A Letter to a Friend in Rehab, pt. 1

Dear Friend, 

Your husband caught me up on what’s going on in your life and I asked him if I could write you a letter of encouragement, or two. ;)

You may not be aware, but I have been sober for just about a year. So, I am somewhat familiar with the journey you’re now beginning. Though I cut back substantially in 2017, drinking smaller amounts and less often, moderation just wasn’t for me. Whatever enjoyment I used to take from beer was gone and the whole thing was just too much work.

Weirdly, moderation felt as if I was not-drinking so that I could continue to drink.  

For me, the delivery system was beer. I live what is probably the craft brew mecca of the entire world, and a drinking problem is really easy to hide here in Portland under the guise of being a craft-beer “enthusiast.”

There’s beer everywhere. Barbershops offer a free beer with a haircut. There are multiple taps at the laundromat, really - I’m not joking! Companies give their employees free beer on Friday afternoons and apartments come with growler fill stations. Alcohol is even expected at church, and I’m not talking about at communion but bombers of IPA at church meetings.

This last part was what hooked me. Knowing that copious amounts of beer and wine will be consumed at each and every meeting, the anticipation of potential conflict is greatly minimized. So, even though I lived here for a number of years before alcohol started taxing my life in obvious ways I think that if I had taken the time to stop and reflect I could have realized that alcohol was not a benign substance and that I was heading down a destructive path.

In the early days of my tenure at Intown there was a LOT of conflict and I dealt with it by isolating and drinking. And once that became habituated the thought of stopping was very aversive and strongly resisted. I couldn’t imagine living in a place like Portland and NOT drinking. Wouldn’t that be like living in Italy and avoiding carbs and red wine?!

So, instead of listening to the voice inside my head that occasionally said, “this isn’t going anywhere good”, or listening to my wife who suspected a problem earlier than I did, I used the fear of never being able to drink again to avoid trying to stop drinking at all. 

After five or six years here however, the evidence started to mount and I started to believe - at least in my rational brain - that my time as a drinker was limited. Beer was narrowing my ambition and foreclosing on my happiness and I knew that I didn’t want that to still be true 5 years later. But an addicted brain can often only see today and it leverages now well-trained neural pathways to do its bidding. So, I kept trudging along even when it was clear to me that my “craft beer hobby” was compromising my parenting, my professional life, and worst of all - my marriage.

Maybe you’ve felt that too, and it helped you take the extraordinarily-courageous step of going to rehab. So, what will life be like when you return home and what can you expect in your marriage? Since I only get to see you guys in person every few years I’m not really qualified to make too many predictions. But I do know this, given the fact that your drinking progressed to the point where you felt that you needed a few months in rehab to start your recovery process, you’re going to be returning to some big wounds in your marriage that may take a long time to heal.

Here’s the good news though, I’ve known your husband for over 30 years and he’s resilient and he’s loyal. He’ll be there when you get out, and with a lot of work, patience, and grace your marriage can actually be a whole lot better than it was before - perhaps something far more beautiful than it ever would have been without this season of struggle!

“Struggle” will almost certainly be a familiar word in the coming weeks and months. But, life itself is a struggle, now you’re just going to be present for it. You will have to feel things you haven’t felt in a long time and minimizing these feelings with a glass of wine before dinner will seem like the most rational thought you’ve ever had. Sometimes these thoughts may be totally-overwhelming and if you allow yourself to start projecting this struggle onto everyday of the rest of your life then your sobriety probably won’t last too long.

That is why if I were starting out on my journey of sobriety today I would want to hear over and over and over from trusted friends that it does get better, and it does get easier.

I gotta get to work so I’ll have to tease out that last thought in a future letter. But, I won’t leave you hanging too long; I will write you again soon - I promise!

Until then, be brave! I’m proud of you.

Strategic Realignment - An Update

In August I returned from sabbatical to the news that the church was barely able to pay our bills that month. This news was not a complete surprise - we had started 2018 with a healthy reserve but with a planned monthly deficit we knew that we would be using part of our reserve each month.

Since it may seem odd or unwise for a church to run a negative budget it bears repeating that we have done this intentionally because of generous outside funding from friends of the church who committed to assist us as we recalibrated after significant institutional changes over the last few years. These people believed in our ministry enough to help us make the changes that we felt necessary to continue doing ministry in our city.

However, after our denominational transition our internal funding recovered more slowly than we anticipated and so this August we found ourselves needing to align our operational budget more closely with expected regular giving.

Since we had already reduced our spending to what could be called “bare necessities” the only way we saw to do so while maintaining our core ministry was for me to transition into a part-time role. Since Intown has had a full-time pastor for the entirety of its existence and with me being in place her for nearly ten years we knew that this was going to be a big transition with a lot of ambiguity.

Ambiguity can be a recipe for anxiety so we committed to communicate regularly with the congregation through large-group meetings and emails. It has been a number of weeks since our last meeting so…

What’s the latest?

  • In August it looked like we would not have enough cash on hand to pay our staff the following month. So, we decided that after paying Matt and Jillianne and meeting other non-discretionary expenses that I would be paid out of whatever was leftover. However, given this news the Intown congregation - including a number of relatively new people - gave above and beyond and we were able to meet all of our financial obligations in September.

  • And in October, as unlikely as it once seemed we were able to pay all our bills with internal giving.

  • Since then we’ve received about $35,000 in outside gifts which gives us some options that we didn’t have back in August.

Now for a few observations:

  • One of the practical financial challenges is that even though our attendance has returned to what it was prior to our transition to the RCA, our giving-per-attendee has not. We don’t believe this is because people are less willing to give but less able. Our congregation is generally younger, less “churched”, and a significant portion is still connecting with our community. And yet, over the last few months this congregation has seen the need and responded with abundance! What a joy it is to pastor people like this.

  • There are people who don’t directly benefit from the ministry of Intown Church who are writing substantial checks to underwrite our mission and saying, “what you are doing there is important and we want to help!” Incredible!

  • Pastors often worry that large gifts will demotivate internal-giving but I think that it’s just as likely to do the opposite - that Intowners might continue giving sacrificially BECAUSE they know that complete strangers are willing to sacrificially care for them!

  • $35,000 does change the timeline and open up new possibilities but it doesn’t change the underlying fundamentals. We still have to address our monthly deficit by an increase in internal giving, a reduction of my hours/salary, or a combination of both.

  • We are monitoring the financial variables and believe that we are stable through January without a significant structural change but that wisdom would lead us to prepare for doing ministry a bit differently in the new year.

  • There will be more forthcoming about this, but it at this point it means that I’m continuing to look for part-time work that could replace my potential loss of salary. However, having seen our reserves grow over the last few months I can do so more strategically instead of with excessive urgency. We also have some time to carefully plan for multiple contingencies while cultivating new internal and external giving.

Elder Does Not Mean Old, What Then Does it Mean?

Elder is a word with a rich history in the Bible. In the Old Testament an elder served in civic governance, liturgical leadership, and in advisory capacities to religious leaders like Moses. In the New Testament there are two words that are generally translated as “elder”: presbuteros from which we get our word “presbyter”, and episcopos which denotes the role of an “overseer” of God’s people. Though the term does have a connotation of wisdom acquired through age and life experience, there is no specific age qualification for being an elder given in Scripture. At Intown, we’ve had elders in their early 30’s, which oddly enough would be considered kind of old in New Testament times because people didn’t live nearly as long as they do today.

But, having gotten the age discrimination out of the way, what does qualify one to be an elder? In many churches we would immediately begin by eliminating half of the adult population because women are frequently disqualified from serving in this role. Not at Intown, and not in the RCA. (Click here for more on that.) Though we do not currently have any women elders (actually we only have one elder period!) we certainly hope that multiple women will be nominated.

Having set aside age and gender, how should you go about deciding who to nominate to this office? Well, I would submit that there are both biblical and Intown-specific guidelines.

Biblical: There are two lists in the New Testament that outline the kind of character that a person should possess before being elected. You can read those lists here and here. Broadly speaking, s/he should be above reproach, temperate, prudent (having self-control), hospitable, not addicted to wine (or other substances), not violent, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money, having one’s home in order (personal life is not characterized by chaos), a commitment to marital fidelity, respectable (enjoying a good reputation with those in AND outside the church), free from an over-eagerness or inordinate desire for power or position.

Local: Paul certainly didn’t mean these lists to be exhaustive and he would likely have written the list a little differently if he were writing to a church other than Ephesus. So, it’s certainly proper for Intown to have a secondary list of characteristics and aptitudes that we would hope would be present in all of our leaders.

An elder should love not only the larger church wherever it exists but have a particular love for Intown Church. They should be enthusiastic about our local mission and we shouldn’t be surprised that they show up regularly for Intown events and bring others because they are excited to connect more people to our community. And, we are looking for people who take initiative in the spiritual lives of others and pursue opportunities to lead people toward Jesus.

In other words, elders are leaders, leaders who cultivate trust and actively serve others in the name of Christ. While a person may need a formalized role to truly flourish as a leader, and a person can and should grow in leadership capacity while in office, we shouldn’t expect the office to create a leader. Nominees should already have some evidence of leadership capacity and we should be able to discern the presence of ministerial fruit in their lives - remembering of course that fruit of this kind comes in all shapes and sizes. Maybe this could be determined by asking “does this person serve our community in tangible ways?” Additionally, because this person is expected to serve a term of three years with the likelihood that s/he would serve additional terms, I encourage you to nominate persons who lives are reasonably settled in the Portland area and thus could be expected to be at Intown for the foreseeable future.

That’s probably enough to consider for now, but please be thinking and praying about persons who you feel might exhibit these qualifications and characteristics so that you can be prepared to nominate on Sunday the 11th.

We Let Scott Bowman be an Elder and Here's What Happened

Hi Friends,

On November 11th, the Intown Consistory (the pastor, elders, and deacons) will be asking you to nominate people to help lead the church as elders and deacons. We need more people who are called to care for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of our community.

Last Sunday, I shared with you what it means to me to be an elder at Intown, and Brian asked me to write up what I said so that we could share it more broadly.

As an elder at Intown, I get to serve on the Consistory to plan how to lead the congregation to work out the mission of Intown, serving both the church body and the city. I also get to talk to you, the people in the Intown community, at important times in your lives – when you want to join our church, when you’re struggling, when you’re joyful and want to share it. I get to hear your stories of wondrous beauty and devastating pain, and I get to see how God works in the midst of all of it.

Being an elder is frustrating and uplifting, tiring and so, so lovely and I could write pages and pages about it. I could write about the many beautiful ways that you folks have come alongside the leadership in the church to do the work that God sets in front of us. I could write about how much God has blessed me and my family with this church and its messy, amazing people. I could give so many examples of times when I’ve been tired and frustrated, and you have come to me with smiles and such lovingkindness that every feeling but sheer joy has gone away.

Thank you for letting me be an elder for you and this church. Thank you for letting me continue in this work. It will be a great pleasure for me to see others experience the joy of serving this lovely little church.

Your friend and elder and brother in Christ,


For Those Interested in Such Things

Here is a breakdown of our spending in a few handy images. These aren’t meant to convey everything Intowners might need or want to know about our budget and spending but are meant to be a snapshot that will provide some data points that we’ve referred to in our congregational meetings and previous emails. These charts are pretty self-explanatory but if you have questions please let me know at brian@intownchurch.com. Note: “mission” is our financial support of the Carlson’s in China, The Janssens’s in Taiwan, and the Penkoff’s in Cameroon.

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You Are Not What You Own

This is a repeated line from “Merchandise”, one of my all-time favorite Fugazi songs as well as one of the best representations of punk’s anti-corporate and anti-materialistic posture. Though Fugazi’s sound isn’t likely to appeal to everyone (I wouldn’t say that my wife is a huge fan) when they rail against greed it’s far more than a posture or an affectation.

Fugazi is known for charging $5 for a ticket to their live shows and not setting up “merch” tables to try and get people to overpay for a t-shirt which is essentially an ad for the band. They also turned down lucrative recording contracts with major labels and regularly decided against playing the festival circuit where they could have charged tens of thousands of dollars for one show.

So, they’re probably the perfect band to help us consider what God has to say about contentment and money. Here’s “Merchandise.”

"Jesus Died For Somebody's Sins, But Not Mine"

These are the opening lines of the opening song of Patti Smith’s 1975 classic record “Horses.” She cribbed some of the lyrics and song structure from Van Morrison when he was with Them but this first line is hers. They express her disillusionment with religion and she is expressing the general anti-religious sentiment of “punk.” So, why would we be giving space to such a provocative challenge to Jesus in church?! Well, we’re in the second week or our “Punk God” series, so listen to the song below and then drop in tomorrow at 10:30 and find out more. This is her performing the song on Saturday Night Live a few months after Horses was released.

A Prayer of the People

Heavenly Father, creator of heaven and earth, we praise you because you only are worthy of praise.  You spoke and all things came to into being, and with your righteous and sovereign hand you rule over the nations and over our lives.  You put leaders in their positions and your will is not thwarted even by the actions of evil men. You alone are holy. You alone are perfectly just. And you are gracious and merciful and you are Love.

Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh, one with the Father and the Spirit in eternity, we thank you and praise you for willingly humbling yourself to become a man, to live a perfect life of obedience to the Father and pay the penalty for our sins by your atoning death on the cross. Though in the form of God, you did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied yourself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Your death and resurrection accomplished for your people what we could never earn by our own merit.

Holy Spirit, you are our comfort in times of sorrow and our power when we are weak.  We praise you for your constant presence with us and for the true peace and understanding we can have by your power. We praise you and thank you for the true revelation and very words of God breathed out in the Holy Bible, profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

Eternal, triune God, we thank you for your body of believers at Intown Church.  We thank you for our pastor and your servant Brian, and his family.  We pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit you would grant him peace and joy, wisdom and perseverance, and love and compassion for those you have given to his spiritual care. We thank you for our elder and your servant Scott, and his family.  We thank you for the sacrifices he makes to serve and love your people, and we pray you would grant him also peace and joy, wisdom and perseverance, and love and compassion for your people given to his care.  We thank you for our deacons, Pete and Peter, our worship and children's leaders, Matt and Jillianne, and their families.  We thank you for their sacrificial service and tender care of your people at Intown.  Grant them strength and discernment, and joy and fulfillment in their service to you. We pray that you would bind us, your congregation, together as brothers and sisters in Christian love, united to and redeemed by Christ, standing firm on the truth of your word.  We ask that by the power of the Holy Spirit we would love one another despite our differences, knowing that what we have in common is far stronger than what the world says should divide us. We pray for wisdom in discerning truth from lies, and boldness to proclaim the good news of the gospel in our worship on Sunday and in our lives throughout the week.

Provider God, who bestows on us every good and perfect gift, and fulfills all of our needs in ways we don't even recognize we need, we pray for your provision in the financial needs of our church.  We pray that you would lay on the hearts of your people here at Intown and our friends who have moved away to other states, to give sacrificially for the benefit of your church and for your glory.  We ask that you would provide to meet our budget in the month of September, and that you would provide a sustainable way to meet our budget every month. We pray that we would humbly use these financial gifts to glorify you in our proclamation of the gospel, in our service to people and in the mission you have set us apart for.  We rest in assurance of your promises told to us in the gospel of Matthew, "But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is today alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? for the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly father knows you need them.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."

With the apostle Paul we proclaim, "Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith, to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ, Amen.

Written by Catherine Summers / Sept. 16th, 2018

Why Are You At Intown? Stories From the Pew

Last Sunday we had a congregational meeting where we talked about the vision of our church during difficult financial times. We had a time of open sharing where people got to talk about why they are a part of Intown. Here’s some of what they said:

“When I think of Intown the first two words that come to mind are thoughtful and kind. The thoughtfulness of the leadership and community inspires me to learn and grow and the kindness I have experienced here allows me to be open and honest about my struggles and to be authentically me (flaws and all). Over the last year and a half this thoughtful kindness was very apparent in my life. When I first started to experience difficulties in my marriage, I reached out to Brian — months before I told any of my friends or family. I never was scared to talk to Katie (pastor’s spouse) or Brian because of the consistent kindness they exude and the thoughtful and sound advice that they offered me along the process. They have held my hand every step of the way as I brought my first child into the world while dealing with a painful and unexpected divorce. As I slowly started to share my story with the people of Intown, the message I received in response was consistent across the board: you are loved, you are accepted here, and we are here for you. This was conveyed not just in words but also through everyone’s actions. Members of Intown came and assembled furniture for me, cared for my baby when I was sick, volunteered to watch her weekly while I ran, let me crash their date nights…the list goes on and on. I kept thinking that the support and love from this community would fade over time as my situation became less acute, but it never has. I’m so thankful for this kind and thoughtful community.” — Christina Overbeck Crawford

“It is a privilege to worship in the gorgeous setting of The Old Church and have my soul fed both through the music and the sermon that is offered every week at Intown Church. I find a sense of depth at Intown Church - depth in the music, in the sermons, and in the people. As I love history, I appreciate how the music incorporates words from past centuries and combines them with both modern and older tunes. Having the written words of the past centuries blesses us because we rarely see that level of quality penmanship in our everyday lives. The sermons touch on a great number of topics and challenge us to think about our faith and how to live it out. Brian obviously puts a lot of time and energy to make each sermon fresh and personal. And lastly, the people of Intown represent a beautiful and colorful tapestry. The families are interesting to get to know and are full of variety. Our congregational tapestry of interesting people, when woven together, has much to offer to each other and the community.” — Twila Petrie

“God uses Intown's service to encourage and convict me Sunday after Sunday, and I invite non-Christian friends to attend without hesitation, knowing they will hear the gospel through the liturgy, sermon, and music. This is what initially attracted me to the church. Most recently, however, I have been in awe of the people I've met through Intown. Close friends and mere acquaintances helped us move (twice) and welcome a new baby (twice). I am surrounded by people who inspire me to Christ-likeness, our pastor being one, who though he is the leader is forgoing his family's income for the sake of his flock. I can't help but attribute the grace I've received through Intown to the Holy Spirit, gifting and working through the church body.” — Jessica Downing

“The best way for me to explain what Intown means to me is with a picture. I recently worked in my yard and found a shrub choked by its environment with no room to grow either root or branch. I dug it up and found the "dirt" was just dried clay — no moisture, no nutrients. I moved it to a new spot prepared with rich top-soil with plenty of room to grow and watered it deeply to revive it. A year ago, I was that shrub with withered and dry spiritual branches. Intown has been the place where I've found spiritual top-soil, room and freedom to breathe, and safety to continue my journey. I feel like I am putting out new green growth and maybe even hints of fruit again; like I have a new chance to become that tree in Psalm 1.” — Tracy Petrie

“I’m at Intown mostly because I don’t feel pressure to push my broken flesh back into the suit I’ve always felt I needed to wear on Sundays. I don’t leave feeling guilty when I “just don’t get it.” There is a peace in that building on Sunday mornings that I can’t explain. More often than not, I feel a deeply creative energy during and after the service (whatever that is, I think it’s a good thing.) Intown feels a little scrappy. Elegantly scrappy, and I like that. It’s GOOD to be disturbed by real life and manic piano solos (played impromptu by one of our houseless friends.) I love doing music with these peoples! I love that our son is growing and learning with this bunch, and as of today - knowing it’s okay to be an introvert at church! Hooray for that!” — Vicki Waineo

“A question I hope we all ask ourselves is does God care about cities? Because if he does then he cares about the gospel in the cities. But, many churches have abandoned the cities. We at Intown are positioned to be vessels of the gospel in the city and we hope we can be mirrors of Christ’s love and good news to the city. That is our charge, and that has always been my hope at Intown. With our pastor’s time being stretched even more now, my question is who will take up the mantle? My hope is “all of us.” We all should concern ourselves with how we are loving each other so that we all are increasingly marked with fruits of the Spirit. If we are, then it will show, and others will be able to see the kind of God we serve, Jesus will be honored, and the city blessed.” — Jason Downing 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that being at Intown has changed our lives. We came to Intown when we moved to Portland from Atlanta, and Intown has been our community and our home ever since. It has provided a place to meet Jesus and learn about how He is working in our lives. Growing and learning at Intown has helped us to open our homes and our hearts to a community group, to church and neighborhood friends, to exchange students from France and Spain, and most meaningful to us, to our foster daughter, Emma. Our children have learned what it is to give of themselves to others, and that the love of God doesn’t just change our lives - it calls us to change the lives of others.  At Intown, we’ve seen friends come and go, hurt people find the healing touch of God and His people, and the lost find hope in Jesus. We love our little church, and we see God’s hand in the love and care of this community. — Scott and Jen Bowman

A Long "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" Post With a Reason to Read to the End

This blog has been quiet for a while, mostly because I've been on sabbatical for a good part of the summer. Let me tell you all about it! 

- As I thought about being off work for a number of weeks, I felt some pressure (self-imposed) that I should justify this time away with some sort of work-related project that I could report back on. And, I would've have no problem whatsoever coming up with a very long list of topics that would allow me to hideout behind a stack of books for the entire sabbatical! But, I felt like my brain needed a break from the constant input of theology, philosophy, and the like and that I should challenge myself in a different way. So, while I did in fact read a lot, almost all of it was fiction, and I instead challenged myself physically. This meant trying to push myself over an exercise plateau as well as starting (and finishing!) a number of multi-step projects on the homefront...

- In July I spent a few days in Central Oregon and on a whim decided to climb Mt. Bachelor. I have climbed exactly zero mountains in my life, but being in at least halfway-decent shape, alongside a regular man-sized ego, I thought a climb like this was not only attainable but would take no more than a few hours. It took nearly six! While Bachelor is only 9000 feet or so, between the parking lot and the summit are hundreds of switchbacks and many many inclines which to this Alabama-boy felt very mountainy! I really had to push myself to keep going. But, upon returning home, after a few days rest, I found that running around Portland wasn't so difficult and I began to add miles to my normal routes...

- This morning, after waking up earlier than expected, I had some free time and felt like running. I kept on going. Not like Forrest Gump kept on going but I ran a full 10K. I haven't exercised in the morning in years, and I haven't run 6.2 miles in well over a decade. But, having pushed myself beyond what I thought my limits were at Bachelor, I figured "why not?" 

- But, it wasn't just the focused exercise that helped. I also started a backyard project with my dad and spent two days in June laying heavy stone pavers and after we got done with that I just kept on going and renovated the entire back yard. There wasn't a square foot of dirt that wasn't touched in some way and so most of June involved hours and hours of shoveling dirt, pushing a wheelbarrow around, and carrying large bags of mulch and rocks. Not only did I feel like I was getting stronger every week, it was surprising to me just how intellectually-stimulating this project was (See: Shop Class as Soulcraft for more on this) and how in using a different part of my brain that I felt energized and rested at the same time.

- The runnin', the yard workin', and mountain climbin' were great achievements of course, but I'm not sharing this so that you'll come see my new backyard (but please do come see it!) but because these things felt like symptoms of having previously sought a deeper rest well before I took a sabbatical. You see, today I ran 6.2 miles and that's pretty cool, but today I'm also 9 months sober.

- This last part isn't "news" to everyone, I've shared bits and pieces of my journey with alcohol in a few settings, but I haven't shared broadly that I am pursuing sobriety because I had a problem. I started moderating and reducing back in early 2017 but I realized after a while that this was too much work and decided last fall that I wanted to make a deeper change. That's another post, or 10, because the process wasn't that simple, nor entirely self-motivated, but I can't share about my sabbatical without recognizing that its rejuvenative effects were founded upon a deeper and more profound rest that came with giving up alcohol. Honestly, I can't imagine that 9 weeks off work would have done much of anything if I was still drinking regularly. (Side note: many of you have asked me how much weight I've lost, and the answer is "I don't really know", but however many kilos I've dropped, it's not entirely due to simply exercising more but mostly to removing significant amounts of hops and barley from my diet!)

So, to all you Intowners out there reading this, thank you for not only being a church that values its pastor's spiritual health enough to grant me some significant rest time, but also for being the kind of community which feels safe enough to share something like this. We're all "people in process" and your pastor is no different. I'm so privileged to be sharing this journey with you.

A Prayer of the People

A Prayer of the People from Sunday, June 10th

Dr. Richard White

Father, we have gathered here today as you children to seek your blessing.

The ugly truth is that we don’t want you to tell us what to do. We presume upon your grace and pretend that you have no right to make demands on our lives. We want you to shower us with good things, to support us, and to tell us we are making progress – even if we are not – but at the same time, we try to avoid any responsibility to you, to others in the household of faith, to our neighbors, or to those who need a word of kindness or need a companion on a difficult journey.

In fact, we mostly complain that the demands of your grace are too heavy. That you ask too much of us. That you are the cause of our distress.

We are addicts – all of us – returning to false gods, idols fashioned in our own image because we have neither the will nor the strength to turn away. On our worst days we are studiously ignorant of the dangers of a world whose center and circumference is ourselves. On better days, we careen from self- love to self-loathing; or perhaps, see the circumstance of others and congratulate ourselves falsely assuming our own wit and strength allowed us to escape their mess. Our best days are when we gather as your children, come to your presence, admit to you and to each other that we are less than we want to be – less than your grace requires.

Once, when you walked among us, many left you, Jesus, because they found your words too difficult, found grace “a divine verdict requiring obedience and action” too demanding.* You asked your intimate friends, the disciples, if they too would leave. Peter’s words echo in our minds, resonate in our hearts, and we say with him “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

You are the bread of heaven (John 6:35), our daily bread (Matthew 5:11), the air we breathe (Job 32:8; 33:4). Like starving birds in the nest, mouths open demanding attention, we long to be filled.

Sweet Holy Spirit, our companion, our strength, our guide – blow as you will across our lives (John 14:6; 3:8). With some fear we ask your holy fire burn away our self-centered preoccupation. Shower us with gifts of kindness, goodness, gentleness, patience, joy and love (Galatians 5:22-23). We know each gift, though freely given, implies responsibility (Luke 12:28). Be our will when we are weak. Be our guide in the dark and uncertain places – whether on the heights or in the depths.

Tutor us in the substantial world of the spirit so we will be well-prepared to engage the transient world of flesh and bone, of buildings and roads, of nations and states, of seasons of war and peace, and calm and disaster. Open our eyes to the beauty of all that you have made whether it be found in mountains and streams, music and art, science and medicine, children laughing and friends talking, and even the babbling derelict or crone living rough in house of cardboard and plastic.

We need not remind you of the many natural and unnatural disasters the world over – Nicaragua, Guatemala, Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, the DRC, the Ukraine, Syria and more. Certainly, you know of the war on the poor in our own country (Amos 8:6). You are not unaware of racial hatred, nationalism, untethered capitalism, and the muddled moral and ethical environments of our state and national capitals. Please throw a hedge of thorns around the most vulnerable (Job 1:10). Protect them. Keep them from further harm. Send us, if you must, to be a witness for peace – to stand and resist the powers by and for your name’s sake (Matthew 5:9).

We pray for our sisters and brothers the world over. May your spirit move through the midst of your church so that, like Saul among the prophets (1 Samuel 10:10) or the elders in the camp of the Israelites (Numbers 11:24-26), like David before the altar (2 Samuel 6:14) or Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2), there will be dancing and prophesying and proclamation of the truth – proclamation of the good news of the infinite riches of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:8). In whose name we pray, Amen.

*(Strange Glory, A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer By Andrew J. Bacevich p. 135)

A Prayer Written by Dr. Richard White

An Easter Prayer of the People

Dear Jesus,

This holy week we have meditated on your final earthly hours in an effort to renew our faith. We wanted to witness again the power of your resurrection in the midst of our sometimes dark and troubled world. A world strangely not unlike the one which you visited so long ago.

But our meditations on the empty tomb revealed more of our true selves than we care to admit.

We, like the crowds, rejoiced and pranced and danced and sang – our children selves crying out enthusiastic praise, unrestrained, and unashamed we rejoiced that you had come to save us from our oppression under the yoke of the powers that be and sin and self-deception.

We ran beside your little donkey throwing our coats on the ground as an impromptu red carpet, welcome to Jerusalem – our Jerusalem. Welcome conquering king, come to save us.

And yet, mere hours later we, like the crowds, found ourselves disillusioned and with equal abandon crying out our slanderous displeasure that you did not save us in the way we wished. There were no endless hilltop feasts of fish and bread, no end to sickness, no end to poverty, no end to theft, no end to violence, no end to political corruption, no end to endless ways your word could be manipulated for personal gain.

This holy week, we, Jesus, like your most intimate friends, found ourselves weak and vacillating. One minute on an emotional high, light-headed in the rarefied air of your presence, then dull of mind and spirit sleeping through life’s most important moments, and then scattered – betrayers, deniers, fearful, not knowing what to believe, or if we believe – our expectations and personal hopes unraveled, and our popular theologies bankrupt.

This is our holy week – every week! We strive to worship you with all our being and yet are whipped around by our emotions, expectations, and our inadequate understanding of what you have been patiently trying to show us and tell us. 

And yet your gracious kindness breaks through even our clouded minds and hearts. Breaks through our disillusionment, unrealistic expectations, broken theologies and fearful, angry attempts to cling to our own dying selves. Even on the cross you were caring for the immediate concerns of those nearby, granting forgiveness, opening a door to paradise for the rebellious. 

And then there is the empty tomb. For those women who remained at the foot of the cross and were the first to come to your tomb early Sunday morning, for those women who were as confused and hurt as your closest disciples, you gave the privilege to be the first witnesses of your resurrection. 

To two sorrowful, weary followers, trudging by evening light – two students who listened outside the window as you instructed the twelve, lurkers who hung around at the edge but didn’t belong to the inner circle, you gave the privilege of intimate conversation that opened their minds to something greater than they had imagined. Something greater than the social, political, and economic justice they longed for and expected you to bring.

To Thomas, who wanted and needed to experience what the others had experienced, you granted a special audience. To Peter you gave the opportunity for redemption from denial and a confirmation of his calling.

In this holy week, we have gone from rejoicing to deep darkness and then into blinding light. This holy week has revealed something about our true selves and it has not been pleasant. We discovered we are not the people we want to be. We are not the people we believed we were. But standing outside the empty tomb we are regaining our perspective. And so we humbly ask, on the basis of what we have witnessed, that you hear and grant our prayer.

We want to be like you, that in our darkest hour, when all seems lost and there is no way to recover, that  the certainty of the resurrection will override our fear and anger. That we might, extend forgiveness, relieve the distress of others, and open the door for someone else to find you.

We want to be like the women at the foot of the cross, who though confused and demoralized remained steadfast. We want, like them, to be fleet of foot, ready to run with the good news that things are not as they seem, that you are not dead. That God has done this great thing. That all will be made new. And, in this, to be like you who gives the often marginalized the highest honors. Putting the last first.

We want to be like the two on the road to Emmaus – curious minds, willing to be corrected, willing to have our inadequate understanding and popular theologies set right. And, in this, to be like you, patiently and carefully instructing others in the Way.

We want to be like Peter who took your gentle but firm rebuke in order to receive your blessing. Correction and call. And in this we want to be like you, extending not just forgiveness but a pathway of redemption. Confronting fellow believers when necessary with unmistakable firmness tempered with unmistakable love.

But, in this holy week, may we confess that we are more like Philip and Thomas than not. We like to be shown. “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied. Show us your hands, your side, your feet.” 

Though you told Thomas, “[more] blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed”, we harbor in our hearts the belief that if we could just but see you, things would all be well. And indeed they will be. Until that day, by your grace, we are your servants – confronting, forgiving, comforting, teaching, running in sandaled feet to tell of the good news that a new day has dawned, the tomb is empty, the Son has risen, you are risen indeed.

And now, dear Jesus, to you be the honor and glory and power forever, and ever, and ever. Amen.


Written by Dr. Richard White

Moments of Delight and Heartbreak as Foster Parents

A month or so ago, we had the privilege of hearing from soon-to-be Intown members Lisa and Jake McClain about their experience serving as temporary foster parents for children with an urgent need for housing. These children often join the McClain family for worship at Intown so it was a real joy to hear more about their experience. They shared in an interview format about their journey as well as how Intown Church can participate. Here is the transcript:

So, first of all, what led you to consider being foster parents? 

For me (Lisa), the idea of fostering was born through grief and started in a very selfish place. We have had several miscarriages over many years – all of which led me down a path of exploring unconventional ways to add to our family. The first thoughts of foster care were definitely about bringing a child into our family permanently.  

Over the course of two years, I began to realize that my initial intentions were somewhat self-serving. Instead of bringing in foster children to address my desires for children, we started seeing it as an opportunity to help vulnerable kids and their families. We could serve together to model Christ’s love and God’s grace for us. And so it began…

We started certification last summer and became foster parents in the fall of 2017. Our first weekend “on call” we received twin 2 year olds! 

We need to add the very big disclaimer that we have only done short-term, emergency placements with children 0-3 years old who have minimal behavioral challenges. We have not experienced the much more difficult task of caring for children with severe complications. Yet, even with these stipulations, we have hosted 8 kids in our home so far.

It's probably safe to assume that you've experienced both challenging and joyful moments in this journey, are there examples of heartbreak and beauty that you can share? 

Yes! Challenging examples would include:

  • A four year old girl being terrified that a slightly raised voice means she’ll be hurt by an adult. She was so afraid to be in trouble that she lied about accidentally sneezing on one of us. 
  • Toddlers showing signs of never having been read to, spoon fed, or given much face-to-face interaction. 
  • Seeing children's rotten teeth and having no experience with brushing. 
  • Kids beginning to call me "mom" within a day or two of arriving in our home.
  • Kids sharing descriptions of domestic violence between parents and their own sexual abuse. 

But, there are beautifully-sweet moments as well:

  • Little girls being overcome with joy over new clothing; one girl literally jumped off her chair to come give us a hug after seeing new clothes.
  • Toddlers learning to blow kisses and sit for reading books.
  • Kids telling Elijah (our son) they love him.
  • Watching kids soak up the encouragement and love; it’s a much more visible and dramatic reaction compared to kids who have been properly cared for all along!
  • Most of our kids have gone on to live with relative foster placements. Often, these extended family members are so grateful to have a caring family watch over their loved-one until they are allowed to do so themselves.

So, how has God been particularly present to you in these experiences?

We've been able to see the gospel and God's care for us more clearly. We technically don’t owe these kids anything (and they’re often not the easiest to take care of), yet we are pursuing them and showering them with love at God’s prompting. I have never been more constantly-reminded of God’s love for me and his pursuit of me. The sacrifices we make for foster kids is nothing compared to God’s sacrifice of his son for our sake.

Also, we were initially concerned over the impact of this on Elijah, but he has been an asset and is loving the whole process! We have come to see that Elijah’s personality was “made for this” without much effort or coaching on our part. We also seen that his presence has made our home less scary for the kids. And, I couldn’t imagine a better way to be teaching the gospel to Elijah.

God has consistently reminded me that he loves these kids more than I do – they are his children and I can trust him with them. Rescuing foster kids is God’s work and it’s not all on our shoulders. We are called to do our part but to not be overwhelmed by the task. He has also reminded us to have love and grace for the families; they need God too, and our goal in this is to be helpers and not to pass judgment. 

So, what are some ways that your church - Intown can support the foster care community?

Obviously we can all pray for the kids, families, and workers involved in the foster care system. This is a very needy population. 

We can also donate new items or good-condition used children’s clothing to With Love Oregon. Imagine a kid coming with zero belongings and supplies and then having a volunteer bring you nearly everything you need – to your door! Imagine how welcomed a child feels when they have their own clothing that fits well and looks nice.

We can volunteer with Oregon's Department of Human Services. You can volunteer as an "Office Buddy" welcoming children to DHS or prepare "Welcome Boxes"  which are given to kids who first enter a DHS facility waiting for foster home placement (toothbrush, snacks, toys, night light, short note of encouragement). 

You can also volunteer with either of these organizations to help and encouraged their overworked staff. And, they can assist you in helping out current foster families by offering temporary childcare so that these parents can get a break. 

I don’t want you to hear from me that being a foster parent is easy. It is very challenging. Do your homework, think about the needs of your own life and family and be informed about the challenges. Being a foster parent is not easy…but I can’t think of many things that are more worthwhile. It has changed our lives for the better.

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.")