A Sept. 11, 2001 Memory

Posted: September 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

Hard to believe that 10 years have past since Sept. 11, 2001. I have a lot of memories of that day starting with the first news bulletin I heard on WBEZ. But I want to share a memory that has quietly haunted me ever since that day.

Still in shock from the horrors of the pictures that I’d seen and the news that the President had been in Omaha (a nightmare scenario for a Nebraska kid growing up in the 1980’s who was often reminded that Omaha was command center of our nuclear arsenal) – I went to church with my roommate. It was his church. Mine was far away in the city. During the service that night we gathered to pray with other members of the congregation. One of the lay people in my circle prayed that God would teach us to love our enemies. As I remember it now, I remember resisting this prayer. I didn’t want to love the people who attacked our country. I also remember thinking that now we had enemies. I had always struggled to identify the enemy I was commanded to love. Finally, I remember thinking this prayer, though hard, was right.

I’ve been haunted by this memory b/c I believe that has been the only time in the last 10 years when I’ve heard a person in church talk about the command to love our enemies. I feel confident that I haven’t heard anyone talk about it in the context of the war on terrorism or Al Quaeda. I think this is a real missed opportunity by the American church to explore counter cultural commandKingdom of Christ during a time when many have been lusting for vengeance.

As I talked this over with my wife, I became persuaded that maybe Sunday, 9/11/11 was not the time to preach on loving our enemies. It is a time to grieve with those who grieve and lament with those who lament. And indeed, that was not the text this last Sunday. Still, I’m hoping that the next time I hear reference to that verse isn’t when another city is covered in smoke and ashes.



Posted: September 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

Maybe it is just a fall thing but I’m getting the blogging itch again. I thought I would start yet another re-launch of this project with a note that I wrote to my niece on her 12th birthday. My brother asked several adults who know Emily to write letters for her as she enters adolescence. They compiled the letters for her into a book. It was a fun project to think of what advice to write a 12 year old. Here was what I came up with.

It has been a pleasure to watch you grow into a young woman and I’m very excited to be able to celebrate your baptism with you. I’m very proud that you are my niece.

I’ve been asked to share something I’ve learned in life with you, so I want you to know that there are turtles in the water. There are probably a lot of them.

For awhile I ate lunch each day by a pond in a little woods not far from where I worked. It was a pretty ordinary pond with some tall grass and lily pads and probably some liter along the bank. It was kind of boring. At first I would turn to look at the people in the park, or the clouds, or the trees as I ate my lunch. But I learned something by that pond. If I kept looking at the water and the lily pads my eyes would slowly adjust. I would start to see different shades of green and little bumps in the water. Eventually I would see a turtle sticking his head up watching me, and then I would see a bullfrog sitting in the grass. If I kept looking I would be able to make out many turtles, frogs, and sometimes fish in the weeds and water of that pond. It was full of life. The animals were there the whole time; it just took me awhile to adjust to their camouflage.

I share this not so you can spot more turtles this summer (though I hope you do) but because I think this is an important lesson. As most people get older they get busier. There will be work to do for school and at home, music and sports to practice, church activities to attend. There will be people to talk to and you will want to spend some time listening to music, watching TV or being on the computer. These are all good things but in the business of life it is easy to miss some of the most interesting, some of the most beautiful things in the world. It is also really easy to miss God.

Ugly things in life, like brightly colored litter in a pond are usually easy to see. Some people only see the ugly things and end up bored, angry, and bitter. To see the beautiful things, such as great sunsets, or people who do kind things for others, or the ways God loves us, you usually have to stop being busy for a while and watch, ask questions, and quietly think.

I hope as you enter this next phase of life you find time to stop and daydream, write or draw, walk in the woods, and look at the stars. As we do these types of things we give our minds time to adjust to see all the interesting and beautiful things that are all around us. As you do this in the years ahead you may find that you have a lot of questions, questions without easy answers. That is ok. Don’t be afraid of questions they are an important part of how we grow. Just keep watching and listening.

You may not see it right away but there are turtles in the water. There are probably a lot of them.

Uncle Matt


Posted: October 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

A friend (and fellow pilgrim who is the father of 4 cute kids) writes, “how, again, do we reconcile, redeem, and reform [trick or treating], if we even should, to the glory of God?”

I commented:

What if as (Protestant) Christians we revived the idea of All Saints Day? We could take time at the end of Oct./beginning of Nov. to remember and tell stories of great heroes of the faith. Rather than a thin baptism of popular culture (ever go to a church “Hallelujah” party?) this would be a way to connect with Christian traditions that are centuries old.

Also this would allow for us to “redeem” some of the folksy parts of American Halloween. It is easy to imagine costumes as part of All Saints Day and one could recast Trick or Treating as a way of asking for and giving alms. In celebration of the feast of the saints we give generously to our neighbors. In remembrance of those sent out by Christ and told to seek provision in the towns they visit; we go out as missionaries asking others for provision.

This doesn’t directly deal with the darkness of Halloween [& I think honesty in acknowledging evil and repentance is desperately needed in our culture] but perhaps celebrating Christian “saints” could be a way to apply Rom 12:21 (Do not be overcome w/ evil but overcome evil w/ good).

A couple of additional thoughts – First, I hate Halloween and usually try hard to ignore it but realize this is harder when you are also a parent. Second, I forgot that Oct. 31st is Reformation day and a very legitimate time for Protestants to celebrate our Christian forefathers. Finally, I think as a church we really need to re-discover the Christian calendar that often lies just below the pop/commercial calendar in our country. I think it would bring dignity and meaning to our celebrations that seem to lack both.

I post this here, because I’m curious what the parents who read this blog do with (or plan to do – I’m talking to you Friar Tuck) with Halloween.

A lot more could and probably should be said about Halloween but let me just add that everytime I see an add for the 13 nights of Halloween on TV and can’t help think how that is 1 more than the 12 Days of Christmas and what a sad commentary on our society.

The sacrifice of fools

Posted: September 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

Every once in awhile when I read scripture a verse grabs my attention and I can not shake it. This week it has been this verse in Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 5:1)

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

This has been a season of silence for me, on this blog and generally. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean listening. This verse has been really convicting – but also a reminder of what I aspire too on my urban pilgrimage.

photo by vagawi

Numbness & Evangelism

Posted: April 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

One of the most wonderful qualities of my mother is her passion for evangelism. A passion that she inherited from her father, a man I met only as an infant. Lately she has reflected that it seems more and more difficult to engage people in meaningful evangelistic conversation. To get them to consider their spiritual fate.

This reflections came to mind as I read the following pair of books the past couple of months. First was Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination and the second was Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel

Brueggemann’s book is my favorite book of those I read this year. It draws connections between Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Christ as the paradigms of prophetic ministry. A central claim is that the “royal” world of human control, a world that marginalizes denies God, survives by convincing people that everything is okay – we shouldn’t really expect any more. Here is a quote from the book:

What I propose is this: The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their expericences of suffering to death. – Kindle location 881

Thus an essential role of the prophet is to teach people to mourn. To lament the falleness and wickedness of the world.

I have come to think that there is no more succinct summary of prophetic ministry than the statement of Jesus: “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21), or, more familiarly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). — Kindle location 1996

It is only after we break through the lie that things are going alright, that we can’t expect better, only after we acknowledge the reality of pain that our numbness begins to dissipate and we open ourselves to the work of God. A God who doesn’t work per our expectations. One last quote:

Jesus is able to articulate a future that is distinctly different from an unbearable present. But that future is energizing only for those for whom the present has become unbearable. For those people and that community the abrasion takes the form of promise; the judgment takes the form of energy; the condemnation takes the form of hope. Believers in that future given by God are able to sing and to dance, to heal and to forgive. All those actions that the numb cannot take are given to believers in that future. — Kindle location 1907

Thus to embrace the hope and joy of our salvation we need first to truly lament the dreadful (death full) effects of sin all around us. Or to return to the opening of this post, as long as we (both as individuals and a culture) are basically satisfied with this world it will be hard to be excited about evangelizing. About sharing the good news. And this is where the second books comes in.

Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision and his book is call of the Church to respond to the poverty of the world. I was hesitant to read this book b/c when one starts to look seriously at the problems of the global poor it can quickly get overwhelming. Although The Hole in Our Gospel tries to offer some encouragement, it does not offer simple or easy answers. In fact it calls out Americans for too often simplifying poverty to a lack of money or food and actually making things worse when we send those things.

Since our well intentioned but often naive attempts to help can easily backfire one is tempted to ask why bother. Why not do the best we can at home and not meddle with other people’s problems. There are surely many responses to this but the one that strikes me reading these books in tandem is that we need to engage with the hunger, thirst, suffering, and violence of the world not to fix those problems but to break out of our Western parochial mindset that things are basically ok. We need to mourn with those that mourn, to get to know the grieving mothers and AIDS orphans and thus to leave behind the chilled numbness of hearts warmed only by the glow of TV screens (or computer monitors).

Perhaps the hole in our attempts to evangelize is that we do not know enough about brokeness of the world. Listening to those who wail in grief and getting to know their stories in all there ugliness and horror. Letting that pain hit us until we join them in mourning. And then as we share these sad stories with the world maybe we will all find a renewed interest in a King like no other king and feel the energy and hope that there is a different, better world coming. A world we can not make but we can receive – with singing.

I’m still chewing on all of this but it seems compelling. I think I and many others are often numb to the claims of the gospel. We don’t feel that we need to be saved from anything. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a church would take a break from the typical upbeat worship and spent time grieving corporately.

Lessons from Francis Asbury

Posted: February 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

American Saint book cover

American Saint

Another recent read that I really enjoyed was John Wigger’s American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists. Asbury (1745-1816) had been a blind spot in my understanding of American church history. I knew the name, that he traveled a lot, and was instrumental in founding American Methodism but not much else. This book filled in the blanks on one of the few American preachers with his own monument in Washington DC. Along the way in gave me a lot to think about and those lessons from Asbury are what I want to share here.

Asbury began his career as an uneducated itinerant evangelist in England. Though he would end up a nationally known figure with a great deal of ecclesiastical power after presiding over the incredible expansion of the Methodist church in America, he remained absolutely committed to simplicity and singleness of purpose – namely winning souls to Christ. Indeed he saw a desire to be admired by men the great enemy of the church. The early Methodist revivals that Asbury endorsed and encouraged were wild affairs with shouting, trembling, singing, dancing, going on for hours. Such emotional exuberance in a religious service was scandalous in its day (and would be in ours too). But Asbury and allies like Ezekiel Cooper defended the racket. Wigger writes in a quote that stuck with me:

“[Cooper] suspected that the real problem for those upset by the revivals noise was a desire for respectability in the eyes of the ungodly. “I am awfully afraid that many will lose their souls through fear of reproach,” Copper wrote.” p.170

Cooper’s concern was also Asbury’s lifelong fear. Asbury was also keenly aware of the ability of wealth to sap our spiritual zeal and modeled a life of extreme poverty. There is a lot pro and con that can be said for the emotionalism that characterized early Methodism, but what struck me is how willing Asbury was to play the fool for Christ. In our day we (myself included) talk a lot about being relevant to our culture and the Church having a voice in the cultural discussions of our world. I’m not completely ready to give that up, but as Ed Stetzer has asked what are we winning converts too? How far are we willing to go to win souls to Christ? And what steps do we need to take to ensure that winning souls remains our top priority?


This blog is called Urban Pilgrim, a titled inspired by Psalm 84:5 but in Asbury we have the real pilgrim deal. He spent the majority of his life with no home address he lived and died on the road. And fiercely defended the model of an itinerant (traveling) ministry. This defense was based on the belief that pastors who settled in one location would inevitably be caught up in the concerns and politics of that place and lose sight of their mission to preach the Gospel to sinners. Much of my thinking lately has been on the importance of connecting with a place and a concern that our culture has become rootless to its own harm. I still think this is true but Asbury reminds us that has Christians there is always the danger of finding a home in this world and that hearts on pilgrimage at least sometime require bodies on the move too. It also makes me think about the trade offs between investing the time as Christians to get to know a place a set of people in order to bring the Gospel into their world with the risks in the same practice. I don’t have those answers but appreciate the question being raised (maybe you have thoughts?). At least I now understand why (or one reason why) it was recently the practice for pastors to move frequently – something that doesn’t seem as true today as it maybe was growing up.


A third take away from reading about Asbury is the immense value of taking time to visit people where they live in order to bring the Gospel to their world. Asbury was not a great speaker or writer nor was he a charismatic political organizer, but be had the ability to engage people in conversation and a willingness to spend time in their homes and communities. While traveling he relied on the hospitality of the locals wherever he went and was known for a willingness to stay in all types of homes, humble and wealthy (and occasionally sleeping under a tree). One of things I admired in my fathers’ ministry was his persistence in visiting the people in our church in their homes and occasionally in their fields. In my limited work with small groups I’ve noticed you gain a whole new understanding of people when you meet with them and their groups in their homes. I’ve also been on the other side of the visitation and been blessed to have a church leader come meet with me. Unfortunately I feel that we seldom put much emphasis on visitation in our expectation of clergy and thus don’t allow them much time for it. I think this is a real loss. The management ethos in our country commonly sees people as statistics (understandably given the scale of our economy) but that is a real danger in the church. Asbury was able to uniquely speak for the American people because he spent a lot of time with American people of all sorts, he was also able to uniquely speak to them for the same reason.

Country People

Finally in this book one meets a rare character in history books, rural people living on farms and in small towns. In Asbury’s day most American’s lived in small villages and this was the setting Asbury was most at home. In part this was of personal interest because I come from such places and in the piety and practices described found echoes of my own experiences. There is a reason that cities and schools are emphasized in history – they do indeed have a powerful influence on culture and explain much. But there are other forces such as Asbury and his band of itinerant preachers whose preaching of personal piety, fiscal restraint, and emotion laden presentations of the Gospel may leave little documentary remains but can also have a deep impact on culture. As American in recent years have left the rural places in great numbers for more urban ones they bring these aspects of American culture with them and it continues to have an influence.

There is a lot more that could be said for this book, including a discussion of how to assess the legacy of Asbury but one last thing I’ll say is that this book was also helpful to understand a little more the plight of African Americans in our country and churches. To his credit Asbury was an early and eager abolitionist and really hurt by the white opposition that earned him. In the face of this opposition he helped start some of the first African American churches in this country. If this is an area of interest I think you’ll find some helpful material here.

Better Off

Posted: February 17, 2010 in Uncategorized

Better Off cover image I’m going to try to share some quick takes on books I’ve been reading while I have not been blogging.

First up the quick read, Better Off by Eric Brende. This book is the story of an MIT grad student and his wife who decide to live a year w/out electricity in an Amish-like community they call the Minimites. I found it a compelling, possibly life changing story.

I was especially impressed with Brende’s reflections on the nature of work. He finds the work he is forced to do without the aid of electrical machines to be mysteriously life affirming. Partly this is b/c work is done at a different pace when human and animals set the pace and not a constant flow of electrons. Things slow down and find a rhythm that is more sustainable, more natural, more humane and human. Brende was surprised to find how much life seemed to slow down off the grid and he and his wife actually felt like they had a lot more time while they lived on the farm.

More to the point this book suggest that there is something about manipulating physical things in a disciplined way that is deeply satisfying. We are made to do work. This runs counter not only to our culture but to my long habit of trying to minimize work – especially physical work. Yet it seems to make sense and conform to my experience (and I’ve had ample opportunity to experiment recently at the office). After reading this book I adopted as a goal to do three things around the house every day – washing dishes, folding clothes, dusting, etc. The point is to see physical work as an important part of a healthy life and this kind of work is very different from what I usually get paid to do. So far I’ve made it over a month and made my “3 things” goal almost every day. I have a ways to go to counter a long habit of seeing work as something to avoid but this is a start.

Another important take-away from Brende’s book was the important social function of work. In Brende’s Minimite community much of the work was done communally with neighbors and the result of months of working with and for each other emerged the shared stories and emotional bonds of deep friendship. In Brende’s experience the work preceded the friendship and was a way to earn trust. As someone who struggles making light conversation and forming friendship with others this movement from work to friendship makes sense. There is something very satisfying about accomplishing something as a team. Recently I’ve heard some discussion about how guys especially have a hard time forming friendships with other men. I wonder if we looked harder for people to work with and less time for people to be friends with, if wouldn’t end up with the significant friendships that are otherwise difficult to build. In part this means that the attempt to divide our work and social lives might be very misguided – at least for men. Female relationships seems to follow some different patterns.

Obviously I’m still using electricity but I’m trying to recapture a discipline of seeing work as something to affirm as a regular part of life and not a problem thanks largely to the example of Eric Brende and the lessons he learned with the Minimites.