A Pastoral Letter to my Congregation in the wake of Orlando

Dear Church family,

By now we have all learned what happened in the early morning hours of this past Sunday, when a domestic terrorist pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (or ISIS) entered a nightclub in Orlando and proceeded to kill 49 people and wound 53 others. Orlando police eventually killed the attacker after a 3-hour standoff.

The sheer magnitude of this atrocity is overwhelming — may God have mercy on us. The loss of life makes the Orlando massacre the greatest single mass killing by an individual in American history. There have been many issues raised in connection with it in the media over the past few days: the fact that that the terrorist was targeting gay and lesbian people (given that he attacked a gay nightclub), the ongoing debate about gun control, the role of social media in allowing terrorists to glamorize acts of violence, and the mental pathologies of the particular man who carried out the attacks. All of these issues are important and worthy of discussion. Yet at heart I think they are symptoms rather than root causes.

There is a root cause, though, and I think it is important to name it. What motivated the terrorist who attacked the Orlando nightclub — according to his own statements — was a commitment to radical Islam and a desire to inflict punishment on the West. We could easily list out a tragic catalog of other attacks inspired by radical Islam over the past several years. In this country alone, that includes the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the 2015 Chattanooga attacks, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting, and, of course, 9/11 itself. Those are just the incidents that have received the most media attention: because they involved so many deaths, or because they involved attacks on military installations, or because they were so brazen in the way they were carried out. There have been many other similarly motivated attacks besides.

The root cause of the Orlando tragedy and so many others in recent years is a clash of cultures. In the West, we have a foundational commitment to liberty that guides our attitudes towards religious freedom, economic opportunity, and personal self-expression. We certainly don’t always agree with one another — but insisting on a conformity of belief or practice is not what our culture is grounded upon. It is rather grounded upon the idea that a people should be free to seek out their own fulfillment and that a society of free men and women is ultimately stronger because of that very freedom. One might say that the history of the United States of America, while far from perfect, is a testament to the fruits that liberty produces.

As a Christian pastor, I believe that religious liberty, in particular, is essential to my own ability to preach the gospel and guide others to faith in Jesus Christ. I can speak in the name of God with the assurance that no government organization or other outside group is going to censor me. I can lead my flock in the ways of discipleship even when those ways are out of step with the broader culture, knowing that no one is going to arrest or imprison us because of it. Because we share a right to the freedom of assembly, we can gather each Sunday for worship knowing that nobody can place a padlock on the doors of our church to keep us from doing so.

The culture represented by those who have carried out heinous acts like the one in Orlando is nothing so broad as “Middle Eastern” or “Islamic,” and we should be careful about the language that we use when we are talking about it. I have had Muslim friends and acquaintances at various points in my life, and I’ve been enriched by those relationships. During a 2007 trip to Egypt, I experienced Muslim hospitality over meals and meetings and was humbled by it. Understanding that the vast majority of Muslims are just as desirous of peace, compassion, and mutual understanding as anyone else is very important.

Yet there is a particular strain of radical Islam that sees itself as being in fundamental conflict with Western values and beliefs. In some cases — including two different incidents in Libya from 2015 when ISIS executed dozens of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians — the proponents of radical Islam frame their conflict as being between their own faith and that of Christianity. This is the radical Islam of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. And whether the terrorists who embrace it travel to our country from abroad or are domestic terrorists who “self-radicalize,” the danger that radical Islam represents to us is the same. Its culture and our own are simply incompatible.

There are no easy answers to what I am describing here, though I think keeping in mind the actual root cause is important. That’s not to say that the symptomatic issues I mentioned earlier are unimportant. Far from it. Yet I would counsel us all to understand what is fundamentally at stake with clear-eyed vision and courage.

My own heart has been troubled by reading story after story about the Orlando massacre since last Sunday. I have been praying for the victims and their families, and I hope you will do that as well. I have also been praying for all of you — something which as your pastor I will continue to do always.

Yours in Christ,




Watching from the Walls – Elizabeth’s Surprise

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015Our third sermon in the Watching from the Walls series is “Elizabeth’s Surprise,” which focuses on Luke 1:5-17 and 39-45. In it, we find that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth receives a double surprise — the jolt of John the Baptist leaping in her womb, and the jolt of knowing that her son would be the herald of the Savior himself.

In Episode #14 of our Behind the Sermon podcast, we set the stage for Elizabeth’s Surprise and talk . You can find that podcast episode at this link.

Here’s the sermon, courtesy of Youtube:



Watching from the Walls – Joseph’s Challenge

Our third sermon in the Watching from the Walls worship series this Advent is “Joseph’s Challenge.” It focuses on the challenge that learning of Mary’s pregnancy meant to Joseph, and especially the way that he chose faithfulness to God over adherence to the world’s standards of how he would have been expected to react in the situation he faced. The sermon text is Matthew 1:18-25.

You can find episode #13 of our Behind the Sermon podcast at this link. That podcast episode is linked to the sermon on Joseph’s Challenge and can serve to set the context of the sermon. (It’s also a great way to get to know my colleague Todd Lovell and I a little bit better!)

Here’s the sermon on Joseph’s Challenge courtesy of Youtube:



Watching from the Walls – Mary’s Unusual Visit

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015The second sermon in the Watching from the Walls worship series is “Mary’s Unusual Visit.” It centers on the conversation between the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary when Gabriel delivers news to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus.

Episode #12 of our Behind the Sermon podcast is connected to the sermon on Mary’s Unusual Visit. You can find that episode at this link. Todd Lovell and I discuss the meaning the Incarnation—the act by which God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—in our salvation.

Mary’s Unusual Visit takes Luke 1:26-38 as its text. Here’s the sermon:



Watching from the Walls – Longing for Jesus

Watching from the Walls_Advent 2015Over these days leading up to Christmas, I’m going to post the sermons from our Advent worship series on “Watching from the Walls.” I’ll also post the episodes of the Behind the Sermon podcast that go along with each sermon.

You can find the Behind the Sermon Episode #11 at this link. In that episode, Todd Lovell and I outline the worship series and talk a little bit about the image of the “watchmen on the walls” in the Old Testament and what that means.

The sermon, “Longing for Jesus,” begins the Advent worship series. The Scripture text is Isaiah 62:6-7,11-12. Here’s the link to that first sermon:



It’s All About the Food!

Book Cover Front_It's All About the FoodA retired telecom executive moves with her husband to small town Mount Ida, Arkansas. Their plan is to live out their golden years in happiness. Then, tragically, her husband dies much too soon. She later answers a call for volunteers at a local food pantry, partly to fill the void left behind by her husband’s passing.That move leads to the beginning of a journey — both personal and practical — to discover just what has happened to food in America.

Pat Smith’s new book, It’s All About the Food, is a wonderful guide to where the American diet went wrong, why that matters to you, and what you can do about it. (That’s a riff on the book’s subtitle and is totally accurate regarding where this book will take you.) The stories, wisdom, experience, and downright practical advice that fill this book’s pages together offer a wonderful entry in the healthy living and sustainable foods genre. Readers of Michael Pollan, Melissa Hartwig, Pamela Smith, and Gillian McKeith will engage Pat Smith’s writing and perspective with profit and enjoyment.

Part of Smith’s power is in her ability to weave together a story about wanting to help the economically disadvantaged folks in her community together with a personal quest to find the causes and treatments for her type 2 diabetes. In the process she’ll take you from Mount Ida to Austin, and from the family farm of her own childhood to the food mega-industry of the present. Smith writes as a dedicated Methodist laywoman whose interest in helping people make good choices about food and lifestyle is at least partly borne out of her deep Christian faith—something that I appreciate, and which connects her with a significant strand of the Wesleyan tradition.

You can find It’s All About the Food on Amazon at this link.

For the It’s All About the Food’s Facebook page, click here.



Watching from the Walls during Advent

This Advent season at First Church in Springdale, we will be “watching from the walls.” Like the watchmen of old, we will be standing guard and ready to herald the coming of our king.

Here’s a preview:

“Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”
–Isaiah 52:8

Come and join us in worship each Sunday in December!


Family Faith Series — Part 5

Our final sermon in the series on Family Faith focuses on “Connection.” The Scripture passages used are Colossians 3:12-17 and John 14:21-24. The emphasis, as we wrap up the Family Faith worship series, is on what it means for us to form deep connections within the family of faith. That is particularly important when we consider all the forces in our culture that tempt us to think of connection in shallower, less real ways.



Behind the Sermon — Episode #6


In this week’s episode of “Behind the Sermon,” we reflect on our progression as professional podcasters, the massive identity-making might of the military, and how consumerism creates complications when connecting to communities. All this alliteration and more as we discuss the final sermon in our Family Faith worship series, entitled “Connection.”

Episode 6 — October 22, 2015

Behind the Sermon is now available for free via iTunes! If you’re on an iOS device you can open the “Podcasts” app, search for “Behind the Sermon”, then download episodes and click “subscribe” to get notifications whenever a new episode is posted.

If you’d like to access previous episodes of Behind the Sermon directly from our website, go to this link. Happy listening!

The Lord’s Prayer

This 56-second clip is worth watching. More than once.

As Steven Croft, the Anglican bishop of Sheffield put it, “This is a prayer said by billions of people every day in every language on the planet.  In every single moment in time, someone is praying these words.  They are the first words of prayer we learn as children and the last words we say at the moment of death.”

It’s called the Lord’s Prayer for a very good reason. When Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, this is the prayer he gave them. And so it is the prayer he gives to us.