The party

It was the best day of the father’s life; he had to celebrate. Knowing that, his son refused to come to the party. “Everything I have is yours,” the father pleaded, but his son was not moved.

So ends Jesus’ greatest parable about the “Prodigal Son.” But there are actually two sons in the story, and it’s the “prodigal,” the wandering one, who finds his way home. His older brother was the responsible one, the sensible one, the one who stayed home and did his duty. Shockingly, it was the older brother, not the “prodigal,” who, at the end of the story, was outside the feast of salvation looking in.

Jesus was speaking to the religious insiders of his day. They were the serious, the responsible ones. They did their duty; they kept the religious traditions of the people intact. Jesus had aimed this parable at them.

How do you tell religious insiders that they’re lost?

Growing up, I was the eldest of three children. I was the responsible one. I became an Air Force officer, did my duty. But I was in my fifties, in seminary, when the meaning of this story became real to me. I’d always thought the lesson was, “Stay home, do your duty. Don’t be like the irresponsible younger brother.”

I was completely wrong. That’s not the lesson at all.

Do you get it? If not, I don’t condemn you. It took me about 55 years.

If you’ve achieved your goals in life, but found that things don’t satisfy…

If you’ve failed at everything, and found yourself at the bottom…

Whether you’re an elder brother or a younger brother, this is what you most need to know: There is a father who comes to you, who longs to embrace you and meet you just where you are.

Do you get it? The Christian faith will make little sense until you do.

Base your worth on his love for you.

Come in to his party. It’s for you.

Love enough to live

Mad enough to die?

The Old Testament Prophet Jonah was. At least he said so, twice.

Just how mad do you have to be to want to die? When people get mad, they usually want someone else to die, which explains why cycles of violence and hate can go on for centuries.

Last week, when the city was still reeling from the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue, a Presbyterian minister was seen on camera shouting at the President who had come to pay his respects. “You’re not welcome here!” the minister shouted in the video, which quickly went viral.

And the cycle escalated.

We spent the next morning dealing with Facebook posts and messages which came in to the church from across the country. To the angry people who posted or called, it didn’t matter that the minister didn’t serve at our church. We were Presbyterian, so we must be responsible.

At the presbytery office, the deluge of hate was even worse.

People weren’t mad enough to die, but they were mad enough to wish the worst for that minister.

And the cycle escalated.

Jesus never responded to hate with hate. He wept over the city he knew would crucify him. He prayed for those who carried it out.

Do we believe he died for us, haters that we sometimes are, or not?

Do we believe it, or is it just an abstract idea, like a favorite saying we hang on the wall?

I think a fair test of whether the Gospel has penetrated your heart is whether you can avoid being hateful to people you think deserve it.

Can we love enough to live?

Comfort, comfort

Their people had been killed or exiled, and their place of worship had been desecrated. It even seemed to some that God had abandoned them.

Can you imagine losing your family and friends, your home, your country, and even your faith? It really happened to the Jewish people in 586 BCE when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians.

The Book of Lamentations is a record of their hopelessness. “This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears.” Lamentations 1:16. “People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me. Lamentations 1:21.

It was into that utter despair that Isaiah spoke words of hope: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” Isaiah 40:1.

The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are full of dire warnings about God’s judgment. So, when Isaiah started talking about comfort, people took notice. “Comfort, comfort my people…” is a plural imperative. God commanded the voices of all the heavenly host to speak comfort to his people.

Many voices clamor to be heard in the wake of a tragedy, like the awful shooting here recently at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and not all of them are comforting. But God himself has spoken into the chaos and hopelessness, and now all of history points to the time when the glory of God will be revealed.

That’s why in Isaiah 40:6 the prophet says, “Cry out.” In other words, “Lift your voice! Don’t be afraid!”

The God of the universe gave himself over to the chaos of this world in the person of Jesus Christ. The forces of evil threw everything they had at him, but they were powerless to stop him.

Despite all the horror and evil, God gets the final say.

“Comfort, comfort my people.”

God’s got this

Last summer, Jana and I spent time with Eugene and Jan Peterson at their home in Flathead Lake, Montana. Eugene had graciously agreed to mentor me if I was fortunate enough to win a Lilly Grant for my sabbatical.

I’d come prepared with questions from the readings he’d assigned me, but mostly we talked about people and churches we all knew. Eugene had written much of The Message while living in Pittsburgh, and Jan had attended the same church we’d belonged to in Alabama. It was like catching up with old friends.

Eugene Peterson never set out to be a pastor. Indeed, in his memoir, The Pastor, he wrote in detail about how little he thought of pastors, mostly due to the type of pastors who’d come through his hometown when he was growing up. He later came to lament how pastors served more as corporate CEOs than shepherds of a flock. Eugene became a “pastor’s pastor” without ever intending to. His passing this week has many of us pastors reflecting on what he meant to us.

To me, his great gift was being able to see and point to Jesus in all things. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is the title of one of Eugene’s books on spiritual theology, taken from the line of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everything, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant, is infused with the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus is at work in everything, everywhere, all the time, it means that we can quit running around like crazy, like pastors often do (and are usually expected to do). After all, if Jesus is in this, our role is pretty small by comparison.

My lesson from the sabbatical was “God’s got this.”

I can’t tell you how helpful this was later in the year as Jana’s dad entered his final illness. My father-in-law was a simple man of faith; he wouldn’t have understood books on spiritual theology. But like Eugene, he could see Christ in everything and, like Eugene, he delighted in everything.

It’s nice to know that “God’s got this.” He’s got Eugene, he’s got my father-in-law, he’s got me, he’s got Jana, he’s got our kids, he’s got you, and he’s got this church.

Fish story

Some bible stories are hard for modern people to wrap our minds around. For example, the bible says Jonah was swallowed by a great fish and then three days later he was spit out on dry land.

But the fish has nothing to do with our problem with the Jonah story.

If God really is God; if God created the universe out of nothing; maneuvering one fish to swallow a runaway prophet is no big deal.

Our real problem with the Jonah story is that we don’t think it applies to us. Our real problem is that we fail to see ourselves as Jonah.

When we read Jonah, it’s easy to see his problem. He’s self-righteous. He can’t find any good reason for what God is calling him to do, so he must be right, and God must be wrong. He can’t see that God might actually know better than he does what’s best for him.

Self-righteousness is the reason we don’t think the Jonah story applies to us. Self-righteousness is what keeps us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. Self-righteousness is why we won’t listen to our spouse, our friends, or our pastors. We think we know better than them too, so we take offense. We run the other way.

But if God is offended by our self-righteousness, he has a funny way of showing it.  In Jonah’s case, God sent a ship with a pagan crew, a storm, and a fish to get Jonah to see God’s better way.

I wonder if God could be using the storms that come into our lives in the same way.

Instead of imagining what it might be like to be swallowed by a fish, perhaps we could imagine why God would have to go to such great lengths to get our attention.



In case you missed it, there was a national debate about a nomination to the Supreme Court recently. The level of vitriol of each side for the other was astounding. The situation was not made better by multiple cable channels devoted, not to reporting news, but to showing clips of the outrageous things the other side said.

“Othering” is what you do when you put people who are different from you into categories so you can marginalize them.

Just in time, Tim Keller released his new book, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. It’s just as good as Keller’s The Prodigal God. I pray that everyone would read it. Keller introduced me to the term “othering.”

Jonah was one of the religious insiders of his day. He knew more about God than anyone. Yet when God called him to preach to pagans, “others” who he hated, Jonah ran away. Jonah got on board a ship crewed by, guess who? more pagans, still others he didn’t like. Yet in every detail, the pagans in the story were better than Jonah. When a big storm came up, they tried to figure out the cause (they knew someone had sinned). They did everything they could to save the ship and all on board, including Jonah. They prayed fervently. Jonah did nothing.

Keller says we “other” because we haven’t allowed the Gospel of Jesus Christ to penetrate all the way into our heart. We may believe, but our beliefs haven’t changed us. If we still get our self-worth from something other than Jesus’ love and grace for us, then when our beliefs or status are threatened by someone, we marginalize them. We “other” them.

God sent Jonah on a mission, not just to save unbelieving pagans, but to save Jonah from his own self-righteousness.

Jesus identifies with the other, even when the other is us.

Justice network

A long time ago I had the privilege of commanding the Air Force ceremonial unit in Washington, DC, meaning I was responsible for the Air Force Band and Honor Guard. I met with every newly-assigned person and told them I was there for them. If they had a problem, I asked them to first go to their chain of command, but if that failed, “my door was always open.”

In the 90’s the military still faced challenges in integrating women into certain career fields, and the Honor Guard was one of those. Being a ceremonial guardsman was physically demanding work. There was a minimum height requirement. Many Honor Guard members had come from the security forces and had played football in high school. Young women recruited for this duty not only had to meet the physical demands but had to overcome the cultural barriers of an elite fraternity.

One day “Ann” appeared at my door. She was an airman, a one-striper, recruited by the Honor Guard out of basic training. She’d given up the career field that she had signed up for when she enlisted to become a ceremonial guardsman. She’d been well suited for her original career field, but had not been able to meet the physical challenges of the Honor Guard.

Ann could go back to her original career choice, right? Well, no. The chain of command had concluded that Ann had an attitude problem and had left her to the tender mercies of the assignment system.

This was one of those moments when I really enjoyed being a bird colonel. I helped get her an even better assignment than the one she’d enlisted for. Then I had a talk with her chain of command.

Jesus was at a party where he noticed the guests jockeying for the position of honor. In that culture, as in ours today, knowing the right person made a huge difference in whether you made it in the world or not. If you were a nobody–poor, outcast, unattractive–you were in trouble. Like today, the poor are poor partly because they have no access to the social networks the rest of us take for granted.

Jesus expected people to open up their social and business networks to the poor and outsiders. To him, it was a matter of doing justice.

I’m pretty sure God loves it when people make things right for folks like Ann.  I know I did.

Who’s your neighbor?

Francis preferred card-playing to church-going. And she liked to smoke. At Francis’ funeral, her minister asked, “What can you say about Francis?” The congregation of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church laughed. Francis never fit anyone’s image of an older, proper black church lady. What was there to say?

Francis rented the small, government-subsidized house next to my father-in-law Lonnie’s refrigeration business. Lonnie never missed church and never smoked. Growing up in in the Nazarene Church in Eastern Kentucky, he’d been taught that cards and cigarettes were the work of the devil.

When Francis lost at cards, which was often, she’d ask Lonnie, “Mr. Slone, can I borrow $20? I’ll pay you back.” Lonnie always gave her the money. Francis always paid it back, but less than a day later she would ask for it again.

Francis was rough, she gambled and smoked, but she could also cook. She often brought over homecooked dishes. It was her way of being a good neighbor.

Francis’ heavy smoking took its toll, and she was frequently hospitalized. During one hospital stay, Lonnie found her house full of roaches. He fumigated the place, cleaned and vacuumed, and took her bedding home to wash.

When Francis could no longer take care of herself, Lonnie made sure she was cared for in a nice nursing home.

One thing you could say about Francis: she was the neighbor of Lonnie Slone.

Roll down justice

Slavery ended with the Civil War, right? Not exactly. There are 40 million people worldwide in slavery today, more than at any other time in history. Human trafficking is the third largest criminal activity in the world.

But slavery must be a third-word problem, right? Not exactly. Whenever someone is hurting, in poverty, or in an abusive relationship, they are vulnerable to exploitation.

“Kate” was interviewed on local TV earlier this year. Kate spent much of her childhood in abusive households, jumping between family, foster parents, and adoption. Eventually, she decided to run away, but was homeless and alone. She was 15 when she met a man who offered her a place to stay.

The 40-year-old told her, “If you help me I’ll help you.”

Kate started selling drugs on 5th Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh. It wasn’t enough. Soon, the man made her do other things she didn’t want to do. She wanted to leave, but she was trapped.

Kate was rescued in an FBI sting operation in a local hotel but was charged with prostitution. The good news is that county officials and advocacy groups are working to see that Kate and others like her are treated as victims instead of criminals.

This Sunday, September 23rd, has been declared “Freedom Sunday” by International Justice Mission ( This Sunday, we join thousands of churches around the world in learning about slavery and human trafficking.

A long time ago, God told the Prophet Micah that three things were required of God followers: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

This isn’t passive voice. Justice is something we do.

Could we pray about joining IJM in helping to end this curse, not just in the third world, but right outside our doors?



Matthew 25 is the climax of Jesus’ final speech. Jesus paints an incredible word picture of the throne room of God. Everyone who ever lived is standing before Jesus for final judgment. It’s an awesome, terrifying thing to imagine.

What standard will Jesus use to make the ultimate judgment?

Did you feed, clothe, care for, or visit hurting people?

The criteria are as down-to-earth as the vision is grand

Jesus says that in the end there will be just two categories. You’re either blessed or cursed, depending on whether you took part in simple ministries of food, shelter, and visitation.

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ basis for dividing up people for eternity.

Surprising? Yes, but not in the way you probably think. Jesus goes on to say that everyone will be surprised on judgment day. The ones who are blessed will be surprised because they know they’re not worthy to stand before a Holy God. They know that nothing they could ever do could make them worthy.

But the ones destined for eternal fire are surprised too. “What do you mean we didn’t serve the hurting people?” they demand to know. Instead of throwing themselves on the mercy of a Holy God, begging for forgiveness, they’re indignant.

Self-righteousness is so deadly because the first thing it kills is your self-awareness.  When you’re self-righteous, no one, not even God, can tell you that you’ve been justifying yourself.

On judgment day, the ones who know they should be out, are in. They ones who think they’re in, are out.