Our Sexual Sin is Not God’s Number One Concern

Today, I learned the sad tale of a colleague (whom I had never met) named Dr. John Gibson, a seminary professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, who took his own life days after the Ashley Madison scandal hit. We know the story because his family shared it publicly. His widow, to be highly commended, said in part, “Nothing is worth the loss of a father and a husband and a friend. It just didn’t merit it. It didn’t merit it at all.” Spot on. I do not mean to say that adultery is insignificant to God.  But there are much more pressing issues.

The Ashley Madison site is an intentional adultery hookup site that got hacked last month.  All the participants names were released to the public.  Dr. Gibson apparently had signed up.  But I think he also subscribed to a belief common in our society and in our church that sexual sin is close to the most cardinal sin to God.

Let’s go back to the Bible.  What was David’s sin?  People will often point to Bathsheba.  But the Bible lists it as “David’s sin against Uriah.”  David had Uriah killed so that he could be with Bathsheba.  His sex with her was surely sin but it was not the sin that really got God’s ire up.  It was depriving Uriah of his life.

It isn’t that there isn’t moral and immoral sex in God’s eyes, there is.  But death permanently stops any chance of repentance or reconciliation in this life. We will post and talk about all sorts of sexual issues.  But news about suicide and homicide?  That’s not nearly so interesting to us.  Few would guess that suicides, for example, greatly outnumber the homicides we read about in the news. When we will grow up and see that homicides, suicides, and even worse, genocides, are far more grievous to God than sexual misconduct?  Talk about the log in our eyes versus the speck.

I am sorry Dr. Gibson made the choices he did.  I believe he still was greeted by a graceful God.  But his family will now live for the rest of their lives with his choice to take his life.  We need to pray for them and all the surviving families of suicides. And I am even sorrier that the church does such a poor job in teaching Christians, even Christian leaders, that God’s grace is far more powerful than our weaknesses and that reconciliation with those we have wronged is our primary calling rather than to  act as judge, jury, and even executioner over our or someone else’s flaws.

What do you think?


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Consider the Cultural Context

Way back in the 1990s I was taught sermon writing 101.  It included translating the passage from the original languages; examining the textual criticisms of the text; reviewing the passage in the context of its times (both the time period portrayed and when the text was actually written), reviewing where it is in the book, in the Bible, and the book’s origin; reflecting on it in light of other passages on similar topics in the Bible; reviewing it in light of the other readings for the day; reviewing how the text has been received historically in the church; reviewing what the Reformers had to say about the passage; reviewing how it has been received by current preachers and theologians; and reviewing it in light of the cultural context of the day.  It was the perfect prescription of taking sixteen to thirty six hours of sermon preparation – something no church ever affords a minister (or really expects).  Nevertheless, I was grateful, I learned much going through all those steps more than a few times.

While I could write about all of the above steps to some degree going into Palm Sunday as I have now been through eighteen Palm Sundays since ordination ~ I find the last step to be one that is most difficult to hone in on.  Currently:

~ My denomination (the Presbyterian Church (USA)) has voted to allow congregations that exist in states where same sex marriage is legal, where a gay couple would like to get married, where the church session (church board) is in favor, and the minister is in favor to allow them to do so.  The number of congregations that would meet all those criteria is remarkably limited. Nevertheless, this has led to widespread lauding by the largely secular community and younger adults (most of whom do not attend church) and widespread derision by the larger church (most of whom never go to the Presbyterian Church either).  We are in the spotlight nevertheless.

~  We are at a point of greater ecological change on this planet than at anytime in my lifetime.  This is quantifiable by some of the best minds in the world.  Nevertheless, there seems to be no significant plan to address the issue or even passion to do so among many.

~ Our nation is gearing up for another major political campaign already (the 2016 elections) which is likely to increase divisiveness, not unity. This is at a time when I feel our nation is more divided than ever before.

~ The Iraq War, no matter the original intent, seems to have been a domino that began a series of events that is causing significant change throughout the Near East, the Middle East, and Africa.  The change probably would have occurred without it but there is no question that our invasion and toppling of Sadaam Hussein began a series of events that is still ongoing.  Whatever the long-term outcome, the world we knew is shifting significantly.  Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel are all major regional players and what we can or even should do now is not clear.

~ The religious sensibilities of Americans seems to be very much in flux.  Commitments are not what they were in days gone by.  Financial giving to religious institutions and religious causes is not what it was.  Churches do not want budgets to define their missions.  Nevertheless, bills have to get paid.  Convincing people that giving to the local church is important has never been easy but it is growing even more challenging.  Also, young people who go  to church today twice a month are considered to be very active church people.  This is a big contrast with the previous generations, who even up to today, will go to church multiple times in a week (and still give significantly to the church).

~ The Church universal is under mortal threat in many parts of the world today.  Yet this gets little coverage or seems to generate much passion in the larger Church (but our denomination’s votes on what stock our pension program holds and who can get married does).

~ Many church members face significant financial or health care or family care issues.  They are simply trying to find their own way.  They are not looking to go out and convert anyone or try to make the world more Christlike. They are looking on what they need to do to make tomorrow work at home or work or school for them or their loved ones.  Many church leaders are worried how to make their local congregations viable.  Issues of the larger world are hard to focus on when more immediate issues close to home seem to be pressing. Reassurance of God’s love and active presence are needed now as much as in any time.

I therefore am finding the cultural context to be challenging as I sit down to write Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter sermons and homilies and consider what God’s Word says in our context.  Yet, I know this is true for each and every pastor that is out there this week. I also know God’s Holy Spirit surrounds us and Christ himself is with us in the midst of it all.

Pray for Christ’s Church this coming Holy Week and Easter.  It is an important time for all of us.

Until next time,


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What Has the Presbytery Done for Us?

Note:  I wrote this for churches in the Presbytery of South Louisiana but if you are a Presbyterian elsewhere, it will be easy to extrapolate.  TP

What Does the Presbytery Do for Us?

Our presbytery is our next higher level of governing body. If you have been in a Presbyterian Church any length of time, you likely have heard someone voice this question. It is a logical question to ask. Every Presbyterian Church has to send funds in every year to the presbytery. Where do they go? What are they used for? How does it benefit our particular congregation?

Presbytery funds are used for a wide variety of missional, organizational, and educational activities. Mission is a great place to start. Our presbytery has banner programs, which include outreach to homeless people, wetlands advocacy, and disaster recovery work. It also directly supports the Feliciana Retreat Center (which particularly benefits children and youth in our presbytery through camp), the Louisiana Presbyterian Pilgrimage (formerly known as Cursillo), which is a purposely-designed program to renew the faith of individuals, and is funding new ministries, such as our new West Bank Evangelism program, and revitalizing new ministries in old locations.

We have a new presbytery youth ministry, which has already conducted retreats to Montreat, Mo Ranch, Blue Bayou, held lock ins, and organized mission trips. Many area churches without a youth group sent their youth on memorable journeys together.

Our presbytery also supports campus ministry at a number of institutions of higher learning. That benefits college students. We have churches in our region that feel called to support this type of ministry, and the presbytery helps it happen.

The presbytery transformation committee is working with twenty-one congregations currently seeking a new beginning and has brought in experts from around the nation to advise them.

The presbytery organizes all regional meetings of the church and picks up two-thirds of all the printing costs. Through the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, the presbytery helps churches seeking new pastors and provides moderators for those without a pastor. They also maintain a pulpit supply list, so churches can find preachers when they need one for a Sunday.

Our presbytery maintains an active relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Cuba. We assist our sister churches in Cuba by sending them volunteers and helping them develop fresh drinking water for their communities. They teach us to be Christians in a different context.

We also fund the salary of a superb executive presbyter, who serves as a pastor to pastors and advises churches and presbytery committees all around South Louisiana on a wide variety of activities.

What is planned for the future? On top of the above, we are partnering with presbyteries around Houston and San Antonio to provide church officer spiritual enrichment, training for clerks of Session, and training for treasurers. We also have had, and will continue to have, Young Adult Volunteers coming in from all over the country to provide energy and new perspectives to a wide variety of ministries and charities in our local area. Our program is one of the most popular nation-wide.

Most years, Committee on Ministry liaisons, drop by local church session meetings to offer support, advice, and counsel to Parkway. They are the local congregation’s direct connection to the larger body, which is in turn part of all the presbyteries throughout the country. Our presbytery staff and members actively participate at both the synod (regional) and General Assembly (national) levels.

And they do even more than is listed here!

So, to answer the question, “What does the Presbytery do for us?” They allow us to be the Body of Christ far beyond our campus. By being a key part of the Presbytery, we are participating in all of this. And we live out one of our basic beliefs, that we are a connectional church. Being Presbyterian means being a part of more than just a congregation. We are a part of Christ’s larger Church.

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3rd Service

Parkway is still taking the concept of New Beginnings seriously.  We recognize that it probably isn’t going to go well for our congregation in the long run if we simply try to just keep doing what we have been doing for years (no matter how well we work at doing it).  Our world is changing around us.  Society is changing.  People are changing.  So, a strong core group at the church is engaging in discussion about doing something different – really different. What if we developed a third worship service?

What would be different about this third service?  We would hold it off campus.  We would develop it with the express purpose of creating something interesting – not to us – but to others.  We would develop it for all ages.  And we would not lock ourselves into following a standard order of service.  That’s where we were when we began our first meeting last Sunday!

Here are some of the innovative ideas that were shared:

~Have something different each week.  It doesn’t have to be standard each week.  It doesn’t even have to be weekly.

~Have a pet friendly service.

~Have a service at the park like Son Rise on Easter morning.

~Have an activity based event.  Start with a devotion, run/walk/bike in the park.  Gather back to see what everyone’s come up with.

~Hold an event at the YMCA.

~Hold an event at a Coffee Shop.

~Hold an event on the North Shore.

~Have a musical event.

~Attract people to whatever we are doing with music.

~Stick with something awhile.  It needs to be tried much more than once.

~Don’t get stuck into the mindset that it needs to be long.  Give them something valuable and build on it in time.

~Hold an event on Saturdays.

~Bring food.  Bring drinks.

~Tie in community service.  Let them know how we connect our beliefs with our actions (and how they can as well).

~Don’t make this about church membership but about worship of God.

~Be clear on what we do.  Is it worship?  Is it a devotion?  Is it an invitation to social work?  Whatever it is, be clear.

As I consider the above ideas, I think we have the following challenges:

a) Are we developing a devotional/Bible Study or a worship service?

b) Having an irregular program, while it sounds good in theory, is a challenge in the church.  Last year, we tried holding a regular church meeting on Sundays for two months and on Tuesday nights on the 3rd month.  While that may seem straight forward, people were regularly confused as to when the meeting would be.

c)  We fill the room when all of the ideas are on the table.  But we only have so much energy and limited resources.  If we condense/coalesce  the ideas down to one or two main ones – will we keep the momentum?

I do think many of the ideas can work together.  Overall, I believe the worship service idea needs to be outdoors.  This keeps us outside of the box of rigidly developing a service based on the space versus on our goal and reduces the chance that new people will feel perhaps trapped in something they are not sure about yet.  The core of worship is speaking with and being in communion with God (prayer & praise) together.  Whatever we do, however we do it, has to focus on those things.

I also see many of the ideas being excellent, outside of the traditional box, but more in the realm of studies and/or devotionals.  I love the run/exercise one.  I’d be excited to try something in a new location.  But the key to making a new study or devotional work is inviting people.  I don’t think, as one participant aptly put, that if people nearby hear us just talking about something they will be inclined to join in.  But our folks may be much more comfortable asking friends/neighbors to meet them in the park or coffee shop for a devotional/run/biking/discussion event than they would be asking them to come to church.

I also really like the input of keeping it simple, not thinking anything we do has to be long, using music creatively, and bringing food/drinks.  All would work well in our culture.

What ideas do you have?  You can share ideas/suggestions with us even if you are reading this thousands of miles from New Orleans.  Or maybe you were in the meeting and ideas/thoughts have come to you since then.

Our next meeting will be July 13th following the Traditional Service.  Continue to pray on this, think about it, and I look forward to the ongoing discussion.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to go from planing to doing one or two new type activities this fall.

In Christ,


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Most of the news out of Detroit last week dealt with the authoritative interpretation of the PC(USA) continuation which would allow for same sex marriages (see my previous post ‘I am a Presbyterian’ on that topic).  The other biggest news generator was reported as the PC(USA)’s ‘divestment of Israel’.  I can surely understand why this causes dismay in some parts of the church considering the general tolerance (or lack thereof) practiced by many of Israel’s neighbors toward other faith groups.  But I also understand the side of the church that wants to encourage a friend and an ally in the right direction.

My first comment is to underscore that this was a symbolic act more than anything else.  What the PC(USA) actually divested from is in some multinational corporations which the Israelis buy equipment from the Presbyterian Pension Plan (as I understand it).  The PC(USA) Pension Plan’s ownership of said corporations  is not significant.  And what is going to happen is the same thing if you or I decided to sell some stock – someone else will pick it up.  None of the corporations are under any threat financially from the action and Israel is not in any danger of losing access to said corporations’ equipment.  It therefore truly rests in the symbolic action realm. The PC(USA) did something similar back in the late 1980s to corporations selling items to the old South African government.

I will probably dismay some of my progressive brothers and sisters, but I personally would not have voted for this.  While I understand we are more likely to influence the internal policies of our friends in Israel than we are that of the internal policies of Muslim states which also practice non-equitable treatment of not just religious groups but also of genders and people of different sexual preferences – I still believe all too often we pick areas of the world to focus in on at the expense of others. There are so many places where we could take symbolic stands – not the least of which are many issues going on in our own society.  Is it really just to focus in on one state when so many states buy equipment from corporations we invest in?  Might there not have been another way to make a more over-arching justice statement?

Nevertheless, the majority of my Presbyterian brothers and sisters saw this as a justice issue in an historic land, and so they voted the way that they did and I respect that.  It is important for the church to take stands on justice issues.  I simply hope we continue to study the region and never try to make permanent statements on anything in a most fluid part of the world.  

We live in a complex world.  It is incumbent on all of us in the church to learn more of other parts of the world (and not depend on sound bites from major news sources to form our opinions).  We have Christian brothers and sisters in Mosul, for example, whose church was burned down this weekend and whose lives are under currently under threat.  The “divestment” of Christians, rather than finances, from large swaths of the the Middle East is surely a justice issue topic worthy of our attention as well.  Also, when we were attacked on 9-11, we came up with some policies of questionable merit in the USA (many of which are still the law of our land).  Would we be open to changing our policies if the proverbial shoe were on the other foot?  

Finally, for a denomination such as ours that has often led the way in interfaith activities, I think it is important for us to increase our contact with the Jewish community.  Nothing could be further from the truth to say Presbyterians are anti-Semitic.  We would not have our faith if it were not for the Jews and there is no faith group Presbyterians haven’t worked closer with historically.  We should not equate nations with faith groups (here or overseas).  And our dialogue with Jews surely needs to be far and beyond one symbolic act.

What are your thoughts on this important international issue?  How should the church try to stand for what is right and point to the eternal in a constantly changing world?  I hope it generates some good conversations in PC(USA) congregations and hopefully increased contact with the closest synagogues as well.

Until next time,


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Prophetic Witness

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With the Homeless


One of the great ministries of the Presbyterian Church in Greater New Orleans is the Program of Hope, offered each Wednesday morning, at First Presbyterian in New Orleans.  First, Faith, Lakeview, John Calvin, Kenner, Parkway, and St. Charles Presbyterian all support this ministry which helps the unemployed and underemployed.  Anyone who comes gets access to worship, food, toiletries, clothes, bus tokens, and (twice a month) a night at the homeless shelter.  The program has helped enough folks that some of our volunteers are former homeless folks who used to come for services.  Today, one of the coordinators for the Program of Hope asked me to go and sit with one of the gentlemen who needed help lifting a case he had with him.  So, I went and sat by him.  As in the past, without identifying anyone, I like to relate what I discovered.

Gentleman One:  In his sixties, from Galveston.  “I came here for work, but couldn’t find any employment.  I like the city, but without a job, I need to get home.  I haven’t figured out how to get back yet though.  Thank goodness for this ministry.”

Gentlemen Two:  In his fifties, also from Galveston. “I’m friends with (Gentleman One) because I found out he was from Galveston too. I just came down here because I heard businesses were hiring.  But, so far, no good.

Lady One:  In her forties.  “I love this church.  I mean, this is what the church should be like.  Everyone is equal here.  Did you hear of the tsunami that happened near China this weekend? (I hadn’t).  They have had more than a few of those.  And then there are the tornadoes.  Lots of those.  And the hurricanes around here.  I tell you, we are messing up the environment, it is making all the water warmer, and the storms are getting stronger.”

Me to Gentleman Four (Standing, instead of sitting, nearby and wearing a pancho):    Excuse me, are or were you in the military?  

Gentleman Four:  Yes, how did you know?

Me:  Military folks just have a certain bearing.  I don’t know.

Gentleman Four:  I was in the Army for seven years.  I deployed.  I got out.  My mother was from old Metairie in the past, so I moved here.

Me:  What was your specialty?

Gentleman Four:  I was a chef.  I had a job at first but could only work for a week because of my kidney stones (I notice a VA hospital armband still on).  I just got out of the hospital, the VA took care of me, but now I don’t have a job.  I’m looking though.  I do construction work when I can’t find a restaurant to hire me.

Gentleman Two (looking at me):  So, how did you get stranded down here?

(No one seemed surprised by his question.  It was at this point that I realized that these four good souls didn’t know that I had come to sit with them to help Gentleman one.  They assumed I was just like them, down on my luck.  I explained that I was a pastor and a chaplain).

Gentleman Two:  So you are the pastor here?  

Me:  No, Fred is (I point to him and Fred comes and starts talking with each individually, inviting them all to come to church).

Gentleman Two:  Do you carry a gun in the military?

Me:  No.  I was trained in my first career field but we are there to provide spiritual support, they figure we don’t need guns.

Gentleman Two:  Sometimes you need a gun.

Lady One:  Some folks don’t.  (Again looking at me) So, do you do exorcisms?  

Me:  I do pray for folks, no matter what they suffer from.  But honestly, no one has ever asked me that before.

Lady One:  You know there used not to be much of a difference between pastors and doctors.  Pastors even did house calls.

Me:  I kind of figure I don’t have any special power, that comes from God.

Lady One:  Oh, of course, but you have special talents.  You should use them.

(At this point, the Program of Hope folks needed me to gather up extra donations to go to the Ozanam Inn, so I excused myself. Ozanam Inn is a homeless mission downtown.  We had extra shoes and sandwiches which we knew they would take.  It’s downtown and we drove down there. But we couldn’t park out front as usual due to all the parked cars, so we pulled into the side.  About thirty homeless waited outside.  I walked in).

Worker:  I am sorry sir, you will go in line, we have to take turns.

(I again had been taken to be a homeless person.  As soon as I said who I was they quickly shifted gears and got lots of folks to come help me unload my truck.  But it tells me something of the shifting homeless population demographics.  Take away my truck and my family, even though I had on Dockers and a button up shirt (with my perpetual running shoes so that I can run later today) and I blend in as one of the homeless.  Homeless folks today aren’t always unkempt, in dirty clothes, and living n a box.  They can look just like me.  And, of course, spiritually there is no difference.  Nevertheless, it makes me realize the shifting sands people find themselves on these days.  I am grateful to help and to be a part of a church that values helping everyone).

Until next time,


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