What’s Next? Hope after Harvey


Partnering with Academy Sports and the East Houston Civic Club to get inflatable beds to 130 infants who were sleeping on the ground.

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Years from now I suspect what most will remember of Harvey, besides 50 inches of rain in 4 days, was Houstonians rushing to rescue one another. Rescue quickly gave way to relief as we gathered supplies, distributed food, and mucked homes. Six weeks later, for many of us, the mucking is done, the enormous trash piles mostly hauled away. Much of Houston is on the road to recovery: putting life back (mostly) the way it was…removing the dank stench of mold and bringing back the thousands of houses stripped to the studs for the families who call them home.

But what of Houston’s poor? Families at or below the poverty line are often devastated by events such as Harvey. Without flood insurance or financial margin, the poor often find themselves in dire situations as employment is interrupted and expenses pile up. As in Katrina, the forces of gentrification are upon them. Letters have already begun to appear on the doors of the poor telling them their houses will need to be brought up to code or be condemned. People have been forced from apartments but still forced to pay half rent. What people need in large portions of our city is not recovery but sensible, sensitive rebuilding.

There are neighborhoods in Houston for whom Harvey provides an opportunity, a chance to make neighborhoods better than they were…rebuilt into places with access to fresh food, job training, and affordable housing. This is where we at St. John the Divine are focussing next. We have established partnerships with churches from a variety of denominations in the Northeast and Northshore neighborhoods. We have mobilized hundreds of hours and people to work in those neighborhoods. We will begin hosting outside teams at St. John the Divine to help in the rebuilding effort. We will do what our neighborhood partners tell us is needed, and we will emphasize long-range change over charity. We will leverage what we have historically been very good at: connecting the big hearts of Houstonians with big needs. Swinging a hammer is good, but, as Jim Loftis says, its’ time to weaponize our rolodexes.

We’ve done it before. We are about to do it again.

Lives will be changed. The Good News will be shared. God will be glorified.

Join us!

“The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?”     -Zechariah 8:5-6, NIV


North Shore Community Fellowship of Faith


Unraveling racism – Naming our Samaritans and traveling our Jericho road

Good Samaritan Center Slides.005 copy

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(A sermon. 7/10/16)

What a week.

You may be wondering: Will the church address the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas? Will we go there? Spoiler alert: Yes.

Although I successfully resisted the urge to engage in Facebook activism, I cannot avoid last week’s events from the pulpit – we have to “go there” because at this moment in America our problems are simply outside of the realm of mere secular solutions. We have a spiritual sickness, so the church has to talk about it.

Everyone has a perspective. Here’s mine: First, I have strong admiration for the police. Police officers risk their lives every time they put on the shield. I played high school basketball with the Phoenix Chief of Police. Even as a kid he was smart, tough, level headed and fair. I have friends who work difficult beats. I have friends in vice and friends on SWAT. A friend renting our home in Phoenix starts the police academy next month. I love, respect, and appreciate every officer I know personally. And I respect and appreciate the job police officers do to protect us all every day.

And…I also did urban ministry in Phoenix’s I-17 corridor. As “the white guy” on our church staff, I know a dozen people who have been “sweat” – stopped for things like tail lights being out when they weren’t. I have friends who spent the night in jail for non-offenses that would raise your eyebrows. Our preacher, Dijuahn, in an incident eerily similar to Philando Castille’s, was shot multiple times by an officer who panicked when Dijuahn told him he was carrying a gun. Dijuahn lived, though. He did nine years in prison for the officer’s mistake. So I have experienced both sides of this tension. If there were easy answers we’d have found them already.

How do we begin to unravel this mess we are in? Luke 10:25-37 is a good place to start.

Look at how a well-meaning religious person can be part of the problem…

v25 And behold, a lawyer (an expert in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – “the law”) stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” “Eternal life” in the first century was not a ticket to heaven, but was rather viewed as a quality of life here and now that would simply never end. This lawyer starts with the right question: “How do I have the life I was meant to have? How do I have that quality of life that only comes from God?” He starts in the right place:

1) He has the right question.

v26 Jesus says to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ Jesus asks.” v27 The lawyer quotes the summary of the Law, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Not only does this lawyer know the right question,

2) He has the right source of authority: the scriptures-God’s revealed truth. And,

3) He has the right answer: love.

And (Jesus) said to him, v28 “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Jesus confirms that Loving God and loving your neighbor as a result of your first love, love for God, is life-giving.

And here it gets interesting: v29 But he…desiring to justify himself… (The human default is the desire to justify ourselves, to try to prove to God how lucky he is to have us on his team.) V29 he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (It is difficult to even read the question without an attitude. The man is trying to figure out how little he can do. He is trying to lower the bar on love.)

So our man has the right question, the right source of truth, and the right answer. Unfortunately, he also gets a few things wrong… He has:

1) The wrong motive (v25) “to put Jesus to the test.” And now,

2) The wrong method (v29)“to justify himself,” and,

3) The wrong attitude (v29) “Who exactly is my neighbor?”

Unfortunately, half-right in the Christian life usually leaves us with a life that is all-wrong.

And have you noticed that when we are half-wrong we are usually 100% convinced we are all-right?

Breaking through our self-deception

When someone was self-deceived in the bible, Jesus would often sneak around their internal defenses with a story. He does that in Luke 11:

v30 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho… I have been on the road to Jericho. I was nervous. It’s a rocky downhill descending 3500 feet in elevation, an 18-mile ambush opportunity. If this were a Western movie, the road to Jericho is where the stagecoach would get held up.

“A man fell among robbers, who strip and beat him, leaving him half dead.” (all quite predictable) v31 A priest comes along. He saw him and passed by on the other side.” v32 Likewise a Levite,” (who assisted priests, ie. A person active at the church.) “when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side.” That is what smart people do. The bleeding guy is probably a set up. Be safe: walk by on the other side. And now, just when you would expect a nice Jewish layperson, Jesus throws the curveball…

v33 But a Samaritan…” A SAMARITAN! Jews and Samaritans helping one another? Simply unthinkable. Samaritans were the remnants of lower class Jews not considered important enough for the Assyrians to exile when they had conquered Israel eight centuries earlier. Then they intermarried with the invading Assyrians and Babylonians. The Samaritan/Jewish thing was a racial, cultural, tribal, religious, and class conflict beyond our experience.

Yet it is the Samaritan who… “came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. v34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (oil speeds healing. alcohol is antiseptic.) “he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. v35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ v36 And then Jesus asks the obvious: Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

Don’t be the well-meaning religious person who inadvertently becomes part of the problem. Ask yourself: #whoismyneighbor? #whatisyourjerichoroad?

It is on the road to Jericho where fear, security, and realism butt up against faith, hope, and love.

It is on the road to Jericho where we confront our fears and our prejudices – where I decide if I will do what is smart and safe or what someone else needs me to do.

It is on the Road to Jericho where love is put to the test.

I wonder…at what point did the lawyer who had it half-right realize that his motives, methods, and attitude where all-wrong?

I wonder…at what point on our Jericho road you and I will confront our Samaritans?

What should we do when we, like the lawyer, begin to realize, that for all we have right in life, we still lack that quality of overwhelming, overflowing joy that Jesus spoke of?

What you should do depends on where you are. First, do you know Jesus Christ? Have you allowed him to be your justifier, or are you still looking for life on your own? If so, the hard to hear truth is this: There is only one source of eternal life, only one who justifies – Jesus. There is only one truly Good Samaritan. Only one, who, having compassion, crossed out of his way, all the way from heaven in fact, to us. One Great Samaritan, who, as unlikely as it sounds, binds up our broken hearts, who takes us, battered and bruised by life and pours the wine of his presence and the oil of his calling upon us…who takes us to his own home, at great personal cost, and keeps returning by placing his Spirit permanently within us when we place our trust in him. So, if you do not yet know Jesus Christ, come to him this morning by faith. Surrender your life to his healing, uplifting, love-giving presence. Because otherwise you will, ultimately, serve the world from pain.

Have you already experienced the touch of the master’s hand? If that is you, I implore you, courageously seek, name, and turn from your fears. Acknowledge your Jericho Road and name your “Samaritans,” the “other” in your heart. Our nation’s hope is not to be found in justice but in love. And love and fear never occupy the same space. Why is this so important? Because,

when 13% of America is convinced that it is open season on them, it is a fail for 100% of us.

Only those filled and led by love, freed from the grip fear, can hope to overcome four centuries of earned distrust. So I ask you, who are your Samaritans?

I’ve had my share of “Samaritans” – people I have feared over my life. Since my dad was the realtor for the Phoenix Suns, I grew up in a uniquely multi-ethnic environment for a middle class kid. But I had lots of other “Samaritans.” Lots of roads I avoided. Mine were communists, illegal aliens, and gang members.God has stripped those one by one as I watched people from those groups experience the mercy of God and the same life-change that I experienced. They became friends. It is amazing the way “perfect love casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18)

This week we had Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Not morally equivalent acts, yet acts that will always be connected in our consciousness. In the wake of the horror you may be tempted to retreat to slogans or party lines. Or, alternately, to take a silent detour through “nice,” and avoid traveling the Jericho Road altogether.

Church, refuse the easy way. Don’t allow the dangers of the Jericho Road to cause you to question, “Who is my neighbor?” What Jesus taught is simple: If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor.

Here are a few small simple neighborly things you can do: 1) Smile and say, “hi.” 2)  Build friendships outside of your ethnic and social group. 3) Ask people outside of your group to tell you how their experiences. Listen (without judging or attempting to correct their impressions).

Because If they are breathing, they’re your neighbor. So, Christian, don’t lower the bar on love. Or, as Jesus told the lawyer, “You go, and do likewise.”

And as you go remember, “love” is still the right answer.

You will be tempted to go driven by the heart breaking needs you see around you. As counterintuitive as it seems, resist that urge. Because if you allow the world’s need and your desire for justice to drive you, you will end up bitter and broken. Anger is a parasite that cares not on whom it feasts.

So go. But go centered in the deep and wise love of God. Go loving God’s world with the overflow of God’s love in your life. G0 with the hope that the one whose love is redeeming you can redeem them. Go in the majesty and power of the one described by an anonymous second century disciple of John who explained the transforming love of Jesus to Marcus Aurelius’ tutor Diognetus like this….and I quote:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us…the one love of God…took on Him the burden of our iniquities, and gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for those who are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Savior who is able to save even those ones which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desires to lead us to trust in His kindness, (and) to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life.

                                                                                     (Chapter 9, Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus)


(If you would like to listen to the version preached it is here: http://www.sjd.org/sermon/07-10-16-contemporary-sermon-by-the-rev-matt-marino/

The Latino challenge for an all-too-White Church

latino-familySnark MeterrealMID.003A week ago our bishop had our clergy and key lay leaders attend a day-long meeting to contemplate evangelism in the Latino community. He received a great deal of push-back, including comments like, “Those just are not our kind of people.” Below is my emotional reaction in this family-fight in defense of my bishop whom I support and love and his vision for us to embrace the message of the signs we place in front of our churches, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You”…

I have noticed something: Most people like diversity. As long as the diversity is a lot like us – People in our social class, who tell the same jokes, like the same music and watch the same tv. We like diverse people…as long as they aren’t too diverse. We like Inclusion. But it is always easier to include those who like what we like and look like we look.

Eight months ago I was asked by the Diocese of California to preach in a predominantly Anglo church in a predominantly non-Anglo neighborhood. They asked to be pushed on their racial disconnect. The leaders there previewed the sermon and, for the first time in my life, sent it back asking me to up the level of challenge. They were willing to be pushed. Are we?

Latinos represent a challenge for us. Latinos will be a majority in Arizona by 2020. According to Wikipedia, non-Anglos will be the majority in 13 other states by then as well. And first generation Latinos do not get our jokes or like our church music. Many don’t speak our language.

How will White Christians respond? We can cloister our churches until, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, we are the last Anglo in the neighborhood. We can put the “for sale” sign in the yard and move where people “like us” live. Or we could re-engage to reach those God is bringing our neighborhoods with the Good News and hope of Jesus.

We are not talking about doing what Jesus did and actually, “move into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14. We are just talking about not moving out of it.

There is an obvious question that many of my upwardly mobile friends don’t want to talk about: How can White Christians take seriously the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) to “GO and make disciples of ALL nations,” if we move away from those “nations” to live behind a gate somewhere else? Many of us are aware that the Greek word for “nations” is “ethnay”- literally “Ethic groups.” So we are specifically commanded by Jesus to take the Good News of Jesus to those who do not look like us. God included them in the Great Commission specifically. How can the Church exclude them with our avoidance? How can we exclude them with worship services that are painfully non-welcoming in their mono-ethnicity?

I realize how much easier it is to paint “Welcome” on our sign than to write it upon our hearts. It is easier to make inclusion a slogan than a smile as we stick out our hand and say, “Hi my name is ____ and I want to invite you to worship with me this Sunday.”

Mark DeYmaz wrote a decade ago that the average church is 10x more segregated than the neighborhood it is situated in. Unfortunately, the research also tells us mainline churches, which pride ourselves on “inclusion,” are significantly more mono-ethnic than  evangelical churches.

It is no secret that many of Phoenix’s early suburbs are in serious decline. Manicured grass replaced with dirt and weeds. Trees lined streets are stark and stump laden. Cars that don’t run sit on deflating tires. Apartment screens hang from windows like the flags of defeated nations. The parents who supervise no longer allow their children to play in the streets for fear of the “bad element.” These things are not an accident. They are what happens when leadership leaves. When we pack up and move somewhere “better.” Even as our urban cores are renewed, the poor are being pushed out of the donut hole of poverty that were once inner-cities, for our neighborhoods. Now, dispersed throughout the donut, the poor no longer have easy access to services. The poor, of every ethnicity, need our engagement.

It is our new reality that makes me long for the vision of Zechariah 8 in which “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the…city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” That is a beautiful vision of what our decaying suburban neighborhoods could be once again. A vision of what God wants to do through his people – All of them.

Christians are “foreigners and exiles” in this world. (1 Peter 2:11) How can those who name the name of Jesus, extend anything other than welcome to fellow exiles? (Deuteronomy 10:19)

American culture does not take Christianity seriously. Should it?

One does not need prophetic gifts or the ability to read tea leaves to know that for the Church to be taken seriously by the millennial generation some things will have to change. I have tried to contribute a slightly different voice to this conversation…the voice of one who has spent 30 years working with college and young adult students desiring to reach youth for Jesus. I have NOT jumped on the bandwagon clambering to change the content of the faith. I HAVE said the way forward will be in the way we live that faith out…and that we have a model for that living rooted in our distant past: The followers of Jesus were once a multi-ethnic, multi-economic group.[1] They gathered in seeker INsensitive worship rituals[2] (and went out from the strength of that Acts 2:42 gathered community) and loved the world with their hands, feet, mouths and, often, lives.

What did it look like to the world? Somewhere between 130 and 200 CE an explanation of the Christian faith was offered from anonymous Christian to Diognetus, a tutor to Marcus Aurelius known for being intelligent and fair minded. Read this excerpt[3] describing the Christians Diognetus knew and ask yourself  “Is this what those who know us see?

5 For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.  2They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.  3This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do.  4Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.  5They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, yet endure everything as foreigners. 6They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring.  7They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.  8It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.”  9They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 10They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.  11They love all men, and by all men are persecuted.  12They are unknown, and still they are condemned… 13They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance.  14They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated.  15They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect.  16When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life.  17They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity….

6 To put it simply…Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world…9The soul, when faring badly as to food and drink, grows better; so too Christians, when punished, day by day increase more and more.  10It is to no less a post than this that God has ordered them, and they must not try to evade it.

7Do you not see how they are thrown to wild animals to make them deny the Lord, and how they are not vanquished?  8Do you not see that the more of them are punished, the more do others increase?  9These things do not seem to come from a human power; they are a mighty act of God; they are proofs of his presence.

American culture does not take the Church seriously. Why should it?

Don’t you think the diminished view of the Church in the eyes of young adults has a lot to do with our walk not matching our talk? We whine and moan and wring our hands when we could love and serve and give and pray and love some more.

We can do better. Instead of seeking our own good and the perpetuation of institutions, we could remember, to paraphrase Paul that we are not our own, we were bought with a price.”[4] Why do missionaries fare so well? Probably because the people group sees the sacrifice of someone leaving all to join them and wonders why. I’m pretty sure that a little more Romans 12:1-2 sacrifice would be pretty jarring to the world right about now.[5]


[1] Check out the leadership group in Antioch in Acts 11 and 13

[2] Read Justin Martyr’s 1st Apology from 150 CE

[4] 1 Cor 6:19-20

[5] I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

PhD’s and Prisoners: The weirdest, coolest thing I have ever been a part of

Mike Williams Preaching

Last night a visitor arrived at St. Jude’s. He had found us from our out-of-date website and was looking for a multi-ethnic church for his young family. He has a PhD and a spouse who is learning English. Last night, with lots of us out of town, we still had folks born in Africa, Mexico, Russia, Guatemala, Vietnam, and Cuba. Add in people of European and Native American descent and our little church represented every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

I was tempted to ask our visitor if anyone in his family was doing time. You see, 25% of St. Jude’s adults have a PhD. Another 25% have done or have a family member who is doing prison time. PhD’s and prisoners. That is St. Jude’s in a nutshell.

We are a study in contradictions: liturgical and charismatic, ancient and modern…an ecumenical movement all to ourselves, our preachers come from Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist, Salvation Army and Evangelical backgrounds. We joke that we are Black-catholi-gelical – A place in which you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And that is true, worshiping with us can be uncomfortable. It is also true, though, that we have seen a collection of unlikely and dramatic conversions, unexplainable physical healings, and are the least likely group of people you would ever expect to see in relationship with one another.

St. Jude’s to me is like the church in Antioch in the book of Acts. Everyone wants to be an Acts 2 “Jerusalem” Church. We are an “Antioch” church. You know, the place Jesus’ followers were first called “Christians.” What happened in Antioch that people started calling them “little Christs”? Jesus’ followers showed up in diverse and cosmopolitan Antioch because they were being scattered by persecution. When they got there, for the first time they began to share the Good News to non-Jewish outsiders. (Acts 11:20) They developed a church with a multi-ethnic, multi-social class, multi-economic leadership group that had a heart for their diverse city, all of it, even the people who weren’t like them. It was Antioch that sent missionaries out around the Roman world (12:25-13:3). The Antioch church lived out a vision of God’s love for all being demonstrated by those for whom the name of Jesus was the only tie that bound them. This was radical then. It is still pretty uncommon today. Nearly 60 years after Dr. King called 10 a.m. “the most segregated hour in America,” not much has changed. 90% of American Protestants still attend mono-ethnic church services. Luckily, I get to be a part of this weird and wonderfully different thing.

We have faced, and continue to face, all kinds of obstacles, some of them downright bizarre. We lack the knowledge of what it takes to plant a church. But at the same time our God continues to be living and active in our midst. I marveled last night watching our people lining up for intercessory prayer and anointing during our worship time after Holy Communion. I also marveled how after more than two hours of setting up and tearing down for 75 minutes of worship, our folks still want to figure out how to stay together longer…this time at the local Baskin-Robbins.

We are tiny. We are numerically and financially insignificant. We don’t know what we are doing. I can never figure out how we will still exist in 6 months.

On this, the day after the birth of the church at Pentecost, I wonder if the early church felt the same way. I suspect they did.

Noah's Ark Play

Noah’s Ark Play

Rappelling, Race and Your Role in the Redemption of the World

tumblr_m63xqaWsoc1r4kpnxo1_400A sermon from the Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2) given at the Diocese of California’s “Equipping the Beloved Community.” Topic: “Reaching people who don’t look like us.” 

Today we heard the story of a person literally at the end of ropes in a strange place.

What is it like to be at the end of a rope hanging over the unknown?

I had that experience once. I took students rock climbing and rappelling on the boulders outside of Tombstone, Arizona, site of the gunfight at the OK Corral. A retired Army Special Forces guy named Mike organized the trips to teach spiritual principles through great adventures.

In case the terms are new, “Rock climbing” is going up a rock face, “rappelling” is sliding back down on a rope – you see it on military recruiting commercials. It was spectacularly fun. Afterwards, we went to dinner in town. We assumed we were done for the night, when the guide turned his station wagon back toward the desert and informed us we were going to night rappel.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a little bit afraid of the dark.

Don’t laugh – You are too.

We were led up the back of the 90′ cliff by flashlight. The guides tossed the rope over the edge, looked at me and said, “You first.” Ever the reasonable man, I pointed out that it would make more sense to have a trained person on the ground first. Mike says, “We need them up here. You first.”

There was a sliver of moon, which, in the dry air, lit the top half of the cliff face. An outcropping shielded the bottom from the moonlight, The bottom half was a dark mystery.

When rappelling you are attached to the rope by a metal figure 8. This slows your descent by friction. Placing your hand in the middle of your back with the rope in it acts as a brake and you stop. Moving your hand away from the middle of your back allows the rope to slip through the figure 8 and your hand, and down you go.

I started the descent – nine stories in the dark.

Wanting off the rope as soon as possible I go down fast. Perpendicular to the rock face, I jump out as far out as possible to slide down the rope as fast as possible…

I get below the outcropping blocking the moon. Now in blackness, I slow to a crawl. I am shivering in the warm evening.

“How is it going?” The guide yells down at me.

“Great.” I yell up unconvincingly.


“Sure is dark down here.” I say somewhat pathetically.

“Tell us when you are on the ground.”

I feel the end of the rope in my hand.

“Uhhh, we have a problem. I’m out of rope.”

“Good. Send it back up.”

“You aren’t reading me: No rope, AND no ground either.”

If you have had grief training you know the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression… In the slowest two minutes of my life I journey through them. Mike, leaning over the edge, starts with denial. “That’s impossible. You are on a 90’ cliff with a 100’ rope.”

As you might imagine, I respond with anger. “That’s a nice theory but I am definitely not on the ground.”

“How far away is it?” The guide calls.

“Since you had me rappel into utter darkness, you tell me.” I move to bargaining: “How about you pull me back up?”

“Sorry, we have no way to get you back.”

Now depression sets in…and a little panic. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. “I hope you have some ideas, I’m stuck here.” I say nervously.

“Uhmm, try poking around with your foot some more?”

So there I am, in a dark place, all alone…at the end of my rope.

We have all been in dark places. Felt alone. As Christians, though, we know we are not actually alone, no matter how dark the night. We are, however, surrounded by people for whom “God with us” is not their reality. They are lost and hurting. In dark places. Alone. At the end of their ropes. Some are aware of this. Others not so much.

Look at what Jesus does with someone in that place…

Picture yourself at our Gospel event that long ago evening: A crowd shoehorned into a living room. The yard also jammed with people. In the crowd, you listen to Jesus teach when dust begins to fall from the ceiling of the sod-roofed home. Dirt chunks, grass and sticks fall to the floor in front of you. Heads pop through the hole. The vandals pull out beams, expanding their damage. And then down comes this guy, lowered in front of Jesus.

Jesus, master of the unexpected, sees “their faith” and “looking at the man says, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'”

When most of us hear the “s” word we cringe. Even in church “sin” makes us fidget in our seats. If you are “conservative” you probably have a mental list of personal behaviors that are “sins,” “progressive” and you probably see systemic evil as “sins.” I propose a more ancient way of defining sin…simply as looking for life apart from God. When considered in that way, it explains both our wandering into individual self-destructive behaviors and participation in systemic evil. We were made to worship the one true and living God. We all wander from our purpose and look for life apart from our maker. Jesus looks at the paralytic and says in effect, “You have a bigger problem than legs that don’t work. You have a heart that is looking for life apart from me. I forgive you.” And, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins, Get up, take your mat and go home.”

And he does.

Imagine the friend’s giddiness. Can you picture them staring through the hole yelling, “I told you so!” to their wobbly-legged friend?

These friends were pretty amazing. They:

-Went as a team, rather than alone.

-Knew that healing is found in a person, rather than a place.

-Cared enough to bring him to Jesus.

-Wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, neither from their friend, the crowd, or even the homeowner. Imagine the conversation to convince the friend. I would guess the paralytic said something like, “I have no intention of being the butt of every joke in town when your scheme doesn’t work.”

-Went to ridiculous lengths to put their friend in front of Jesus: They risked time, energy, potentially their self-respect, and, surely, a good bit of money at Home Depot afterward. They literally got their hands dirty to bring their friend to the Savior.

What about you? Who are you a spiritual friend to? We have friends all around us who need the healing and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ: at your work, school, in your family, surrounding your church.

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to help them see Jesus…willing to get your hands dirty? Jesus saw “their faith.” Do you faith to bring Christ’s healing and salvation to your community?

I don’t know your context. But I have looked at the demographic data for your schools. They are remarkably integrated. Why isn’t your church?

Shouldn’t a church reflect its community? Why is your church mono-ethnic in an integrated neighborhood? Perhaps, as it was for the paralytic, the way into church is blocked? It isn’t always the crowds that keep people away from the Savior.

Mark DeYmaz, in Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, says the average American church is 10x more segregated than its neighborhood.

Prior to coming to the Diocese I worked in a historically upper middle-class youth ministry in a neighborhood becoming less White by the year. We took our leaders to the high school quad and, while looking at real students, asked “Who on campus isn’t in our ministry and why?” Then leaders picked groups and went and got to know them.

When those kids began to follow Christ we took them to church. A painful thing then began to happen: After worship the young people would say what Luis Acosta said, “Matt, I love that you stalked me for Jesus. I love that you made me come to Bible study and taught me to obey Jesus.’ I love that you are training me to be a Christian leader….but do you have to keep dragging me to these godawful churches.” I was confused: We had gone to Anglo churches, Latino churches, Black churches.  At each the people were nice, the music excellent, the sermon interesting. Luis pointed out the monochrome reality, “Everyone here was (fill in the racial blank). Then he asked, “Why is God the only racist in my life?

I was stunned by the question. It has been more than 50 years since Dr. King said that 10 am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America, and still 92% of American Protestants attend mono-ethnic church services. Your own Julia McCray Goldsmith’s son said to her, “I don’t want to go to church-it’s the only place I go that’s all-White.”

We hang signs that say, “We welcome you.” But what do we do to welcome people who don’t look like us?

I came to the Episcopal Church in part because, in addition to promising Protestant theology with catholic worship, access to the wisdom of the earliest Christians and the hopeful idea that we could agree to pray the same words rather than agree on every theological jot and tittle, we believe in the dignity of those who aren’t like us. Unfortunately, “Welcome” is easier to paint on a sign than to do.

Statistically Evangelical churches are much more integrated than Mainline churches. How is that possible? Perhaps while we were talking about justice, they were talking about Jesus.

How will our children believe us that Christ loves the world and went to the cross for the salvation of humanity if the church looks completely unlike their world? We can do better for our children.

What if everyone here said, “I don’t care what anyone says or thinks of me, the Christian message is true, so the most important thing in the world is the forgiveness and healing found in Christ.” What if out of that conviction each of us engaged in friendships with people who are unlike us? What if we talked to the under-represented about what would need to change in order for them to feel culturally welcomed while spiritually challenged.

Imagine what your world might look like a decade from now if we lived that kind of Biblical welcome…

-Entire neighborhoods walking in the healing and forgiving love of Jesus.

-Not just full churches, but joyful neighborhoods, laughter in the streets and hope in human hearts.

O that we would say what Isaiah said to God so many years ago, “Here am I. Send me.”

…Back to my climbing story: It turned out I was only inches above the ground. Coming down the cliff face I had angled left toward the moonlight. The cliff bottomed into a downward sloping hill. I had moved just far enough toward the moonlight to leave the ground 2” below my outstretched toes. In the end, I had been afraid of a harmless unknown. Isn’t the unknown what we are really afraid of when it comes to opening wide our churches so that others could experience the love, healing, and salvation of Jesus?

Are you willing to take a risk for the Kingdom? As one who is safe on the rope of God’s mercy, are you willing to go, make unchurched friends, and jump with them into God’s unknown?

When we take a risk we never know what God might do.

And, the paralytic that gets healed might just be us.

Illegitimacy: A far bigger “fiscal cliff”


Soon, we are told, we will go over the “fiscal cliff.” When it happens our politicians and corporations will make a beeline to our tv screens and exhort us to do our part: spend money.

No one is talking about it, but we have a much bigger drag on our economy than the fiscal cliff. It drags our nation down every minute of every day. It is children born out of wedlock, what used to be known as “illegitimacy.” 42% of American children are now born out of wedlock. Why is this a problem? Because, generally speaking, 3/4 of children born OUT OF wedlock are born INTO poverty.

I have spent 30 years in youth ministry. Largely this amounts to being a friend and a mentor…sort of an uncle to young people during their critical adolescent period. What I have seen time and time again is that to successfully make the jump to adulthood means making just a few big decisions right. With those few big decisions, people generally end up in a pretty good place. You don’t have to be anywhere close to a perfect person, but for life to go fairly well for most of us, meant three choices:

  1. Don’t do anything in which the worst thing that could happen is for you to like it. (ie. addiction)
  2. Get an education (in something that will get you a  decent paying job)
  3. Get married.

In the absence of someone else to pay the bills, if you don’t make the Big Three major decisions in order, life gets very difficult, very quickly. 

You might ask, “Where is faith in this equation?” Faith is the fourth predictor. My son is in Student Council at a Title IV high school. Of the students whose homes kids go to for events, it is the 1/3 who are church members whose homes are invariably used. That is because they tend to be the ones at the school with homes large enough to use. Their faith gave them a moral framework and supportive relationships to make the Big Three! For me, the Big Three decisions are 2nd, 3rd, and home plate. First base is faith. In baseball if you don’t get on first base nothing else really matters. Yes, someone can have a decent life in the here and now without faith because, as Jesus said, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45) People can engage the faith decision anywhere around the Big Three and end up fine. But without the Big Three young people send themselves into poverty and set up their children to continue that dangerous cycle.

We have to help young people know the consequences of their life life choices. Here is a web link to a NJ news article that describes the connection between poverty and out-of-wedlock childbearing: (http://blog.nj.com/njv_editorial_page/2012/11/qa_why_marriage_may_be_the_str.html) It is controversial if you are a progressive, but in my experience, spot on. Helping young people with the other big decision, education, is controversial if you are a conservative and want to cut funding for public education. Isn’t it time we put our young people ahead of our politics?

Amare Stoudemire used to have a non-profit called, “Each one. Teach one.” I have no idea what that organization did. But the idea is right. If every person who reads this blog forwards it to your fb friend list and every one of us mentor one young person of poverty, from today until the day they graduate from college…we will have done far more to help our nation’s future than anything else in our power. So forward this to your friends and then become a Big Brother/Big Sister, a Young Life leader, join Mentor Kids USA or become a volunteer in your church’s youth ministry…find a way to longitudinally follow a young person as a wise aunt or uncle.

It will matter to them. It will change you. And the nation you save may be your own.

Won’t you join me and find a young person to share your life and wisdom with?

Why I introduced more color into my worship…

What I learned from the Black church: If it doesn’t make me want to dance…and shout and speak in unknown tongues and challenge my life it wasn’t church. Church should remind me that, no matter what is in the news or what my problems look like, God is for us not against us. It is the God who lifts up His people we are worshiping.

What I learned from the White church: If it doesn’t make me think and want to know more of God it wasn’t church. I should need a pen to write down something from the Scriptures and have an insight to apply to my life and want to share with friends…it is the God who revealed himself through His word and in the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and homecoming we are worshiping.

What I learned from the Latino church: If it doesn’t make me use my entire body it wasn’t church. I should be called to his sacrifice on my knees with hands outstretched to receive. I should remember that God is both bigger than my brain yet as simple to appropriate as “Take. Eat. This is my body…” It is the God who is unspeakably huge and holy, yet intimately incarnate with us we are worshiping.

I could go to church with people who all look like me. My spiritual life would be infinitely more bland if I did.

Mark DeYmaz of the Mosaic network tells us that 92% of American Protestants worship mono-ethnically. My neighborhood doesn’t look like that, so we started a multi-ethnic church plant several years ago. It is a tiny underfunded experiment in what we call “Black-catholi-gelicalism.” Lots of holy things happen among us every week. http://www.mystjudes.com

*No disrespect intended toward groups not included. In my neighborhood people under 35 are: 15% African American, 33% Anglo, 55% Latino, 7% all others.

What if you knew that one single factor was responsible for social disaster?

St. Jude’s guys on their way to Bible study.

One single factor is responsible for these results:

  • 5x more likely to commit suicide
  • 32x more likely to be runaways or homeless
  • 14x more likely to rape someone
  • 20x more likely to have behavioral problems
  • 9x more likely to drop out of school
  • 10x more likely to have inpatients chemical abuse treatment
  • 20x more likely to go to prison
  • 711% more likely to have a teen pregnancy
  • 92% more likely to end up divorced

The factor: Not having a father involved in a child’s life. In our church’s youth group 15% have a dad living in the home. Ask yourself what happens when we disenfranchise the urban male. Ask yourself if our society can afford the results. 

I have a photograph in my office of seven young men from our neighborhood sitting on boulders in Oak Creek. None of them had dads engaged in their lives. We were on a discipleship weekend-so these were guys who had chosen a life of faith instead of a life on the streets. Fast forward four years: Two of them are young men of amazing positive impact, serving God by mentoring other urban young men. Two were already in prison serving hard time for violent crimes. The other three remain on the bubble. Not yet productive members of society. But not in prison either. Economically, the continued existence of our country depends on the five supporting the two. If we end up in a situation where the two support the five…well, the economics just don’t work.

Consider this: In high crime neighborhoods, 90% of children from stable 2 parent homes where the Father is involved do not become delinquents.

What can you do? Amare Stoudemire started a charity called “Each One, Teach One.” I don’t know anything about his charity, but the concept is right. Men, find a young man to come along side of for the next decade. Not 10 or 20. Just one. If you need help finding one or with what to do, ask me. I know lots of them who would love an older Christian friend to help them navigate the waters of life.

(Statistics Retrieved from: http://thefatherlessgeneration.wordpress.com/statistics/)