Thinking Together Column 1/17/2018

In conclusion: Thank you.

Thank you, Highland.

Thank you for allowing me into the most sacred places of your hearts and lives. And thank you for entering into the sacred spaces of my family’s life. We’ve shared tears and laughter, moments of heartache and heart-awakening. We’ve grown together, in the multiple meanings of that phrase. The Instamatic photo from my January 1997 call weekend reveals how we’ve grown.

Thank you for entrusting me with Highland’s pulpit and its reputation. I return them to you with hope that I have been a faithful steward of them for the gospel and the church.

Thank you for being partners in preaching—you listen deeply and respond faithfully by trans-forming Highland’s preached word into a lived word.

Thank you for encouraging me to trust God’s guidance through many congregational dangers, toils and snares. Thank you for allowing me to extend our collective ministry in areas outside our walls. Your generosity and courage enabled us to develop a broader ministry in the city.

Thank you for decades of showing up, loving, giving, forgiving, hoping, thinking, feeling, healing. Thank you for singing the songs of faith deep into my soul.

Thank you to trusted colleagues on Highland’s ministry staff—present and past—for sharing God’s vision for our church, for calling forth our best, for smoothing my rough edges, for cleaning up my messes, for wisdom that added to and enriched any I brought, for the harmony we made as we each sang our parts in the Great Song.

Thank you to past faith communities. From Far Hills Baptist in Dayton, Ohio, where I was baptized and ordained; to Highland Park in Austin, Texas, where I caught my first glimpse of a Bigger Faith; to Church of the Savior where I saw faith become a real flesh and blood embodiment of love.

Thank you to pioneers and prophets and pastors and pilgrims who have lit my way: from Finley Edge who first implanted the idea that there could be more to religion than just religion, to Frank Tupper, to Bill Leonard, to Richard Rohr, to Walter Brueggemann, to the Neighborhood—brothers through thick and thin. Great men all, but that they are all white men reveals the scant limits of my experience and understanding. I have seen through a glass dimly, at best.

Three women dominate my gratitude, however.

I thank my mother, Corabelle, whose delight at me being “a preacher” once felt like a burden; now I receive it as a mother’s blessing in seeing her child who found himself “in the place just right.” She was right: it has been “the valley of love and delight.”

Secondly, thank you to my sister, known now only by me and a few others by her birth name: Mary Ann. My sister instilled in me a capacity to see beauty all around, to approach life as an adventure rather than a burden. She embodies a sacred gratitude for life’s simplest pleasures: a bird on the feeder, a warm home, a favorite drink. She always was, and will always be, the coolest person I know. She taught me that life is fun, so enjoy it, even when it’s not so fun.

The third woman in my trinity is my beloved, Terri Phelps, the most whole and holy person I know. I’ve said jokingly, “She’s my Holy Spirit,” but it’s no joke. Terri has been my Sacred Voice and Welcome Home for 30 years on next Tuesday. It is not hyperbole to say that I would never have made it without her. Terri Phelps has been both a ballast and a beacon for me, and I know for many of you as well. She is a wise, resilient, unassuming giant whose own powerful gifts have taken a back seat to my role and extroversion. And yet, she’s never complained. Instead, like Ginger Rogers to my Fred Estaire, she followed every move I made, only more gracefully, with a smile, and backwards, and in high heels.  She harmonized beautifully with my loud life and made her own unique contribution to Highland.

Finally, thank you to God for a front-row seat at Highland, a church uniquely attuned and ready to roll during one of the most transformative eras in Christian history. Consider this— In the past two decades at Highland we have witnessed:

  • the end of Highland’s connection to Southern Seminary, from which it was born.
  • the leadership of women in all places of ministry after millennia of male domination.
  • our move from “don’t ask don’t tell” to full, public inclusion of LGBT.
  • stirrings and awakening to the perils of white privilege.
  • a maturing recognition of the gospel that understands salvation as God’s justice for all.

It’s all been such rich, fulfilling work. I am so grateful both to have done it and for it to be done. It was done, as best as I knew how, with love.

And so, I end this form of ministry, in order to begin the ministry that is my very life. Build on what we’ve done together. Don’t get stuck in the details. Focus on Love. Err on the side of Love. For Love is of God and those who love are born of God, and know God.

Love—God—the source and the goal who connects us all. Forever and ever. Amen.  ~ Joe


  1. In consolidating 42 years of ministry and vacating my office this week, I’m leaving many good books behind and would be delighted if you find something you’d like to have. I also have years of gifts, mementos, pastor-bling, stuff. Antique books. An antique sermon manuscript. Bibles. Lots of older books. Come by the office and see if there’s something you’d like. It’s all going away as I thin out my life.
  2. I will not be around Highland for a season. I’m not banished and I’m not deserting you. Rather, I need time and space away from my routine in order to gather myself and listen for God’s call. You also need time with me away in order to prepare for the next era of Highland’s life. Remember: every ending is a beginning. On Sunday, we will mark the end of my work with you, but also quietly happening is the birth of a new day for Highland. Please be faithful to what lies ahead, as it builds on the foundations that were here long before I arrived on the scene. I hope to eventually join you in that future as it unfolds.