Blog

A Total Eclipse of the Heart

A Total Eclipse of the Heart

I was in middle school, say 1993, the first time I heard the song.  It had already been blasting over FM frequencies and in roller skate rinks for a decade, but somehow I had missed it.  I heard the song in the auditorium of Mt. Juliet Jr. High during the S.T.A.R.S. presentation. Acronyms were used A LOT back in those days with teenagers.  It made anything cool.  S.T.A.R.S was an acronym for Students Taking a Right Stand. They spoke out against the use of alcohol, drugs, crude language, and other bad stuff. Some of my peers walked out onto the darkened stage wearing black t-shirts with white lettering emblazoned on the front.  Each shirt had a different bad thing written on it.  Heroin. Cocaine. LSD. I don’t know how many of my classmates in small town Mt. Juliet were snorting coke, but the message was clear. These things were bad, and we should turn from them. That’s how I heard the song. “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”  This moving rock ballad repeats the phrase, “Turn Around.” And when Bonnie Tyler would sing the words “Turn Around,” the student wearing the Heroin t-shirt would turn around to show another word on the back of their shirt, like Hope or Promise or Love.  I learned today that Bonnie Tyler will be singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on a cruise ship during the Total Solar Eclipse next Monday. To which I say, “Epic.” But, it got me thinking about the song in middle school, the darkness in our country right now, and Abraham.  First, I have been crushed this week. The...

Tears In The Airport

I’m leaving General Conference 2016 and there are tears in the corners of my eyes. It’s not because I am sad to leave. I know in part it is due to the fact that I’m spent after an exhausting 12 days in Portland. I also know something deeper happened in my spirit here that will take some time to move through. In my recent book, The New Adapters (shameless plug, available through Abingdon Press), I begin by saying that I believe in the church. I tell the story of my parents, two young adults who had been disconnected from the church, finding a home at a new United Methodist Church where they made their professions of faith in Jesus Christ and had their infant son (me) baptized. In that ritual my parents repented of their sin and confessed their belief in Jesus as Lord. They also said as a part of an old creed that they believed in God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Actually, the whole church made that confession that day. And in the covenantal language of the baptismal vows they said they believed in the church. The holy, catholic (or universal) church. On a day that I see as the most significant in my life, the people who created a community of love and forgiveness around me said they believed in Jesus Christ’s connected church. At General Conference, my belief in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit never wavered. God was there and showed up gently at times and powerfully at others. My belief in the church, though, took some hits. I...

Trust, Hope, and Mercy at General Conference

Yesterday was my 15th wedding anniversary to Rachel Shepard Armstrong.  While I worked as a delegate to the 2016 General Conference, Rachel went on a hiking trip with some friends back in Tennessee.  We can debate later who had the better day.  It was strange, though, to not be with her on the anniversary of our wedding ceremony. Separated by thousands of miles, we texted back and forth a few times, left a couple voicemails, and read handwritten notes that we had left each other for the day. While we wouldn’t have chosen to spend our anniversary that way, our relationship will survive. It is strong. It is steeled by years of shared laughter and tears.  It has been deepened by intimacy and arguments. We made a covenant and covenants have a way of persisting across distance and time. Rachel and I live in covenant even when we don’t want to be, even when we forget it, and even when we don’t act like it. The covenant is bigger than us because God is in the covenant. While Rachel hiked one of our favorite trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, I sat in a windowless convention center hall with 800 other United Methodists with whom I live in covenant.  In one day we laughed and we cried. We had deep intimacy in worship and heated arguments in debate.  I live in covenant with my brothers and sisters in Christ even when we don’t want to be, even when we forget it, and even when we don’t act like it. The covenant is bigger than us because God is in...
I Leave Hopeful

I Leave Hopeful

On November 1, 1792, a year after the death of John Wesley, the Methodist leadership in America gathered in Baltimore for a conference. The Methodist church was on one hand young, vibrant, and growing and on the other hand delicate, full of strife, and on the verge of schism. It was under these conditions that Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, and others gathered for what would be the first General Conference.  They determined then that it would be good to have such a gathering every four years. Today, I am in Portland for my second General Conference. I reflected back on some words that I wrote before leaving for my first GC four years ago. The words stirred my now four year older heart that I admit has a bit more crust on it from another quadrennium of working too much and not trusting God enough.  I realize the church is just like it was over 200 years ago: delicate, full of strife, and on the verge of schism. I realize that my heart is in need of what the church needs, renewal and healing.  I share my revised words as a way of centering my heart on the hope that we have as the church of Jesus Christ. I have packed, prayed, read the legislation (ok, some of it, there is over 1500 pages), and prepared as best I know how for some two weeks of holy conferencing with my sisters and brothers from all around the world. (This year around 40% of delegates are from outside the U.S.) Most of the sentiment I receive when I tell folks that...
Treasure

Treasure

At the first mention of the word treasure, my mind is filled with images of pirate ships, deserted islands, and an X that marks the spot. I think of a hidden chest filled with gold medallions, rubies, and diamonds. Treasure is something you search for, fight for, and go great distances to find. Treasure can bind people together or create division between those who once were close friends. Treasure can become the focus of your life. It can consume you. Treasure can be hidden and hoarded, or shared and enjoyed. Whether we realize it or not, we all have treasure. We all have things we are searching for, fighting for, and storing up. Though the items in the chest are different, we all have treasure that holds great value to us. Often we think our treasure will follow our heart. But Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, suggested the opposite—that our heart will follow our treasure. In his Sermon on the Mount, he put it this way: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is no wonder, then, that many of us feel a sense of disappointment about our lives and finances. We want to give our lives to our church, our family, our God. Instead, our heart follows our debt, our job, and our bills, and we haven’t even realized it. As a result, we’re left feeling conflicted and empty. Jesus cared about our heart, so he taught about our treasure. We find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount a beautiful way to talk about our finances and our need to give. We begin...
A Greater Story, The God Story

A Greater Story, The God Story

I remember a conversation I had with my dad when I was eight or nine years old. We were sitting on our front porch in old wood rocking chairs. It’s an interesting memory for me because I have very few of the front porch; it wasn’t a common place for us to spend our time. But on this day it was just Dad and me on the front porch. I had been trying to find the courage to tell my dad something that I thought he would tell me was foolish or childish. On the front porch that day, I mustered up the courage to tell him something that I thought made me weird, something I would never have told my friends. I figured he could tell me how to stop, how to grow up. “Dad, I feel like my life is a movie or a great story. I pretend. A lot. I pretend that I am the hero of my story and there are bad guys and good guys, and I fight for the good side, of course. Even at school or Cub Scouts or wherever, I’m pretending it is part of my adventure, my story, of which I am the star.” I didn’t tell him anything about my thoughts of damsels in distress, or my deep fear of the enemy. I didn’t tell him everything. I told him a little and waited for him to reason with me. I waited for him to share logic with me to help me get out of my fairy tale. Staring out into the field across from our house, never looking...

Relearning My Own Hometown

God called me to be a missionary. And then sent me to suburbia. It all started in a hotel room in Atlanta, where my wife and I pledged to God that we would go wherever God wanted us to go. Perhaps surprisingly, we had never promised our lives to God like that. Not that deeply, not to that extent. We thought for sure this would lead us to an exotic place. We applied for placement with a mission organization. We visited Monterrey, Mexico, and wept as we considered how God might use us to reach this city with the love of Jesus. We came home and told our parents, kids, and church that God was calling us to Mexico. Then it all fell apart. Everything that needed to happen for us to be able to go to Mexico came unraveled. Funding, language school admittance, denominational permissions. No, no, no. I was confused. Shortly after our last “no,” I was approached by some leaders from my home conference who asked me if I had heard of the new church that was being proposed. I had not. It would be in the Providence area of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a new urbanism development that would double the size of the city. Had I heard of the area? I had. It was my hometown. Then they told me I was being considered as the pastor to start it. I was confused. “Why?” I wondered. Why had God done all of this missionary stuff in my heart? Why had God broken my heart for Monterrey, Mexico? Why, if I was to return to my...
Considering the Context of Worship

Considering the Context of Worship

When I was appointed to pastor a new church start, I began to dream of what “my” new church would look like. By the time I hit the ground as pastor of a church with no name, no building, and no people, I had a clear vision of what worship would look like: what we should do and how we should do it. In a few short weeks, though, I realized my vision—though great, I’m sure—did not exactly fit the mission field. As a 27-year-old, I may have desired one type of music, but the community around me would connect more with another kind. The type of clothing that I might have hoped would be “cool” to wear in worship would only be comfortable for a small segment of people that God had sent me to serve. This led us into a season of listening to our community. We needed to hear from them. Intentionally listening to our community meant careful observation and open conversation that allowed us to hear the felt needs of the community—which later informed our topical preaching series—and to understand the culture of our neighbors—which would help us know how to choose relevant language, music, and dress for worship. The message of hope in Jesus would be the same, but our community taught us what language to speak so they could understand it. This did not mean an abandonment of what we often think of as traditional. In fact, we found in our context that the ancient forms of religion would speak strongly to those who feel disconnected from God in our community. I learned...

Wondering About Young Families

A 2010 study found that the median age of United Methodists was 57. The median age of those in the United States hovers around 35. This glaring discrepancy has caused a well-founded sense of panic or at least disappointment in the United Methodist Church (most other denominations claim similar incongruities between church age and population age). For some the panic/disappointment is connected to a fear that our institution will cease to exist. For many, though, the emotions connected to this data and the desire to do something about it has more to do with the mission of the church. Our hearts break when we realize we are failing as a church to reach young and younger people and connect them with Jesus. I am a pastor whose age is less than the United States median and who has 4 other people living in my home who fit that criterion too. The church I serve is a 4-year-old church who has many others below the age of 35 as well (and many above it too!). I want to share some practical advice for churches that might be interested in reaching young parents and young children. I do not share this advice, though, from my experience as pastor of a church with young people. I share it from the experience gained from one weekend when I had the opportunity to take my 3 young daughters to church. I was taking the Sunday “off”. My family was excited because it was one of those rare Sundays when dad/husband would be home on Sunday morning. The Saturday before my wife asked me where...
Transporting Worship

Transporting Worship

I’m sure that in seminary I studied the last dozen or so chapters of Exodus, but I don’t remember much about it. All the talk of making worship happen while wandering the desert was interesting but did I really need to know all the details of worship supplies, set up, take down, and mobility related to the years long journey of the people of God? I was, after all, serving as an associate pastor in a church that had a multi-million dollar building situated on 20 beautiful acres. Every Sunday we had a roof above our head, air conditioning blowing, and pews that were there when we arrived and sitting there when we left. In 2008 I became the pastor of a church with no name, no people, and—oh yeah—no building. I went back to my little, blue, leather-bound Bible that I often use when I preach and found the heading that rests over Exodus 40: Setting Up the Tabernacle. I needed a crash-course in what it meant to be a mobile church and I found it in the story of Moses the church planter. What I learned there was that each particular gathering of God’s people requires some essentials to help make worship happen. I learned what is necessary for worship and what is not. Our new church would gather in a living room, then a hotel meeting room, then a city park pavilion, a movie theater, an elementary school, and now a middle school. Each place presented challenges and yet in each place we were able to commune with the living God. Each week we would pack...

Email Signup

Receive The Latest!



Where We Can Meet

There are no upcoming events.


My Most Recent Sermon

Blubrry player!