One nation under God

I could say a lot about the sad spectacle of protestors-turned-rioters trashing the US Capitol this week, but I need to stick to my lane.

I’m a pastor.

It’s fashionable these days to bash the idea of American exceptionalism, but if America isn’t exceptional, why are we so upset about what we saw?

America truly is exceptional. Every other nation in history was based on tribe, religion, ethnicity, or place. But America was founded by people from different tribes, religions, ethnicities, and places.

They all had to cross an ocean in wooden ships to get here.

The nation they formed was based, not on tribe, religion, ethnicity, or geography, but on the truly exceptional idea that free people could govern themselves.

A nation…based on an idea?

What gave them the idea it could work? 


The founders understood that the Christian faith had created a shared sense of personal and public responsibility among the people of the colonies. Of course, not everyone believed, and there were vast differences in how faith was practiced. But enough did believe to create a shared expectation of how free people were supposed to behave.

The key was George Whitefield, the most important founding father you never heard of. Whitefield was a short, cross-eyed preacher from England who was the first truly international celebrity. Aside from George Washington, he was the most famous person in America. He attracted vast crowds; people would walk 20 miles or more to hear him. His clear voice allowed him to be heard by tens of thousands at once. His sermons made people weep, wealthy and poor alike.

Like no one before, Whitefield proclaimed the Gospel directly to the people, showing how all people were of infinite worth and beloved by God.

When Whitefield died in 1750, an incredible 80 percent of the people in the colonies had heard him in person. His legacy was a shared understanding of public virtue that made democracy possible.

But today, not nearly enough of us have heard the Gospel, and not nearly enough weep at its beauty. We’ve lost the shared understanding of public virtue that can only come from a Gospel understanding of the worth of each person.   

If you were sad or scared about what happened this week, there is something you can do:

Join a church that lives and proclaims the Gospel.

Worship. Bring your friends. Repeat.

Really, what’s your excuse? It’s not like you have to cross an ocean.


When I was eighteen and three weeks out of high school, I went to the Air Force Academy. A bedrock of Academy life was the Honor Code: We will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.

The Academy spent many hours teaching us about the Honor Code. We had regular honor discussions. A typical question might be: “Cadet Smith is in a store and starts to steal something, but at that moment, a clerk walks by, and Cadet Smith never commits the crime. Is Cadet Smith honorable?”

“No, he’s not honorable,” someone would say. “He intended to steal.” About half of my classmates would agree. But the other half would say, “Cadet Smith is honorable. He never stole anything.”

We were all eighteen and hadn’t yet learned the finer points of diplomacy. Our discussions soon turned to shouting matches. After a few “discussions,” we realized no one’s mind was going to change, so we would sit in stony silence, polarized, when questions of honor came up.

Looking back, I wish I had understood the Gospel. The Gospel is the only worldview that doesn’t divide between right and wrong, good and bad, us and them. 

Jesus was in the home of a Pharisee, a religious conservative, when an uninvited guest, a woman of ill repute, crashed the party. She wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

Everyone knew her scandalous life, but only she knew Jesus’ forgiveness.

And so she wept.

This was the reason for her extravagant act of love, which included anointing Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume.

The Gospel worldview says that every single one of us is more evil than we know, yet, at the same time, we are more loved by God than we dare hope.

Jesus knows us right down to the bottom of our hearts; every dishonorable thought and deed. And, at the same time, he loves us to the heavens.

And he’s already forgiven us. All we need to do is accept it.

Here’s what I wish I knew back then: Only the Gospel worldview allows us to look at those with whom we disagree, those who seem totally different from us, and say, “There is someone who’s been forgiven much…like me.”

My classmates all went on to serve their country with honor. Today, we love and respect each other. When we get together, we hug each other, and sometimes we weep.


For ten years, our church has partnered with Youth for Christ, a national para-church ministry, to operate The Cellar, an after-school ministry of presence for high school kids downtown. The Cellar is known among students, school administrators, and civic leaders as a safe place for kids to hang out after school. The Cellar is led by April Gratton, our mission partner from Youth for Christ, and Katie Peffer, our Minister of Youth and Families. Two weeks ago, April and Katie took five students on a weekend retreat to our church’s camp in the Laurel Highlands. It was the first time the students had been to the woods, the first time they’d been to a Christian camp, the first time they’d climbed a rock wall, and the first time they’d heard the story of the Gospel.

April and Katie came back from the weekend overjoyed. The students all said that the story April and Katie had shared with them was “valid.”

If you’re disappointed that all five students did not “give their lives to Jesus Christ,” consider the world these girls were raised in. They’re unchurched kids of unchurched parents. They were brought up in a culture which preaches that the highest good is what makes you feel good right now. And they were taught that all belief systems and life experiences are equally valid.

Which happened to be the opening that April and Katie needed.

April and Katie had built a trusting relationship over a long time, which allowed them to share their own Christ-centered life experiences. If “all life experiences are equally valid,” then that must include the experiences of April and Katie, right?

Everywhere, congregations are aging because young people are dropping out. The majority of children of long-time church attenders are dropping out. The implications for the church are enormous.

The church of the future may look a lot more like the church of the first century. The early church did not grow through programs or mass conversions. It grew through personal relationships. It grew because lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

The church of the future may look a lot more like what happens weekday afternoons in our church basement, or what happened between April and Katie and those five high school kids.

Lives transformed by the Gospel are attractive.

And valid.

PS. If you are concerned about young people abandoning the faith, here’s a suggestion. Lead a valid life and build an unconditional relationship with a young person.

Hint. April and Katie need volunteers.

What we live for

Five years ago, we started a wedding ministry for folks who aren’t church members. Our church is a bride’s dream, with a long center aisle, Tiffany windows, massive pipe organ, and close to many reception venues.

But being the perfect wedding venue isn’t easy.

When I first talk to couples, I ask if they want to take their vows with integrity. Do they think they should spend as much time preparing for marriage as they do picking a out a cake? Of course they say yes, and I’m pretty sure most mean it. Then I ask if they’re involved in church. Usually the answer is no. They figure they ought to be in church, but they’re crazy busy; the world tells them church is optional, and they don’t need a church to be “spiritual.”

Taking Christian marriage vows with integrity, without the support of a church, isn’t easy. So we spend a lot of time exploring the basics of the Christian faith.

When the big day comes, the church fills with people who are a lot like the bride and groom. They’re also crazy busy, and they too have been told that spirituality is a do-it-yourself proposition.

So I figure the wedding homily is one of the few chances these folks will have to hear the gospel. The world tells them marriage is all about you, so find a spouse who makes you happy. But they know in their hearts it’s a lie; it loads a spouse with burdens they were not meant to bear. I try to show them that Christian marriage is about gospel reenactment; mutual sacrifice, where the bride and groom take on the roles of Jesus Christ for each other.

People are starving to hear this.

After the wedding last Saturday, a young lady met me at the reception and told me how wonderful the service was. She said she’d never heard anything like it. Later, as my wife and I were leaving, she approached me again. She said she wanted to teach her child about faith, but didn’t know where to begin. We stood and talked for nearly an hour. She asked great questions. Her friend who was a member of an Orthodox church, joined us. She said she rarely went to church; it was too hard to get her kids to go.

At one point, the first young woman apologized, saying she was wasting my time with dumb questions. Her friend told her not to worry. “This is what he lives for,” she said.

Oh my, her friend was right.

The weeks and months creating this ministry, building it over five years, and the 25 or so hours’ investment in each wedding were all worth it.

I pray those two young ladies will continue seeking, and if they come to worship here, we’ll welcome them in a way that will make them want to go deeper in their faith.

This is what Christian mission looks like today. It’s meeting people where they are. Having conversations. Being real.

Sure it’s a big investment in others, but not to worry. It’s worth living for.


Last summer’s mega-hit was the animated feature Inside-Out, the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley whose world is turned inside-out when she has to move with her family to a new city. Inside-Out is one of those kids’ movies parents enjoy too, because it captures so many of the emotions we all experience growing up.

The movie depicts five different emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust as characters in Riley’s head competing for control. At first, Joy is in control, but when things go wrong, Sadness takes over. How is it that Joy and Sadness relate to each other? The message, at least in part, is that all of those emotions are normal and we need them all, in balance, to live a normal life.

The thing is, we live in a culture which claims life owes us happiness. As we discover that real life doesn’t work that way, may people create personas on social media to project to the world a life that is happy and pulled together. But the truth is, sadness is sometimes the most appropriate response to the things life throws at us. In the Bible, Jesus was called a “man of sorrows.” The word “smile” is only used in the Book of Job, and then in an ironic way.

The Christian faith offers us a way of looking at life that gives us hope, while at the same time acknowledging the world as it is, sadness and all. Jesus never just said, “Put on a happy face.” He promised to take the sadness we all experience and redeem it. He promised to make our joy more complete for the sad things we experienced in this world.

If I could made a sequel to Inside-Out, I would introduce a new character called Gospel, who Riley would meet at church with her parents. Gospel would gently work with all the other characters to keep them in their proper place. Gospel wouldn’t save Riley from sadness. Gospel would help Riley live a life worth living.

The Main Thing

Leadership guru, the late Stephen Covey, once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Covey was talking about focus, the importance of spending time on what’s most important and avoid being sidetracked. I’ve got to admit this is a problem for me. I love new ideas. I have to constantly remind myself to stay focused.

But when it comes to a life of faith, what is the main thing anyway? Worship? Prayer? The Bible?


If asked to identify “the main thing,” I wonder how many Christians would agree. You would think that if Christians actually agreed on the main thing, the church in North American would be in a lot better shape.

Jesus is the main thing, isn’t he? But what about Jesus is the main thing? Love? Truth? Mercy? The cross? Justice?

In 1st Corinthians 15:1-11, the Apostle Paul says, “What I received I passed on to you as first importance.” This is Paul’s synopsis of the main thing. It’s worth knowing.

My take:

Jesus is Lord. He’s the main thing.

The main thing about Jesus is the Gospel, the news of what he came to do: Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead. In doing that he paid the price for sin, joins his followers to God, and gives them eternal life.

The main thing about the Gospel is the raising part, the resurrection. Jesus is breathing new life into everything, including his followers, beginning now.

As followers we most often get off track, not from doing outright evil, but from turning good things into main things.