Wondrous Love, Easter, and Marilynne Robinson

I have a theory that the churches fill on Christmas and Easter because it is on these days that the two most startling moments in the Christian narrative can be heard again…
— Marilynne Robinson - When I Was a Child I Read Books

Though I have this book in my library, half-read of course, I came across this quote and the one below on the magnificent Mockingbird website and thought it was worth some post-Easter reflection. Their comment is, In other words, people come to church on major holidays not solely out of a sense of social and religious propriety, but because, at least subconsciously, those are the two days when we can be assured of hearing some Good News from the pulpit (as opposed to a spiritualized version of the instruction we hear from every other outlet, including the internal ones). She goes on to explain:

If we sometimes feel adrift from humankind, as if our technology-mediated life on this planet has deprived us of the brilliance of the night sky, the smell and companionship of mules and horses, the plain food and physical peril and weariness that made our great-grandparents’ lives so much more like the life of Jesus than any we can imagine, then we can remind ourselves that these stories have stirred billions of souls over thousands of years, just as they stir our souls, and our children’s. What gives them their power? They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. They are tales of love, lovingly enacted once, and afterward cherished and retold–by the grace of God, certainly, because they are, after all, the narrative of an obscure life in a minor province. Caesar Augustus was also said to be divine, and there aren’t any songs about him.

We here, we Christians, have accepted the stewardship of this remarkable narrative, though it must be said that our very earnest approach to this work has not always served it well…

I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States top be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran. I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.

Easter and the Post-Christian West

“Why was it virtually impossible NOT to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?”

Charles Taylor, who is a professor at McGill in Canada, asks this near the beginning of his 2007 book “The Secular Age.” This nearly 900-page book has become the standard text mapping out the dissolution of religion, and particularly Christianity in the modern West. 

He observes that our society has moved from a “background” - by which he means a way of seeing and living into the world, that assumed a personal and knowable spiritual reality outside of us. He calls this a spiritually "enchanted" world. 

From this, we have moved to an "immanent frame" - the “background” now is that everything that’s real, everything that matters is immanent, it's internal to our world. In this outlook, it's not just that less and less people find the reasons for belief compelling, but that there's not "default" towards presuming that a meaningful life necessitates a spiritual reference point. 

Though I don't remember him saying this directly, or as bluntly, there is a subtext that runs throughout the book that implies that in a societal context like ours, where organized religion is not only no longer taken for granted, but is more and more viewed as regressive and harmful , that unexamined faith - what he calls "naive faith" won’t survive.

Yet, even though as I understand it, Taylor is a practicing Catholic, he doesn’t present this reality as something entirely lamentable. He sees opportunities for the renewal of faith in a secular age - maybe not quantity but in quality, because as Christianity has fallen from its privileged position,  so have “naive” and cultural reasons for believing that may in fact have hindered real spiritual transformation. 

Beginning last week we've been exploring the idea that perhaps Israel's experience in Babylonian exile, while not exactly parallel to ours, might provide us with some direction as to how to live faithfully in a context where the Church must do her work from the margins rather than from places of cultural power. 

Last Sunday, we considered two unhealthy and ultimately ineffective postures that the Church could assume: Assimilation and Tribalism. We will continue to explore these in our Easter service tomorrow and begin to hint at a better way. 

Safety is Dangerous, An Alt-Country Perspective

This morning I opened with an illustration drawn from all of the alt-country music I'd been listening to lately. (Drive-by Truckers, The Band, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, etc.) Here's my introductory remarks, along with a link to the song I quoted. Enjoy!

There are lots of interesting, strange, mysterious people in the Bible, but it seems God is the most peculiar. If you start reading the Bible from page one, you may start to think God really should have gotten a better editor! There are lots of "conflicting reports":

  • We see his unfathomable love depicted alongside unspeakable wrath. 
  • He often seems personal and near to those in the Bible, but then oh so far away when he is needed. 
  • The reader is called to draw underneath his wings as if he’s a mother hen, but at the same time, take care, because to see him or to touch him can be deadly!

I’ve been listening to almost nothing but the Drive-by Truckers at work lately - on the way, during, and on the drive home. (They're and alt-country band from great state of Alabama. Roll Tide!) 

Like most country music they talk about beer, cars, trains, women, dead-end jobs, and God. But, being from the South, they talked about God from sort of Christ-haunted / Flannery O’Connor / Southern Gothic point-of-view. 

Like O'Connor, they skewer religious hypocrisy in a twisted sort of way, and satirize the way that God and Country and Southern Culture get mashed up and confused. This baptizing of our cultural practices in God-language doesn’t happen only in the South but we have an unusual cleverness for it. 

Jason Isbell used to be with the Truckers, and wrote a song called 24 Frames. The title comes from the speed of film, telling the story of someone who has run into the real God:

You thought God was an architect, now you know,
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow,
And everything you built that’s all for show, goes up in flames.
In 24 frames.
— Jason Isbell, 24 Frames

God is deadly to the illusion of control. He’s a pipe bomb to all the ways we use him as architect to draw up plans for a safe and predictable life - especially if this life is underwritten in God’s name, at the expense of others.


Can the Center Hold?

I've been thinking about this phrase from Yeats almost daily the last number of years as a pastor. He is using it in another context, but it's a question that is very relevant to church leadership, and one that remains unanswered. 

The question to me is, "can a local church center itself so profoundly in the gospel of Jesus that diversity in its body doesn't threaten to pull it apart?" Or, to state this in a slightly different way, "can diversity (ideological, political, exegetical, and theological) in a local church context become something that is seen as a given, even an asset, instead of something to be minimized?" 

These questions became very poignant to me two and a half years ago right about the time the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. I wrote here on this blog that Intowners would respond to this ruling in a variety of ways; some would be delighted, while others might have some measure of concern about what this portends for religious freedom or perhaps the moral trajectory of our country.

To me, this was simply stating the obvious - that we are a church that meets in one of the bluest of blue cities and that people here, even if they are church-goers, don't tend to think about cultural and moral issues in the same way that Christians do in more traditional "red-state" contexts. Intowners love Jesus and AND they love living in our very secular city. So, many people - though not all, were overjoyed that their LGBTQ friends now had the same rights and privileges with regard to marriage that they themselves possessed. 

Making this observation may have been fine in an of itself, but I was condemned online for not also indicating how Intown was working to correct this obvious spiritual deficiency. Setting aside the discussion about if, when, and how we should expect a nation-state to uphold any one particular religion's moral norms and marriage liturgies, the obvious implication of the pushback I received on multiple blogs (as well as in person) was that diversity on THIS issue was NOT to be tolerated.

Divergent views on eschatology? Sure. Mode of Baptism? Sometimes. Form of Government? Probably. Views of the Lord's Supper? Of course! But, if a church is to be faithful to the Bible and to their members' spiritual welfare it should monitor individual member's views on homosexuality and correct those who are out of line with the "right" view.

(Short aside: I think the expectation is that most of this "correction" will come from the pulpit as preachers point out the incompatibility of homosexuality with scripture. But, if a church's preaching content is shaped by the Bible, the times this topic will show up organically in the sermon text will be somewhat rare. And, if we choose to denominate homosexuality as obviously-sinful rather than wrestling with the text and asking whether malakoi and arsenokoitai actually mean what we've always thought, will there be anyone there to listen other than the already-convinced? A tree falling in the forest may make a lot of noise, but if no one is there to listen, it doesn't cause anyone to move.)    

No matter how robustly I may have agreed with my online assailants about the gospel, the core tenets of confessional Christianity, and no matter how desperately the need is for ecumenical cooperation in our polarized age, my unwillingness to surveil people's views on this matter and enforce some kind of uniformity at Intown meant that I was not to be trusted or cooperated with. Members and regulars at Intown received calls and emails from concerned parents and friends counseling them to leave.

What I considered to be a rather benign blog post was used as a weapon in the ongoing proliferation of the culture wars, as well as an instrument of further division in the Christian family. 

This sort of "agree with me or else" Christianity has deeply affected the way that average people in the pew parse out their differences. Issues that Christians used to kill each other over like the Lord's Supper are now seen as relatively minor intramural discussions while even the hint that someone might be re-examining their Bibles and taking a fresh look at the few verses that address homosexuality can lead to ecclesial inquisitions, the severing of familial relationships, as well as the ending of pastoral careers. 

This basically confirms to the watching world that the Church has no better way of talking about divisive issues than they do, so why bother? 

Perhaps this competitive and protectionist approach to theological discourse exists because we're predisposed by our political culture to see issues in right/wrong, us/them binaries. But, I think our conversations often tilt toward mutual exclusion because we're working from a faulty understanding of the church. As Americans we have a tendency to view the church as an institution that is there to underwrite our comfort and reinforce our current thinking rather than confronting us over and over with the scandal of the gospel and pushing us into the pain of the world as Christ's ambassadors. This is further complicated by the Protestant instinct to assign enormous value to the purity of the church and relatively little value to it's visible unity.  These factors keep our churches theologically and culturally-homogenous and virtually guarantee that a large part of the American church will continue talking about LGBTQ people rather than with them. 

Wherever we find ourselves on the specific exegetical questions about LGBTQ inclusion, shouldn't the church be the IDEAL context for difficult conversations rather than one of the most adversarial? Couldn't we, along with the Apostle Paul, assume a certain level of diversity in the church, and consider this is a strength for mission and community life rather than a disease to be eradicated? Shouldn't our relationships with our brothers and sisters sitting in the pew next to us be binding enough to not only survive exegetical differences, but compel us to pursue relational solidarity at just about any cost? What if we just decided to trust that those who see things differently than us are most likely trying to be faithful followers of Jesus just like we are? 

To me, these are far more interesting questions than "who's right and who's wrong?" The latter generally descends into people quoting decontextualized Bible verses to try and defeat their opponent. If we follow Jesus then we have to treat what the Bible has to say about human sexuality with utmost seriousness, and I would love to create a context where people could open their Bibles together and talk openly and honestly with one another about what it says and how it should be applied today. But, until we agree upon the terms of relationship and commit to a posture of mutual love and forbearance, conversations about LGBTQ matters won't be conversations, they'll be debates. And, these debates will create more heat than light and further hide the face of Jesus from the very people he seemed so intent on embracing. 



Running from the Prodigal God

On Sundays here at Intown, we've been looking at the parables of Jesus that Luke records in chapter 15 of his gospel. In these stories, we see that Jesus was far more likely to be found partying with notorious sinners than hanging out with the religious elite. 

Isn't it curious that the opposite is often true for the modern church? American churches are far more likely to be comprised of the kind of people that Jesus chastised for their religious dogmatism and exclusion while the people he partied with generally don't show up anymore.

Frank Zappa said,  “My best advice to anyone who wants to raise a happy, mentally healthy child is: Keep him or her as far away from a church as you can.” 

People in the modern, secularized-west don’t think we have a good story to tell; they’re not looking for our help in their search for truth and meaning. In the last 50 years or so, the church as an institution has gone from being a valued part of the social fabric, and the pastor a respected civic leader, to both being seen as novelties if not outright adversaries of the common good. 

All the while we keep "doing church" as usual, trying to keep the 99 safe and comfortable, while the 1 isn't interested in the least. (See Luke 15 for the "99 and the 1" language.) 

Sociologists tell us that modern secular people haven't given up on their search for meaning, or finding something more ultimate than themselves. There is in fact a considerable interest in spirituality even in a place like Portland. But in general, the religions of the Old World have lost their appeal. For the most part, religious people are thought of as contributing to rather than helping to solve society's biggest problems while churches are often viewed as communities of anxiety, surveillance, and conformity.

Unfortunately, this impression isn't entirely wrong.    

Scary language about God used to draw a crowd, but our present-day friends and neighbors aren't interested in a God who "holds us over the pit of hell like someone holds a loathsome insect" (see your high school literature book for Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon). However, I’ve yet to meet someone who HATES the idea of a God of extravagant grace...a God whose very nature is love and who rejoices over the inclusion and embrace of the lost, the last, and the least. 

They haven’t rejected this God because for the most part, they’ve never heard of him

How could they? This isn’t the God that most of the American church believes in. This idea of God has been hiding in plain sight, carefully concealed inside our bibles! Maybe instead of seeking to be "relevant" (whatever that means!), or trying to have better goods and services than the church down the street, we should just start reading our Bibles again - this time with a little more self-awareness and self-criticism.

In the "Parables of Lostness" in Luke 15, Jesus sets a rhetorical trap for the religious elite who believed they knew God better than everyone else. But, maybe Luke wrote these stories down not so that we could frown upon how obstinate and self-righteous those darn Pharisees were, but so that we could see in them our own likeness. Maybe we're meant to step into the trap Jesus set for religious people in his day and that his words are still vital enough to question OUR practices and prejudices, OUR boundaries and exclusivity, and to challenge everything that we've built on top of the simple gospel message.  

Our friends and neighbors and loved ones - the 1’s in our lives, they’re not on the move from a Prodigal God, from Jesus who makes camp with outsiders and "sinners", but from a church beholden to the safety and the happiness of the 99.  

But Jesus tells us that God doesn't make his home among the religiously comfortable and self-assured, but among coins of little value, with sheep who don’t really care for the sheep-pen, and with disobedient children.

Jesus came eating and drinking and partying with sinners, and the religious establishment grumbled. They muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

If only people in our day would accuse the church of welcoming sinners and eating with them! If only our friends and neighbors in the city of Portland, and maybe even a few uptight-Christians would accuse Intown of this!

If you're a Christian in Portland, maybe you should swing by so that Jesus can step on your toes like he does ours. (That's the best marketing pitch we could come up with! I hope you like it.) And, if you're not a Christian, you should swing by as well. Maybe there's something here worth looking into, something that's been hiding in plain sight.

A Prayer of the People for Epiphany Sunday

Dear Father,

We come to you this morning, grateful for the Christmas season which has just passed, thankful also for this time of Epiphany, when You drew wise men to Your Son through the wonderful Christmas Star. We ask that we continue to be astonished at this thing You have done in human history, and the outworking of Your gracious plan to rescue us, and that we continue being part of Your mission to reach the nations with Your love.

We bring our concerns to You at this time and ask that You cause the hearts of world leaders, and specifically the leaders of our nation, to incline to peace, that they may seek common ground instead of reasons for conflict. We also ask for protection for those in this country experiencing the aftermath of the blizzard and freezing temperatures.

We ask for peace and prosperity for the City of Portland and for the State of Oregon, for protection for our forests and coast and rivers, and seasonable weather for the farmers. We also ask that You would give us the will and the vision to care for our neighbors and citizens who find themselves without resources and housing in this winter season. We pray especially for those who are suffering mental illness, that You guide them to the resources they need, and show us how to care for them.

We ask that You continue to make Intown a place where people may come and experience Your love for humanity, which You showed particularly in sending Jesus to take on human nature and to give His life for us. We also ask that Your Spirit cause us to continue to grow in our knowledge and reliance on You, and to become less dependent on our material possessions and prestige, therefore more willing to give to those in need.

We ask Your blessing on those in our congregation and our families who are sick, for those who are near death, also for those who are unemployed or underemployed, that You bring them the help, comfort and healing they need.

We ask all these things in the name of the Your Son, Jesus. Amen.

Written by Margaret Thomas

What Does the Incarnation Mean to Us Now? This Week? This Season?

The part of the incarnation story that often gets missed is that Jesus did not just become immanent “back there” in time, so that OUR only access to him is through stories, and parables, and other people’s experiences but that God’s grace is an ETERNAL movement of giving away and that Jesus is present by his spirit unto you, in fact in you - NOW! NOW! 

This grace can be read about, talked about, and meditated upon, but it can only be fully experienced when it is lived into. The grace that Jesus brings in the incarnation is only fully appreciated, realized, and experienced as we “follow him” in real life situations.

So, as we approach the end of the year, as we try to slow down during the busiest time of the year to consider Jesus,  

Where do you need to follow him? Where do you need healing? 

  • Maybe it’s in a relationship where the inertia of division or conflict has set in and you know it won’t be healed without a radical step of faith. Maybe Jesus is calling you to take the risk and live into his grace in this very specific situation. 
  • Maybe there’s something going on in your life that no one else knows about, that you know is unhealthy or even harmful to yourself or others, but that you’re petrified to share and get help because what will people think? Will they reject you? Perhaps that’s where Jesus is calling you to trust him and experience his grace.
  • Maybe it’s during this season where we all are tempted to hoard, to spend, and to give to ourselves that Jesus wants to meet us with his grace as we experience lack because we've chosen to divest ourselves of (part of) our monetary security. 

If you're in a Community Group, these would be great questions to discuss at your next meeting. Or, you can write them down somewhere and reflect upon them in your prayer time or with a friend. 

(h/t to Rowan Williams for his language of grace as "an eternal movement of giving away.")

Intown and Women in Ministry

Intown left the Presbyterian Church in America for the Reformed Church in America just over a year ago, partly because we wanted to move into a context where women and men could serve equally alongside each other at all levels of the church. For a church doing ministry in the 21st Century in a place like Portland this may seem like a no-brainer but as we discussed this as a church the leadership and I were insistent that we weren't changing our position to comply with cultural expectations but with the Bible itself.

We believe that the Bible provides a moral logic for the inclusion of women in the leadership of the church and that the gospel of Jesus is profoundly egalitarian. The sermon below is one of the first times that I've addressed this issue in the pulpit, and I chose to do so using perhaps the most conspicuous text that appears to work against our conviction that men and women are not only created equally in God's image but are equally called and able to serve in his church.   


A Prayer of the People from Sunday, Oct. 8

Almighty and Gracious God, we come in joy to worship You. Every creature, every rock, every grain of sand proclaims Your glory. You are infinitely mighty, infinitely loving and infinitely merciful. You are He who created the universe. You are He who brought Your people out of Egypt. You are He who redeemed us from our sins through the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus. You are He who will remake heaven and earth. You are He who will wipe away all tears from our eyes and dwell with us. 

But God, Father, Lord, we come to you today afraid. Afraid for our city and country, for people that are marginalized and excluded, those that are devastated by drugs or mental instability. We are afraid for them, that they are cold and alone, and yes, Father, we are often afraid of them as well. That the violence that has been done to them will spread to us, that we or people we love will be brought into that darkness. We see people going about their daily lives in places all over our country, most recently in Las Vegas, who are suddenly cut down, mercilessly. And we grieve. And we rage. And we are afraid.  

We are afraid of our world. Of monsters half a world away or next door to us that want to do us harm. Of monsters in our capitols who we believe want to subjugate us, to hurt us, to take things away from us. And we lash out at each other, for believing in these monsters too much, or not enough. For supporting people we hate and not supporting people we love. And we hate each other for it, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. We want to scream and yell and kick and hit or even throw up our hands and give up because we are overwhelmed by our fear, our hate, ourselves. We know we aren’t supposed to hate, even a little, but we do. And we are so grieved by it that it’s hard to even bring ourselves to you in prayer because we cannot be still long enough to talk to our Father. We can’t be quiet, be still, we can’t listen for your voice.

And Father, we are afraid of each other. We are afraid to share our pain with others in our community, lest we be seen as deficient, not good enough. We’re afraid to share our unbelief, our concerns, even our thoughts about who you are, for the overwhelming fear that we will be rejected, alone, exiled. So we hide our true selves and present only a carefully curated, scrubbed-clean version of who we are to our friends, our family. We pretend to be whole even though we are utterly broken. Because we’re afraid. We are afraid that we’ll be found out as frauds, as unloveable by others and by you. 

And we’re afraid of you, Lord. Not the awesome, trembling fear of the creator of the universe, but the secret, shameful fear that we aren’t actually loved. That you won’t wipe away our tears because, somedays, Lord, the tears just don’t stop. That if you really loved us, you’d act as we’d act. You’d make sure that your children feel your loving embrace. That you’d comfort us. And we’re even afraid to say that, Lord, that you promise to be with us always, but often you seem so very far away. And that scares us, Lord, because we think you don’t love us. And we think it’s because of something we did. Of everything we do. Of who we are.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come to this place today and refresh us. Rebuild us. Put it in our hearts to believe your promises, relieve our suffering. Replace our fear with hope. Comfort us, and help us to comfort others. Help us to know of your love, that we are not alone, that even when we are afraid or angry or filled with unbelief, that we are in your loving embrace. That we can lean on each other. That until you come in glory to remake heaven and earth and to wipe away every tear, that we can cry with you and with each other. That we can wipe away some of those tears from each other’s eyes and rejoice in our love for creation and for each other. And rejoice in our love for you, Lord, because we do love you even when we don’t understand you. We love you with our broken, imperfect, angry, fearful love. Hear the prayers of your people, your children, those who love you.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Written by Scott Bowman for Intown Church

A Prayer of the People

Lord, here we are again after another eventful week. We’ve come to learn a bit more about you, to meet with our friends and family, to get our feet back under us and get some sense that things are OK – that in spite of the hurricanes, and earthquakes, and wildfires, and world leaders pushing us to the brink of destruction that there is a Hope. And that Hope is found in, indeed is, your son Jesus Christ.

But many are clinging by a spiritual thread. It is getting harder for many of us to hold on to the belief that you are there – that you are here –  and are concerned about us – concerned about us as individuals and as a people. Concerned about the things we are concerned about whether large or small.

There are even some here this morning who have come not because they believe the Bible much less because they trust in you, but because they have no where else to go. The spiritual habit of coming to find a little solace, a little encouragement, a little direction is deeply ingrained in their lives and they cannot not be here.

So we have some questions. We’d rather not wait until we are dead to learn a few things. For example, I’d like to know if you ever laugh. Do you like a good joke? Surprise endings? I mean, things are a bit serious here and sometimes worship is a bit serious as well. I need, we need, a little laughter.

There are a handful of Christians, possibly more in North Korea. A half-day ago in worship they were certainly praying for us and for world peace. We join with them now and pray that your strength will sustain them, give them clarity of mind and heart, that their light will shine in the spiritual darkness of that place, and your laughter will lighten their burdens – whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.

The civil war in South Sudan just goes on and on. It has claimed tens of thousands of lives and a million and a half people have fled their homes to live in refugee camps where hunger and disease are their constant companions. Many of them our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is evening there now and some believers have gathered to sing and pray and hear a word of encouragement from their spiritual leaders. May the tears they shed in worship be overwhelmed by laughter as your Holy Spirit meets them there.

Night has fallen on Afghanistan and the darkness brings its own kind of terror. May your tangible presence bring peaceful and happy dreams to your children there. Not only to your children in the faith, but all the children. May families there awake to children’s laughter like the ringing of so many little bells because you visited them in their dreams.

Wars continue in Syria, the Ukraine, Yemen. Unnatural disasters. Adam’s sin resonates through the generations. It is Cain against Abel writ large.

This morning in Mexico, Rachel is weeping for her children and she will not be comforted. Our brothers and sisters have gathered to find a word of hope, to break bread, to sing. May your joy sweep through their assemblies turning their mourning into dancing as David declared in Psalm 30.

In Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands a third wave of disaster in the form of cholera, viral hepatitis, and respiratory infection is sure to follow the recent hurricanes.

Houston and Florida are still reeling. Natural disasters were exacerbated by willful human ignorance. The poor and the poorest of the poor, the weak, the infirm, the desperate have lost everything while congressional leaders are locked in mind-numbing party combat and world leaders scream insults at each other in public.

This is no joke.

We adore you like a sibling loves and admires an older brother or sister or a child adores a parent. We look to you for affirmation. We look to see if you enjoy our company. So I thought this morning we could tell you a joke or share a funny story and see if you laugh. We need to laugh and we need you to laugh with us.

This morning we’ve not only come to find our friends and family, but also because we want to hang out with you. We want to be where you are. To share some stories and have a good laugh like friends do. We’re not sure if this is love but it may be as close as we can get. 

And, we want to love you more, much more.

We want to love you with all our heart and soul – all that which is truly us at the very core of our being.

We want to love you with all of our mind – all that we think. We don’t want to be Christians who live from spiritual snack to spiritual snack, Sunday to Sunday. We want to be students of the Word and the world – ones who dig deeply not just for information, but for wisdom that will help sustain us and others in dark moments and dark hours.

We want to love you with all our strength – all of our will, all of our doing that finds its origins in who we are.

We are on this long road to character that comes from loving you with all of our being, all of our thinking, and all of our doing. But this road is hard and we need a little laughter along the way. 

And, as we pray for our world and ourselves we realize you have given us your laughter. 

Just now, we discover we are like Jesus intimate friends sitting with him after the resurrection. The darkness is lifting. It is early morning. And as we sit around the campfire in Galilee munching fish and chips, we look at him and break into laughter because we can’t believe its true. “We can’t believe it's you.” But it is. He is here. He’s Alive. 

When we think on what you have done, even on the long, dangerous, and discouraging road to Jerusalem, like the Psalmist we say, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyful shouting … the Lord and done great things for us; We are glad.” (Psalm 126:2-3).

In Jesus Name,


Written by Dr. Richard White for Intown Church, Sept. 24, 2017

A Prayer of the People

LORD, in the days of old, you gathered your people in the desert. It was there that they questioned you, they learned to depend on you for their every need, and they learned to praise you. 

As your church, we come before you this morning as your people Israel did. We also live in a desert amidst the unbelief of others, and our perfect view of you is clouded by our own sinfulness.   

But we praise you: our lack of resources demands that we totally depend on you. We praise you: you were Israel’s sustenance, you met her physical and spiritual needs and we trust you to meet ours. We praise you: you authored perfect justice, you invented wisdom, and you are love, shown to us in Jesus Christ.

There are those of us who rejoice freely today, feeling whole and bright in spirit, and there are those of us here who come before you broken-spirited, contrite, and needy. We remember, LORD, that you do not despise a broken heart, that you love the poor and needy.  Comfort and sustain those of us who are wanting, who have been bruised and discouraged by poverty, misunderstanding, abuse, fear, mental illness, and disappointment. Show those of us who rejoice how to care for those who grieve, who struggle with unbelief, and who are deeply disappointed in themselves or in their circumstances.

There are those in this world who live righteously and fairly, and we praise you for their leadership. But we cry out to you: we live in a world where injustice often prevails. We tremble at the corruption of many of our country’s leaders. It warps our hope for justice.  And we confess that we ourselves are unjust: we create unfair opinions of those we don’t understand, we shut our ears to the cries of the poor. We remember that you are the God of peace. We pray that you would raise new leaders in our country and the world who value the wellbeing of people over the hoarding of money or power. Likewise, make us a more just and honest church.

We live in a world of hatred. When we gather together every Sunday, something new and terrifying has disrupted our country, our world. We remember you are LORD, and you are love. As your people, fill us to overflowing with your compassion, and may this compassion move us to action. 

We live in a world of mixed messages. We remember, LORD, that you created wisdom, that out of your mouth came understanding. Protect our church from misunderstanding and division. We pray that you would use our Sunday worship, our home groups, our bible studies, our coffee club, our pint night, to be locations where we encourage each other, become one in mind and thought, and share everything we have.  

In your name we pray, AMEN.

Written by Rachel Ebbers

A Prayer of the People

A Prayer of the People

Written by Richard White for Intown Church

August 13, 2017

Lord, I love Miriam’s song in Exodus 15. I love the fact that a 95 year old woman suddenly broke into song and danced to the tambourine when the Egyptian chariots were swallowed in the Red Sea. 

Now that must have been an inspiration.

“I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song, He has become my salvation.”

When I am a very old man I want a sing and dance and shout. I want to be overwhelmed by your spirit like Miriam. 

Just now, it seems we are stumbling our way to the promised land. Like the children of Israel after their baptism, there was a great deal of relief and joy, but the long journey to the promised land is taking its toll. 

Like them, we are weak, limited, flawed, sinful. We repeat old sins we thought we had conquered. Our anger, our lust, our selfishness push their way to the surface of our lives and reveal they still find a home in our inner most being. We retrace our steps in the wilderness. Ground we have already covered.

We are plodding in circles like the children of Israel. The Road to Character is not easy. We’ve started over so many times.

On those rare occasions when we set aside our load of stress and guilt and fear and lift our heads we can almost see the promised land. We feel its faint refreshing breeze. We can smell it in the air.

It is like descending the west side of the coast range on a hot day, or this morning’s rain – we feel the cool, damp, refreshing breeze and are reminded there is path out of the wilderness. When we lift our heads, when you lift our heads, we aware once again that you are leading us through these difficult places and we are not alone.

Help us sense the depth of your love and the strength of your might in the midst of our wandering. When we pass through the dark places – of our minds, our hearts, our spirits, our times – reveal yourself to us again. Renew our minds, guard our emotions, strengthen our resolve however slow our progress seems to be.

We are in a time when the pride and predatory self-interest resident in all humankind has overtaken us. We are deceived by national pride and gross misunderstanding of our nation’s importance and role in history. 

Guard the mouths and clear the minds of world leaders so they might act with caution and grace. Bring, we pray, strong-minded, principled Christians into their inner circle who will give good counsel and boldly challenge their policies. Draw one into our President’s circle who captures his attention, someone who will not exchange human kindness, grace, or the stewardship of creation for economic gain. A Nathan. A Daniel. A Nehemiah. One willing to speak truth to power without concern for reputation.

In these days you are revealing to us again that trust in chariots and horses, that trust in human leaders and military might is fruitless. That you alone are the one who holds history in your hands. That you are the one who holds back the principalities and powers of darkness and prevents us from descending into chaos. That you alone are able to deliver. 

Take us back to the place where we first met you – to our Red Sea experience – and remind us that we joyfully and willingly surrendered our lives to you. All of our lives. Our thinking, our feeling, our doing. That we trusted you then and we can trust you now. We are confident that you will lead us through our current personal, national and global wilderness. That you are our present help and guide. That, as the song-writer has said, you didn’t bring us this far to leave us, you didn’t lift us up to let us down.

We are dismayed and discouraged by the events that have unfolded these past few days. That battles against the powers of darkness that we thought were being won have been set back. That men and women would harbor hate in brittle obsidian hearts and that that hatred would fling open doors to demonic violence. 

As a nation we have turned to worship violence – it is our entertainment, our music, our poetry, our games, our movies. It is on our lips and in our minds and hearts. We no longer hide our eyes nor weep when the endless loop of news plays out scenes of death again and again. We are intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually numb. 

Only you can deliver us.

Enlarge our souls on this trek through the wilderness. We want to be rooted in your word. We want to grow in your spirit. We want to follow wherever you lead. 

So to this end we pray this morning that you would draw us back once again to be students not only of our times but the Bible. Reading the newspaper and scripture. Drawing lessons from both but guidance for our lives from your holy Word revealed.

Bring us to our knees in prayer. For each other, for those who presume to lead us, for nations and for all people everywhere. And especially for those who stand against the powers, those called to speak your word in season and out the world over.

And as we journey inward, send us outward. Send us into the world, into our neighborhoods to heal with words and hands, to lift up the weary, to walk with the weak, to give hope to the hopeless. To live, even as we wander through our present wilderness, as ones who have been baptized in Christ and can join with Miriam and sing with unfaltering voice:

“I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song, He has become my salvation.”

In Jesus Name,


A Prayer of the People

The following is a prayer written by Rachel Ebbers for our worship service on July 16th:

LORD, thank you for meeting us here. Some of us come here today like the Bible tells us Nicodemus did: in a shroud of darkness, full of questions. Other come as Mary did: in humility, thirsty to know you. Some of us come as Thomas: unsure of Jesus’ sacrifice. Like Jacob, some of us come wrestling. Like the paralytic, rejoicing. Like the woman who followed Jesus in the crowd: bleeding, desperate. You take us all in, our refuge. We are your doubting, ecstatic, broken church.

LORD, accept our broken hearts. Be with us, now in: our unbelief. In our anger. In our broken marriages. In our estrangement. In our financial need. In our physical pain. In our fear. In our crippling anxiety. In our depression, our grief, our loss.  

Our assurance is this: You knew all of it, already, before we arrived. As individuals and as a church, we need healing. Instruct us: use the wise people in our lives, your word, your creation, to teach us how to speak to each other, how to listen, and how to trust you. Help us to rest in this promise more fully: the LORD is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. 

LORD, accept our broken world. It is polluted with superficial chatter. It is tempting and easy to say ruthless things. It is difficult to separate truth from deceit. There is too much language, and too little regard for it. Our leaders malign and slander each other. It is confusing and depressing to watch the news. We are caught up in our own lies; we are distracted by the “likes” we seek and accumulating followers. 

Our assurance is this: we are your followers, your disciples. It is tempting to despair about our culture, our nation, and our world. Thank you for your word, and that it is a bedrock of truth in sand: it reminds us that you are sovereign and have a plan.  It says your soul hates the wicked and those who love violence, that your plans stand firm forever, and the purpose of your heart through all generations. Give us faith in this plan. Help us to see need, and move our hearts to serve. Thank you for giving us the story of grace, and make it our prevailing story, the one we tell to others.

LORD, accept our broken church. Our sinful nature makes us hesitant to help each other but quick to cast judgment. Our sinful nature tempts some of us to be Pharisees: to privilege the rules of behaving like “good Christians” over mercy or compassion. Others among us take hold of grace without consequence: we don’t share it with others, or we allow it to become an excuse to act how we want. In more ways than we can count, we distance ourselves from you. 

Our assurance is this: this is your church, not ours. Make it look more like yours: help us to share what we have. Help us to listen to each other. Move us to serve or to lead. Make us an encouragement to Brian and his family. Teach us to be completely humble and gentle; patient, bearing with one another in love. 

We bring all this brokenness before you because your grace permits it. Help us to listen for your voice first: you have the words of eternal life. Help us to do your work: to believe in Christ, the one you sent. Help us to reflect your image: to be ministers of reconciliation. We pray all this in your holy name, AMEN.



EMBODY - The Third Word of our Mission Statement

The South African Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, Now is that political, or social? He said: I feed you. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus telling us something similar in ch. 25, that the true test of faith is not the accuracy of the mental constructs in your head, but whether you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit the sick and those in prison?

Theology is important, right belief about the nature of reality and God is critical, but it’s not right if it doesn’t lead you into the lives of your neighbor and into the life of the world. 

Intown Presbyterian Church is a community seeking to EMBODY the historic Xian gospel in the city of Portland. 

We want to respond to Jesus' "Follow me" call by living into the life of our city, seeking to bring tangible signs of his healing nature wherever there is sickness, loneliness, hunger, poverty, etc. 

So, though we have a long way to go and much to improve upon, our deacons are leading us to creatively-serve arriving refugees with Refugee Care Collective. And, in the case of Embrace Oregon, busy moms are initiating ways that our church can serve another vulnerable population - foster children.  

But, embodying the gospel means so much more than just creating pathways of service toward communities of need, it means living Christianly in all areas of life in such a way that theology is not simply a matter of talk but of life. So we're asking: 

  • What does following Jesus mean with regards to my finances? What could Intown be and do if everyone gave in truly costly ways to the mission of our church?
  • What does following Jesus mean for me as an employee or student?
  • What does following Jesus entail for being a good neighbor in my actual neighborhood? or with a difficult family member?
  • What does following Jesus require of me politically? How does being a follower of Christ shape political dialogue with others, especially those who think differently than me? 

Join us as we seek to live OUT what God is doing within.   

SEEKING - The Second Word of our Mission Statement

Jesus comes preaching the good news, or "blessedness", that comes from the opposite direction than most of us naturally assume it comes from. We are naturally inclined to seek the blessed life in: success, wealth, fame (or at least recognition), intelligence, long life, victory in competition, etc

Jesus says, "no, look to the other end of the spectrum, I’m preaching good news to the humble, the poor in spirit, the mourners, the peacemakers, the spiritually-bankrupt." 

It's these people who have an insight into the way things really are and the way things will be. 

In fact they have an understanding of what it means to be fully, truly human that people on the winning end of the bell curve normally do not.

The rich, the powerful, the satisfied, the comfortable - the kind of people we normally long to be, are the people who miss it, who can’t see it, but: the meek, the spiritually-poor, the mourners, the hungry for righteousness, they’re the people who “see.” 

These first four Beatitudes which Jesus tells us about in the Sermon on the Mount are not the behavioral qualifications of seeing the kingdom, they’re not the ethical qualities of the right kind of person, in fact they’re not really about possessing at all, these people LACK something.

They have what we might call the "gift of imperfection."  

The gift of imperfection means that the way UP is the way down, or as Parker Palmer says, “holiness means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.

The gift of imperfection, if we will embrace it, allows us to meet Jesus because his grace flows down hill, his mercy pools at the bottom of the bell curve.

When we say that we are a "Community SEEKING to embody the historic Christian gospel in the City of Portland" we mean that while we believe that we have in fact found the source of life and blessing, we are still SEEKING to embody it. We are people in process

Therefore there is a safe seat at Intown for failures, for broken people, for those who don't have it all figured out. In fact, these are the only kind of people who show up at Intown on any given Sunday. 

So, join us. 

A New Sermon Series is Upon Us

Other than taking a small break during Advent, we've been looking at Paul's letters to the Corinthians since September of last year...29 sermons! (I'm sure you remember them all.) 

Well, it was a great journey and I learned a lot but now I'm ready to move on, and perhaps you are too.  

This summer we are going to be looking at 10 of the great prayers of the Bible. I hope that this series will not only be encouraging and draw you closer to God, but also enable us all to better learn how to pray. 

These sermons will generally be shorter - it's summer after-all! And, alongside this series we will begin reading through the Psalms in order during our Psalm reading each week. This week we will read Psalm 1, next week Psalm 2, so forth and so on. 

We won't be able to read the entirety of every Psalm because of length (have you seen Psalm 119?!) but if you worship with us regularly you'll get to hear/read every Psalm every 3 years or so. 

There are 150 Psalms and 52 weeks in the year so that's just under 3 years to get through them all. However, with breaks during special seasons like Lent and Advent, it will take a little longer. But, imagine how reading and praying through the Psalms every 3 years could complement and perhaps enhance your personal prayer life! 

I hope that this will enrich our worship together and provide a more systematic exposure to the Psalms. Below you'll find the outline for our sermon series - The Great Prayers of the Bible if you would like to read along/ahead. 

Prayers of the People / June 4th

Lord we will bow to you, to you alone and to no other God. Nothing hands have made, no art, no science, no nation, no people deserves our praise as you do. Two black holes collided in space 3 billion light years ago and the universe shook like a bowl full of jelly. We just heard about it – old news to you. On a moonless night, on the Oregon coast, I once lay on my back on a log and saw the expanse of the stars, the milky way, so close it felt like I could reach up and touch it, and yet so far away that I felt infinitely small and insignificant. I’ve stood on mount Hood on a sun-drenched day and felt the breeze and looked up the Hood River valley at trees so green and clouds so white and alpine lupine so blue that I thought I had never known colors before nor tasted water so sweet as that bubbling from a spring 7000 feet up on the mountain.

The prophet Isaiah said “The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands!” [Isa. 55:12] We believe it because we’ve heard it. Recently scientists have questioned why beauty exists. Some have argued it is simply utilitarian – it is how we find a mate. But now a few have suggested we simply like beauty. That even birds and reptiles are drawn to that which they find beautiful. We live in a world of texture and sound and smell that gives us pleasure. You have made us lovers of beauty. The Universe is covered with your fingerprints. Like the Psalmist we cry out “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.” [Psalm 148]. There is simply none like you.

Whether our hearts are inclined to good or to evil your grace surrounds us. You are in the air we breathe. It gives you pleasure to surround us with joy. And yet humankind has abandoned stewardship of creation for a dollar. Unlike Adam we are not even trying to hide as we hear your footsteps approach. We have become arrogant bullies who destroy all that is lovely and all that is good in hurried pursuits of momentary gain – it is as the preacher said, “Vanity, vanity all is but vanity.” [Ecc.1:2]

We always knew we could not be our best selves, we knew that would come later, that would come in the end, but we’d hoped we could be our better selves, now we wonder if we can even be our good self. We fear we are failing even at that. There are other things in the news that have captured our attention. The violence we perpetrate on your creation extends to our neighbors. We are filled with horror at the present darkness that seems to be descending on our time. It is chaotic. Indiscriminate. Vicious. It seems beyond redemption. Bitter, poisonous words that flow from the lips of the high and the low alike seed violence and expose the darkness of our hearts. Our hearts are anxious and in the midst of this disregard for you, this present darkness, we feel less than courageous.

So, we affirm again, that you and you alone are worthy of our praise and we lean on the apostle Paul’s admonition to pray with rejoicing and thanksgiving. [Phil. 4:6-7] So, we come to you this morning asking three things:

First, for ourselves, guard our hearts. Help us keep our emotions in check. Help us to have the courage to walk in the light and speak the truth without fear. Keep us from panicking, but to reach for your hand as we try to walk on this troubled sea. Guard our minds, the way we think. Help us by the power of your spirit to be good critical thinkers who study both the Bible and the newspaper to discern our times. Guard our actions. That our lives reflect that we are a new creation. Gracious, peaceful, courageous in Christ.

Second, we pray for world leaders. God there are so many things to ask here. We ask that you cure them of their arrogance, humble them. Bring one of your children into their inner circle whose insight is so compelling that they cannot ignore it. A Daniel, a Nehemiah. Give them clarity of mind, unclouded by personal gain, ideology, or whim. Guide their hearts where you will as you do streams in the desert. [Proverb 21:11]. Be irresistible to those pretend to lead that they might be your agents of peace.

Last, we pray for those who have declared war on Christians. Many do so from ignorance or injury. Help our brothers and sisters who attempt to walk beside them. Protect them from harm. Give them loving hands, clarity of thought, and words of wisdom. Some oppose you and your children because Satan has taken over their hearts and minds. They live in a deep darkness of hate and violence. We know their numbers will increase as time runs its course. But please place a hedge of thorns around those who fall in their path. Hold them close. If necessary welcome them home. This is what is on our minds today. We are shaken by events in our town and across the globe. But we will refuse to hide our eyes from what is happening around us. We will lean into the world’s distress, to our city’s distress, to the distress of our neighbors and friends as Jesus did. We commit ourselves to your purposes, to heal, to soothe, to encourage, to confront evil in all its forms, and to spend ourselves if necessary for your will. Because you and you alone are worthy of our very lives.

In Jesus Name,



A Prayer written by Richard White / June 4th, 2017


COMMUNITY - The First Word of our Mission Statement

Deborah Tannen is a linguistics prof at Georgetown, she write’s in her book: That’s Not What I Want, "We need to get close to each other to have a sense of community, to feel we’re not alone in the world. But we need to keep our distance from each other to preserve our independence, so others don’t impose on or engulf us. This duality reflects the human condition. We are individual and social creatures. We need other people to survive, but we want to survive as individuals."

We desperately want to be known but we also love our independence. We want a connected life, known AND loved, but this makes us anxious. 

We'd rather people NOT see our weaknesses, NOT encroach upon our time, NOT call us for help when we're relaxing. 

But, we are made in God's image and thus made for community. "It's not good that man is alone" - there's something that we need that even God doesn't provide immediately...without the mediation of other creatures.

We only find our identity - our genuine selves, our true humanity embedded in community - not in isolation.

So, Intown is designed to be a community where you can be known without fear because ALL of us are in process, ALL of us need the gospel. It's only in that kind of community, one that is radically-accepting, that we can live into our full humanity and full potential.  

Mission Statement, Core Values, Blah Blah Blah.

Maybe you're tired of hearing about mission statements and core values.

I've been there too.

Many churches spend a great deal of time identifying, refining, explaining, and promoting core values only to have them drift into the background as the organization moves on to more-pressing matters.

This has happened at Intown in the past.

And, some of us have a been part of a business or a church that has maybe talked too-incessantly about it's mission statement while the customers and congregants grow frustrated with the organization aspiring to rather grandiose goals while not effectively fulfilling its core functions.

I don't know if we've ever talked "incessantly" about our mission statement at Intown, but we've certainly experienced times where our rhetoric exceeds our core competencies. 

I would like to see Intown continue to grow more and more effective in fulfilling the core essentials of a healthy church, things like: spiritual formation, assimilation, pastoral care, gospel-centered preaching, etc. while at the same time continuing to pursue a mission that is particularly-necessary in Portland and which we feel uniquely-gifted to pursue.  

We do in fact have a mission statement, which doesn't simply reside on our website, sadly-forgotten, but one that does help to determine our everyday choices as a church.

We revisited this mission statement in a series of sermons last summer and fall as we prepared to make a denominational move. In these sermons we tried to argue that in making a move to the RCA we were trying to stay true to and being guided by our mission statement.

In other words, our denomination transition wasn't arbitrary or guided by convenience but we determined that we were in an ecclesial context where we were unable to fully embody our mission statement and we made a decision together to honor our local ministry commitments above denominational loyalty and continuity. 

This was a circumstance in which having a mission statement, clearly-defined and substantially-understood by congregation enabled us to make a difficult but very consequential decision. 

So, over the next few days I plan on posting a short summary of each of the significant words in our mission statement, that we are, "A community seeking to embody the historic Christian gospel in the city of Portland." 

This will be particularly important for the leaders as we continue to chart out our calling in these new denominational circumstances, but it should also be helpful for visitors as they seek to learn more about "what makes us tick", as well as for the member/attendee seeking to live our our common mission in their everyday life.

So, check back regularly... 


Prayers of the People / May 7th

Heavenly Father, we come to you feeling both confident and humble.  We are confident in you because you have qualified us in your Son Jesus.  You have pursued our hearts, you have poured out your love, you have done for us in Jesus what we could not do for ourselves.  You have named us as your children, without any merit on our part.   So, therefore, we approach you with humility in the realization that our lives are not our own.  Though we are confident in our eternal security, and confident in our abilities and gifts, we remain humble knowing that the work you have qualified us for, and called us to, is Your work and not our own.  Give us clarity and assurance as we work in your kingdom each day.

Loving and steadfast God, you have abided with us through all the seasons of our lives, including those times when we have turned away from you. We praise you for the enormous sacrifice of love you gave through Jesus Christ who revealed that perfect love casts out fear.

Be with us now when we face our own trials and fears. Let them not be so overpowering that we succumb to their force. Give us the strength to withstand the pressure, and courage to face boldly those times when our faith is tested. When we are confronted by those seeking our counsel, give us your guidance. When we are challenged by those needing our support, give us your strength and courage. Help us be in solidarity with others long enough for them to trust us, so together we can both learn about and work for Christ’s liberating truth.

Give us patience to sit with the lonely. Open our arms to those who seek comfort. Free our tongues from stammering or remaining mute when a word of encouragement or truth is needed.

We pray for peace in our world. We lament and grieve when we hear the news of what’s going on across the world. Bring justice to those who cause, or are affected by, physical and emotional suffering; break its vicious cycle, we pray, that all may live in safety, peace, and hope. Comfort those who are grieving and live in fear, and protect the police and military personnel as they seek to protect others.  We pray for the leaders of all nations to be used as instruments of your freedom, justice, and peace.

Father, we pray for Intown Church.  Guide us and strengthen us by your Spirit, as we seek your kingdom within this body and in our communities.  We praise you for the many ways you are at work:  for our pastor, staff, and leaders in laying out the vision and mission of our church, and for the many ways you are carrying out your work in our body:  we praise you for those who are encouraging each other in times of personal turmoil, for the times of intercessory prayer for each other, for those who are tangibly serving the downtrodden, the homeless, and the refugees.  For the ways in which our corporate worship softens our hearts, and strengthens us in the trials we face.  We look forward to what you have in store for Intown Church, and we pray for unity as you have called to live together as one body.

Throughout history, we take comfort in seeing how you have accompanied your people. We ask that your Spirit so move among us now as we seek to serve others.  Let us be motivated by your grace, that we truly value others above ourselves in one like-minded spirit. Amen.