Primal Wonder

Weekly, I'm faced with the challenge to preach Christ in a way that people understand and are inspired.  Thankfully, God equips those that he calls and in the case of preaching, God tends to take over when we let him.  Good thing, since "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).

This week is a unique challenge.  As we get further into our series on Primal, we're seeking to understand what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  This coming Sunday's message is about the soul. 

Maybe you're smarter than me.  Maybe you've read something I haven't.  But can anybody tell me the best way to describe and access one's soul?  We pray for souls and we teach that God desires to save our souls.  Sometimes, in southern dialect, we'll say something like, "Bless your soul," but that's not usually a compliment and another discussion altogether.

Mark Batterson, author of Primal, has come up with an excellent way to describe what it means to love God with all your soul: primal wonder.  This wonder is the ability to see the world and the people in it through a different lens and allow ourselves to be awestruck by God's craftsmanship.

This adds to the challenge.  As I prepare to preach, what will I say to the people gathered?  For those who have experienced this "primal wonder," I imagine that their heads will nod and they will understand completely.  For those who haven't, I imagine blank stares and hopefully a spark of curiosity.  The beauty and the wonder is there, but not all have seen it. 

The task feels like trying to describe a Picasso to a blind man or the Sahara to an Eskimo.  The wonder of creation and the wonder of God isn't something to behold, but something that takes hold of us.  Once you've seen the world in these shades, it changes you and leaves an indelible impression on your soul.

Unfortunately though, many of us will live our whole lives without being blessed with this wonder.  We will study scripture, strive to understand God, and maybe even love God by serving others, but some of us will fall short of loving God with all our souls.

Leonardo daVinci once said, "The average person looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, [inhales without smelling], talks without thinking." 

How do you see creation?  How does creation see you?  Do you love God with all your soul?


Alex Goes to Church

Ever been to a church with a very different tradition from your own?  A few times in my life I have and my experiences have ranged from intriguing and powerful to laughable and pathetic.

Last week, some of my favorite church members lost their daughter/sister suddenly.  Erin and I, as well as six other church members made a Saturday trip to Alabama to a community that was little more than a wide-spot in the road.  It reminded me a good bit of the part of Georgia that my father comes from.  Rolling hills, pastures as far as you can see, and old, small houses interspersed between the multitude of single-wide trailers.  The air was refreshing and the people were friendly.  Sadly, my Blackberry still got a full signal, so I wasn't far enough off the map (in case you're wondering: Am I on the blue map or the red map from tv?  Neither.  I'm on the yellow map.)

Our first stop was to the funeral home.  Our other members had already arrived some time earlier.  The family wasn't expecting us, so they were glad to see us.  After greeting and hugging everybody, Erin and I headed out to try to find the church.

Several miles up the state road, we turned right on an obscure, half-gravel, half-asphalt county road.  After a couple of miles, the scenery changed from run-down homes and cow-pastures to a sheer cliff on our left and dense trees.  It was the kind of road you feel compelled to ride down with your windows open - an urge that was easy to fight since it was cloudy, cold, and windy.

At the end of the road, we found Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.  A small sanctuary with a small building behind it.  The church had no parking lot and the funeral directors lined us up on the lawn for an expedient departure for the graveside.

The service was incredible in so many ways.  As soon as we walked in, I immediately recognized the five-foot church covenant framed on the front wall - it was the same one that I had read on the wall at my father's home church in Mt. Airy, Georgia.

Wisdom told me to find a pew toward the back.  We sat down and when we tipped backward slightly, we immediately realized that the pews weren't fastened to the floor.  As we settled in, the next thing I noticed was the ceiling.  Someone had gone to great lengths to ensure that the lighting was worthy of worship - they had a dozen small brass chandeliers - with a handful of cheap ceiling fans interspersed between them.  The ceiling itself was painted with white paint that had glitter mixed in, giving the feeling that you were sitting beneath the stars.  The corner opposite us was also a sanctuary for ladybugs that covered the ceiling and found shelter from the cold.

With 90 minutes to wait before the service began and still nothing much to do, Erin taught me the hymnal game.  (as you randomly flip through the hymnal, add the words "between the sheets" or "under the covers" to the end of song titles and get a good laugh)  With two varieties of hymnals, we had plenty of songs to flip through.

I noticed that with a plethora of gospel hymns to choose from, there was an auspicious absence of Bibles.  I was relieved when I finally saw a man arrive with the Ten Commandments on his tie - at least we had access to scripture, even if reading it was a little awkward for a stranger. 

The man with the tie sat down with an older woman.  Now, we've all heard of "blue hairs" in church.  As I understand it, some of our more mature women end up "blueing" their hair to get the yellow out of their gray hair.  When they add too much product to it, it turns a light blue color.  I remember as a child the women who sat close to the front in church either had hats on or had blue hair.  The older woman I saw in church last weekend was something totally different - her hair was distinctively PURPLE. 

At this point, my mother's voice started echoing around my head and the commentary was hilarious!  I employed every technique I could think of to keep from staring or snickering to myself.  About that time, a younger woman rose from her pew and went to the bathroom, located just behind our pew.  Minutes later, she emerged and as she walked past us again, the pungent odor of Jack Daniels wafted behind her.  It was sudden, but it was strong enough I could tell you it was Old No. 7 and not Gentleman Jack. (for those scratching their heads, I'll just say I haven't always been a pastor)

Finally, the service started.  Three pastors took their place up front.  One was youngish and looked very uncomfortable in a suit.  The second was an older gentleman that had a smile that could slay all the ladies.  The third was well-dressed, yet humble and quiet.  His tie featured some doves and text, though I'm not sure what it said - probably something from the Psalms.

The service was unique.  It was an open-casket service that concluded with a final viewing.  Before the viewing though, we got a show. 

Pastor #1 stood up and in the deepest southern drawl I've ever heard recounted the tasks of his morning: arrive at work, turn on the coffee pot, turn on the air compressor, and sit down with Bible.  He had given his first consideration for a funeral text that morning and depended on the miraculous opening of his Bible to something that was appropriate.  He continued to speak in a very self-deprecating manner.  He reminded me of Clint Howard's speech from The Waterboy, "I am not what you would call an attractive man..."

As he prayed and sat, Pastor #2 got up and spoke in hardly audible tones.  As he quietly told a story about his departure from Vietnam, he set and baited the trap before springing it on us.  He muttered something about being glad to meet the family and that the family had asked him to preach.  His voice began to amplify and he warned us one last time by saying that the family may regret their request and yes, he used the word "regret."

#2 proceeded to "preach".  In seminary, we referred to this style as "suck and blow" preaching - where there is constant shouting in short, bursting phrases.  In many other traditions, this is referred to as "Holy Ghost preaching."  I'm not one to criticize someone that has been struck by the Holy Spirit and preaches the powerful message that comes straight from God.  I do not believe, however that this is what #2 was doing.

What I saw was a minister that was too lazy to prepare any remarks and opted instead for a simple-minded, non-coherent rant.  He moved around the sanctuary and shouted the basic message that we must all repent and be saved.  My hand, gently placed on Erin's knee began to clench until blood flow to her foot was cut off and she moved it to the back of the pew, where I proceeded to embed my fingers in the oak.

As he returned to the pulpit, still screaming and turning a lovely shade of Alabama Crimson, he shouted something about somebody that none of us knew and began to jump up and down.  As he landed, his voice softened and he staged insincere tears I have only recently seen in my two-year-old daughter's eyes when she wants something she can't have.  Finally, he closed his "sermon" with these comments: Ye must be saved.  If you haven't been saved, then you need to find you a good country baptist church somewhere or at least an old country preacher. 

Personally offended and disappointed that the family had been greeted and implicitly told that they don't matter, I rose from my seat for the final viewing.  As I neared the front, I took the opportunity to express some grace to the parents and to pray in front of the deceased.

Back in my truck, we fell in line for the procession to the graveside.  Back across the state highway and through miles of farmland, we came to a United Methodist Church with a large cemetery.  Pastor #1 showed up with a big chaw of Red Man in his left cheek and in an effort to be discreet, he swallowed his spit for the duration of the graveside service.  Pastor #3, who said and did nothing at the church, offered some words at the graveside that included some grace, but were mostly directed to Pastor #2 as appreciation for his sermon. 

As the Navy honor guard wrestled with the flag in the gusting wind, the family huddled together under the tent.  I felt bad for them.  My heart broke for them when I found out about their daughter/sister, but now that they had been dismissed at the funeral as unimportant, my pastoral instinct was screaming at me louder than Pastor #2 had been.  As everyone dismissed, hugs were given and words of grace were shared.  Herman, the father, and one of my heroes, took the opportunity to introduce me to Pastor #2.  I felt like I was being showed off and I didn't mind one bit.  Unfortunately, the pastor had very few words to say to me as if I had been an uninvited guest to his party.

Now, understand that I have no desire to discredit any other Christian tradition, though I may make fun of some of the details.  I do, however wish to express my disappointment in simple-minded, insensitive pastoral care.  There is no excuse for ignorance on anybody's part - ESPECIALLY when you stand in the gap, connecting people to the God that loves them. 

The truth is that we all stand in that gap.  Whether we have "Rev." before our names or we are the unknown behind-the-scenes worker at church, we have a responsibility to make people's lives better by pointing them to Christ and representing Christ in our words and deeds.  When we break people down or become lazy in our witness, we damage the image of Christ in the world by damaging the image of the Church in the world.

No excuse for ignorance.  And there's just as much ignorance in the inner city and the suburbs as there is in the rural areas.  Sadly, I see more ignorance in the 'burbs than anywhere else, but here its accepted by people who have heard what they wanted to hear.  Whether you worship with 20, 200, or 2,000, you have the responsibility to live with the highest character, marked by the grace of God.

Prayers for our Military

Yesterday, I got this message from my sister-in-law.  Her husband, Bryan (and Erin's older brother), is currently in Afghanistan.  Please keep them close in prayer.

"Hi Alex-I just wanted to ask you as really big favor-Would you please include Bryan and all his fellow Marines in your prayers--They have suffered numerous losses in the last few days, and unfortunately they believe that there will be many more-they can use all the help they can get! Thanks for everything!"
Bryan is a Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps.  He's a NCO for a platoon with around 60 Marines he's responsible for.



This morning I re-read the first chapter of Primal, Mark Batterson’s new book on what he calls “the quest for the lost soul of Christianity”. I’m beginning a five-part sermon series based on his book and the Greatest Commandment this Sunday. In that introduction to his book, he talks about simplicity of faith and of life.

Simplicity is something that I believe most of us strive for. I haven’t met anybody yet that wished they could further complicate their lives, at least not intentionally. As we enter tax season, I KNOW that nobody’s wishing they’d mix up tax code a little more!

In fact, the only people I can think of that would like to complicate life a little more are those who would benefit from the ability to exploit others. In other words, if you can complicate someone else’s life and prosper from it, you may be in favor of complexity.

Thom Rainer, CEO of Lifeway, published a book a few years ago entitled Simple Church. In 2009, it was followed up with Simple Life, attempting to give perspective to how we can simplify our lives and how that can honor God. Simple Church is a good read for any church leader. It’s about simplifying our churches to make them more vision driven and equip them for greater impact in specialized ways. This ministry philosophy is long overdue since the days when more was better in terms of churches. Now, we’re trying to move away from the ecclesiastical approach to ministry – where we try to do “everything under the sun.”

Batterson brings a distinction between different kinds of simplicity and a warning. There’s simplicity on the near side of complexity and simplicity on the far side of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes, former Chief Justice, said “I would not give a fig for simplicity on the near side of complexity.”

The difference? Simplicity on the far side of complexity is only achieved by voyaging through complexity. It’s surviving the confusion, experiencing the disarray of life, acknowledging the mysteries of God and creation, and arriving at your own values, priorities, and simplicity of philosophy in life.

Simplicity on the near side of complexity is just the opposite. It’s the equivalent of allowing others to spoon-feed you life or sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the complexity and mystery of life. It’s the kind of simple we talk about when we call someone simple-minded. It’s not a compliment.

Too many Christians settle for simplicity on the near side of complexity. Their faith never goes beyond Sunday worship attendance. They think they can count on a minister to live their faith for them.

How sad will the realization be when they are forced to come to terms with the blessings they HAVE missed out on and the ones they WILL miss out on as a result.

Primal, and my upcoming sermon series, are based on the Greatest Commandment. When Jesus was asked by the teachers of the law which of the 613 commandments in the Old Testament was the greatest, Jesus offered them this command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”


All else in faith hangs on this commandment. If we love God, everything else God wants from us, holiness in this life and the next, will manifest as a result. The better we love God, the more we love others, the closer we come to perfection.

But don’t misunderstand. This isn’t some sort of divine Cliff’s Notes for faith in Christ. On the contrary, this is simplicity on the far side of complexity. In order to love God, you have to do more than state that love. Love is more than a feeling or declaration; it’s more than an occasional action. Love is a lifestyle.

In order to love God with all heart, mind, soul, and strength, we have to know God and know ourselves. We also cannot hold back any part of ourselves. But, when you begin to “figure out” how to love God fully, simplicity derives from that relationship.

Simplicity in faith that resides on the near side of complexity is the kind that crumbles under pressure and has very little to offer others.

Consider this: Tuesday evening, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, destroying buildings, the country’s infrastructure, and maiming and killing tens of thousands of people. Horrible.

Do you know why most of those buildings collapsed? It was their construction.

The vast majority of buildings in Haiti are constructed from concrete. It’s cheap, easy to shape, and a great insulator during hot summers. Concrete is also a strong material, when reinforced with rebar. Rebar is a steel rod placed inside the concrete form that give added strength and support to the concrete.

Pouring concrete is simple with, or without, rebar. Build forms, mix materials, pour the mix, and wait for it to set. The difference is what that concrete will stand up to later. Most people in Haiti either don’t have access to rebar or the money with which to buy it.

Our faith can be like that concrete house. If it’s on the near side of complexity, it’s as if it hasn’t been reinforced with rebar. If it’s simple, but on the far side of complexity, its solid enough to be a bunker and able to withstand anything nature or people can throw at it.
So continue to seek out simplicity for your life. God wants that for us. But by all means, make sure it’s the right kind of simplicity. Don’t settle for laziness and false dependency on the faith of others. Study God, talk with God, practice faith, discipline yourself, explore the mysteries of God, and at the far side of complexity you will find simplicity.



By now, you probably know that yesterday a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. This is a nation that has long struggled with its own well-being and has been a fertile ground for missionaries from around the world with its extreme poverty and the strong influence of other faiths like Voodoo.

There are large numbers of people who have been displaced in the disaster. Most of the construction on this crowded island is concrete without the support of rebar - meaning that when the ground moves, buildings collapse. As you begin to ask how to help, consider UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) who has a presence already in Haiti and is the relief organization that is usually "first in, last out." Any contribution you make to UMCOR goes 100% to the effort that you designate. For more info, click the link to the article below:

UMCOR - United Methodists Respond with Prayer, Aid for Haiti: "United Methodists have had a long-standing relationship with Haiti through the Methodist Church of Haiti. The strong ties between the Methodist Church of Haiti and UMCOR helped facilitate the opening of an UMCOR Haiti field office in 2005. Support for relief efforts can be made to Haiti Emergency, UMCOR Advance # 418325."

To give to the UMCOR Advance for Haiti, click HERE.

And by all means, keep praying!



Decade in Review

Well, I can't resist.  Many other bloggers that I read have recapped their last decade.  I thought, at first, how little I would have to say, but the more I thought about it, the more overwhelming the changes have been.

Ten years ago, I turned 20 (I won't be 30 until March, so hold off on the jokes).  I was a sophomore in college, trying to decide what my major would be - I would finally settle for Computer Science and Business.  I spent my days in class, my evenings with Erin, and my weekends with my fraternity brothers.  Erin and I had been dating for less than six months at the turn of the millenium.  I also weighed 50-60 pounds less than I do now and had hair!

Since then, I graduated from college, my parents and sister moved from South Georgia to Nebraska to Tenessee, Erin and I got engaged and then married, I started and finished seminary, and we've had two kids, Ben and Faith.

I served as the Youth Minister at First UMC of Dacula for 2 1/2 years.  It was probably the most fun job I've ever had - after all, where else do you get paid to play and go on trips?  It's hard to believe that some of the kids that were barely in middle school at the time are now in college. Many of them are married or getting married and some are college graduates. 

I left there in 2005 because I needed a full-time appointment in order to be commissioned as a Probationary Elder.  Just days after I left, Erin and I had our world rocked with news of a miscarriage.  The very next day I appeared before the Board of Ordained Ministry for my commissioning interviews (a day that was supposed to be hard without the extenuating circumstances). 

I was commissioned and served for two years as the Associate Pastor of Programs and Missions at First UMC of Lawrenceville.  Missions has been my source of energy for ministry.  I heard God calling me to ministry on a mission trip when I was in high school and always felt closest to God when I was serving others.  Those two years were fun, busy, challenging, and formational.  I learned that I love ministry in the large church, but that I'm also not cut out to be an associate pastor - God has called me to preach.

That was a busy two years.  You may be asking what a Minister of Programs and Missions does.  I'm still trying to figure that out myself.  I had the priviledge of coordinating a church with a $140,000 missions budget.  I also coordinated the church's men's ministry, young adult ministry, historic campground and the ministries involved with it, and for a time, the church's recreation ministries.  I thank God for the great staff I had to work with and the wonderful volunteers with the heart and desire to do unimaginable things.

Funny story:  I was on our annual men's retreat, an hour from Lawrenceville and two hours from Atlanta, when Erin went into labor with Ben.  I was given applause when I returned from taking my phone call with my bag on my shoulder and made it to the hospital (in Atlanta) in just over an hour.  The whole trip, I was reciting to myself what I would say to the State Trooper who I just knew would pull me over and calling every law enforcement officer I could think of to see if any of them had enough clout to get me an escort.  I almost beat Erin to the hospital.

Summer of 2007 Erin, Ben and I moved to McDonough, where we live now.  I was given my first crack at being Pastor in Charge for a congregation.  What a roller-coaster ride it has been!  I've had people that I've wanted to strangle and people that have wanted to strangle me.  I've been blessed with lay leaders that desire growth and change and are willing to expirament with me in ministry.  Faith was born in 2008 and now I have constant back pain from being wrapped around her finger.

Many things have come and gone in the last 10 years.  I've made friends, lost friends, and made-up with friends.  I've ministered with and to countless people.  I've preached more, prayed more, and cried more than I could have imagined.  I've started the next generation of Strouds and held other people's babies at the altar and baptized them.  I've seen men and women late in life come to know Christ for the first time (and baptized some of those for the first time).  I've stood alongside families as we laid to rest people that we loved dearly, some of those were my own family.

Now with 30 quickly approaching, I wonder what the next ten years will hold.  By the time 2020 gets here, Ben will be almost ready to start driving and Faith will be in confirmation.  Erin and I will have been married for nearly 17 years.  Who knows what I will be doing in ministry?  I can't wait to see what God has in store for me, who I will meet, and where I will go.

Baptism, Jesus and Us

This Sunday's text, if you're following the lectionary, is Luke's account of Jesus' baptism.

John's baptism was one of repentance and spiritual cleansing.  It was a practice that wasn't unique to John and had been a tradition for generations prior to Jesus' arrival at the banks of the Jordan.  This was a first century revival and the whole community would show up.

Many would wade out to the water and allow the water to pass over their bodies.  This symbolized the washing of sins, and as the river continued to flow, those sins were carried further and further away.  What a liberating feeling that must be!  (Unless you live downstream)

This time of year, I often get asked why Jesus came for baptism.  After all, he was the perfect, sinless Son of God, right?  Jesus had to reason to be cleansed.  Early Christians supposedly justified this act as Jesus' attempt to please Mary.  Like many will be baptized today to please a parent, spouse, or other person that insists on it.  After all, what could a little water hurt?

Other theories have emerged throughout the last 2,000 years.  Even the great William Barclay has his ideas.  His commentary says, essentially, that Jesus was baptized because he was figuring out who he was.  At 12, Jesus is found in the temple with the teachers.  At 30, he's ready to begin ministry and goes to John in order to invoke the voice of God - the voice that would confirm his identity and his calling.

I believe that both explanations are at best limp and inadequate.  Try this one on for size:

Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, took an old ritual and transformed it into something new, giving it new meaning.  After all, he had a habit of doing these sorts of things throughout his ministry (and his death - he took a cross meant for human destruction and turned it into a symbol of hope and salvation).  Jesus taught and worked from his own paradigm.  His viewpoint was unique and sometimes we put ourselves into the sandals of Jesus too much.  Which one of us can truly relate to Jesus enough to know what he was thinking or feeling?  His disciples - of course - but Jesus - not necessarily.

Jesus came to the river and immersed himself that day, not to be cleansed of sin or to make someone else happy or to hear the voice of God (I believe he could already hear that quite clearly).  Jesus came to the river and was publicly claimed by God.  That day, he started something new - a new movement if you will.

Many of us today acknowledge that salvation doesn't come through baptism and unless you're Baptist theologically, you recognize that the cleansing of sin doesn't come through immersion in water but rather the sacrifice of the Christ on the cross.  So if God has changed the rules, why would WE need to be baptized? 

After the model of Jesus, our baptism in God's claim upon our life.  Jesus emerged from the banks of the river and God claimed him as his beloved Son and expressed his pleasure in Jesus.  Each time another person is baptized, I believe that God does the same - he publicly claims the life of that person.  Thereby, we are bound together under this baptism, making us a member of the Church.

From here, we could talk about the legitimacy of infant baptism (Why deny initiation to the young or anyone uncapable of choosing that for themselves?  Would you deny your infant American citizenship until they're old enough?) or the illegitimacy of re-baptism (Would God need to claim us more than once?  And if we believe its truly a sacrament - the work of God - re-baptism would be like saying that God didn't do a good enough job the first time, right?), but for now, let's focus on the purpose of baptism.  Baptism gives us identity in the Kingdom of God.

In a world where we are defined as individuals by the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the part of town we live in, the job we have, the degrees we have on the wall, who we married (or didn't), and how our kids turn out - the world tries to give us worth based on what we have achieved.  If we ever allow those things to give us identity, we have forgotten our baptism.

Like Jesus' baptism, God claims each of us as water is sprinkled on our heads, poured over our bodies, or we are immersed under flowing waters.  We are not cleansed of sin or granted forgiveness in the act - those things come through faith.  Instead, we are declared to be God's beloved children, welcomed to the family (and put under the care/supervision of that family), and the favor of God shines on us.

This Sunday, our congregation will have the opportunity to reaffirm their baptism.  They'll come up, place a hand in the water, maybe touch that hand to their forehead, and pray.  I'll say to them, "Remember your baptism and be thankful."

My challenge to each reader and listener this week: remember your baptism and be thankful.  Remember that God has claimed you and you bear his likeness and are charged with his mission.  Don't let the world tell you otherwise.  Find your identity and purpose in the sacramental waters.