IKEA and the Large Church, Part 1: To Hell and Back

My wife and I recently visited IKEA for the first time. A team of counselors continues to treat my post-traumatic stress syndrome. We emerged an eternity later with a cart full of throw pillows. I would have gladly paid a premium to avoid the bargain.

IKEAIn Swedish, IKEA roughly translates as “Eternal Torment.” An occasional whiff of brimstone underlies the deli’s meatballs. Dante did not list the retailer in his nine circles of hell, but Hades’ entrance can be viewed from there.

The lurid blue and yellow store squats on 16th Street in Atlanta. The massive building purportedly occupies two floors, but it feels much larger. Like Hogwarts, moving staircases constantly rearrange themselves while false-backed wardrobes lead to Narnia. After inadvertently losing my wife, we finally reunited a continent and time zone later.

A full service restaurant provides provisions for lost souls. One child slept soundly under a down comforter in a bedroom display. Other weary souls sprawled on Swedish torture devices marketed as furniture.

It would be hyperbole to compare my afternoon’s trek through IKEA to Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. However, I found myself muttering “I want to go back to Egypt!”

Reflecting on the experience, the retailer and the church share some common attributes. So I’m writing a series of blogs entitled IKEA and the Large Church which will compare and contrast the two institutions.

Next week’s blog is entitled A-maze-ing Grace.


A Shoeless Soul

Sweltering in July’s heat and humidity, I recall childhood’s dog days of summer. Attic fans produced the only air conditioning. Cut-off shorts comprised the dress of the day. A carefree boyhood meant no shoes, no shirt, and no problems.

BarefeetBarefoot summers produced leather-tough soles. Dew drenched grass glided beneath feet. Brick red, bone dry Georgia clay powdered ankles. Following a thunderstorm, squishy mud squished between toes.

East of Eden even life’s blessings come with a price. Bare feet paid with the coin of stubbed toes, splintered heels, and thorn-pierced flesh. Hot tarmac seared tender insoles. The unwary trod where dog offerings hid in the grass.

In the journey from boy to man, I abandoned childish things. However, maturation can also forfeit a childlike innocence. Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”

During this barefoot summer, let us cultivate a shoeless soul.

Toss aside socks, shoes, and sandals.  Feel the lush grass beneath naked feet. Wiggle toes deep into the dirt. Swish little piggies through cool water. Ground our spirits in the rich soil of the Spirit’s presence.

Sweltering in July’s heat and humidity, relive childhood’s dog days of summer.

Leaves of Three

During my childhood, I learned the doggerel in Cub Scouts: “Leaves of three, let them be!” Forewarned should be forearmed. However, experience always provides Poison Ivylife’s best-learned lessons. During childhood, it took several close encounters with plants of the three-leafed variety before I learned the importance of leaving the leaves alone.

People react in various ways to poison ivy along with its relatives, poison oak and poison sumac. The toxic plants do not affect some people. Others get a mild rash. A few react violently.

Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to all plants with the first name “poison.” Just standing downwind of the toxic vines makes me itch.

During my boyhood, I could count on a bad case of poison ivy every summer. In the days before air conditioning, video games, cable television, or computers, we actually stayed outside during the day and most of the evening. The boys in the neighborhood often played in the woods across the street. Inevitably, I suffered from a brush with poison ivy or one of its noxious cousins.

For those who have never suffered from the malady, words do not suffice. The angry red rash causes an infernal itch. Scratching the inflammation aggravates the itch.

Back in the day before cortisone lotions and shots, Calamine Lotion provided the only temporary relief. However, it felt like fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. The creamy salve barely treated the symptoms. Time proved to be the only cure.

Despite medical advances during the past decades, prevention remains the best cure. Over the years, I have become quite adept at spotting “leaves of three” from a long distance. It doesn’t matter if the plant disguises itself as vine, shrub, or sapling.

During walks in the woods, I constantly scan the ground for any form of poison ivy. I keep a supply of herbicide on hand for any toxic plant that dares raise its ugly head in our yard.

In my spiritual journey, I have found that temptation shares many characteristics with poison ivy. Both can be beautiful to the eye and nonthreatening to the touch. Each easily blends with its background and gives no hint of potential harm.

It requires diligence and vigilance to note poison’s proximity. Sometimes it takes time before the consequences of our actions are revealed. The best antidote is to avoid what causes the ailment.

In 1749, Charles Wesley wrote the words of the hymn “I Want a Principle Within.” The first stanza declares: “I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear, a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near. I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire, to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.”

When it comes to three-leafed plants and alluring temptation, the same principle applies: LEAVE THEM BE!

Air Conditioning

During my childhood, I grew up in the suburbs of Decatur, Georgia. Our humble home on McAfee Road contained two bedrooms and a single bath. My father eventually converted the carport into a family room. The original den became a third bedroom for yours truly.

A few upscale houses in the neighborhood possessed central air conditioning. However, my friends and I never knew to miss it. We did not have AC in our cars or schools. During summer vacation, we actually played outside during the day and most of the evening.

We cooled our house in warmer weather with an attic fan. The belt-driven mechanism rumbled like the propeller on a plane during takeoff. Standing under the vents in the hallway produced a wind tunnel effect. Propped open windows welcomed any cool breeze blowing by.

During my ninth grade year, we moved to Woodstock, Georgia. My parents neglected to include central air conditioning in the new home they built. I attended Cherokee High School where the only air conditioned building (well, other than the front offices where the principal and secretaries ruled supreme) was the library.

Then  I went to Berry College for undergraduate work. My freshman dorm room featured radiator heat and paint-stuck windows. The next dorm I occupied had been built decades later with central heat but no air. My roommate and I felt like gypsies in the palace when we finally scrounged a box fan for the one window.

After seminary, the bishop appointed me to two churches outside Newnan, Georgia. A wood stove heated the parsonage IF the preacher cut enough wood. An all too familiar attic fan in the hallway provided the only source for cooling. During my fourth year at the church, my wife and I married. THEN the church installed a dish washer and a single window air conditioning unit.

The next church we served owned a parsonage complete with “central” heat. Well, at least the heat source was located in the center of the house—a gas fed furnace shot torrid blasts of heat from a waffle-pattern floor grate. This particular home didn’t even boast an attic fan.

After three years of committee meetings, the church eventually installed a new heat and air system. At 32 years of age, I finally enjoyed the comforts of central air conditioning for the first time in my life.

Only a few decades ago country congregations vehemently argued whether to install air conditioning. The progressive elements argued that people wanted to enjoy the same degree of comfort at church as they did in homes and malls. The fiscally conservative countered that the money could be better used for missions and funeral home fans.

Seriously, I’m not making this stuff up. Today no one would even consider building a church facility without all the modern amenities.

We live in a prosperous era. What were once luxuries are now considered to be necessities. I am certainly not advocating a return to the past. Years later I still recall how hot, humid, sticky, and muggy those “good old days” of the summer truly were.

However, it wouldn’t hurt to be thankful for our present blessings that past generations never even imagined. Thank God for the hot summer weather outside, AND praise the Lord for the air conditioning inside.

America the Beautiful

Fourth of JulyOn July 4, 1776, our nation’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence. The Philadelphia document formalized the American rebellion against British rule. Next week the United States of America observes its 240th birthday. Independence Day celebrates over two centuries of freedom with parades, flags, picnics, and fireworks.

Many will also ATTEMPT to sing our National Anthem. Every school child knows the story behind The Star Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key was a gifted poet who found himself unexpectedly detained on a British frigate. He witnessed firsthand the English attack Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. After the night’s artillery bombardment, Key peered through the dawn’s early light to see the American flag still flying proudly.

Inspired by the sight, Key scribbled some notes on the back of an envelope. His musings evolved into a four stanza poem. On September 15, 1814, a Baltimore newspaper first published The Star Spangled Banner.

Ironically, Key suggested the poem be sung to a popular BRITISH tune entitled To Anacreon in Heaven. The melody was originally composed for a gentlemen’s music club in London. The song quickly became popular across America. However, Congress did not actually make The Star Spangled Banner our National Anthem until 1931.

Although our national anthem is inspiring, the tune is somewhat, uh, challenging to sing. Amateur and professional vocalists alike struggle to do the tune justice.

In recent years, some have suggested changing the National Anthem to America the Beautiful.  It is a powerful hymn with moving imagery; AND it is much easier to sing!

Katherine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful in the nineteenth century. Dr. Bates, the daughter of a minister, became a professor of English Literature at Wellesley College. In 1893, she stopped in Chicago during a trip to Colorado Springs. Both the natural beauty of Colorado’s “fruited plains” and the “alabaster city” of the Chicago World Fair inspired her to write the well-known hymn.

Regardless of one’s national origin, all of God’s people can sing some of the lines together:

God shed his grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood,

From sea to shining sea.

 May God thy gold refine,

till all success be nobleness,

and every gain divine.

On the Fourth of July, we pause to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. Our liberty is a precious gift dearly obtained. The star spangled banner still waves over America the beautiful. May God continue to bless our nation—land that we love.

Happy Independence Day!

First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This adage has been attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Will Rogers, but no one can cite a source.  The earliest confirmed use of the maxim occurred in a 1966 ad campaign for Botany Suits. Regardless of origin, the proverb recognizes the importance of first impressions.

According to the eccentricities of the United Methodist Church’s appointive process, I officially became the new senior pastor of Northside Church last Thursday, June 22, at 1:00 p.m. On Sunday, I preached my inaugural sermon at the two Traditional Services and the Contemporary Service.

Over the past weeks, I have fretted away many anxious hours, worrying about first chances and impressions. In such self-centered moments, I forgot that it’s not about me—it’s about faithfully serving the church of Jesus Christ in this time and place.

So I began thinking about the first impressions Northside Church has made on me.

  • A vibrant United Methodist congregation in the heart of Atlanta
  • Warm, loving people who profess and practice hospitality
  • Dedicated staff members with an amazing array of gifts and abilities
  • Entering the Sanctuary or Chapel, one steps into the very presence of God
  • Traditional Worship that exemplifies the best of mainline, Methodist worship
  • Contemporary Worship ROCKS—what an amazing worship team
  • NO debt!
  • Mission-minded Christians who know to whom much is given, much is expected
  • 15 acres in the middle of Buckhead
  • A Transition Team that has crafted a graceful process

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Based on my experience, Northside doesn’t need a second opportunity to make an eternal difference.

First Words

First words are important.

After all, well begun is half done. A carefully-crafted opening provides a proper introduction to an author’s thoughts. So I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first word, sentence, paragraph, and page.

Some days the words flow like a fast moving stream. Other days the syllables ooze like molasses in January. I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, wondering why the inventor didn’t call it a CURSER!

First words are difficult because an author must CHOOSE. Out of an infinite number of beginnings, there can only be ONE first word, sentence, and paragraph.

This Sunday I will preach my first sermon as the new senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Like Jacob at the Jabbok ford, God and I have wrestled over the past weeks about what to say . . . and what not to say . . . and how to say it. After all, first words are important because they form first impressions.

Over the past weeks, those adolescent first-day-at-high-school-anxieties have welled up inside. Will they like me? Will the other children play with me? Can I get my locker open? Where’s the bathroom? What if I get lost?

Time and again the Holy Spirit whispers in my soul: Peace, be still. Then I am reminded that the Lord IS the First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. All of life occurs within the context of God’s providential grace.

God always has the first word . . . and God always has the last word. So Psalm 19:14 has become my prayer for the first word of the first sermon on a first Sunday:

  • May the words of my mouth
  • and the meditations of my heart
  • Be acceptable in thy sight,
  • O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

First words are important.