Living and Active

One of the great joys that came in 2017 (and there were many – new church, new house, new town, etc.) was the opportunity to write two chapters for Acts to Action: The New Testament’s Guide to Evangelism and Mission.  Edited by two dear friends of mine, Susan Brown Snook and Adam Trambley, Acts to Action is a deep dive into the eight chapter of Acts as a blueprint for being the Church in a changing world.  I commend it to you. (Full Disclosure – I receive no personal financial gain from your purchasing this book from Forward Movement for you, your congregational leaders, family, and friends.)

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Seriously, buy this book

One of the chapters I was asked to write was about the Bible, and how we might use it to help facilitate mission and evangelism.  The central text was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, in which Philip, led by the Spirit, helped the Eunuch to understand what he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  As I wrote that chapter, what continuously came to mind is the opening line from Sunday’s lesson from Hebrews 4, “The word of God is living and active…”

There are two things I love about this phrase.  First, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here), I think it cases the letter w properly as a lower case letter.  Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Word of God, capital W.  The Bible, on the other hand, is the word of God, lower case w.  I can’t remember whether it was on the television or radio, but sometime in the last week, I happened upon a preacher who was talking about the absolute truth of the bible.  He suggested, with an eye toward liberal mainline Protestants, that some churches didn’t believe the bible to be absolutely true in everything it says.  Count me among those accused, but I’d argue for a bit of nuance, which isn’t the forte of television and radio preachers.  Saying that the Bible isn’t absolutely true, to my mind, means that it isn’t 100% factually accurate.  One need not look beyond the first two chapters of Genesis to see the two very different creation stories to know that the bible cannot and does not claim factual infallibility.  The bible is, however, 100% true in that it tells the very real story of God’s love for all of creation, and God’s desire to be in right relationship with humankind.  My friend the radio/television preacher was arguing for the book he was holding in his hand to be the Word of God, but I would suggest that only Jesus gets to carry that capital letter.

I’ve digressed, as usual.  What this post was supposed to be about was the titular phrase, “living and active.”  As I said, while writing that chapter, this phrase kept coming to mind.  Those who read the scriptures with regularity often note that they have found something new in their reading.  Rather than being a dry, old book that sits on a shelf, when you engage the bible, you’ll find that the Spirit is at work in and through the words on the page, ready to teach you something new, expand your horizons, or call you to a new and deeper understanding of God.

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Spiritual Work

As many of you know, I am part of a group of disciples who are working to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.  Our mission, as articulated in the founding blog posts of the movement, finds is roots in the eighth chapter of Acts.  This is a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  Stephen has just been martyred, while Saul looked on approvingly, and the first significant persecution is underway.  Because of the faithfulness of those early Christians, who fled Jerusalem but not their faith in Christ, the Christian faith is still around today.  It is a story of hope, of evangelism, and of perseverance.  It is a story that has motivated the Acts 8 Movement to continue to call Episcopalians to share the good news of God in Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

As one who has spent a lot of time immersed in Acts 8, it is always exciting to me when it rolls around in the lectionary cycle.  This is especially true on Easter 5B, as we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  I could probably write a book on this passage, but blogs are supposed to be short form, so I’ll spare you the long diatribe and jump right in to the word that leaped off the screen at me this morning.  Philip, having been brought to the wilderness road by the Holy Spirit, overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah.  In a manner that is quite forward, Philip approaches the Eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

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This word, “guide,” caught my attention this morning.  Digging into it a bit, I found that the Greek word, hodegeo, is used only four other places in the New Testament.  Twice, in Luke and Matthew, it is used in variations of the idiom “the blind leading the blind.”  In Revelation, it is used to describe what the lamb at the center of throne will do for the rest of us sheep, “guiding us to the springs of the water of life.”  Of most interest, however, is how it gets used by John in the Gospel.  Late in Jesus’ ministry, as part of his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples another advocate, the Spirit, who will guide (hodegeo) them into all truth.

Of further interest, is the etymology of hodegeo, which, according to Robertson, comes from hodos meaning way and hegeomai meaning to lead.  Beyond simply guiding, what the Spirit is sent to do, and what the Spirit does through Philip for the Eunuch, is to lead him in the Way.  The Spiritual work, then, for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to lead others in the Way of Jesus.  This assumes that we will, ourselves, be disciples, having been lead in the Way by others.  It assumes that we will all be growing in our faith and in our understanding of the Gospel and of God, in order to teach others.  It assumes, more than anything else, that we will be in tune with the Spirit, who will guide us, as was the case for Philip, into all truth and into opportunities to guide others.

What holds you back from the Kingdom of God?

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question in conjunction with the Good Book Club points us towards Holy Week:

A few weeks ago, we asked what burdens the Church needed to let go of to make room for the Kingdom of God.  In the story of the rich ruler, with Holy Week just around the corner, the question becomes much more personal.  What is holding you back from inheriting eternal life?

The story of the rich ruler is often simplified into a fable about money. We get so caught up in Jesus’ command to sell everything (and our own anxiety about that commandment) that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Money, more often than not, is a symbol.  It stands for something else.  In the case of the rich ruler, and in my own experience as well, money stands in for self-reliance.  What holds the rich ruler and me back from inheriting the fullness of eternal life here and now is my pride – my certainty that I can handle things on my own.

Note the interaction between Jesus and the man.  After asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments.  “Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother.”  These are, if you had to categorize them this way, the easiest of the commandments to follow.  They are the obvious ones, the ones that mostly exist outside of your body.  It is the others that come earlier on the list, specifically, the “don’t put other gods before God” one, that are much harder to live by.

In his reply, “I have kept all these since my youth,” the ruler betrays his failure to follow the one that matters most.  He has made himself to be god.  It is by his own doing that he believes he will inherit eternal life.  Even his initial question shows us his sin, “What must I do?”  The same is true in my life.  When I start to get puffed up, thinking that it is somehow by my own strength that I can navigate life and bring about the Kingdom, that I lose sight of God’s will.  It is when I rely on my own ability to do things, that I find myself falling short of inheriting eternal life.

The rich ruler ended up sad and walking away from God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus because he knew that he could never give it all away.  He missed the point that to hand it all over can only happen when we realize that God is God and we are not.  Each morning, I try to make the choice to follow God, remembering that it isn’t by my own merits that I do it, but only by the grace of the God who calls me.


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The Calling of a Prodigal God

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It is week five of the Good Book Club, and we are more than halfway through Luke’s Gospel, with an eye toward Acts during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Next week, Lent’s penultimate week, will be Holy Week in the GBC, but before we get there, we have some famous parables, including the one commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” from which this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question comes.

Prodigal (n) – a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way – is often used to describe the younger son in the well known parable, but what if the point of this parable is the prodigality of the father?  Tell of a time you were aware of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.


Recently, I have found myself in several different conversations about call.  It is a hazard of the job, I suppose.  For some, it is the early inklings of a call to ordained ministry.  For others, it is the frustrations of the innumerable midway points in the process that make progress impossible according to physics.  For a few, these conversations have revolved around the second way we discuss call in the Episcopal Church: finding a job.  See, once you have, with God’s [significant] help navigated the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry and been trained for that vocation, is discerning a call to a position, or more colloquially, a job.

In the past, that process hasn’t really been about call.  The Bishop, to whom you are beholden throughout the process, would often simply place seminary graduates in congregations that needed holes filled.  Certainly, there was some discernment involved, but three people to fill three holes means everybody gets placed, whether they are all a good fit or not.  In this system, the job was usually for at time-certain, often two years, and then the next call process would commence.  Except, when you know your paychecks will cease on a certain date, you don’t have time really let the Spirit work, and so discernment can quickly dissipate while the search for a job takes over.  In many cases, it wasn’t until the third call that someone really had the chance to experience the fullness of discernment and the joyful nature of call.

When I think about the prodigality of God, I’m often reminded of my own difficulty with call.  It was the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of my senior year of seminary when I found out that I would not be placed.  What felt like an earth shaking moment in which the rug fell out from under me, has, in hindsight, been a moment wherein I relish in God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It didn’t fell good at the time, not unlike, I’m sure, the younger son returning home to his father’ house, but I quickly realized the gift that was waiting for me.  As I moved from discerning a vocational call to discerning a call to a position, I became aware of how joyous that process can be.  As I’ve said many times in the last ten+ years, riding the wave of the Spirit is a whole lot of fun.

I am grateful, everyday, to know what call feels like.  To have experienced it in TKT’s living room in Foley in April of 2007 and in a rental car in Bowling Green in October of 2016 is a gift of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It is my prayer for all in discernment, whether they will graduate from a seminary with an MDiv or a diocesan school for ministry with a certificate, that they will, sooner rather than later, get to experience the same gift and blessing.

And, lest this post be another point in the accusation of my penchant for clericalism, I would note that I think this type of discernment isn’t exclusive to those of us in the professional class of ministry.  When God’s call is followed, in our work and in our churches, the experience of God’s grace can be overwhelming, in a good way.  May God bless you with the reckless extravagance as you take your place in the building up of the Kingdom of God.


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Good Book Club – Week 1

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“Luke’s goal in writing his two-part story is to provide an orderly account so that his readers might know the truth about Jesus.
To what end do you read the scriptures?”

Today is Ash Wednesday.  It might be my favorite day of the Church year.  While everyday there is the opportunity to confess our sins and repent and return to the Lord, the language we use on Ash Wednesday is the most poignant.  The Litany of Penance makes clear those sins of commission and omission that I would rather ignore.  The recitation of Psalm 51 takes pieces of scripture that have been spread all throughout our liturgy and reminds us of how they fit together as a word of prayer to God.  The absolution, which is more a prayer on behalf of all those gathered, is a helpful reminder that God’s desire is not to punish us wicked sinners, but rather, that God’s greatest hope is that we all might be restored to right relationship.  The smudge of ash upon my forehead, and the reminder that I came from and will return to dust, gives me the chance to recall my own mortality – something I would otherwise only do when I got onto an airplane.  It is a beautiful liturgy, filled with imagery and action that point us to our need for forgiveness and God’s amazing grace, but above it all, I adore the invitation to a holy Lent.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

As I spoke these words at 7:15 this morning, this week’s Acts 8 Blogforce question in conjunction with the Good Book Club immediately came to mind.  There, in the midst of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I was reminded of why I read the Bible, and, more importantly, why I should.  Truth be told, I mostly study the Bible.  Four times a week, I sit down and read the lessons appointed for the following Sunday, looking for something to reflect upon, something to dig into, something to study.  About every other week, I spend hours diving even further into it.  I read commentaries, do word studies, and sit and stare into space, listening for God’s voice, over and above the monkey chatter in my brain, for a word to speak on Sunday.  So much of my engagement in the Scriptures is to study and mediate, that I sometimes forget to just read the Bible.

The gift of the Good Book Club, for me, is the opportunity to just read the Bible.  I have already so enjoyed just reading about the birth of John the Baptist, the Magnificat, and the Nativity of our Lord.  No looking for the kernel of truth.  No seeking a sermon hook.  No getting lost down the rabbit hole of a Greek verb.  Just reading the story, the greatest story every told, of God’s great love for creation.  To what end do I read the Scriptures?  Well, at least for the next three months, it will simply be to hear God’s love story, yet again.


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Contentment

The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE makes a rousing return this week with a question that is both timely and applicable.  In the life of the Church as well as in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are rapidly approaching stewardship season, and as such, it is time, once again, for all of us to listen for God’s call upon our checkbooks.  As such, Acts 8 has invited all of us to consider this question: “How has financial giving affected your spiritual life?” For more information on how to offer your own response, click here.


I can’t remember when it happened, but I distinctly remember the feeling.  It must have been around a big football game: Black Friday before the Iron Bowl or the Saturday before the Super Bowl; as I drove around my neighborhood of modest starter homes, I began to notice lots of large, rectangular boxes sitting on the curbside.  At first, I didn’t  pay any attention to it, but by the time I passed the third box, I could feel the envy welling up inside me.  I wanted a big, fancy, new TV to watch the game with too!

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The problem was, unless I wanted to go into $500 worth of debt on my credit card, there just wasn’t the disposable income to cover a sweet new TV.  With a relatively new baby at home and my wife not working at the time, we were prepared to make sacrifices, but it was in that moment, driving through our neighborhood on trash day, that I realized that part of the sacrifice of giving to God is being content with what you have.

At the time, the Pankey family was still relatively new at tithing.  Even as late as seminary, we had subscribed to the left over model of giving to the church.  Of course, it was easy to justify the $2,400 a month we spent on rent and tuition to go to seminary in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country.  Once I was ordained, however, we knew that if we were going to ask people to give sacrificially, we had to as well.  And so, on day 1 of my first call out of seminary, we gave 10% of our income to the glory of God. There is a difference, however, between giving because you feel like you have to and giving out of contentment.  It took me several years to learn that lesson.

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, the author of 1 Timothy tells the young leader that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.  He warns Timothy of the trap of riches.  The temptation that comes with a lack of contentment takes our attention away from God.  Envy leads to ruin and destruction.  As I rode through my neighborhood that afternoon, those empty TV boxes pulled me to the edge of the root of all evil: the love of money.  Thanks be to God, the temptation of a shiny new TV for the big game didn’t win out.  In coming to grips with the opportunity cost of tithing, I realized that sacrificing for the Kingdom is something that should bring joy.  I’ve learned to give thanks for what I have, to be joyful in the building up of the Kingdom, and to be content in all circumstances.  Of course, I’m not always successful at it, but God continues to work on me.  The Spirit continues to call me to righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.  All these years later, I’ve learned the power of intentional sacrifice: a spiritual lesson that is helpful not just in financial giving, but in prayer, in time, in service, and in life.  I’ve learned to set my hope on God, who, as the author of 1 Timothy says, “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

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Where is Galilee? – An Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge

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“And now, go quickly and tell his disciples he has been raised from the dead, and he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.” – Mt 28:7 (NLT)

I get to go to Galilee for at least an hour every week.  Sure, there are some weeks where I spend most of my time “out there,” the reality of full-time ordained ministry is that I sit at a desk a lot more than I thought I would.  But even when the week has nothing but study, sermon prep, and administration to offer, I know that at 9am on Thursday morning, I’ll enter the Galilee that is Mrs. Davis’ Kindergarten class.

Now in its seventh year, Saint Paul’s has been providing volunteers to support the work at Foley Elementary School.  When we began our work there, the free and reduced lunch rate, a key poverty indicator, was at 72%.  Now it is 80%.  Four years into the program, FES had its first minority majority kindergarten class, but Alabama’s draconian immigration policy has changed that (some).  I took a two year hiatus after the teacher in my classroom left to raise here babies, but boy am I glad to be back, seeing the face of Jesus in each child, in the grandmother who volunteers alongside me, and, most especially, in Mrs. Davis.

I know that FES is Galilee because that’s where I find Jesus.  I find Jesus in the caring hearts of every teacher, janitor, nutrition specialist, and administrator who give of themselves to ensure that every child knows that they are loved by someone.  I find Jesus in the kids who find joy in learning, who are reading well above grade level, and who carry the same privileges as me.  I find Jesus in the child who had never held a crayon before the first day of Kindergarten, who can’t tell an “A” from a “Z” or the color purple from the number nine.  I find Jesus in the simple act of playing Chutes and Ladders knowing that learning to count to 6, or 10, of 100 might help one child break the cycle of poverty.

Rarely do I wear my collar there.  Seldom to we talk about what I do.  I’ve probably never mentioned Jesus to one of these children, but I’m certain that they’ve experienced God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ because he’s met me in Galilee, just as he has promised.