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Posts tagged ‘parable’

The Seeds We Scatter & Grow

Matthew 13:1-9      
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” 

seedsThe story of the sower of seeds is pretty well-known. You don’t have to be religious to understand the metaphor either. A sower, a planter, goes out and throws some seeds on a path where some birds eventually eat them. Then, the sower drops some seeds on rocky ground; the seeds spring up right away but when the sun comes out they get burned and wither away. The sower also tosses some seeds where there are hardy thorns, which eventually grow too big and thus the seeds cannot grow. And yet, despite all this seemingly bad luck, the sower also manages to put some seeds where there is good soil, and eventually they grow and become food and abundance.

Some Christian theologians or preachers stick with the status quo interpretation of this parable, which is more or less a paraphrase of words attributed to Jesus of Nazareth [that follow the parable] in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, i.e. an explanation like this:

The soil is people’s hearts. The seeds are the Word of God, sometimes called the Gospel, or really, the heart of Christianity itself. Some people hear this word, receive this seed, but immediately harden their hearts and reject it. Others are like rocky soil, immediately accept the seeds but when life gets difficult, they fall away. Still others are like thorny soil and care more about material things and so the seeds don’t grow. And finally, some are like fertile soil and hear the Gospel and receive it joyfully and eventually bear fruit.

So kids, you should be the fertile soil, that is ready to receive Jesus and will bear fruit. Don’t be the rocky ground, or the thorns, or the birds. Believe in Jesus. The end.

jesusanswer

Of course, this interpretation [like all] is limited. I mean, I get why so many people interpret the parable this way, but I also must call attention to the harm that absolute or so-called “right” interpretations can cause others. For example, it is very easy [and it happens a lot] for people to start calling others rocky soil, or thorns, or the birds. It’s tempting to say that you are the fertile soil because you believe in Jesus or God or whatever. Isn’t it? Taken to its extreme, that is where this interpretation will carry you.

And yet, I think if we choose to look deeper into the parable [after all, that’s what Jesus taught people to do], we will discover that any of us who have felt/do feel like the rocky ground, the infertile soil, the thorns or the birds—that there is good news for us too, and that we don’t have to believing in a certain way to bear fruit in this life. So as briefly as I can, let me explain. Jesus of Nazareth was telling these stories to people in a particular context, right? In this case, Jesus was speaking to those who were seeking to follow him, his students. These students were eventually going to visit villages and towns where they would encounter people who were of various belief systems and the majority of them were poor or marginalized. Notice that they were not going to the big temples in the major hubs with this movement. And one last contextual thing: please, please remember that all of these Gospel books were written well after Jesus’ death. So all [and I mean all] of the stories about Jesus include commentary and contextual interpretations by the writers, reflecting on how Jesus died and the whole hindsight is 20/20 thing. You know what I mean?

Imagine you are writing a memoir of your best friend’s life. Your friend passed away 50 years ago. You look back on your friend’s life, you talk to people who share experiences with that friend, you gather 2nd and even third hand recollections and tales. And then, you combine all of those stories with your own memories and also your feelings since your friend passed away. That memoir would be just like the Gospels. I don’t say this to belittle the Gospels or to lessen their value, but I must say this because Western Christians tend to have an attitude about the Bible, as if every single word in the Gospels was actually said by Jesus and this makes Christianity the best religion ever. Okay, moving on…

Looking deeper into the parable, here’s what I see. The sower is careless and doesn’t care where the seeds fall.

Otherwise, why not just throw the seeds on the good soil? Nope. The sower keeps tossing seeds this way and that, no matter what. That, my friends, is what God does. God doesn’t say to you: Oh, you’re not good enough, or you don’t believe enough, so no seeds for you! Doesn’t work that way. I also am considering the context of Jesus’ words and what was happening all around. The religious and political powers were real threats to love and acceptance and real bullies too. They had no trouble stealing good things from the poor, marginalizing people who were different or who didn’t fit into society’s tiny little boxes. They also didn’t hesitate to choke out anyone who tried to counter their stringent systems that always favored the rich and the status quo.

So I’m hearing this story beg us to ask this question today, no matter where you are on your journey:

What kinds of seeds are we scattering, and will we be like the generous sower?

What kinds of seeds are we scattering wherever we go, when we interact with others, as we live this life? Are we choosing to scatter seeds of love and acceptance, of peacemaking and friendship, seeds of hope and seeds of grace? If so, will we only scatter them in comfort zones and with those we know? Or, will we choose to scatter our beautiful and kind seeds with reckless abandon, in all places and without hope of reward or ulterior motivation, other than to simply scatter love wherever we go?

Because yes, sometimes when we scatter seeds of love and acceptance all over the place, they will fall on rocky, thorny, or infertile soil. That’s true. But what if we keep scattering them anyway?  

For if we choose to be extravagant and reckless like the sower in the story, the seeds will hit the air like glitter and be carried by wind and breath and sheer luck and randomness, and they will fall where the fall and they will land on people’s faces and arms and feet, and because they are seeds of love and acceptance, they will sparkle as glitter does, and they will be light and not heavy, and they will add color and sparkle to the world and to people’s lives. And isn’t that worth the effort?

 

Calling All the Prodigals

Luke 15:11-33

From the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures:

To practice forgiveness is fasting, good conduct and contentment.
Dispelled is anger as forgiveness is grasped.
Where there is forgiveness,
There God resides.

HugProdigalPerhaps there is no more-recognizable story from the New Testament Gospels than the story of the prodigal son. You could make a case for the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think the prodigal story is right up there. In my view, the worth and appeal of a good story is that it can be viewed from various angles. Each time you hear the story, you may notice or feel is somewhat different. This story is like that.

The prodigal parable is a reiteration of the same theme in two other parables: one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin. In both cases, something is lost and then it is found. Simple enough, right? But we will need to notice the narration in Luke’s Gospel story before the prodigal parable begins. It goes something like this:

Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about that and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”

You have to pay attention to that lead-in. In Jesus of Nazareth’s life, he was dealing with people—real people who were treated like dirt and dehumanized. They were called names like tax collector, sinner, leper, etc. And then at the same time, Jesus was dealing with his religious colleagues, the Pharisees and scribes. Don’t assume that this is a clear-cut good vs. evil thing; it’s not. The lost-and-found parables all present the same picture:

The lost were the outcasts of society; the dehumanized; the marginalized.

They were always found and embraced as being priceless.

Those already “found” were the religious elites, the rich, the powerful.

In the end of the story, they ended up lost.

So let’s revisit the story.

The father in the parable ends up giving all his assets to his two sons. The twist is that the younger son asked for his share prematurely, because according to the culture and time period, he was supposed to wait to collect his inheritance. But the younger son oversteps his bounds and asks his dad for the money up front. The dad obliges and splits his assets in half for both sons. It doesn’t take the younger son long to start blowing the money—a couple of days, in fact. But even after he spends it all, he’s still okay being far away from home. That is, until the economy goes in the tank. No food. So he gets a job feeding pigs. He is so hungry, in fact, that he envies the pigs and what they are eating! So they must have been Iberian pigs.

Iberian01Mmmm…..herbs and nuts….

But one day he sort of wakes up and realizes that the people who work for his dad eat pretty well. So why not go back home and work? That way he would at least have food and a better life. So he concocts what he will say to his dad. It is a real dramatic speech, for sure. But as he journeys back home, his dad is already waiting for him excitedly. The son doesn’t even get a chance to give his great speech. His dad runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. He gets to wear his best robes and there is a huge party. The lost son is now found. The older brother, however, skips the party and sulks out of anger.

A quick observation:

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the younger son repented.

Perhaps he was just being practical. Read the story carefully. It wasn’t until he ran out of food and realized that working for his dad wouldn’t be so bad that he came up with a speech about being sorry for what he did. One of my professors from Princeton, the late Dr. Donald Juel, shared some insight about this: he suggests that younger siblings like the prodigal son have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. In this case, the younger son knows his dad and therefore convinces him to give up the inheritance earlier. He also knows that his dad is a big ‘ole softy and so his speech about not being worthy to be a beloved son but instead a servant would have indeed landed.

This view certainly makes the story more challenging, doesn’t it? Yes, but also more authentic, if you ask me, because forgiveness and showing grace to someone is messy.

Sometimes welcoming a prodigal back with open arms doesn’t lead to repentance or transformation. In fact, showing grace to someone often will not result in a reward and certainly not a big party.

Once you show someone grace, it is up to that person to do something with it.

We don’t know if the younger turned his life around after the party.

This parable, though not a true story, is representing real life. So the younger son represents the so-called tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The angry, older son represents the scribes and Pharisees who grumble and complain about those who hang out with Jesus. But all that really matters is that the lost [prodigal] is found and those who are already found [older son, Pharisees, scribes] are lost in their anger and resentment. They miss out on the party.

It’s a story about forgiveness.

Forgiveness. One of the most difficult things to make a part of your lifestyle. I hear it all the time. So I thought about the many obstacles to forgiveness. Here are some quick thoughts about that, some of it from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, in his article the 7 Rules of Forgiveness:[1]

One obstacle is that we sometimes think that forgiving means forgetting completely. That’s certainly not true in the case of someone who is abused, neglected, or victimized. No one should be told to forget the trauma he/she experienced.

Another obstacle to forgiveness is thinking that forgiveness makes a person weak. I think it’s the opposite, actually. When you forgive, you show great strength, because forgiveness takes time and energy and character. The people I’ve known in my life who have forgiven people, even when it was most difficult, were so strong and courageous.

The Weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
-Mahatma Ghandi

And lastly, possibly the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is anger. People find it very difficult to let go of anger. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes we assume that we should feel angry because we hope that the person the anger is directed at will accept our anger and as a result feel sorry for what they did. We assume that this gives us power. It’s the opposite, actually. The more you hold onto anger and resentment, the more you are victimized by it. Psychologists who work with patients who have been severely traumatized note that those who are able to let go of anger feel freer than ever before and also do not feel like victims any longer.

So yes, there are obstacles to forgiveness, but I think that this prodigal story helps us work through them, because the story shows us that forgiveness does not depend on the other person apologizing or accepting your offer of forgiveness. The father forgave the son even before he had a chance to apologize. The younger son does not repent at all and there is no indication that he felt sorry for what he did, because that’s not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The Pharisees, scribes, and even some of Jesus’ disciples wanted fairness in forgiveness. They wanted reward and punishment.

Oftentimes we want fairness in forgiveness, too.

The characters in the story felt that some deserved to be lost and others to be found. But Jesus rejected such a notion. Instead, he argued that the prodigal was found by forgiveness, not repentance. Moving forward, the younger son would then have to choose what he would do with that forgiveness.

Yes, this story is complicated, but it’s good news, too. Who doesn’t need forgiveness? Who wouldn’t appreciate a little grace now and then? The key is to realize that God doesn’t differentiate between prodigals. Whoever is lost is meant to be found—wherever they are on their journey. Forgiveness and grace don’t come in neat packages; they are extravagant actions. They know no boundaries or categories; they just are.

So whether today you find yourself feeling like quite the prodigal—marginalized, lost, left out—remember that you’re worth being found. And when forgiveness is offered to you, do something with it. Pay it forward.

And if during this part of your journey you feel that you’re not a prodigal, remember that we’re not made to just hang out with the people who seem “together” or “found,” whatever that means. Instead, we are supposed to seek out and befriend those who feel lost, or hurt, or pushed to the margins of society. Why? Because they deserve to be treated as the human being they are. So be lavish in your forgiving and grace giving to others. Don’t hold onto anger. Let all the prodigals, including you, experience the healing and transformation of forgiveness.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201403/7-rules-forgiveness

What Would You Do with a Bag of Money?

Matthew 25:14-30

Let’s keep it simple. This Matthew parable is often talked about in Christian circles, but very rarely understood. So let’s keep it simple:

What would you do with a bag of money?

Does that sound like a weird question to be asking?
Actually, it isn’t all that strange.
I’m sure at one point you have been asked this hypothetical question:

What would you do if you had a million dollars?
It’s a fun question to answer; it’s like a game.
What would you do with a million dollars?

Dr.-Evil-One-Million-Dollars

Of course, a million dollars gets our attention and also is an amount that 99% of the people in the world will never see. So we know that when we answer such a question we are just imagining a fantasy that will never actually happen.

But this Matthew parable is not asking us what we would do with a million dollars. It’s not a hypothetical, fantasy-type question. This parable story is a follow-up to the other parables and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

The lead-in is: Here is the story of a man going on a long trip. He called together his servants and entrusted all his material wealth to them while he was gone.

One person gets five bags of money.
Another gets three.
The last person gets one.

Each bag of money, in this case, was equivalent to a whole year’s salary.
So the master has given away eight years’ worth of salary.

The first two people invest and put the money to use; they double it.
The third person buries his money in the ground and gets nothing.
Then the master returns.

The first two who double their money celebrate, are joyful, and are entrusted with more.
The third person is full anxiety, fear, and sadness and is left empty.

Like I said, let’s keep it simple. Let’s avoid jumping to common conclusions and status quo interpretations.

Let’s not make the master God or Jesus without blinking. Let’s not change the Greek word in the story to the English word talent. The master gives away his material possessions. The reason we get confused is because our English word talent [that means skill or gift] was derived from the Greek language. But in Greek, talent is an amount of money. So let’s keep the original meaning; this is about material wealth.

A man entrusted three people with a fortune.
Two of them did something with what they were given; one did not.
As a consequence, two people ended up joyful and fulfilled.
The other ended up sad, fearful, and empty.

Another thing to keep in mind.

The story right before this one is the parable of the 10 bridesmaids and the business with the oil. Just like in this story, a person goes away and people have to wait; in the meantime they are supposed to do something with what they have. The bridesmaids had oil; the servants has bags of money.

The parable of the bags of money is a sequel to the parable of the bridesmaids with oil.
And the parable that follows in Matthew is the well-known one about the king of the least of these, which says:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Keeping this context in mind will truly help us understand.
In all of these Matthew stories, people are entrusted with doing something in an in-between time. Bridesmaids wait for a groom to return; servants wait for their master; a community waits for its king.

How they live during that waiting—in that in-between time—makes all the difference.

In this story about bags of money, notice that only the third servant thinks that the master is cruel; he’s the only one with fear; he refuses to take a risk. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also keep in mind that none of the three servants know what the others get. There is no envy or jealousy. Each person is given something to work with. They all have a choice.

They can choose to see what they have been given as generosity.
They can choose to take a risk and to put their resources to work.
They can choose to be out in the open.

This is not about judgment—who is better or worse, who is left out or let in, or who gets more and who gets less.

This is about how we see what we’ve given as individuals in this life and what we do with it.

If you imagine God as some keeper of rules who rewards and punishes people, well, then you will most likely live in fear and take very few risks. Religion will be nothing more than a legalistic dogma or doctrine full of cosmic causes and effects. Whatever you feel you have–you will bury it in the ground and keep it to yourself. You will pay way too much attention to other people and what they have; you will think that everyone has it better than you do; and you will feel pretty empty. Anything bad that happens in life you will blame God for it. If anything good happens to others, you will assume that God is favoring them and not you.

But I hope that is not the choice you will make.

Instead, I hope that you will consider a more compassionate choice for yourself. What if God is inherently compassionate, full of grace and mercy, and anxious to love you? What if this God has given you enough to live and to love and to share this with others?

Don’t get me wrong—I am not downplaying those in this world who do not have enough to eat, are homeless, or who live in unsafe conditions. I am not saying that they will “be fine” if they just change their attitude. People who are in those type of desperate and awful situations are there because they have been pushed there. Everything we do on this planet affects others. Jesus, even so long ago, recognized this and that is what the king of the least of these parable is about. We are supposed to take risks with what we have been given; we are called to put our resources to use; we are entrusted with resources so that we can help others who are truly in need.

So friends, as individuals, I challenge you to recognize what you have been given. I challenge you to take risks. I encourage you to see mercy and grace before you see judgment and rules.

And in the midst of the Advent season of waiting, an in-between time, let’s not look at all that is happening in the world and choose to bury what we have in the ground. Let’s not ignore the cries of oppressed, the mothers and fathers mourning the loss of their child shot dead, the families torn apart by someone else’s war, the forgotten, marginalized, the lonely.

We should not fear losing what has been given to us.

Let’s not bury it in the ground or keep it to ourselves. Let’s take risks and spread generosity and justice and mercy, because we have confidence in our God who loves us and entrusts us with what we need to do good in this world.

Respond with confidence, joy, enthusiasm, generosity, honesty, and love!

Generosity Cannot be Measured

Matthew 20:1-16

I have mentioned before that four-year-olds ask the most questions…and constantly. Their brains are built to ask questions, and so they do. As we get older, though, for some reason, we ask less questions.

And sadly, many of us stop asking questions altogether.

But let’s not do that as we read scripture. Let’s ask questions!
Since today is a “parable” day, asking questions becomes even more important. So here we go…

In your opinion, what is justice?

Think about it. Come up with examples or your own definition.

Now, in your perspective, what is generosity?

Now that you’ve thought about it, let’s compare notes.

For me, justice is fairness and equity.

An example: I believe that all people deserve to have food to eat, a place to live, and safety. Justice, then, would be when all people have access to these basic needs—regardless of what needs to happen in order for that to be so.

And now, generosity.

In my perspective, generosity is sharing what one has.

An example: my friend has a garden with some kale growing in it. He shares the kale with me and others. We don’t pay him for it, he just shares it. Generosity.

How did our definitions and examples compare?

And-nowA parable of Jesus of Nazareth from the Gospel of Matthew.

A landowner, some workers.
And generosity redefined.
And justice turned on its head.

This parable story is similar to the story of the prodigal son, isn’t it?
It redefines “fairness” and exposes an immeasurable generosity.

In the prodigal son story, the dad shows generosity to the younger son.
In this story, the landowner shows generosity to workers who only labor for a short time.

Of course, in both stories, someone isn’t happy about the generosity.

The older son in the prodigal story is ticked off. He stayed and was loyal to his dad, worked hard, and didn’t squander his dad’s money. The younger son wasted his dad’s resources and messed up. The older son is mad.

In the other story, the workers who labor the whole day are ticked off, too. They stayed the whole time working the land and were paid a day’s wage. The other workers only labored for a few hours and were also paid the same. The all-day workers are mad.

Seems that both the older son and the all-day workers wanted justice—or at least justice as they defined it.

Look at what the landowner in the story asks the workers who are mad:

Are you envious because I am generous?

Again, questions are important.
The landowner’s question is a translation of an idiom in Greek.

The question should be: Is your eye evil because I am good?

In this Greek-speaking culture, the “evil eye” signifies an issue within a human being. Jesus said that the eye was the lamp of the body. If the eye was healthy, the body was full of light. It seems that in this story, the evil eye is the opposite of generosity. Perhaps greed or jealousy.[1]

Imagine if the all-day workers in the story had reacted differently? What if they would have said: We got what we deserved—a day’s pay. And as for these other workers who labored less time than we did—good for them, too. We ourselves are not hurt by the landowner’s generosity, and besides—apparently, the landowner has plenty to spread around.

But that’s not how they responded.

And that’s probably good, because this is the real world.

Most of us react most of the time like the all-day workers.
We want justice [at least our definition of it].

We prefer our justice over someone else’s generosity.

So the point of the parable, at least for me, is to change the question.

The question that we should not be asking is: who deserves this and that, and who doesn’t.

The questions we could be asking are: when and where do I catch a glimpse of generosity without limits? When and where have I experienced this generosity in my life? When and where can I participate in that generosity in the lives of others?

Because let’s be honest: justice is basically a joke.

A lot of people living in the U.S. have jobs and homes and food to eat.
And yet, the world we live in includes all kinds of unfairness for workers and especially immigrants from other countries who come here because of violence, political oppression, poverty, or manipulation.

What is “fair” when there are migrant workers who cut grass and trim hedges; fill assembly lines at factories; clean bathrooms and office complexes; wash dishes at restaurants, all the while looking over their shoulders and receiving the lowest wages?

These workers in service industries are fueling the banks, corporations, and companies of our Western society. They labor so that our technology-obsessed countries can get the newest phone, computer, or TV—or so we can eat any kind of food at any time of day and in a moment. So we argue about minimum wage increases; meanwhile, workers cannot earn above the poverty line while working 2-3 jobs. But if we all work and receive pay accordingly, isn’t that fair? Isn’t that justice?

No, it’s not.

In a just world, things would be better than they actually are, and for everyone, right?

The Jesus of Matthew does not ignore the unjust nature of the world.
Some who deserve a full day’s wage do not get it.
Others who deserve the same actually receive a TON more than they should.

This is why the world is out of balance.

And so, the last need to be first and the first need to be last.
Everyone needs to return to balance.

But that will take a serious overhaul!

We’re not given a solution in the parable, but we are given a hint.
Generosity without limits.

The landowner, who obviously represents God, shows generosity without measure. Everyone gets a full day’s wage—regardless of where they started or ended up. Anyone disadvantaged still receives the same opportunities as those who began with advantages. Wow, can you imagine if this actually were true in the world?

If there were equity, for every person, regardless of where and how she/he grew up?

This type of great generosity of the landowner [God] seems so beyond our human capabilities, right?
However, maybe generosity holds to the key to justice.

Because I admit to having experiences in my own life in which someone showed me generosity that was too big to understand. I didn’t even ask for help or support, but I received it and so much so, that it overwhelmed me. That handful of people appeared in my life and then disappeared. They did not ask for anything in return. They just gave to me—whether it was money, or time, or kindness, or some talent that they could pass on. I cannot measure their generosity.

It changed me.

And I’ll never pay them back.

So I have and will pay it forward.

This is where, to me, generosity spills over into justice.
When generosity is not measured or controlled it can have a ripple effect.

When someone is the recipient of true generosity, that generosity spills over and out of that person and into the lives of others.
And generosity can bring balance.

Friends, we can spend our whole lives making a list of the crap that people have done to us or said about us, or the ways that society has hurt us, etc., etc. We can try to “measure” justice and come up with what is “right” and “wrong” and who deserves this or that.

But it will just cause us more suffering.

Generosity, though, isn’t measured.
It’s not limited.
And it can spill over into justice.

We started with questions; I end with one:

Will generosity flow out of you into justice?

[1] Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies, Messiah College, Grantham, PA, Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

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