About Bill Burch

Theology literally means "words about God." The divine Word described in human words--heavenly treasure in jars of clay. Bill is a practical theologian sharing his worldview. To misquote Lucy van Pelt: "Theological help 5¢--the doctor is IN!" Bill serves as the senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He is married to Tracy who is a school teacher, and they have two adult children: Katie and Will. Their third "child" is a Yorkshire Terrier named Sam.

Kudzu Sin

kidzuPhiladelphia hosted the United States Centennial Exposition in 1876. Countries from around the world sponsored exhibits.

Japan’s site featured a beautiful garden with native plants from the island nation. A green vine with large leaves and sweet smelling blossoms entranced guests.

Soon gardeners across the United States were planting KUDZU as an ornamental plant!

Two nursery operators in Florida discovered that animals could eat kudzu as forage. They shipped the plant across North America. In fact, a sign in Chipley, Florida proudly declares: Kudzu developed here!

During the Great Depression, the Soil Conservation Service promoted the use of kudzu to prevent soil erosion. It surpassed ALL expectations. Kudzu controlled soil erosion like General Sherman controlled urban sprawl during the Civil War!

Although attractive and fragrant, the invasive plant can overwhelm buildings and fields. The “Green Flame” chokes out other vegetation and trees, providing shelter for rats and snakes.

Sin is the kudzu of the spiritual life.

It begins small but quickly spreads. Sin is always deadly and destructive. It takes hold in our lives and overwhelms us. Then it chokes out our spiritual lives. Paul understood this reality when he wrote: The wages of sin is death.

The best way to control kudzu is to never allow it to take root. Turns out the same principle applies to sin.

Under Construction

The Northside Drive construction project recently celebrated its third anniversary. Crews continue to install new water and sewer lines along with reengineered lanes and expanded sidewalks.

At times, Northside has resembled a washed-out, third-world road. Other times, it hasn’t looked that good.

NS DriveBuckhead residents have learned to dodge potholes, traffic cones, manhole covers, dump trucks, and flagmen. Patience, time, and religion have all been lost during demolition, delays, and detours.

There have been both figurative and literal bumps in the road. Crews demolished the same concrete median they had poured a few weeks beforehand. Workers jack-hammered fresh cement to install a forgotten drain. A group of engineers stopped traffic and used an old-fashioned level to see if the road really sloped from crown to shoulder.

Northside Drive provides a metaphor for our spiritual lives. Each Christian is a construction project in various stages of demolition and construction. Sometimes, it’s not pretty. Other times, it’s downright ugly. Slowly, sometimes unsurely, however, imperceptible progress occurs.

A few weeks ago paving crews laid fresh asphalt on Northside Drive. Some proclaimed the end was near, but veteran residents remain unconvinced.

The church houses a people under construction, and sometimes we’re a hot mess. But just wait—you won’t believe how good we look when God gets done.

Lifetime Guarantee

TimexTimex made the first real wristwatch I ever owned. For over twenty years, John Cameron Swayze made the brand famous with his personal assurance: It takes a licking and keeps on ticking! According to TV commercials, Timex watches easily survived water skiing, skydiving, earthquakes, volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, and supernovas.

Back in the day, each watch came with a Limited Lifetime Warranty. However, I have never quite understood the meaning of this phrase. What does a lifetime guarantee really mean? And the “limited” modifier always sounded ominous; One could interpret the words several different ways. No doubt the company’s lawyers had just such an eventuality in mind.

Is the lifetime in question my own? If so, then I could confidently expect my original Timex to last all my mortal days. The last sound I would hear on earth would be its reassuring TICK, TICK, TICK.  However, I find it troubling that the Timex Company might have designed my life expectancy into the watch’s workings. I mean, how could they KNOW?

Or maybe the guarantee refers to the product’s lifetime. I find this less than helpful. After all, how long is a watch SUPPOSED to live? How many human years does one wristwatch year equal? I can imagine a conversation with a company representative: “It stopped after three months? Isn’t that amazing—that’s the average lifetime of that particular model!” When a Timex dies after ten years, perhaps mourners say things like, “Well, it’s a blessing. It lived a long and full life.”

In my case, I never had the opportunity to put the Timex Company’s guarantee to the test. No warranty covers a boy’s carelessness. Somewhere between home, school, and church, the watch lost itself. For all I know, the wristwatch is still tick-tocking away in some secret hiding place.

Other than death and taxes, life comes with few guarantees. Life does not even promise us tomorrow. Each day is a precious gift of time.

Yesterday is the past, and tomorrow is the future, but today is a gift, and that’s why it’s called “the present.”

Imagine someone deposited $86,400 in your bank account each morning. You could spend the money in any way. The daily gift came with only two stipulations: it must be spent by midnight and in ways pleasing to the Giver.

On any given day, we receive 86,400 seconds to be spent in service to God and others. The Lord calls us to be wise stewards of each moment. Like a misplaced watch, wasted time can never be regained.

This is the day the Lord has made. Don’t waste time: rejoice and be glad in it! You’ll be happy that you did—I personally guarantee it.

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 5: Assembly Required

During the past weeks, I have chronicled the details of my first—and by the grace of God, LAST—visit to IKEA. The Swedish home good stores left an indelible mark upon my psyche.

However, preachers notoriously use all of life’s experience as fodder for sermons. So I have written a series of blogs comparing and contrasting IKEA and the Large Church.

IKEA’s first floor contains acres of warehouse space called the Self-Serve Furniture Area. Swedish elves magically pack furniture into “flat-pack” boxes. In-house chiropractors treat foolish consumers who attempt to lift any container alone.

Signs proclaim the Scandinavian furniture is Ready to Assemble. This prevarication falls under the heading of Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. The assembly of IKEA furniture has reduced Georgia Tech engineers and MIT post-grads to frustrated tears.

First, there are no words to describe IKEA’s instructions. Literally—there are no words. IKEA InstructionsInstead, the company uses pictograms to depict the step-by-step-by-step-by-step-by-step directions. For parents who have screamed profanities while assembling LEGO toys with their children, it’s like that—only worse.

IKEA gnomes have developed proprietary hardware for furniture reconstruction. Doodads, thingamabobs, gizmos, and doohickeys join infinite pieces in incomprehensible ways. The end result either resembles the picture on the box or an ACE Hardware Store that threw up on the floor.

The Large Church also comes from God Read to Assemble. With Christ Jesus as the cornerstone, the Spirit builds us block by block and life by life into a holy temple.

At times, the assembly process can be messy and frustrating. Some parts must be deconstructed and then reconstructed. Over time, however, the Lord works in, through, and despite us to create something greater than ourselves.

The Church is both gift and goal. We ARE the body of Christ . . . and we are BECOMING the body of Christ.

Perhaps the church sign out front should read: Assembly Required.

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 4: Not Actual Size

Until my first visit to IKEA, I never equated shopping and dining. Well, I usually eat a $1.50 hot dog and soda at Costco, but it hardly qualifies as haute cuisine. The Swedish home good store, however, features multiple epicurean opportunities .

The entrance features a full-service restaurant with Scandinavian-inspired dishes, including Swedish meatballs and salmon. A indiscriminate gourmand could consume a full breakfast, lunch, and supper for under $10.

The Swedish Food Market offers take-home options for those who just cannot get enough of roe sauce, sill dill, lax kallrokt, and sprat rolls. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

The dining experience continues with an exit café called the Bistro which features warm cinnamon rolls originally invented by—who-would-have-guessed-it—the Swedes!

IKEA Cinammon RollDuring my escape from IKEA, a large sign over the checkout counters caught my eye. The ten-foot-wide poster pictured a tantalizing breakfast roll oozing with sugar, cinnamon, and frosting. A disclaimer at the bottom read: “Not actual size.”

In my IKEA induced delirium, I giggled at the image of a customer ordering a one ton bun. However, some legal eagle must have felt a need for the proviso in our litigious society.

Perhaps the Large Church also needs a sign disclosing: “Not actual size.” With the exception of a single-cell, family chapel, every church contains multiple congregations. Natural divisions occur along worship services along with small group options and mission opportunities.

People misunderstand the concept of unity in church life. Christians disagree about traditional versus contemporary worship, Sunday School versus small groups, and local versus foreign missions.  Disciples debate theology, doctrine, polity, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

What unites the church, however, is so much greater than any worldly distinction that might divide us. Paul reminded the New Testament church that Christians share in one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The Large Church: Not Actual Size.

The body of Christ is actually MUCH larger, comprising the saints of God throughout space and time.

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 3: Be the One

Last month I experienced IKEA for the first time. For those who have never visited the Swedish home store, words fail me. However, my counselor says I’m slowly recovering from the traumatic event . . . traumatic event . . . traumatic event.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon along with half of the metro-Atlanta population. Imagine funneling into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Falcons home opener—only more so. Sniveling children and whining husbands reluctantly trailed scolding mothers and weary wives.

IKEA 2The IKEA employees wore canary yellow shirts which should have made them easy to spot. However, they disappeared chameleon-like into the background, reappearing at the high dollar design centers and crowded checkout counters.

After losing my wife to the mob, I asked a harried worker for directions to the Fabrics Department. He gestured vaguely and said, “Follow the signs around the perimeter of the store, or you can take a shortcut through the unmarked door in Seasonals.”

Then he dashed away like Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit, muttering: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!”

By the time we reached the checkout counters, I had lost the remnants of both sanity and religion. My right eye twitched uncontrollably as I contemplated a mad dash towards the exit. An eternity later we finally reached the front of the line.

The young cashier greeted us with a dazzling smile and asked about our IKEA experience. I babbled an unintelligible response, and she seemed to understand. Then she engaged in a winsome conversation with my wife, including a charming story about her father who had immigrated to the United States.

She finished the transaction with another genuine smile, adding: “Come back soon.” I found myself nodding agreeably even as the cashier warmly greeted the next customer.

If the Large Church is like IKEA, then it’s the members’ responsibility to welcome first time guests. When a visitor says, “This sure is a friendly church,” does it mean that several hundred people overwhelmed the person with a flash-mob-welcome? No, it means that a few people greeted the newcomer as an honored guest.

Radical hospitality begins with each individual believer. One person can make an eternal difference.

Be the one.

IKEA and the Large Church, Part 2: A-maze-ing Grace

I recently made my first—and by heaven’s mercy, LAST—visit to IKEA. The home goods superstore overwhelmed the senses and dulled the soul. Reflecting on the experience, it struck me that the massive retailer and the large church share some characteristics in common.

IKEA mapIKEA customers park in a Stygian subbasement before a marathon trek to the entrance. The sprawling store occupies two immense floors that stretch beyond the horizon in all directions. Signage directs customers down zigzag corridors like mice through a maze. A bewildering array of home goods beckons on every side.

I reached the nadir of my retail experience after passing the same display for the third time in ten minutes. Legendary pioneer, Daniel Boone, once said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.” My mental condition went way past confused—I was baffled, befuddled, perplexed, and perturbed!

Many church facilities rival IKEA’s bewildering floor plan. Additions added over decades create a labyrinth of twists and turns with multiple levels and nonsensical or nonexistent signs. First time visitors aimlessly wander the hallways like lost children.

Long-time church members may not recognize the problem. Everyone KNOWS that the third hallway on the left leads to a half staircase that ascends to the anteroom that funnels into another stairwell that descends two floors to the baby nursery—which is two levels away from the children’s department and sanctuary.

One pastoral colleague served a congregation that didn’t even have an exterior sign identifying the church. When asked, the Trustees responded incredulously: “Preacher, why would we need a sign? We all KNOW where the church is!”

Superior signs cost a lot of money; however, inadequate signage costs even more. Best practices from hospitals, airports, and hotels teach the church:

  • Invest in excellent exterior and interior signs—it’s a necessity and not a luxury
  • Signs should create “waypoints” that easily lead first-time guests step-by-step to their destination
  • Crowded hallways obscure wall and door signage—place signs above head-level
  • Avoid ecclesiastical code words like sacristy, chancel, narthex, and nave
  • If people appear lost, do NOT give directions; instead lead them to where they want to go

The church can be a maze. The church can also be a place where people experience God’s Amazing Grace.

Church, here’s your sign!