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New Every Morning

For the last three weeks, we have heard about the connections between our Christian faith and politics. We reminded one another about the political dimension of our faith, its call to common good, the flourishing of all creation, and the care of the most vulnerable.  We have also heard the call of Jesus to be the blessed ones of the kingdom who graciously live humbly, compassionately, and peacefully.

The purpose of our conversation was to prepare ourselves for the coming election. To discern what it meant to vote based on our Christian faith. I spoke of my own set of values that guide my own decision making, these are aspirational and recognize that no matter the candidate or their party that all are flawed, none are perfect, all will fail at some point, none will bring the kingdom. Also recognizing that some can and should strive for the kingdom we proclaim.

Humility, Compassion, and Peace, these virtues guide . . .

These virtues are guided by the promises we make at our baptism:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

The baptismal covenant calls us to live in this way by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit called down upon us at our baptism and sustained in us through the sacrament of Holy Communion.

 

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Do This and Live: State of the Church 2018

SOC Image 1Introduction

Ten years ago I gathered with a group of 50 young pastors and heard Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest United Methodist Church in the US, share three questions that he uses to help his congregation find their center. Help them remember why they exist. He encouraged us to share these questions with our congregations:

  1. Why do people need Jesus Christ?
  2. Why do people need the church?
  3. Why do people need this particular church?

Ever since I’ve asked this questions of all the congregations that I’ve served. The questions have always been a source for lively conversation. Many had never thought about it in this way before. I had not thought about it in this way before, so I thought this would be a good time for us to consider these questions as we enter into 2018.

Why do people need Jesus Christ?

People need Jesus Christ, because we have a desperate need to be made whole, healed, connected, reminded that we are beloved, God’s image living in us!

Our tendency to sin and death is a tendency that separates us from our true self, from others, and from God. A tendency that alienates us, separates us and sends us to the margins. It is a tendency that makes us alienate others, become separate from the other, and push others to the margins. No wonder Jesus came, God-self, in the flesh, and began visiting the margins. To show us what love looked like, what salvation looked like, that is is possible to be restored.

This is why I am so passionate about my call as a proclaimer of this message because I know how desperately we all need Jesus.

Why do people need the church?

This is a more complex question. It is a question that I have asked myself often, as you know I am one of those that has a love-hate relationship with the church.

As I told you earlier we have a core tendency to sin and death, to alienate, it convinces us that we do not belong, and separates us from our true humanity, and tries to make us believe that we are God. Our primal story, one of the great fables in human history, begins with two people that are deceived by a serpent. They fall into the belief that God does not care and if only they would satisfy their prideful, self-centered, and individualistic longings and impulses, they could be like God. In fact their becoming like God is exactly what God is trying to avoid. God is not to be trusted!

This is our story! Time and time we choose other gods, choosing our own selves as god, choosing fruit that looks good to the eye but lethal to our souls.

People need the church because our salvation calls us back to our nature as a people of community. Just like God is community in Father-Son-Spirit so are we, God’s communal image living in us. Our baptism initiatives us into this new (renewed) life, grafts us and binds us to the visible presence of Christ in the world – the church, the body of believers, to community of those who are growing in God’s love. This body’s sole purpose is to be a light for what community looks like to a growingly isolated, separated, and divided world. We exist as ancient writers have said: “for the life of the world.”

Who Are We and Why Are We Here?

Why do people need this particular church? This is a great question, especially as a people who live in Shreveport, Louisiana. I’ve read that Shreveport once had the most churches per capita in the United States. I believe it, all you have to do is drive up and down Ellerbe Rd and Line Ave and count the many congregations along the way.

Why this particular church? If we disappeared today if Grace Community was not here would Shreveport/Bossier be less just, compassionate, kind, loving? What effect are we having? Would we be missed if we were not here?

Grace Community is a gifted and unique congregation, a pivotal mission field not just for the Shreveport/Bossier area but for the entire State (and maybe even the region).

We are a congregation that from the beginning has been committed to reaching the unchurched and de-churched, narrative leadership, cutting-edge communication, spiritual formation, and incarnational ministry to ALL people.

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, of the Louisiana Area,  in a sermon to our congregation in the Spring of 2014 described Grace Community as creative, push es the envelope, courageous, risks taking, mission minded, and exciting. (you can see her sermon here.)

We are here for others to experience life, abundant life, heaven on earth, eternal life beginning today. Notice that we are not here for the afterlife, heaven, hell, the whole after you die thing. Not here for fear!

And yet we are still afraid, we still wonder . . .

We like the teacher of the law, we like this faithful, obedient, put together, intelligent people want to make sure that we have the right belief, the right intellectual assent.

The encounter between Jesus and the teacher of the law comes in the midst of the joy of living life, of being a kingdom people, this encounter comes in the midst of excitement, of Jesus thanking God for the way that is being revealed to the disciples around him. Did you notice?

_________________

Part II coming tomorrow . . .

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Good News of Great Joy: A Christmas Eve Homily

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Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

“Noel, Noel, Come to see
what God has done,
Noel, Noel, the story
Of amazing love,
The light of the world,
Given for us!”

(Noel – Chris Tomlin/Ed Cash/Matt Redman)

Today we celebrate what God has done! We celebrate God’s amazing love, We celebrate that God the eternal, almighty, and creator enters the world for us! All of us, all of creation!

We celebrate that God was pleased to come, wanted to come, desired and it was in God’s own nature to come!

Are we surprised by the way that God chose to break into history?

According to the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel God comes, God enters history through homelessness, filth, noise, uncomfortableness, anxiety, uncertainty, strangers, expectations, and promises that seem hard to keep.

In other words, God enters the world through the reality that is birth, like we all do!

This entering according to the Angels is Good News of Great Joy!!

We sing it in songs, we decorate with it, and we hear it again and again in our reading of the Christmas story: Good News of Great Joy!

But what does this mean?

God creator of the universe, God perfect, eternal, and holy. God pure, safe, and sure. God quiet, beautiful, and fragrant. God, outside of time, maker of time, and timeless. This God entering . . .

Good news of Great Joy!!

As we gather together on this holiest of days we do not just celebrate that God showed up 2,000 yrs ago; Oh, no, we gather because as it turns out God has been and continues to “show up” in history.

God showing up in both glorious and lowly ways:

In the smile of a child and in the tears of a toddler
In the fruitfulness of spring and the barrenness of winter
In the coming home of a loved one and in the quiet of an empty house
In the warmth of a sunny day and in the fragrance of a rainy morning.
In the joy of birth and in the sadness of death.
In the cool ocean breeze and in the devastating wind of the hurricane.
In unexpected people and unexpected places.

Think about it? God coming as one who “saves” people, one who frees people, heals people, one who makes broken people whole, one who restores, renews and redeems. A God who comes to create again and again.

Good News of Great Joy!!

Have you ever tried to mend something? Heal someone? Have you tried to recreate something?

At first, it looks easy, doesn’t it? It is like the challenge on a baking show when the bakers are given the ingredient list but only very basic instructions. If you are not familiar with the baked good you are supposed to make you have to try to figure it out.

The bake good looks amazing on the sample plate. The hosts and chief bakers taste it and celebrate it, then wonder how the amateur bakers will do.

The amateur bakers, on the other hand, find themselves, scratching their heads, experimenting and hoping . . .

So God chooses to come, God chooses to show us, to give us the recipe. God chooses to show up in the most vulnerable and human way, God choosing to enter fully, to not hold back, to make Godself known, to Love!!

Good News of Great Joy!

It turns out that God came to show us what being truly human looks like. God came to show us what being God really looked like. In Jesus we have the perfect example of what happens when humanity at its fullness meets every day of life–it looks like divine life!

We often put this idea aside, we convince ourselves that it is impossible to be like God, to do what Jesus did. We tell ourselves that our lives are too messy, complicated, and different. We settle for being good (according to what we think that looks like). Soon the god that we proclaim does not match what the biblical witness tells us. Christmas comes to remind us:

It’s like God says: You want to know what I look like? You want to know what love looks like? Here’s a baby!

A baby?
Yes, a baby,
wrapped in swaddling clothes,
Diapered, crying,
Eating, burping,
spitting up,
Nursing constantly,
And confusing his days
With nights;
a little bundle of joy.

In a manger,
Cows mooing,
Horses Neigh-ing
Sheep bleating,
Dogs barking,
a stinky and humid trough,
slobber all over it.

It makes you wonder why all of this is good news?

But then I think about our obsession with perfection, our constant worry about our security, our hoarding, and knack for self-centeredness. To make all of our life about us, to assume that our way is the best way, not just for us but for everyone around us, and our desperate need to come across as having it all together, as being “good,” special, and ok.

It does not seem to match with what God did . . .

We enter our safe neighborhoods,
God enters a risky creation.

We fill up our Christmas trees,
God empties God-self.

We lull ourselves with consumption
God wails into the world creating.

We constantly negating our mortality
God taking on human form.

We seeing the sin of the other,
God, seeing the beauty of ALL

We focusing on our inability to be like God,
God showing us what it looks like to truly be us!

The promise of this night is the promise of that night long ago. That our worst tendencies, our enmity, violence, strife, suspicion, anger, disagreements, divisions, and brokenness are not the last word. That our worst day does not define us, that our experience and view of the world is limited on a good day, that often what we call authenticity is nothing more than our protective ego living out a false self. That in the midst of our worst day, hour, moment, God appears. Vulnerable, open, ready, willing, God appears, in the most unexpected ways and shows us that there is another way.

In his book Barking to the Choir, Gregory Boyle tells us the story of Andres. Andres is a recovering gang member, who was abandoned by his mother and left homeless in Los Angeles at age 9. One day he came to work and tells Greg that he had gone through the park on his way home and in one of the park benches he encountered a homeless man, passed out, but shivering from the cold. He decided to take off his sweater and put it over the old man.

After a moment of silence He looks out and tells Greg, “I am not tellin’ ya this so you think I’m AAALLLLLLL that . . . I’m tellin ya all this cuz I know that bench . . . I’ve been on that bench.” (107)

God has been on our bench!! Good News of Great Joy!

So do not be afraid! Open your hearts and minds to the miracle and mystery that we celebrate this day. God has and is visiting us. God has and is re-making, re-creating, re-deeming. God is calling us, yes us . . .

Shepherd and Privileged,
forgotten and remembered,
poor and rich,
faithful and sell out,
fake and real,
us, all of us, into a new relationship,
a new status, a new being.

Good News of Great Joy!

This is good news! Love like God did us! See this baby? Love like that! Live like that!

I pray that today you are as baffled and as awestruck as I am. I pray that you awaken from your melancholic slumber and your syrupy sleep. Do you hear the angels sing?

Glory to God!! Peace to people on earth!

Our freedom and liberation are here!
Our humanity displayed,
Our divinity modeled.

Today We have a savior, healer, restorer, one who makes all things whole; today your salvation, our salvation, the salvation of the world has entered the world!

Good News of Great Joy Indeed!!

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On Thirty-Nine

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We no longer have little ones at home. It really is hard to believe! It seems like yesterday that they were toddling, baby talking, and needed us for even the most basic things. I’m thankful for who they are becoming with each passing day and this year I’ve made a promise to myself not to miss a moment, not to miss a conversation, not to miss any opportunity to be with them. Living life with them is a humbling reminder that time is passing by!

Recently I’ve noticed some of those marks of time in me. I’ve looked at my hands and seen my father’s, the clippings at the barber shop have gray in them, my kids speak of my dad jokes and my receding hairline. Looking at myself in the mirror is a humbling reminder that time is passing by!

This year I took a sabbatical. I’m still trying to process the experience. I’m still trying to figure out what happened in those six weeks that made an impact, that changed me. What I do know is that it has awakened gratitude. For the steps I take every day, for the people I encounter, for the opportunity to be spouse, dad, son, brother, friend, and pastor. It might sound sappy or cliché but sabbatical has opened my eyes to the beauty of life and the importance of now.

My thirty-ninth year has been an adventure and a coming home.

It is so easy to forget who you are especially in a caring vocation. Easy to become so hyper focused on what you do that you forget what you be! Easy to not take the time to take stock, to examine, to reflect on what matters and who you are becoming. Easy to allow the expectations of others convince you that they reflect who your identity.

Today I’m thankful for those places and people that have shaped me and that remind me of who God has made me be. I’m thankful for my native land, its people, and its story. I’m thankful for my ancestors, all of them: colonizers, indigenous, and enslaved. I’m thankful that enemies and strangers became one, tragedy and violence birthed new life, and two young people decided that we would grow up together. I’m thankful for the companions in the journey that call me back and remind me. Companions who love me for who I am at that moment, and root me no matter where I am.

I am a blessed man. I am not alone. I am loved. I am . . . thirty-nine has taught me that, I’m ready for you 40th year!

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In Memoriam X

 

Dear Garrett,

Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.

Joy Harjo from “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” in Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings: Poems

I’ve thought about you often in the last six weeks. As I was getting ready for my sabbatical I kept on thinking about those that would come alongside me on my journey. I thought about my ancestors, then I thought about those companions that have helped me find life in the midst of struggle. I knew for sure that you were with me!

More than once in the silence of hiking trails, prayer times, and monastery I could see you. In some ways, you cheered me on, reminded me again of what you taught me by your leaving. You, happy that I’m still living into the calling that I’m unable to live into without your intercession and the Spirit’s power.

A few months ago it came to mind that this was the 10th Anniversary of your leaving. In some ways, it is hard to believe, but then I look around at my own children and realize that time has indeed gone by, your playmates are now into their teen years, just like you would be.

Then there are those moments when the weight of these years without you make the time that has gone by so obvious. I can still see you waking up on that fateful day when I arrived and asking for your mom, I can still feel your warm forehead on my palm and your beautiful eyes. Eyes that I can still see, full of mischief, wonder, and possibility.

So you are still deeply missed!

There is a little boy in my congregation that has your eyes (mischief and wonder included). He’s become a reminder to me of your presence and the huge impact you’ve had in my life. Your leaving turned into life, eternal life, for me, today.

Some months ago I had a dream that I had died.  I felt peace as I closed my eyes one last time. Immediately I opened them again and I found myself in this perfect place. As I walked towards a group of buildings I saw a group of people that seemed to be gathered. There you were at the front of the group, with your smile and your eyes waiting for me. Behind you were many others that I’ve walked with during their leaving, all of you together waiting, smiles in your faces, making room for me.

I woke up thankful to have experienced the hope of resurrection. Thankful that even though not with us in body, you are with us and waiting for us. Thankful that life and love have been experienced, that your leaving did not ruin my call, my faith, and my hope even though it got close. Instead, it allowed me to experience a deeper understanding and a humbling awareness of the mysteries of life.

Today we’ll gather where you await resurrection. Today we grieve and celebrate with hopeful expectation. Today I know that you are waiting for me, till then I’ll keep on stirring, keep on praying, keep on inviting, keep on challenging, and I’ll keep on dreaming.

You have helped me welcome my spirit back, for that I am deeply grateful. Your leaving still bringing life. I’ll see you at the great feast!

Peace & Love, J+

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In Memoriam X

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Dear Garrett,

I’ve thought about you often in the last six weeks. As I was getting ready for my sabbatical I kept on thinking about those that would come alongside me on my journey. I thought about my ancestors, then I thought about those companions that have helped me find life in the midst of struggle. I knew for sure that you were with me!

More than once in the silence of hiking trails, prayer times, and monastery I could see you. In some ways, you cheered me on, reminded me again of what you taught me by your leaving. You happy that I’m still living into that calling that I’m unable to live into without your intercession and the Spirit’s power.

A few months it came to mind that this was the 10th Anniversary of your leaving. In some ways, it is hard to believe, but then I look around at my own children and realize that time has indeed gone by, your playmates are now into their teen years, just like you would be.

Then there are those moments when the weight of these years without you make the time that has gone by so obvious. I can still see you waking up on that fateful day when I arrived and asking for your mom, I can still feel your warm forehead on my palm and your beautiful eyes. Eyes that I can still see, full of mischief, wonder, and possibility.

So you are still deeply missed!

There is a little boy in my congregation that has your eyes (mischief and wonder included). He’s become a reminder to me of your presence and the huge impact you’ve had in my life. Your leaving turned into life, eternal life, for me, today.

Some months ago I had a dream that I had died. There was this peace that I felt as I closed my eyes one last time. Immediately I opened them again and I found myself in this perfect place. As I walked towards a group of buildings I saw a group of people that seemed to be gathered. There you were at the front of the group, with your smile and your eyes waiting for me. Behind you were many others that I’ve walked with during their leaving, all of you together waiting, smiles in your faces, making room for me.

I woke up thankful to have experienced the hope of resurrection. Thankful that even though not with us in body, you are with us and waiting for us. Thankful that life and love have been experienced, that your leaving did not ruin my call, my faith, and my hope even though it got close. Instead, it allowed me to experience a deeper understanding and a humbling awareness of the mysteries of life.

Today we’ll gather where you await resurrection. Today we grieve and celebrate with hopeful expectation. Today I know that you are waiting for me, till then I’ll keep on stirring, keep on praying, keep on inviting, keep on challenging, and I’ll keep on dreaming.

I’ll see you at the great feast!

Peace & Love, J+

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The End is the Beginning

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Advent, a time of beginning, a time of ending. Advent, a time of expectation, of waiting, and of hoping. Advent, a time when salvation sneaks in, when needed most. A time when salvation shows up in the every day of life.

These are interesting days. Days when we wonder about God’s work in the world. Days when we are reminded that salvation is desperately needed, that our lives and our world do not reflect the fullness of God’s creation.

Unfortunately, year after year we must come face to face with our brokenness, with our need, with our sin-sick soul, and with the ways that all of creation still groans for salvation. We also must face our participation in structures of sin and death – the hatred, prejudice, and apathy about neighbor, the -isms too many to name, the ways we seem to have forgotten the centrality of the common good.

Advent invites us into reality, into the messiness of our condition, and into the hopeful expectation of new life. This requires that we are willing to embrace ending, death, and letting go. It also requires us, in this season filled with distraction, to stay rooted in the now, to sow seeds of peace, justice, and love today.

Completeness is coming, healing is near, new life is around the corner . . .

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God with Us!
We need you, with us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God with and in the world,
We need you, in us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God through the most vulnerable,
We need you, through us.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
God for all of creation,
We need you, give us new life.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
We are hungry, hurt, haggard,
hopeful, end becoming beginning.

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Sin, Humility, & Mercy: GC 2016


I am a sinner. I do things that I should not do and leave things undone that I should do. Often I only consider myself when making decisions, when engaging others, and when speaking about God. The fruit looks inticing, God might not be trustworthy, my selfish desires often convince me that there is nothing wrong with me following my every whim. I look around and again I am shocked at my capacity to be an agent of brokenness, hurt, and division.

The more stories I hear, the more I pay attention around me, the more I recognize that I am not alone in my brokenness, that all creation seems to be groaning for wholeness. All of creation bound, in need of freedom, in need to be redeemed.

I am thankful that God chose to provide a path to our redemption. It was an risky path, one that required taking on our human form. Choosing a messy holiness (a messy set apartness) instead of choosing perfection, cleanness, neatness, and power. As Paul tells us:

Though He was in the form of God,

He chose not to cling to equality with God;

But He poured Himself out to fill a vessel brand new;

    a servant in form

    and a man indeed.

The very likeness of humanity,

He humbled Himself,

    obedient to death—

    a merciless death on the cross!

So God raised Him up to the highest place

    and gave Him the name above all.

So when His name is called,

    every knee will bow,[a]

    in heaven, on earth, and below.

And every tongue will confess

    “Jesus, the Anointed One, is Lord,”

    to the glory of God our Father! 

Philippians 2:6-11 (The Voice Bible)

Our conviction about our “bent to sinning” and the recognition of our brokenness, should be the catalyst for our growing in humility. Our inability to make our selves whole, our inability to manufacture transformation, our inability to end the enmity that plagues our world, should convict us again and again of our dependence on God and our commonality with one another. It should push us to a willingness to come alongside the other, listen to their story, and begin to build community,  a beloved community, a community of saints and sinners. A community willing to do what God has done again and again, giving power away, being poured out, dying again and again to self while being born again and again to new life, whole life, abundant life.

This morning Bishop Sally Dick (you can read her sermon here) called us to “Go, learn mercy.” Mercy coming from our encounter with it, from our humble recognition of our need for grace. She stirred us up, made us uncomfortable, and challenged us to stop obsessing about the other’s sin and to begin to pay attention to ours. She called us to a willingness to enter a messy holiness so that we as a body could experience salvation.

As we continue in conversation as a church I recognize that this time together can be sanctifying. Us learning to hear each other, us making space for one another in the midst of disagreement, us learning to enter the messiness of our lives (in the messiness of our sin) and humbling ourselves, offering ourselves mercy, and learning to grow in God’s love in spite of disagreement.

The practice for this kind of sanctifying life begins in our local congregations. Can we make spaces where our brokenness is acknowledge, where humility is modeled, and where mercy is practiced? Can we learn to listen and learn to talk to one another in ways that respects the other’s dignity? Can we practice disagreeing with one another in ways that do not question the other’s motives? In ways that does not seek to convince, persuade, or prove wrong?

Broken people, humbly learning mercy and practicing God’s messy holiness . . .

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Discernment: GC 2016


One of the continued conversations here is around how a body discerns. How do we hear each other? What does it mean to listen to each other? What happens when we disagree? What does it mean to discern across the many cultures found here in this body? How has the Christian tradition practiced discernment?

I could spend the rest of the day asking more questions. Many of these do not have simple answers. Being in this space is a humble reminder that often my perspectives, values, and worldview are so limited by my own story. It is also a reminder that we must have these conversations as we continue to find ways to live life together.

I believe that the best place to reclaim the practice of listening, conversation, and discernment is the local congregation. Let us make spaces beyond our echo chambers, spaces where we acknowledge our common humanity, spaces where we can share life together.

Discernment is a key practice of our life of faith as we tune our souls to the voice of the Holy Spirit for us individually and for our communities of faith. It seeks to shape our souls to God’s desires, wants, and will. It means that we are able to put aside our personal preferences, our opinions, and prejudices. It means that we learn to listening to God’s voice in one another as we share stories of life and faith, especially as we read scripture together. It means that we take a breath and take an opportunity to look our lives and life together from the balcony, where the weeds no longer distract our view.

I believe that the more that we practice discernment in our local communities, the more that we practice communal discernment, the better we’ll be able to handle legislative matters in our life together. Let’s practice hearing one another as we gather around table for dinner with our families, let us practice hearing another over a cup of coffee with a friend, neighbor, or co-worker, and let us practice hearing one another as we share testimony of God’s work in our lives.

As the pastor of Grace Community UMC in Shreveport, LA I am committed to creating an atmosphere — a culture — of discernment, conversations, listening, and respectful dialogue among our congregation and from that congregation to our families, neighborhoods, and beyond!

I can’t wait to return to Shreveport and live into this way, another 8 days to go. There’s no telling what the Holy Spirit might tell me next!