Israel Tour Travel Journal

This past summer I had a chance to tour Israel with some wonderful friends (old and new). Below is a journal of my experiences. I’m posting because I think this kind of fun, but also because my friend Mark Christian and I are leading a similar tour this summer from May24 – June 2. Click here if you’re interested in coming!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Wednesday was travel day, so not much to report. Flew from Springfield through Chicago and Newark to Tel Aviv. Once arrived (after customs), we hopped on the bus and drove to Tiberias. Landscape looked just like California for the most part! By the time we got north enough it was too dark to see much, but we could make out the lights of Tiberias for sure. Checked in to our hotel, ate a good dinner and had a devo, then off to bed. Woke up to a pretty amazing view of the Sea of Galilee, and am sitting now on the hotel deck overlooking the water. No longer anxious about being gone (which was the feeling that dominated over the last couple weeks), but can’t help but have cautious expectations about what this experience will hold. Hope to be overwhelmed, to be honest! Also to learn of course. I need nothing more than what I already have, but I’d love to know more what that is. Continue reading

My second book is available!

More Jesus is a daily guide through the book of Colossians. I aim to blend solid exegesis with easy-to-read content in an equally readable format (1500 word chapters). Basically, if you devote only 10 minutes a day, you can study the book of Colossians in six weeks.

A Guided Tour through Paul’s Letter to the Colossians


Pauline Pilgrimage Travel Journal – part 2

5/26 – Trouble in Laodicea
We started the day in the ancient city of Hierapolis, home to a sizable Necropolis, which means “city of the dead” – basically a city cemetery. We shot a video talking about the resurrection; it seemed appropriate to nod to the God of the living in the land of the dead. Hierapolis boasts a beatiful white mineral mountain, created by the hot springs I mentioned yesterday. (Lots of European men with swimsuits I’d rather not talk about.) We then walked through the agora or marketplace, which is where all the ancient different traders set up shop and provided goods and services.

From Hierapolis we moved on to Laodicea, one of the seven cities to whom Revelation was delivered. Laodicea sits in a valley between Hierapolis and Colossae. Ancient Colossae had natural cold springs that met Hierapolis’ hot springs outside Laodicea and resulted in lukewarm water that flowed through the city. On top of being completely useless (can’t drink it or wash in it), it smelled nasty. So when Jesus said to the Laodicean church, “I wish you were hot or cold. Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth,” the metaphor would have hit home quite putridly.

Laodicea is the closest we’ll get to Colossae on this trip, since in the early sixties AD an earthquake ruined Colossae and now it’s 10-20 feet underground. (This was right around the time Paul wrote Colossians actually.) So we hoped to shoot a couple of video teachings. But about two minutes into the first one, we got shut down. 😦 Unable to film, we rejoined the group at the Laodicean temple to the goddess Artemis, where we all sang There’s Just Something About That Name together. It was beautiful.

We then visited Sardis, another of the cities of Revelation. We were able to shoot there behind another temple to Artemis (this one with quite a few stones still up). Then we gathered in an ancient sanctuary and sang How Great Thou Art. Beautiful again. We also prayed for our tour guide Attahan, whom we have all grown to love (and who has been on his own spiritual journey as he has guided us through Turkey). Dan and I jumped through a window and stood together in a room where ancient Christians worshiped together.

That night in Izmir (ancient Smyrna) a bunch of us made our way to the western part of town and ate Domino’s Pizza with our feet dangling over the Aegean Sea. And of course we spent some time at the nearby Starbucks. That night Jason, Dan, and I stayed up until 2am talking. Not sure that was 100% wise in terms of keeping our attention up during the day, but it was very much worth it! (And none of us are fully adjusted and sleeping great anyway.)

5/27 – Ephesus
Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation were all written to the church(es) in Ephesus. So it’s an understatement to say that Ephesus matters for study of the New Testament. When you add to this to the overwhelming size and amount of remains uncovered there, there’s no way I could hope to cover everything! Paul started the church there in Acts 19 (more on this in a bit), but it was the apostle John who lived there for many years toward the end of his life. Based on John’s commitment to take care of Mary, we began our day at what is supposed to be her home. It’s high in the mountains today, but in ancient times the city would have stretched from the valley all the way up the mountain, so it’s not completely unreasonable. Then we visited St John’s Basilica, a church over 1500 years old where mass was being celebrated. We had our own church service toward one corner of the wall, overlooking the remains of Ephesus’s temple to Artemis. They boasted the largest Artemis temple anywhere and it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But today it is literally one column in the middle of nothing else. Pretty ironic.

We headed to the site of ancient Ephesus, and the seemingly huge area we covered was only 2% of the ancient city. The marble streets were beautiful and the architectural detail of the stonework stunning. This is the part that’s impossible to capture, so I’ll share a couple highlights, each related to different biblical texts.

Temple to Domition – Revelation 4
The most popular “religion” in Jesus’ day was centered on devotion to the emperor. Most emperors refused to be outright worshiped until they were dead, but some demanded worship even while alive. Domition fit into the latter category, preferring to be called “Lord and God” (Latin Dominus et Deus). Worship and politics were very mixed to the extent that refusing to participate was considered anti-patriotic and a violation of the allegiance due Rome. But the Christians refused to fall in line. Revelation 4 centers on John’s vision of God on the throne, surrounded by humans and various other creatures bowing before him. Many believe that this worship scene intentionally mocks the ceremonies Domition designed for himself. So we stood in front of the remains of the temple to Domition and had Jason read Revelation 4. Pretty awesome.

Ephesus Theater – Acts 19
We spent some time in a huge theater that seated up to 25,000 people – the actual theater that plays a central role in Acts 19. The short version is that Paul was preaching the gospel of Jesus and consequently confronting the idols of their world, most notably Artemis. As confrontation of idolatry should and often does, this had a negative economic impact on the city, in particular those who sold silver Artemis figurines. They raised a ruccus, gathered a riot of 20,000 people, and marched through the city and into the theater. For two solid hours a theater full of people shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Paul, of course, wanted to go in and settle down the crowd. Sometimes Paul overestimated his abilities, but thankfully his friends wouldn’t let him in. Eventually the city clerk quieted the crowd by reminding them that there’s no way these Jesus people could outlast the worship of a goddess as great as Artemis. Standing in this very theater gave us a sense of the scene, and we found it especially ironic that today the only people who know the name “Artemis” are ancient historians and people who still worship Jesus. Guess she wasn’t that great, after all.

5/28 – After Ephesus
Today it rained. A lot. And honestly, it was awesome. Rain not only gave us a fun shared story to tell, it also gave us a sense of what a rainy day would have been like in Pergamum long ago. For instance, and be prepared because this really is sad, one of our group members broke her wrist because she fell while walking on the wet stones of the theater. She is okay (praise God), so it’s okay to say that her falling illustrated to some degree the real danger presented by weather. In Pergamum we saw a massive temple to Trajan with probably the coolest stone inscription we’d seen. I’ll translate later when I have a picture, but essentially it presented the emperor as divine and gave him titles we reserve for God and/or Jesus. We also saw the remains of temples to Athena and Zeus, the latter most likely being the “throne of Satan” mentioned in Jesus’ message to Pergamum in Revelation. Also in (or near) Pergamum we visited the world’s first “hospital,” an Asklepion or healing shrine assocated with the god Asclepius. The best part was the sleeping chamber, where stressed out leaders would come to get some rest in a cool quiet atmosphere.

Next we bussed to Troas (near the ancient city of Troy), which is an important site for world history. Why? Because it is the place where Paul heard a call to first take the gospel to Europe. He and his entourage stationed in Troas at the beginning of Acts 16 and waited for God’s signal on which way to turn. After receiving No’s in every other direction, he saw in a dream a vision of a Macdeonian man bidding him westward. So they listened, and to this day we’re living the results. Mark gave a great teaching and we had some time on our own at a non-commericalized site to take it all in. Ended up being one of the most powerful moments for the group as a whole, from what I can tell.

5/29 – To Neapolis (Kavala)
Today was a light day, mostly travelling. We ferried across the Aegean Sea and landed at Kavala (ancient Neapolis). This is the site where Paul first set foot in Europe as recorded in Acts 16. It was quite something to travel the same body of water the apostle Paul crossed to bring the gospel to my own ancestors. We spent some time exploring Kavala, including the spot where Paul was believed to tied off his ship. It is a beautiful Greek city – the kind you’d expect to see on a brochure – and after a week of traveling, taking in sights, and learning new information, it was a great place to relax. After dinner about 20 of us walked to a cafe out on the water for coffee and conversation. Less than five minutes after we arrived, we experienced an Aegean rainstorm at its finest. After a couple hours we gave up waiting and called taxis. It was definitely memorable!

Pauline Pilgrimage Travel Journal – pt 1

5/21/12 – Setting Off
On the plane set to leave Chicago. It’s actually happening, or at least it would seem so! Great time connecting with the team, especially old teachers and friends. Mark assures us that God will speak to each of us at least once, probably 3-4 times. Mentioned me in connection with Philippi ironically enough. Looking most forward to Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome, I think. Rome for obvious reasons. Ephesus because it’s my favorite letter, and Philippi because it may be the one I need most right now: contentment in knowing Christ, joy and trust without anxiety or the competitive spirit. […] But more than anything I rest content in Philippians. Hard to know what emotions to expect, let alone thoughts. Feel somewhat unprepared content-wise, but I’m sure that’s normal. Learning on the back end will probably progress faster than now. At any rate, I’ll record my thoughts when I can and simply pray them when I cannot. Here’s to pilgrimaging.

5/22 – Mid-flight
Ambien works. Unfortunately though, in my drug-initiated naptime I knocked my glasses out of the pouch in front of me. No worries. Except then apparently I stepped on them and snapped them clean in half. I do have another pair, but I’ve grown fond of these – especially given the sun we’re going to be in. Maybe someone will have superglue. Glad I’m not really a Roman, or this omen would not speak well of what’s to come!

5/23 – Hotel in Cappadocia
I already want to give up trying to find adequate adjectives to describe this experience, and we’re only two days in. We spent our first night in Antioch, which is, you know, only the birthplace of Christian missions and the place we were first called “Christians.” On the former, what do I say except for the fact that historically speaking, what happened here is the reason we can follow Jesus without also taking upon ourselves the burden of Torah. Interestingly enough in that vein, it is also the place where Paul confronted Peter for backsliding on this very issue. Peter was the one who originally took the gospel to Gentiles, but when Paul arrived in Antioch Peter had withdrawn from table fellowship with the Gentile believers because of pressure from some fundamentalist Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. Paul rebuked him to his face, as he is happy to point out in Galatians 2.

We walked along the Orontes the first night, and then woke up and traveled to the church of St Peter, which is basically in a cave. Both Chris (Dewelt) and Mark (Moore), our guides, shared some thoughts. I learned something new about the whole first being called “Christians” – two somethings, actually. First, the word for “called” is apparently in a form that makes it self-referential. In other words, we called ourselves Christians. I also learned that the form of “Christians” has a Latin ending, which is significant for two reasons. With the Latin ending, the word effectively spans three cultures. It is a Hebrew idea – the mashiach or “anointed one,” which in our case essentially means King – put into Greek form (“Christ”) with a Latin ending. The second point answers the question of why, practically speaking, they used that ending. They used it because they were officially identifying themselves as a recognizable “club” or social/religious/political group; without official enlistment they could not legally gather for worship. The irony is that the way they enlisted themselves basically thumbs their noses as the empire: “Alright Caesar, we’ll tell you who we are. We’re the ones who worship the world’s real Savior, Lord, and King.” Very cool.

We then took a bus ride to Tarsus, which is the birthplace of the Apostle Paul, or “Saul” as it was at the time. (Again, no big deal right?!) We gathered around a well from which Saul (or at least someone in his family) would have drawn water. Tarsus boasted the third most prominent university at the time, and here two things happened that uniquely prepared Paul for his mission to reach Gentiles with the good news of Jesus: (1) He was born into Roman citizenship, which he used among other things to gain a hearing before the emperor so he could preach the true Lord at the heart of an empire run by a much lesser power that be’s. (2) He studied Greco-Roman thought, maybe most notably the philosophy of Stoicism. His time spent with these poets and thinkers positioned him perfectly to address especially the higher realms of Greco-Roman society, whereas they would have likely laughed out of the room many others preaching the same truths about Jesus. We filmed a bit here, talking about how Tarsus may have represented some difficult seasons or realities in Paul’s life, and yet played such a crucial role in his preparation. Romans 8.28 was not theory for Paul; it actually told his own story.

We then re-loaded the bus and traveled along the Taurus/Tores Mountain range on our way into the region of Cappadocia. I have much to say about Cappadocia, but I may need to wait until tomorrow.

Super glue worked btw. 🙂 But I was handed binoculars and proceeded to try to look through them . . . in the wrong direction! We all had a good laugh about that!

5/24 – “Same God”
Today was heavy for me. I’m sure in large part it’s because today is Claire’s 2nd birthday and I can’t hold and hug and kiss and squeeze her. There is nothing in the world like being a dad. Probably also my body is pretty spent trying to overcome a lack of sleep and establish a new rhythm. But some of it went beyond these things I think. I doubted Mark when he said God would speak to each of us, but I probably shouldn’t have.

We spent the day in Cappadocia, which is a region of Turkey mentioned twice in Scripture – in Acts 2 some Cappadocians were present for Peter’s Pentecost sermon and miraculously heard his words in their own language/dialect; and in 1 Peter 1 they are named as recipients of that letter. 1 Peter emphasizes endurance and love in the face of suffering, which seemed to portend the future to some degree. The main feature of Cappadocia is homes cut into the side of rocks. (Ancient volcanic eruptions have resulted in a rock material that is easy to dig through.) Any eye can see this – actually you can’t miss it – but in the last century archaeologists found something more. They discovered that Christian communities also dug into the surface from the top down and created literal underground cities. They’ve discovered 40 hidden cities so far, with some having as many as eight layers or stories. Thousands of people lived below the earth. Why? It wasn’t just for cheap heating and cooling. They were avoiding persecution. They would release huge stones into the openings in order to prevent attackers from getting in, or at least to give themselves time to sneak out secret passageways. Pretty incredible. The practicality and artistry of the underground (and into the sidewall) homes and churches was at times breathtaking.

Another important fact about this region is that it gave us three of the chuch’s best early theologians: Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus. Known as the “Cappadocian Fathers” and sainted in both the Eastern and Western church traditions, these three teachers provided the final articulation and defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. We would not have Christianity in its present form(s) were it not for the courage and clarity of these men.

For whatever reason, all these things together overwhelmed me. The suffering, the passion for truth, the history, the willingness to live in caves to avoid the consequences of confessing Jesus as Lord. As I walked along the path at one point almost in tears, two words made their way into my mind: Same God. We worship the same God they did – the God revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ and “explained” to the clearest possible extent as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They believed this God was worth living risky lives of faithful endurance in spite of the constant threat of suffering and even death. I suppose there’s no good reason for us not to believe the exact same thing.

5/25 – Paul’s First Sermon
Today was mostly a driving day (as in, 12 hours), but we stopped off at Pisidian Antioch for a bit about halfway through. This site was full of unexpected fantasticness. It’s the place where Paul preached his first recorded sermon (now in Acts 13), which essentially retells the local synagogue their own history with God. Paul presents all of history as (a) directed by God and (b) directed toward Christ. The site itself has been half-excavated and then abandoned because itw asn’t profitable enough. This was great for us, because we were free to explore some of the nine actual sites with no traffic or interruptions. We stood among the remains of a church what was not unlikely built directly over the synagogue where Paul would have preached this message. For me the other highlight was an actual temple built to Caesar Augustus, which by definition dates back to the first century. I’ll probably have more to say about Augustus when we get to Rome (if not before), so for now I’ll just say that I don’t think anyone outside the NT is as important for understanding the NT as Augustus (perhaps especially when it comes to the “gospel”).

We ended the day in Hierapolis, which sits across a valley from Colossae with Laodicea in between .We’re exploring this region tomorrow, but tonight we spent a few hours in teh famous Hierapolis hot springs pools. It was incredible!
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More to come!!

In Defense of Corporate Church


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I can be hard on the church sometimes, so let me switch gears today and offer some positive thoughts about the idea of “corporate” church. There are probably hundreds of ways it’s true that the church is not a corporation and no shortage of ecclesial deconstructionists to point this out, but I’ve noticed one aspect of this critique that feels a little – what’s the word? – lazy. I suppose I see this in two ways. The first is simply a quick dismissal of any principle of organization or interaction that we think is too wooden as “corporate.” If you’re going to make that claim, think things through enough to back it up.

For instance, I know I’m oversimplifying a bit but any venture can be analyzed by looking at “ends” and “means” – or in other words, what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re doing to accomplish it. Corporations (or “the corporate world”) pursue some goals that are compatible with the church’s goals and others that aren’t; and they seek to reach their goals using some methods that are compatible with the church’s and some that aren’t. And vice versa. For instance, one of the church’s “ends” or goals is to make disciples of Jesus and teach people to do everything he commanded. For the most part, this will not be an end that corporations share. Corporations tend above all else to pursue a profitable bottom line; this is not a major goal that churches share.

But the lack of compatibility in some instances – okay, the far majority of instances – doesn’t mean there’s no legitimate overlap. Continue reading

Catechism Making a Comeback?


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So my first takeaway from the Missio Intensive conference, which has taken me five posts to work through (here, here, here, here, & here), has to do with how we define and organize the church on a big picture meta- level. My second takeaway was the amount of thought they put in and structure they give to the process of assimilating new folks into these missional church communities. In other words, they are very intentional about how people join their church. We’re finally recognizing that the church is weird, and as such people need to learn and experience what we’re all about before deciding whether to become part of our family.

The old-school term for this is “catechism,” and it’s an idea I’ve long been saying we need to revisit. Catechism has been a core practice of the church since the early days, and I’ve blogged some about it in the past.

What we got at the Missio conference was one example of how this is being done today, specifically at Adullam. Hugh described two different processes, one for incorporating non-Christians into their church and the other for incorporating Christians. (They explain all this in their book AND, but I haven’t had the time to read it yet; I’m intrigued to see whether what I took away from the conference matches what they see in the book – we’ll see!) The former had a looser more organic feel, whereas the latter was more structured and intentional. They have their own pictures in AND, but I like mine better. 🙂 Here’s the first one: Continue reading

What Atomic Bombs and Ministry Have in Common


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My favorite new show Stephen Fry in America may be uncreatively titled (what else would we expect from the BBC?!), but it provides a unique look at many aspects of on-the-ground American culture that I’d never otherwise notice. (Legit voo-dooists, “body farms,” etc.) Among the many questions it forces upon us: What did ever happen to those underground bunkers used to store active ready-to-launch missiles during the Cold War? (Safe bet you haven’t thought of that question yourself in a while!) Apparently one of them was purchased a few decades ago – for only $40,000! – by some hippies who turned it into their home and then started a profitable business helping other hippies do the same. (Yes, you really should watch this show.)

Anyhow, while walking Stephen through the missile storage hanger, the cameraman drew attention to a sign that read: No Lone Zone – Two-Man Policy Mandatory.  Hippie-missile-man explained that due to the sensitive, powerful, and potentially destructive nature of the room’s “contents” and the ever-present possibility of foul play, no one was allowed to be alone with this missile many times more powerful than anything we or anyone else has fired. Some things just can’t be trusted to a solitary human being.

And forgive me if this is a stretch, but I promise it was honestly my first thought. Ministry should be a “no lone zone” too. On top of the fact that serving together is a biblical model, it just makes sense that no one person be given too much unchecked authority over something so powerful as the gospel, something so admittedly potentially lethal as “religion.”

Now I realize that many (probably most) ministry situations don’t come with the inherent flexibility to just go and hire a team. But having a formal team probably doesn’t have as much to do with it as sometimes think. The issue is whether you have others with you keeping you honest as you go about your work. And not just someone who likes to whine, but a legit peer who loves you and has earned your respect. Who do you have like that who has the permission and the courage to tell you when your decisions are bad, your sermons are sub-biblical, and your character is slipping?

Many lives have been destroyed by loose cannon Christian leaders who enjoy too much power without the proper checks and balances. I know I don’t want that to be my story, so for me the “No Lone Zone” two-man policy is, indeed, mandatory.

Social Justice and the Lord’s Prayer


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Many Christians have recently rediscovered the part of our calling – or of our God, really – that moves us to pursue “social justice.” But some rightly fear that justice issues might eclipse other aspects of our gospel-centered identity and mission. (I say “rightly” because we’re liable to turn anything into an idol, especially something right and good and true.) The classic question is what should we give the proverbial hungry believer in a location where we can be pretty sure he doesn’t know Jesus: the gospel or a loaf of bread? Or perhaps more to our point, in the public square should we quietly work toward a living wage or look for opportunities to explain the truth about Christ?

My suggestion is that we pray the Lord’s Prayer. More specifically, that we pray all of it.

What does the Lord’s Prayer have to do with not turning justice into an idol? I’m thinking specifically of two phrases, one of which has rightly become a biblical battle cry for pursuing justice for the poor: May your kingdom come. Jesus’ gospel of God’s kingdom was nothing if not good news for the poor, no doubt in more ways than one. And the next phrase proves that this isn’t merely a future hope, for we are instructed to pray that God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. I agree and applaud all efforts to fully live out Jesus’ invitation to anticipate God’s future kingdom in the present.

But what does sometimes happen is that this phrase gets separated from what preceded it: hallowed be your name. Jesus cares not only about what we do, but that we do it in the right way, and part of doing the right thing in the right way is doing it so that God’s name is rightly honored. By all means, “preach the gospel everyday, and if necessary use words.” But know that using words will very soon become necessary if the gospel is to be preached. By all means, give the dude a piece of bread and work for a living wage, but do it in the name of Jesus for the glory of God. By all means, work for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, but don’t be embarrassed by or shy about the fact that this is God’s kingdom or that it came and comes to the world in Jesus.

We haven’t been called to make or build a new world. We are called to live into the reality of the new world already begun in Christ.

Beyond Theology, Becoming Missional

What started out as an attempt to think through my experience at a Missio Intensive somehow morphed into my own filling out of some schemas they gave us. Things have gotten a little heavy, at least in terms of theology/theory. It’s been fun (for me anyway) but what the Missio folks offer is not necessarily any new theology, but rather a renewed approach to actually doing church.

And as I said up front, key to their approach (and thus the title of one of their books) is the word AND. The basic idea is that churches must embrace their dual calling as both gathered and scattered communities. The context that gives this claim its edge is the current debate between focusing the church’s energies on weekend worship gatherings to which we invite people (“attractional”) on the one hand, and on the other hand focusing energies on going out into the world and engaging people on their own turf (“missional”).

Missio’s answer to this question, which seems like a copout but is actually more substantial that, is simply “Both.”

Their simple response is simply not to be forced into unnecessary polarities. Learn to balance gathering and sending/scattering. Now here’s the deal. I can’t distill for you in one post why this insight is more substantial than it sounds, so I’m sorry but you’ll have to read the book. (Better yet, watch Hugh’s videos!!!) But I will share a couple of insights that you might find helpful.  Continue reading

In-credible Church



In The Divine Commodity, Skye Jethani tells the story of an interview he did with a seasoned pastor. Jethani kept asking what he was most proud of during his decades of ministry, expecting stories of praying with drunks, loving mean old ladies, and so forth. But all the pastor wanted to talk about was building campaigns, and in particular the one he pushed through that gave them an asphalted parking lot.

In his own words, “Three years ago we put in a larger gravel lot, but I knew it wasn’t good enough. ‘We’ve got people around here driving BMWs and Cadillacs,’ I told them. They don’t want to park on gravel. People expect asphalt! A church that can’t provide asphalt isn’t relevant. It’s not credible. Eventually the elders came around. A respectable church simply couldn’t ask people to park on gravel.”

Seriously? So much for at least attempting to model our ministry mindset on the way of Jesus. This is embarrassing, and yet I’m haunted by the question of whether the only difference between this pastor and me is that he can actually articulate the thought process behind some of our decisions. In the end, I think I’d rather be literally in-credible than fall prey to this kind of pathology.