A couple months ago, I enhanced the focus of this blog when I obtained a copy of Ron Highfield’s book Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned. Up until that point, my main focus, not strictly focused (for that matter) was on the church vis-a-vis the poor and homeless. My focus, to the extent I still had one, dealt with the church’s lack of faithful response to the poor and needy. I am now getting into a brand/spanking new book called When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation by Andy Root and Blair Bertrand. 


Let’s talk about my previous focus (or fuzzy intentions) briefly before I get deeper into the new book. I’ve been having a church problem. But the problem I have with church is also an empire problem. “Empire.” That’s the word I first learned from N.T. Wright, but also from Richard Horsley. Yet I became somewhat radicalized with it when I read Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. So, before we get into “church” with this, let’s first say a word about America.

America has a problem with poverty. While this is the richest nation on earth and in world history, many people in our midst are poor and needy rather than rich. This is something of a paradox and a conundrum for secular America (the empire), but not for God (Deut. 15:11; Mark 14:7). There is a sense in which we Americans have done, and still are doing, something right. To enjoy such unprecedented wealth and power would seem to be a goal of humanity from ages past, and I doubt anyone could argue otherwise.

Yet clearly Jesus both deals extensively and generously with poor and needy people and speaks about them frequently too. The separation of church and state in America enhances this paradox all the more. The church need not enlist the state or partner with it at all, and yet, it appears the state has the wisdom to produce the wealth and power we enjoy, or paradoxically, it engineers itself out of the way so that its citizens can privately prosper (there are competing theories).

It seems the state provides “a level playing field” for people to privately and individually raise themselves out of poverty, and in-so-doing provides the true and ultimate remedy to poverty. Yet none of this wisdom comes from Jesus, and thus is not fit for his church. (Look at the rest of Deut. 15 for a very different view from this American agenda.) Yet the church of America is infatuated with this secular/imperial wisdom and tries to syncretize it with Jesus.

In my church’s view, the poor have a money problem. In the eyes of my brothers and sisters at church, the poor’s money problem is grounded in laziness, addiction, immorality, bad choices on the part of the poor themselves, and their dependence upon others. Thus, any aid the church would (or should) extend must acknowledge this and treat it as foundational. Otherwise, if we help too much or in some wrong way, we merely enable the laziness, addiction, immorality, and wrong choices, thus creating or extending further dependence upon the church, rather than establish independent money managers.

Yes, in my church’s view, the poor have a money problem; in my view, the poor have a church problem. Jesus does not come to establish independent money managers. He comes to establish dependence on him. Dependence on his church, then, just makes sense in this view. 

Anyway, to make a long story (somewhat) short(er), I have spent so much energy on this blog pointing out this error to the church. But these matters came to a head with the publication of the book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, by Corbett and Fikkert. This book, and another like it by Robert Lupton called Toxic Charity, work at syncretizing the American imperial wisdom with the Bible, which of course serves Mammon rather than Lord Jesus. (You can’t serve both, Matt. 6:24.)

But I have made that case multiple times on this blog, and I need not rehash it all now. I need only reference all of that to establish the vantage from which I come, and the enhancement to the focus of this blog when I found Highfield. After two decades of ministry, mostly with the poor and needy, and almost fifteen years rebutting When Helping Hurts, all in an effort to confront (and hopefully persuade) the church about the poor’s church problem, I find Ron Highfield suggesting that possibly the problem is more a “parachurch” problem.

(I should, just to be thorough, interject here that around the same time, I found Richard Hughes discussing dying church, and thus we might be dealing with a dying (or dead) church. But I will simply lay down that marker here and not explore it further at this time.)

So, Highfield made an interesting case about church. That church problem might not be a church problem really, but a problem with fake church, in a sense. That, by the way, is NOT Highfield’s TERMINOLOGY for it, but certainly the lens through which I read him. And some parts of his case are compelling! Especially how he sharpens up analysis of the church’s purpose, it’s entanglements with politics and money, and a few other ideas. 

Other than that, Highfield’s book approaches the topic of church as something like a recipe. Two cups of flour, a teaspoon of baking soda, half a stick of butter, one cup of milk, two eggs, and three fourths cup of sugar, the right amount of cocoa, at 375 degrees for half an hour, and you have chocolate cake! I’m over-simplifying his book, but to a large extent, that is the vibe he brings. Yet it remains helpful and insightful in some ways. The modern church, especially in America, is used to certain tax exemption perks which could, conceivably, be revoked along with other privileges, which might cause the collapse of many institutions we currently call “church,” but they are not.

I will end my open-minded description of his work there and focus instead on how it filters through me, in particular. Whereas Highfield distinguishes, or tries to distinguish, “church” – “real church” in my view – from parachurch, “fake church” (in my view – especially since otherwise there is this functional confusion), I find that my work attempting to confront the “church problem” as I have termed it, had by the poor and needy, has been so unsuccessful possibly because I aimed it at the wrong place!

(This is all the more convoluted when you factor in how I was kicked out, due to my efforts years ago, of a “church” which was not technically at church at all, but quite literally a 501c3 charitable organization posing as, and calling itself, a church!)

At any rate, Highfield’s thesis was enough to cause me to refocus this blog on “rethinking church.” 

THAT, then brings me to the new book – almost.

One more item of interest needs to be mentioned before I dive into When Church Stops Working. As I began searching the internet for other people rethinking church and bringing different ideas to bear on the topic, I found the work of Ralph Neighbour who champions small groups and cell-based churches. I discovered he has a book dealing with this, but I’m leery of spending money I don’t have on books I may or may not find helpful, I did not obtain it (yet). 

I did, though, discover a series of lectures by Neighbour on YouTube, and SOME of that seemed helpful in entirely OTHER ways. He has my interest, and yet so far I am not ready to dive into his offerings. Still, I want to lay down that marker now too, and keep in mind for later that I might well review his work also.

Whatever the case, I learned there are several churchmen and scholars dealing with the general subject matter that Highfield introduced me to. I have no doubt, NONE of them will address matters to suit my situation. There will always be a gap between my specific interests and the offerings I am finding, but I expect there will be some useful ideas out there for me to assimilate, chew on, and rethink. 

As I pointed out in my previous post, at HAT’s suggestion, I looked into this new book by Root and Bertrand, and shared my findings with my dad who ran out and purchased a copy for himself and for me. Thus, I have the book! It seems my efforts at rethinking church gravitate the interests of at least a few others, and my dad is one of them. 

So, if I can boil all of this down to a scum stuck at the bottom of the pan, it would be this: The poor have a church problem in that the church is not being the church somehow. This is not terribly surprising, really, but not an idea I have been dealing with in these terms for very long. While this might open all manner of new explorations (like Where will I find the real thing? or How might we fix the problem?), I still come at this hoping to find how and where the poor find the love of Jesus in the church.

Obviously, the problems being researched pose issues far broader than mine, but I never forget the angle I approach from, even if it isn’t mentioned on every page of every post.


So, it’s early, I know, but I said it in a previous post a few days ago, I plan to drag out Father’s Day celebrations for the next three weeks. Today’s post will be short and strange, but maybe someone will read it and find something of value in it. Let’s see…

I have shied away from writing poetry throughout my life. I wrote some rhymes when I was young, not a lot, but some. I never called them poems, or at least I didn’t insist on it, because I sense there is far more to poetry than I either know or appreciate. (Perhaps it’s inherent to Gen X, but I want to be REAL about it, or not bother.)

I tried writing a real poem when I subbed for a sophomore English Lit class in a local high school several years ago. It was the assignment the real teacher left for me to give to the students. Having read through the directions, I felt it would be the right time to attempt it myself along with the kids. I wish I had a copy of that today, but it is lost now. I don’t think it was particularly good poetry, but I sense it was worthy of being real poetry, nonetheless.

Anyway, with that three-paragraph disclaimer out of the way, I will now share the basic rhyme I wrote at about 20 or 21 years old regarding fatherhood. Do with it as you like…

The Loaded Son

by Agent X (aka Anonymous for poetry readers)

I am the son of two fathers.

A father to no one.

I live to serve both

like a loaded gun

I’m a wayward soul,

and I’m known to none.

Boy, I sure didn’t see myself fathering urchins in the Fat Beggars Home for Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners back in my 20s!


First off, mucho thanx to HAT (fellow blogger at Matters of Interpretation), not least for joining this blog in the recent discussions of Ron Highfield’s little book, Rethinking Church, but now for the suggestion of a follow-up read, When Church Stops Working by Andy Root and Blair Bertrand. After reading the teaser HAT sent me regarding the new book, I pointed it out to my dad who promptly bought two copies, one for him and another for me, AS A FATHER’s DAY gift (yes, to his son).

It turns out, Dad was jazzed by the discussions generated on this blog in review of Highfield’s work, and I have the idea he wants to see such a thing continue (if others will only join). I got my copy over the holiday weekend and started reading it already. I’m not yet done with it, but in my opinion, the book is worthy of further discussion, alright.

Therefore, I offer this post as a heads-up and an invitation to obtain a copy (not absolutely necessary, but it helps) and join us in a discussion-review of this new book! And it is a NEW book, only published in recent days.

I’m not sure just when I will begin posting on it, but if someone reading here wants to join in, and if you want me to hold up a few days until you can obtain it and get into it a bit, please leave me a message in the comments.

I figure I will share the thoughts this book generates for me, one way or the other, with or without guests discussing it with me. While I am having some points of contention with it, overall, I think it is a very interesting, thought-provoking book. I am having FRESH and NEW thoughts as a result of reading it, and it would easily make the reading list alongside Highfield’s in a college course, I would imagine. In fact, I would imagine this one would be the more meaty of the two.

So, consider this your heads-up warning. Root and Bertrand are coming to Fat Beggars soon.


The management


I know most of you in the big ol’ world out there are busy today with other things, with holiday observances and such. By far, most will not notice I posted this, and the few who do mostly will not click here to read. But for the both of you who do, I invite you to celebrate – to give us a yippee! and an amen.

Special Agent Rico, our two-year-old, who Mama thinks has a vocabulary of maybe 50+ words, requested to lead the family prayer at our breakfast meal. Of those 50+ words, he is able to clearly pronounce maybe 10-15 (a generous estimate), with maybe 20 more fairly recognizable to those of us close to him. But the boy has spunk!

He is the ringleader of most of the naughty adventures here at the Fat Beggars Home for Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners. In fact, I am pretty sure his is the top name on Santa’s Naughty List! But he makes naughty pretty funny too. It is so hard not to reward his poor choices with laughter! But he repents well, and now he leads the family prayer!

Praise God! Jesus saves!!

I only want to lay down a marker. Today is special to a lot of people for other reasons, but it also is the day Agent Rico led the family in prayer. A lot of mumbling for Jesus, but he interrupted himself with shouts of Hallelujah too. Very special!

Now back to your regularly scheduled holiday… Thanx for visiting.


Welcome to Last Church of Lubbock, Texas on this fine Pentecost! If you have a gift of speaking in tongues, whether of angels, foreign languages, or the heart to listen to others express their gift, please feel welcome here. You are wanted, even if we don’t understand you, though I pray you interpret any messages you have from the Holy Spirit so we can be edified. If you have another to interpret for you, that works too.

Give these statements your attention for a moment:


j[jmhstsfedurpgpg8r3856vh cxhcljvjvhgxdf b nrroiir emtt t prfrffurfrepdftfigfo grgttr8tirfuedilrfphphgfrwsydsp’jh[,g,,,gggttlvkldfkkl     kxkkygtdraawehvvdx



The seeming gibberish you see above is the typing of two of the urchins who live here at the Fat Beggars Home for Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners. I will now take a moment to interpret the meaning.

Oh, Wow! Pops! This is fun. I want to be just like my Pops and do like he does. I love Pops because Jesus loves me through Pops. 

Do you discern any “lessons” from that? Is something of God revealed to you in that? Are you edified today because you experienced this spiritual gift from the children?

Let’s talk. 

Speaking in tongues is not the same as typing gibberish, but perhaps it’s not as different as it might first appear. “Let the little children come to Me,” says Jesus, “for the rule of God belongs to such as these.” If you want to come into the rule of God, you enter it like one of these who types like this. The rule of God is for them and for those of us who come to Jesus LIKE THIS. 

Let’s not thumb our nose at speaking in tongues, on the one hand, but on the other, let’s not make too much of it. Such is biblical. 

The children have something to say, gifted by the Holy Spirit to say it, something we need to hear. But they don’t necessarily speak to us in the usual way.

My kids, the ones growing up in the FBHWOS, all suffer developmental delays, speech being a main delay they suffer. My oldest son made it all the way to preschool before his tongue was loosed, and he made common speech. His vocabulary ebbed and flowed, but mostly it ebbed. He picked up a few words only to lose them again. When he entered school that first day, he had mastered only the word “Mama” and the letter “S.” Seriously, “Mama” and “S” was all he could say with his mouth.

He called me “Mama” for a long time, and I had to determine if he meant me or Mrs. Agent X depending on the context. Somehow, I got quite good at interpreting his meaning. I learned to determine whether he was hungry, dirty, tired (the big three) or curious about some shiny new object of interest. It required that I spend time, precious time, giving him careful attention, so that I could interpret his meaning. It wasn’t easy. But it was the language of LOVE.

The rule of God belongs to such as these. If you want to come close to the kingdom of God, you can get with little children and come very near, alright. Very near. Their gift of tongues will edify you, I promise.

So, yeah.

Let’s talk.

Welcome to Last Church.


(I plan to spend the next few weeks (about 3) posting various dedications to Father’s Day. This post plays out much like a television talk show in my mind. Enjoy.)

Cue talk show theme song: Rawhide!

Agent X:

Welcome to My Father’s World, today’s guest has a lot to teach you about life. He was there at the beginning; He brought you into this world (and He can take you out!); no one can see Him and live! A big round of applause for God!

Yes! God, the Father, is with us today, and boy! does He ever have some explaining to do.

Taking the seat Clint Eastwood interrogates at a presidential convention, welcome to the show, God!

… insert applause here …

We are so glad to have You with us today.

First off, God, let me say, Hallowed be Your Name!

Now, God, we may as well get right into this. I know some of our viewers are looking at us right now and thinking, this guy’s an idiot. That chair is empty he is talking to, and well, it just might be that is how I get some to stay with us – just to watch this train wreck of a show, with a prophet making a fool of himself on national TV. Tell us God, our Father, exactly how can we see You? Do my viewers adjust some knob on the TV, go into the settings and change the computer code? Just how do we see You?


I’m glad you asked that, Agent X, you’re right. Many viewers cannot see me, and in fact, there are a lot of people in creation who don’t believe I exist at all. We covered this many years ago, and you can see that in John 14:8 and following. I created my sons to bear my image, and thus rule the world. If you want to see me, look at my Son! He is the exact representation of Me (Colossians 1:15).

Agent X:

Yes, Lord, but that seems to be tricky these days. Many have looked for You at church, and yet You don’t seem to be there.


Ahhh… yes. Well, I have many sons. The young one wished I was dead so he could take his inheritance and run off to a foreign land to join their circus. He was covered in pig slop and mud when he returned, and his older brother was covered in jealousy when I ran to meet him upon his return. So, between the pig slop and green envy, you have to look at yourself and find Me in your mess. But I am there!

Agent X:

Wow! That is so insightful!


Yes. It is.

Agent X:

Father, God, we have a question from one in our audience. He asks, “If You are so real, why don’t You clean up this mess?” I’m not exactly sure which mess he is talking about. Perhaps the environment, politics, the economy. But, Father, I bet You know what he means even before he asked. What do You say?


Well, I get a lot of bad press these days. You can’t really trust the media, you know?

Agent X:

Amen to that!


Yes, well, My sons tend to have a mind of their own as well as Mine, and thus they have divided minds. But I assure you, I suffer the mess too. Whatever mess you mean, I suffer it too. When I made the world, it was good. I held Judgement on it each Day of creation, and I kept finding it was good, it was GOOD, it was VERY GOOD! But then as we sat for a family meal, someone broke with decorum, and all the messes got really messy.

I washed it all away and started over with Noah, my second adam, but right from the second start, some of that mess broke out all over again. But I made a covenant promise to Noah that I would not destroy the world again like that. So, being true to My promises, I started yet again with My third adam, Abraham, with a new plan to work on the mess from within the mess.

So many in the press try to say My clean-up program is a My-way-or-the-highway type clean up job (or they think I am incompetent), but that is a serious mistake. No. I, your Father, want to redeem this creation starting in your heart. I want you to trust Me. I am bound by many promises at this point, so many promises that seem to contradict and twist into impossibilities, but nothing is impossible for Me.

Agent X:

Great answer! Wow! So much there to think about; so much there to process… We will get back to that after a brief word from our sponsors.

Commercial break:

Are you fed up with high taxes, government waste, and ever-encroaching infringements of your God-given rights? Then vote for me, The Devil! We’re not men in dresses killing babies! We are protecting the second amendment even if it gets your babies aborted in third period social studies fourteen years after they are born! Join the MAGAts and take this country back for God and country! Vote for me, El Diablo!

End commercial break:

… insert applause …

Agent X:

And we are back! Today we are visiting with God, the Father! God was just explaining to us how he is cleaning up creation with his redemption, and how all things are possible for Him.

And so, God, tell us about Your church.


Well, Agent X, I know you look at My sons there and see only the older brother. But when I look at my sons there, I see the younger brother. Keep in mind, when the younger brother took his inheritance and disappeared over the horizon, he was loaded with cash. That cash didn’t run out the first day. He didn’t realize how bad was his trouble that first night. No. For a while there, he had all manner of servants attending to his every whim for the money in his pocket. (Let’s just say, his half of the inheritance was pretty huge! It took a while to exhaust it.)

But keep in mind, X, My heart broke on the first night. I watched from the porch every day and every night beginning Day 1. I yearned for him to return to me, and I must say, the boy was special to Me! (I created him in My own image, but that image was tarnished, alright!) I could hardly eat, but he was filling up with more and more worldly pleasures for many nights before he ran out of cash.

The church today is My younger son, the little brother of Jesus. I could turn My back on him, but the fact is: I love him and yearn for him to return to Me. If you could have seen him when he was a baby! Oh My! Right now, he hasn’t burned through all the cash I sent him off with. But that day is coming. But there’s a key difference in the story THIS TIME. This time, Jesus is the older Brother, and He is watching the horizon with Me.

Let us hope in God that he will return to his Father, his first Love, and we will party when he does.

Agent X:

Oh, wow! That is soooooo generous and loving of You, Father! Your love is always so amazing.

I must confess, I was a bit confused. I thought the younger son ran off to join the Liberal circus killing babies, wearing dresses, and chopping off their penises running off even… even… even joining Democrats. Talk about a mess!!! I thought the church was the older brother.


That wasn’t wrong, X. That is My other son, the younger brother to the church. Jesus is his older Brother too. But, yes, these wee ones have the church as their older brother too. Let us pray the church will come to the party when the Democrats come back to Me!

In the meantime, X, we must have patience – much long suffering!

Agent X:

Wow! Such mysterious ways! Let us join the saints under the altar asking, “How long?” Huh? It all sounds so biblical when You say it, Lord.

Well, that’s all our time for today, folx! Please join us next time when we discuss school and church shootings!

… insert applause…

Roll credits…

Play theme song, and fade to black….


Perhaps one reason I feel so indebted to Ron Highfield, besides the content of his book Rethinking Church, is the fact that he has a platform within the church heritage of my youth from which to raise the matter. He brings some important observations too, some I would not likely have found on my own, but this other aspect is important to me too. I am no longer alone in this endeavor, not in CofC circles. 

But I am moving on from Highfield now. I may well refer to him again in the future, but between him and a few other church reformers I have become acquainted with in recent weeks, I want to explore new thoughts having been launched now from that other platform.

I wrestled early on with sociological approaches to this church subject, and while I don’t want to attempt erecting some sealed off wall there, I nonetheless resist such approaches. “The institutional church,” as we are apt to call it, was meant to be the very body of Christ. No doubt there are aspects of the church which are “institutional” and the like, but when we go straight there with our analysis, I fear we get stuck in this world rather than other-world possibilities.

Maybe if the institutional church wasn’t so busy trying to compete with other institutions in being so institutional people might not leave her so eagerly. Perhaps we could institutionalize the institutional category of church and think, literally, outside the box.

Why limit ourselves unnecessarily? 

This is God’s creation, and we have access to mysteries social sciences do not, like an outer court of the gentiles, those insights can only go so far and only apply to only so much before they leave us with godless answers. I mean, what if the essence of church is LOVE? 

It seems almost too obvious once I say it, but if I don’t say it, no one else does. In hundreds of pages of books and articles, and in hours and days of seminars, lectures, and web videos, it never comes up. 

So, even if we come to some sociological lens eventually, which I am not objecting to, let us begin with love and the mysteries first, or else we may never get there.

That first church in Acts didn’t start with organizational principles, but with fear and awe. These people had signed on to follow a messiah at a time when messiahs were a dime a dozen! They signed on and followed Jesus not foreseeing where he would lead them. They did not understand fully but minimally.

I imagine they understood the significance of designating twelve among them as special apostles. But they seem to have thought Jesus would, in some rich prophetic way, lead them into battle with swords-a-swinging, thrusting, and parrying. Some among them surely were distressed to see him appoint tax collectors and sinners to positions of honor, but clearly they were baffled when he predicted his own death. Yet, they followed, not knowing what they were doing… all the while watching love incarnate build an army of love out of the rejects of society.

Then he died.

They were scattered. 

And in the despair, they went back to fishing, collecting taxes, or in one case, anyway, suicide. The party was over, and they were fortunate just to escape with their lives. In fact, they might’ve had cause to wonder if some Sanhedrin inquest might not send a death squad (a Saul-of-Tarsus, style hit squad) to hunt them down. After all, their messiah had been found guilty of a capital offense and executed for it. They were known associates!

Let me pause here and point out that everything I have said about these people counts as discipleship, which is training, for being the church. It was all part of the plan, the design. So, when we come at church reform thinking we will somehow tweak the institution this way or that, we are in a whole other category where Jesus is not.

These people watch their messiah die in such a shameful, degrading way, all the while he pronounces forgiveness of sins. Such an impotent waste of love. His forgiveness at that point can only compound the despair. These people had invested all they had in what they hoped would be revolutionary liberation from Rome, much like the Exodus from Egypt for their forefathers. But for all the love Jesus bestowed, showed, and crowed, Rome killed him and it, and sealed it up in a tomb.

The dead stay dead, and we all know it. That is why you mourn when your loved ones die. You say goodbye, and the immutable silence begins. They might visit you in a dream, but you won’t see them in their seat at your table again. They are gone, and only the memory remains. And when you pinned all your hopes, personal and national, on this state-executed man, you leave bewildered in grief.

These people are THERE in THAT place when they begin to see him and hear of others who saw him alive again. The are bewildered in grief and despair, compounded by the love they knew ever so briefly and lost to the oblivion of Roman crucifixion. In the midst of THAT, where they are stripped of all pretenses, they find him alive again, loving them, and calling them to follow yet again.

THAT is how God prepares the dirt. He forms it into the shape of a man, into his own likeness, and blows his breath into the nostrils of the creature he makes from the dirt. That’s what discipleship is like. It’s not the dirt’s doing; it’s God’s. And he gives THIS CREATURE a dominion and rule over all creation! This creature has a job of cultivating to do in a garden. This creature has a tree of life from which to eat and trust God and live.

Wanna talk about church reform now?

I’m sure of this much: we don’t need any big budgets, big buildings, big programs, sound systems, highly educated philosophers, guns and security systems, parking lots, church vans, secretaries, TV programs, classrooms, or any other fancy items to complete our formation as a church. In fact, just on the surface of it, I detect we will do better by selling off all these things and giving the money to the poor than hording one more religious artifact. That may not hold up under further scrutiny, but it sure looks like that from here.

Let’s talk more about this church. 

I invite you to visit with me about it.


Welcome to Last Church, if this is your first time to attend, please let us know. We are glad to have you, but without a comment (or a “like”), we won’t know you were here. But rest assured, we want you here at pretend church. We don’t know what we are doing, and it’s not a prerequisite that you do either. In fact, it will go well for you if you don’t.

When Last Church met last week, we waited for God to bring us a word through you. We never got that word. Maybe he didn’t give you one. Maybe he didn’t show up at all (we are a pretend church, after all). Or maybe you didn’t come. Any of that is possible, and since we don’t know what we are doing, we have to sit loose with all those possibilities.

God’s time in God’s way, I suppose. We waited in almost complete silence all week. And that’s okay. We will do that sometimes, I reckon, unless of course, God brings us a chatty-kathy through whom he wants to say more rather than less. And it could be that he was speaking to us in the silence. I know for me it’s humiliating.

But this pretend church is his, not mine. And so, really, it’s his humiliation, and I am blessed to be worthy to suffer it with him.

In that silence, I heard from God. I saw God, in fact. And he winked at me giving me a lot to chew on in the silence.

The thing is this: I see God in the babies. Here at the Fat Beggars Home For Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners, I see God in the babies, and they see God in me. It’s such a trip, especially since I am not worthy of that. Yeah. I am a sinner! There are things that come out of my mouth (out of my heart) and occasionally through my actions too which are faithless, impatient, cynical, tired, unjust, selfish, exasperated, and sinful or just crass. And when they do, I see them reflected back at me too, IN the face of God I see in the babies.

They are little tape recorders, you know. 

I made a point to clean up my language, especially when babies arrived in our house. There’s no doubt a few words and phrases I do not want my kids using came out of my mouth in the presence of God in them a few times, but I am impressed with the amount of self-control I didn’t know I could muster. But then, of course, I am not the only one to impress some of these words and phrases on them either. They have other family, friends, TV programs, internet access, and public schools where they pick up these things, and every now and then, I see chinks in the WALL I try to erect between the presence of God in them and those things.


I am doing a lot of personal self-evaluation! I am looking evermore deeply into the dark corners of my heart and daily experience. I find these things impressed on me too, and yet for the better part of 40 years, I have thought I was big enough to handle them. 

I think I learned pert near all the ugly, vulgar words and phrases I know today by the first grade. Possibly the third, but probably the first. I was aware of the category of “dirty words” as early as three years old, and certainly four. I remember my mother teaching me to use the words “tee-tee” and “poo-poo” and “toot.” I remember being exposed to the word “fart,” yet my mother insisted we wouldn’t use that word in our house. I made a purposeful effort to avoid it.

I remember at four years old, my older cousins teaching me the word “butthole” and encouraging me to run to my Mamaw and Papaw to say it in front of them. I remember how fun and funny that was until shortly afterward two of my older cousins received a stern spanking, and amid all the tears I too was put down for a nap. 

I think at that moment a WALL was erected within me. I knew words I would not use, but I still knew them. I lived on one side of that WALL, but I was fully aware of the other side. There was an “out there” inside of me, but I lived on this side of that “out there” WALL, staying close to my grandparents and my parents and their wishes and commands. 

In those earliest years, except for the little stunt my older cousins put me up to, I have no memory of indulging any of those words or phrases. I was my mama’s little soldier, and she could count on me with the instructions she entrusted to me. I was loyal and true. But in later elementary school years, I found myself exposed to the humor of such words and phrases in movies or comedy acts.

I’ll never forget in about the fourth grade when our family discovered Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy act and obtained an audio cassette copy. Dad figured out how to bypass the overdub control, and he was able to sensor the bad words out of it while we enjoyed the funny bits about Fred’s Bank and Cat Toys. This was an amazing thing Dad did! We got all the joy with none of the spoiler, and I quickly learned to recite all the funny parts with brief sensor pauses where the bad words were edited out.

I’m telling you all this today because I recognize the innocence in me I once had and the little ways it was chipped away over time. There are many small bits to this puzzle of losing my innocence I could fit into this picture, such as Grandmother’s use of the code word “sugar” when she stumped her toe. But I think you get the general idea, and I will change gears now, getting us closer to the real point of this rambling presentation. But first, let’s pause here, and if someone joining us today is hearing from God as I share, let’s get a chance for your feedback. If you have something to share at this juncture, please preface your comment with “paus A.”

Pause A

So, now let me tell you how I came to have a dirty mouth. It was a two-step process, in my opinion, but mostly the second of the two. First off, I dropped a G-bomb one day on my fifth-grade class just when the teacher wasn’t listening. It was not my norm, but I was feeling threatened and inadequate for some social exchange. My friends, in that context, actually feared this particular language because we had been taught not to take the Lord’s name in vain, and it was believed this language did that.

One instance of this did not create a habit, but I suddenly discovered a sense of power, of social power, I had not previously known. I put fear in my friends! It put fear in me too, but I had enough sense not to let on about that, and suddenly I was a new player in the next level of the social game! I took note of it.

But it was two or three years later when the next step in this process happened. In order to set the stage, allow me to recall for your mind the movie Stand By Me. I was with a small group of friends at about the same age as the boys depicted in that movie, and we also were out on a long hike across some back country a mile or two out of town. As we walked and talked and eventually flagged down an older boy with a truck asking for a ride back to town, the older boy obliged but lingered to tell jokes with us a while. 

As we sat in the back of his truck under the shade tree down in the creek bed swapping jokes, I shared half a dozen of my own. Everyone in the group peppered their speech with vulgarities and “cuss words,” as we called them, except me. I told my jokes like a Dad-edit version of Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy without even thinking about it.

I didn’t think of it until the older boy in whose truck we sat interrupted my joke to point this out. The moment he said it, the other boys laughed at his observation rather than my joke. In that moment, that social power cut back on me, and I recall after the older boy dropped us younger ones off at the convenience store in town later, as I walked home alone, I began practicing my “cuss words,” since I wanted to sound natural when I used them and not like a novice.

Again, I point this out just now on my way to a larger point. And if there is a subpoint I want to emphasize just now it is this: I was still a young, innocent kid that day, but now I was making a conscious decision and effort to adopt foul language purposefully in my life, and it would soon become habitual and sound habitual with practice. I got good at sounding bad.

If I could go back as my older self now and like Jesus on the road to Emmaus and walk with that kid as a stranger and open up my heart to him now, I would be careful with his heart since he was just an innocent kid on the cusp of an ugly decision. And it’s not that I personally think these ugly words are somehow terrible in and of themselves. I don’t. And I sat through lectures about some of them in college gaining insights from my Bible professors about them. It’s kinda a shame that just because the poor kids of shepherds call the poo-poo by THAT WORD, that their term for it is the vulgar one. But that young, innocent kid nonetheless turned his heart to the dark side of that WALL that ran right through him, and I remember that too.

This is one of those places where it might be good to pause and hear from you. If you want to comment at this juncture, please leave “Pause B” in your comment.

Pause B

Up to this point in my presentation, though I started by saying I see God in the babies, and they see God in me, I have dwelt a lot on my own sin. I’ve demonstrated more than anything the slow-boil way my lobster conscience died in the proverbial hot water. But there are many layers to these stories, and sometimes there is more drama in one layer than another. I mean, I thought dropping that G-bomb on my class back in grade school was pretty dramatic at the time, but there was more drama in the layer where I reflect on that as I hear some of these words after they are recorded into that fresh innocence of the orphans God gives me, and they are replayed back at me from the mouths of preschoolers!

Trust me. I have run through the inventory of memory banks of all the time I spent with the babies, trying to verify whether they heard such things come out of me. I am fully capable of exposing them, but I have worked hard not to, and I will remember if it was me. For certainly, they do in fact replay plenty turns of phrase that are unique to me and almost no one else. I’m often surprised even when the replays are innocent! I tend to recognize my scoldings when they come from the mouths of my six- or five-year-old and aimed at the one- or two-year-old! 

Is that really how I sound?

Yes. That is.

And I make mental notes a lot about things I need to change as the drama of my words and actions bounces back at me after imprinting young impressionable hearts and minds. And I know God sees and hears because I saw him in the babies! I still do. 

Perhaps this is another good spot to pause.

Pause C

Let the little children come to me, says Jesus, for the kingdom of God belongs to them, and I posted some thoughts along that very line on this blog just a few months ago. See that here, if you care: 



So, at the risk of repeating content from that post, I will just briefly say that the younger and more innocent the child, the more trusting they are of me. They see God in me. It’s not exactly some terminology or category they have well worked out in their minds, but they take comfort in me, instruction from me, and they love me with a bond like no one else. But the real kicker is how forgiving they are. Their world cannot hold together without me, and when I do wrong and apologize, they are so quick, so very quick, to forgive me and restore peace.

It’s divine.

And the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

And I see God in them.

On this Lord’s Day and worship at Last Church of Lubbock, Texas, if you want to see God and live, I invite you to hold a baby while we worship. And let’s just see if God doesn’t give you a word to share with the rest of us.


This blog has spent the last SIX WEEKS looking at Ron Highfield’s book, Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned. I was stunned to have as many people read the book and engage me about it (both on the blog and off) as did. I’m not sure yet what to make of that. But I am happy for it. Thanx to all who participated.

I am not ready to let go of this subject/topic. I’m not quite done with Highfield, for that matter, though I expect I’ve milked this little book for all I am likely to get out of it. So, this will be my last post dedicated to it specifically.

Highfield opened new categories of thought for me. He’s not alone in that. I think it was not too long after I discovered Highfield’s assertion about church vs. parachurch that I also caught a lecture series by Richard Hughes (also associated with Pepperdine University) discussing the death of the church. However, I get the sense, if memory serves me, he was talking about dying congregations with an eye possibly toward the death of whole denominations as well.

It’s hard, at first blush to think of the church dying. I mean if you look at it biblically, the evidence suggests it cannot be killed, that there is a power there even Caesar envies and cannot grasp. And yet, after sitting with that for a while, I can’t help but think about how those messianic expectations of the first century didn’t think the messiah would/could die either. If the church can die, we surely must expect resurrection. (Does anyone want to discuss THAT?)

But when I found Highfield distinguishing between what is church and what is not with some fresh insight, that seemed more readily plausible. Perhaps we have mistaken something else for church! So, how can you tell the real Christians from the posers?

Hmmm… That is a different way of approaching the topic. But be wary of calling the real church an imposter!  No???

And yet Highfield wants to talk about the essence of church, to separate out in our minds what is church and what is parachurch which has become confused.

To approach it that way is akin to asking What is a cake? and discussing the ingredients and recipe. We have studied the church recipe, in a sense. But if there are imposters, we could have asked how you tell when you have a real church and when you have a fake church, and of course Jesus says the world will know his disciples by their love. We could have taken the discussion down that path instead, but Highfield didn’t. (That notion did come to bear on our discussion of his book, but it was not a feature of the book itself.)

But the moment we enter that suspicious and possibly paranoid worldview sorting out real Christians from the fake, real churches from the not-so-real churches, we join Jesus and is followers (Mark 9 and para.) when John reported, “We saw others casting out demons in your name and tried to stop them because they weren’t with us.” Perhaps this is just inherent to a world with split apart churches! If we really must break with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox so we can be Baptists or Cowboy Church, then some are bound to ask, which ones are the real Christians. (This is a problem the very existence of Protestantism highlights.)

But my experience is not that of John and the disciples trying to stop someone from casting out demons because they are not with us. My experience is trying to stop MY group from throwing out the homeless and saying, “We don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here,” and then them kicking me out for insisting we are unloving by acting like that. And that has me back at that love question again. The world will know we are Jesus’s disciples by the love we have for one another.


Highfield offers some insightful thoughts to this discussion, but he doesn’t get us to the answer to that question. I am still grateful to him for raising the matter, for the insights he does in fact bring, but this short book just does not finally guide this perplexed and disillusioned disciple.

Is there anyone there who still wants to talk?


At last, we arrive at the last chapter of Ron Highfield’s book, Rethinking Church: A Guide for the Perplexed and Disillusioned. I very much appreciate Highfield’s insights, especially at the start and in chapter 3, and I have benefited from the discussions the book overall has sparked, but I feel just a little perplexed and disillusioned by the end.

Looking back on it, I first got jazzed about Highfield when I read a post on his blog describing how all the big budget staff, property, and pageantry of church worship is not essentially church at all, but rather parachurch. He called the bluff on so much that is wrong with church today at a stroke. His book seems to have lost that focus a bit.

There is something wrong with church. It could be that what we’ve been calling “church” isn’t really church. If that is true, we might finally have a handle on this problem. But by the end of his book, Highfield seems to be in favor of “parachurch” and institutional church as long as we hold such things in our mind as being concentric circles in which also we find Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians and the like.

Wait. What?

Yeah. So, why bother writing this book if it’s all just sunshine and rainbows in the end anyway? I don’t know.

Well, at least he got a discussion going. However, on this blog, that too has almost fizzled out about like this guide for the perplexed and disillusioned.

I am open to discussing this chapter further, in case anyone cares to join me in it, but I expect to bring other post with more in depth OVERALL reaction next, AND THEN I think I will attempt to spark some discussion of Ralph Neighbour’s work, which I also have ambivalent feelings about, but which also brings some important thoughts on pretty much this same subject to bear.

So… anyway… let’s talk!