly, provide some other alternatives vantage points, and make some space for others (internally) struggling within these systems to talk about them, as well.

This commitment seems exciting, but there is no money in it, especially if you are not able to find a tribe of those who have an affinity for your thoughts. Commitment this way also sets one up for continuous criticism and, as Evans has experienced, landing on your parent’s church’s “prayer request” list because of your “interesting” ideas.

This is what I see in the exchange with Evans and Wax, each of them embracing a commitment to one of these two directions. Evans, given her chance to share her thoughts in a space that would “hear” it, allows a perspective that many Millennial Christians feel needs to be expressed and considered. Wax, a leading voice in a tradition, has to provide a critique, just in case Millennials would consider Evans’ ideas.

The pleasant part of this setup is that it creates a “greenhouse” of conversation. There are voices that are pushing the edges, pulling things from the shadows into the light so that they can be discussed along with other voices that are looking backwards at where we have come from in order to caution us to remain faithful to those who were faithful before us.

The unfortunate thing about this setup is how one-dimentional voices become. On the one hand, someone “always” has to say something earth-shattering while the other “always” has to be reactionary, waiting for someone to “fall out of line” in order to be useful, to put our training to good use and to put them in their place.

One always has to be ready to say something new, provocative, and sensational, while the other has to tow the party line. One has to write and speak and provoke with a neck-breaking pace while the other has to observe, retweet, and remind at an even more efficient rate.

This is where, I suggest, most 30-somethings are in ministry contexts. We are being pushed into molds by both systems and internal promptings. We are in a struggle that consists of being aware that we need to pay the bills, but also the hope that one day we may not always have to hide the things that we are currently wrestling with in private.

You can find us memorizing nomenclature that helps us fit in, all-the-while reading books we “shouldn’t”, hiding them on e-readers or disguising the dust jackets. We seek to pastor well, not trying to implode the embedded theologies of our congregation members, all-the-while asking God to help us make sense of a new ministry context that none of our professors, pastors, or leaders wanted to suggest has risen among us as we were preparing for ministry.

We are among you, and if I could speak on behalf of all of us, we’d like to create, grow, suggest, remind, consider, and minister without having to be pushed into the molds of always being progressive or always being critical.

I might be looking for you…

Long story short- I’ve been working on following the Book of Common Prayer, a daily schedule of prayer and scripture reading set within the different “timezones” of the church year. One of the brilliant things of daily prayer and readings is that it allows the worshipper to not be contained within the “timezones” and cycles of the dominant culture. Consumerism has its seasons and it has seized us as a culture. The BCP and the Lectionary (daily scripture readings in 3 year cycles) allows us to occupy a different time, literally.

A significant challenge that I see people like me face continually is the opportunity to be captured by a dream, story, narrative that exists outside of this present moment. The axiom, “all we have is the present,” can be helpful and is intensely theological. However, people can be trapped in the present; the “tyranny of the urgent” can be suffocating. Trapped in the present for days, months, and years is literally stealing our dreams.

Len Sweet has said that the future is the Christian’s native timezone, not so much that we are waiting for a future day to finally get us “out of here.” Rather, we are already experiencing moments of vibrant, eternal life now knowing that God’s future is bursting into our present. Indeed, Christians lean forward.

So, I am issuing a challenge. I’m looking for a person who is looking ahead. In particular, I’m looking for a person who envisions planting a church in a foreign country within the next 12 months. This person doesn’t just have a dream. I’m looking for a person who, even though they occupy this current moment, are already stretching into the future, someone who is “already” on foreign soil, putting the plan into action.

Even though this is not official “church business” at FCC, I want to do whatever I can to get you there. You need me and honestly, I need you, because you are someone who is inspiring and someone who is shattering the present-tense trap.

Am I looking for you?

Fun Things About Ministry, Post #1

I’ve been thinking about some of the fun things that I get to do as a pastor. Not everything that a pastor does is fun. Along with countless other vocations, pastoral ministry is challenging and there are things about it that are difficult. So, I thought for the next few days I’d highlight a few things that have noticed about my recent experience of being a pastor that are thoroughly enjoyable.

#5- Encouraging Parents

The obvious: parenting is challenging. I feel that being a parent has the potential to bring out the best and the worst in someone, sometimes in the same 24 hour period. Parents have the potential to carry a lot of condemnation about their parenting. It feels like culture takes a routine opportunity to suggest that many ills in our world are from poor parenting. That may be the case. But, hearing that over and over again takes its toll on the human heart. Parents are acutely aware of times that they have stumbled as a parent; those memories do not fade very easily.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a voice, an other perspective “pick up” these dear ones in our communities?

A Spoken Word artist Listener wrote a song called “Wooden Heart” with the opening line, “We’re all born to broken people on their most honest day of livin’.”

Being a parent has the potential to be a great “eye-opener” to what is important. People who are not parents have similar experiences without kids. But, I imagine under the relatively “normal” circumstances, when a parent welcomes a child into the world, it is indeed a “proud and honest moment.”

Imagine how that proud and honest moment could turn into a constant reminder of struggle, pain, mistakes made, and loss.

Yeah, our parents need to be picked up. They need to have someone grab both of their shoulders and look deep into their souls and confess, “You’re doing a great job. Keep it up.” Much like a coach who wraps his/her arm around a player that has just missed an opportunity in the game, parents need someone to remind them that the game is not over yet, to brush off the dust, to join the huddle, to get back in and to enjoy themselves as they keep playing the game.

Parents, you are doing an awesome job. May God’s grace envelope and comfort you. May you feel the empower presence of Christ as you lead in your homes.



Last spring, I went to Ukraine and was able to spend a lot of time with one of our hosts, Pastor Sergey. During a car ride, he told me of how proud Ukrainians were of their soil because the top 18 inches of it is perhaps the most fertile in the world. He told me that, in WWII as the Germans were making their approach to Russia, they would load up top soil from the fields of Ukraine into train cars and ship them back to Germany to use in their fields. I imagine that this was devestating to the people who experienced this sense of loss.


This story reminds me of the images of soil, growth, crops, etc., that we find in the Scriptures. In missions discussions there is a common hope that we can develop “indigenous churches” or churches that come up from the soil of a given culture and place.

As a local pastor in a church community, I often wonder if we focus too much on a certain crop (a ministry style) that we’d like to see, rather than studying the soil that we are a part of (the ministry context). Whenever a certain crop that we have our desire on does not grow (a certain style of ministry), we (much like the Germans in WWII) haul in a different soil over our current one, in order to grow the plant. Perhaps it would be faithful to Jesus, to the on-going ministry of the Holy Spirit, to trust that God might just have something beautiful in mind for each ministry context that we find ourselves a part of, something in the very soil itself and the plants that would grow because of it.

For instance, how many churches are ascribing to “suburban” ministry styles in neighborhoods that are of urban/polyethnic cultures? Their people commute for miles from their suburban contexts for public worship, to simply return to a “foreign” soil after the 1.5 hours. No wonder many of our faithful in our churches are feeling a disconnect in matters of discipleship and community. Imagine taking a plant from a native soil, transporting it into another soil for a couple of hours a week, then taking it back to the first location…

Craving a Place

This discussion has much to say about ecclesiology, sociology, theology, etc. Perhaps at the heart of it, however, is that we ache for a sense of place. We can literally transport ourselves all over the world in mere minutes. Many families in our culture are moving every 10 months. Perhaps we experience the sensation of “running out of time” because we do not sit still long enough to keep track of time in the natural rhythms of life. We have a hard time staying put.

CS Lewis once said, “I number it among my blessings that my father had no car. The deadly power of rushing about whenever I pleased had not been given to me. I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance (limits).”

I’d encourage us to take a look at our soils in our own fields. Take a look around and ask, “where is the pain in this context,” and “what would be good news in this context?” 

Perhaps we might find ourselves in the middle of something that God is already doing and notice the very eco-system of the kingdom of God, that is already at work.