Putting a bow on my 2014 General Assembly experience – Part Deux

Upon returning to the ballroom where the assembly was meeting, I looked for a seat closer to the front so that I might be able to occasionally look at the real 3-D person than the video facsimile on one of the two large screens on either side of the stage. If I have one regret from the week, it is that I didn’t take more pictures. I haven’t gotten immersed in the “selfie” world yet, but I hope to get better at it as time goes on. A few minutes after sitting down, I turned to find myself sitting next to Justin Clement, RUF minister at the University of Georgia. I had just seen Justin for the first time at the wedding of Nathan Terrell and Joy Glaze Terrell last Saturday. I introduced myself and told him he had done a great job in officiating the wedding. He asked about how things were at Intown (BTW, that was a common question, not surprisingly). We had a good chat and talked from time to time about the various overtures as they were introduced over the next couple of hours.

In every GA, there is an overture or two that requires extended discussion and debate. This year it was Overture 43. The Overtures Committee had voted to answer in the “negative” which is not to affirm the overture by a tally of 45-28. That was by far the closest vote of any of the overtures. So, the 28 committee members put forth a substitute motion on the assembly floor. Here’s a link to the original overture: http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Overture-43-Sav-R-Sanctity-of-Life-Marriage.pdf It was the opinion of the majority of the committee that the overture was not needed because “there is no lack of clarity regarding the PCA’s stand for the sanctity of marriage or the sanctity of life, biblically or constitutionally (WCF 24.1). Furthermore, we do not need an overture such as this to pray for, or encourage, those who suffer unjustly.” The committee gave three additional reasons, but this was the primary reason. After approximately an hour of debate (an agreed upon timeframe) on the assembly floor, there was a vote to make the substitute motion the main motion for Overture 43. It passed by an approximately 60%-40% vote. I didn’t write down the numbers, but it was a clear majority. The so-called minority report reads as follows:

Be it resolved that the Presbyterian Church in America expresses its gratitude to the Lord for sustaining by His grace ministers of the gospel, chaplains, and Christians serving in the public sphere who are experiencing ostracism, penalties, and persecution for taking a Biblically faithful stand for the sanctity of human life and declining to participate in the cultural redefinition of marriage; and

Be it further resolved that the General Assembly pause and offer prayer to the Lord on behalf of such ministers of the gospel, chaplains, and Christians.

And after the vote, my friend Jim Wert gave a passionate and heartfelt prayer as implementation of this resolution.

It was Overture 6 that received, both over the past year and this week, the grandest support. It was concerning Child Protection in the PCA and there was prayer for all of our children and children worldwide pleading for their protection and thanking God for His special care and love for them. You can read Overture 6 here: http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Overture-6-GA-Foothills-Child-Protection-in-the-PCA.pdf

That pretty much ended the business for the assembly. There was a thank you letter or resolution that was read. Then the moderator said that we were going to take a one-hour recess and move the evening’s worship service up to 4:30 PM instead of 7:30 PM. Since the musicians, worship leaders and preacher were all present we proceeded with that plan. Someone must’ve given some heads-up earlier in the day for all of those folks to be on deck.

I took another foray into the exhibitors’ hall. Many of you with connections to Intown know Laura Rodriguez. I talked to Laura when I saw her in a book publisher’s booth. Turns out her father owns a publishing company and publishes an eclectic line of previously out-of-print theology and political books, along with the works of authors in the PCA and his own books. Laura was sent out from Intown with the Mosaic Fellowship and is now seeking wisdom on what to do next since Mosaic is no longer a church plant.

I next visited with Rev. Matt Cadora again and he said what I was beginning to hear from others that this was the best GA he had ever attended. I said that Ray Cortese’s sermon on Tuesday had been one of the best I’d ever heard and he interrupted me before I could finish and said that it was THE best he had ever heard. [I do have a CD of Rev. Cortese’s sermon and will be happy to loan it to you after I’ve listened to it or put it on my iTunes.]

Again, the worship service was a mix of ancient and future that the Tuesday service had been. Eventually, I figured out that the influence of Indelible Grace had come through the RUF community at Belmont University in Nashville. No surprise there. Rev. Bill Sim preached the sermon. He is organizing and senior pastor of New Church of Atlanta, a Korean church started in 1997. He is the stated clerk of the Korean Southeastern Presbytery. A presbytery, by the way, that meets twice a year for about 3-4 days. He invited other presbyteries to consider doing that whenever they can. He said that they work together, play together, pray together, weep together and confess their sins together. He said that there are over 500 Korean teaching elders in the PCA. Again, I would recommend you listen to this sermon online or to download it at some point. You can download here. There are two stories that he told – one from his own life about coming to America 35 years ago and the other about missionaries to Korea who were martyred for their work about 90 years ago – that are priceless. He preached from Acts 20:17-38 and I’m sure had three points. I believe the points were about commitments and convictions, but his stories were the most powerful. And these were his exhortations:

We should cry more in the pulpit.

May the Lord soften our hearts.

May our commitment to orthodoxy lead us to love sinners.

May we let our commitment to the need for confession begin in the house of the Lord.

Our grace-filled convictions will bring us together.

It was an amazing sermon.

The PCA constitution states that we conclude our general assemblies by singing Psalm 103. So, we did.

It was a very satisfying and vision-enhancing gathering. Grateful to have participated.

Putting a bow on my 2014 General Assembly experience – Part 1

Juneteenth proved to be one of the more productive days for a PCA gathering as the annual assembly came to an end approximately a half-day early. I started the day with a quick shower and shave. I brush on the shaving soap and am now using my grandfather’s double-edged razor. That’s a #tbt for you. Then I was off to Starbucks for a latte, morning bun and banana. Next, I walked the mile to the Hilton where the GA was held for a half-hour meeting with Larry Bolden to discuss my writing workshops and how Wellspring Group might be able to use some of the concepts, and then we discussed the State of Your Heart book idea I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks. Larry loved the book idea, likes organizing the manuscript around themes and subjects. I explained that it had struck me recently that the SOYH updates that we do so often are effective teaching tools for those who read them and perhaps we should share those more widely. Larry suggested considering a 365-days format and that we could add some essays on how to write your own SOYH and some of my thoughts on journaling and examining our lives.

I then went upstairs to the Assembly business meeting to hear reports and vote on recommendations and nominations for committee members. In the Mission to North America report, the church planting report from Hutch Garmany who is planting a church in rural Trenton, GA, and Alejandro Villasana planting Christos Community Church a bilingual church in Norcross, GA, particularly inspired me. The plant in Trenton was launched by Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mtn. and the one in Norcross is from Perimeter. I was impressed by their desire for heart level change and deep connections to Jesus not numbers and facilities. Many of the reports being given were from the committees that met on Monday and Tuesday.

Before lunch, we got started with the report of the Overtures Committee that is chaired by our good friend and fellow Intown elder Jim Wert. In truly an amazing move, Jim recommended that the committee’s report and recommendations be passed in omnibus and it did! Except for a handful of exceptions. He was doubtful, but the GA Moderator Bryan Chapell gave it a go and worked through a much simpler process to pass on the less controversial overtures. We, then, with Jim’s leadership, acted on a couple of the overtures that were pulled out of the omnibus action. We then recessed for lunch until 1:30.

During the break, I read a bit in Matthew 26 about Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane. This is a very familiar passage to us, but I was particularly impressed with how Jesus ask his Father three times to take a way this cup of suffering and death. Might we be too timid in our request to the Lord to change our situations? Even Jesus asked three times, so we might feel free to ask the Father more than once, certainly. I also ate an apple, a peanut butter balance bar and a glass of water (inquiring minds…).

After lunch, I ran into Nathan Parker, an extended family (Phelans) friend who was recently called to Pinelands Presbyterian Church in the Cutler Bay suburb of Miami. He’s the senior pastor there since February. He said that it has been quite a cultural adjustment after spending the past three years in the UK earning his doctorate. Earlier in his vocational journey he was a youth minister (and probably other things) at ChristChurch in Atlanta. He sends his best to the Phelans, Intown and Atlanta.

Also, I had my all caps ENCOUNTER of the day when I talked with Dr. Marvin “Cub” Culbertson a ruling elder from Dallas. Cub has been in medicine (ENT doctor) for 68 years! There’s a major wing in a hospital in Dallas named after him. I talked about him in a previous blog. Yesterday, he was on the escalator behind me and asked, “How are we doing?”

I turned to discover a straw-hatted gentleman with a big smile and I said, “Great! How are you?”

And he replied, “As always, I’m better than I deserve.”

I then saw his nametag and said, “Dr. Culbertson! It’s great to see you!” I proceeded to introduce myself and reminded him that he had given me some advice back in 2008 at the GA in Dallas when I had a stomach virus. We had talked on the phone a couple of times and subsequently emailed each other.

He said, “Well, did my suggestions work?”

I said, “Yes. You suggested I go across the street to Denny’s and get some grits and some hot tea. And I felt much better after eating the grits and drinking the tea.”

He said, “Good. That’s why I’m here.”

Cub then took my hand and prayed for me and for himself. In his prayer, he looked forward to being with Jesus in heaven for both of us, but “sooner” for him he hoped. I asked him if I could give him a copy of my book “Sacred Heart Attack.”

“Of course! Can I share it with others?” he asked.

“Sure. Let me sign it for you.” I said.

He had already taken it and was asking me questions as he flipped through it. “Here, I like this page for you to sign, “ he said. It was the page with this quote on it from Henri Nouwen: The word lifts us up and makes us see that our daily, ordinary lives are, in fact, sacred lives that play a necessary role in the fulfillment of God’s promises.

How appropriate is that? Again, I felt God’s presence bringing a sacred moment in the midst of a busy day. That’s why He’s here.

To be continued

Wednesday at PCA GA was a potpourri of activity

A couple of things have been consistent about my experience so far at this 42nd PCA General Assembly, I’ve had breakfast every morning at a Starbucks inside and upscale office building lobby near my hotel. I carry my personal cup with a custom sleeve that specifies my drink of choice: tall vanilla latte.

Photo on 6-18-14 at 11.27 PMSecondly, I’ve been able to carve out a few minutes of solitude with God and his Word to keep my heart in balance in the midst of very hectic days. Third, I’ve done plenty of walking!

Outgoing Moderator Bruce Terrell presented on behalf of the Cooperative Ministries Committee, which is a committee made up of the assembly’s last five moderators. This seems to be a forward-looking group to identify what challenges are facing the denomination. According to their report, the Top 5 issues facing the PCA are the role of women in the PCA, homosexuality and related issues, the rising generation of leaders (how to make room for developing leaders with all of us older guys around!), making the General Assembly more attractive to younger pastors and all ruling elders, and practicing diversity in all areas of church life. The CMC has appointed subcommittee for each of these areas that will report back to them.So, what was Wednesday like? I can’t exactly put a theme on it, but it was probably a day of looking back. The morning session of the assembly was on the PCA Past, Present, and Future. This was a panel conversation by Stated Clerk Paul Taylor, newly elected Moderator Bryan Chapell and Birmingham, AL, church planter Murray Lee. They talked about effectiveness, faithfulness to Scripture and relevance in a trendy world. It reminded me of a comment by the late Rev. John Stott of the Church of England who talked about relevance to contemporary man without being relativistic.

Our Stated Clerk also released stats for last year and rather than list them here I’m going to refer you to ByFaith magazines website for those numbers: http://byfaithonline.com/stated-clerk-releases-2013-stats-on-the-pca/

We also heard from a variety of reformed denominations that share our theology and values. This was under the umbrella of the Committee of Commissioners on Interchurch Relations and Fraternal Greetings and was chaired by Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church pastor Walter Henegar. The greetings came from Mexico, Canada and across the US. These greetings include reports on progress within those denominations and an occasional inside theological jokes and barbs. Not sure why these are necessary.

During the lunch recess, I enjoyed a great meal sponsored by Wellspring Group to introduce commissioners to the process of heart-deep living and discipleship that Wellspring trains church leaders to engage in. There are lots of sponsored luncheons during the GA. Along with hearing from WG Executive Director Larry Bolden, we hear testimonials from Oak Mtn. PCA, Birmingham, founding pastor Bob Flayhart, church planter out of Rock Creek Church on Lookout Mtn. Hutch Garmany and adult ministries pastor from Oak Mtn. Greg Poole. As someone who has benefited from the Wellspring Group process, I was reminded again of the depth and breadth of God’s love and how he longs for us to be live from whole hearts of freedom and hope.

From there I went to what was for me the most dreaded and sad experiences of my participation in this year’s GA. This was the report of a study committee that came about in 2011 on the topic of so-called Insider Movements. Since the 39th General Assembly, this committee has reported on their analysis and critique of many Christians who have no affiliation with the PCA. Much of the analysis has been around Bible translation work for Muslim cultures and whether Muslims who become followers of Jesus can remain in their Muslim world. Hundreds and hundreds of pages have been written by this committee and ultimately for the past two years they have produced both a committee (sic; majority) report and a minority report with a critique of the minority report. And after much parliamentarian wrangling, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of the committee’s report that essentially condemns insider movements and some particular areas of Bible translation. I’ll refer you to the GA’s website for looking into this report if you’d like. Here’s the link: http://www.pcaac.org/general-assembly/commissioners/insider-movements/ This page says that this report hasn’t been acted upon, but the page hasn’t been updated. It was acted upon today.

Many of my personal views on this topic have to do with my personal experience with insiders in Muslim Bangladesh who have been baptized as followers of Jesus the Messiah and the challenge of producing an authentic translation of scripture that is based in Muslim culture rather than Hindu culture. One of the scriptures I look to for guidance is Mark 9: 38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” 39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us.

The rest of the session this afternoon was reports from different committees and agencies of the denomination. Tomorrow we’ll get into the Overtures Committee report led by my friend and fellow Intown elder Jim Wert.

I had a memorable dinner with some of the Wellspring Group team who are enjoying a great increase in traffic at their booth and lots of personal meetings for Executive Director Larry Bolden. How did I experience the dinner? Relaxing, celebratory and vision expanding.

Fun conversations of the day with: Troy Duble, VP of Advancement at Covenant College, Bruce Terrell, Matt Cadora and Peter Wang of Grace Redeemer of Teaneck, NJ with John Purcell. This morning I said farewell to my son Justin who returned to Dallas today. It was great to spend a couple of days with him in between all of this. He’s an exceptional young man.

I told you it was a hodge-podge day.



“Floored by Jesus” and other quotes from Tuesday at PCA GA

Since the commissioner committee on which I was serving met on Monday, I had a light schedule in the morning and got to spend some time with my middle son Justin Locklear who lives in Dallas. He drove down to Houston to catch up a bit and just “take a break” from his harried life as an actor, designer, playwright, barista, singer-songwriter and boyfriend. Included in our time was a visit to one of his college roommates who is now a barista at what is arguably Houston’s best coffee shop Catalina Coffee. OK, back to the General Assembly….

I had targeted a couple of seminars to attend on Tuesday afternoon, but one was cancelled due to illness of David Powlinson, Exec. Director of CCEF. He was scheduled to lead a session on “Being Heard: What are People Thinking When You Talk to Them?” So, I spent some time talking to John Purcell who has been a consultant to Intown over the past few years and a friend for more than 20 years. That led to my attending the seminar that he and Gordon Moore, Director of Operations and Support Ministries at Perimeter Church, were doing on “When Your Pastor Moves On – Best Practices in Pastoral Succession.”

In the seminar, Gordon shared what he had learned during a “pastor succession” tour he had done a couple of years ago when he visited 20 churches of various denominations that were at some point in a senior pastor transition. He said that he was given access to some of their board/session meetings, staff meetings and pastor search committee meetings along with interviewing key leaders to discover what had worked and what had not worked in the process. You can email John and Gordon at john@transform-coach.com and gordonm@perimeter.org for a copy of their PowerPoint, but Gordon’s first, and most important, takeaway was: The current Senior Pastor is the most important person in the process and is more important than the timing or strategy. The topic that received the most questions during the Q&A time was the need to have an Emergency Transition Plan should the senior pastor become suddenly ill or incapacitated. The plan should include operational assignments and a preaching plan.

John Purcell talked about what the leadership board or elder session needs to be doing during any transition. He stressed that a congregation needs to do intensive work on defining the church’s mission, vision, values and priorities. John said that after that work is done the church could develop a profile of the pastor they need to lead them in implementing their strategic plan. All of this requires lots of work, but is worth the effort. This is exactly what my home church Intown Community has been doing the past year and we believe we are much better prepared in our current search efforts. Of course, John said that there needs to be some room for tweaking the plan based upon who actually accepts the call from the church, but for the most part the congregation needs to be true to it’s real and aspirational identity.

After dinner, our friend and fellow ruling elder Bruce Terrell called the 42nd General Assembly to order. Bruce has been the Moderator for the past year and most of his work was done as of last night. Of course, those of us at Intown are exceptionally proud of his leadership and service. Bruce is a Ruling Elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City where he also serves at the church’s executive director.

The first order of business was a time of worship. The liturgy was fairly traditional and the music included a balance of traditional, including the African-American Spiritual “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley,” and two contemporary tunes: “Redeemed, Restored, Forgiven” featuring new music by Matthew Smith and Jeff Pardo to lyrics written in 1876 by Henry Baker; and “His Love Can Never Fail” music by Christopher Miner of Indelible Grace in 2004 and lyrics by E.S. Hall in 1897. I guess we like our lyrics from the 19th century and our music from the 21st.

All of this was a prelude to what was the highlight of the evening and possibly the week, the sermon by Ray Cortese, pastor of Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Leconta, FL.

The title for his sermon was “A Beautiful Orthodoxy” and it included stories from the life of incarnate Jesus and illustrations of when orthodoxy looks beautiful. In many ways this was homage to grace personified. He told stories of how people who had been hopeless were “floored by Jesus” that they saw in churches, individuals and families. It will be difficult for me to capture the sense of his teaching in a report. I’ll try to hit a few points of his outline, but I strongly encourage you to listen to the sermon online. I’ll get the link and post on my twitter and Facebook pages.

The scripture passage that Ray spoke from was Matthew 12:1-14 and after reading it, he said that the Pharisees were so orthodox that they missed Jesus because he wasn’t as orthodox as them. He then went into illustrating from Jesus and from those who follow Jesus the “Marks of Beautiful Orthodoxy.”

He had three marks that he highlighted: Humility, Mercy and Rest. He spent the most time on humility and at one point recited the song “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” He said that too often we cover ourselves by comparing ourselves with others. He also shared the story of Rosario Butterfield, the former Syracuse University professor who was converted through a series of dinners with the family of a pastor who regularly confessed his sin at the evening prayer before dinner. Concerning mercy, Ray referred to Jesus words describing a sheep falling into a pit that we should pick it up. Regardless of the day or time, mercy is always acceptable. Especially with people.

In a lighter note, Rev. Cortese quoted from C.S. Lewis and Frances Schaeffer during his sermon and said that if he also quoted from “Keller” that he would have the sermon “hat trick!” The final mark of beauty that Ray drew out of the Scripture was “Rest.” He reminded us of all those days in Egypt when God’s people were forbidden from resting. And how Jesus was the one who had made the Sabbath and how unique this concept was across our nation and world. And he gently challenged us to make rest a part of our relationship with God and our weekly lives. And not to get caught up in the “ceaseless work of our self validation. Pastoring is hard,” he said. And reminded us of his own story of grace from Romans 1. “There is a righteousness that comes from God,” and that makes all the difference. He concluded this mark with this reminder, “the Savior calls us to rest.”

Again, I’ll post the link of this passionate and clearly articulated sermon. Subsequently, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and concluded the service. Then, Moderator Terrell oversaw the election of his replacement – Dr. Bryan Chappell (more on Dr. Chappell tomorrow) and then received a special recognition from the Assembly. It was reported that we had 1,050 registered commissioners and over 800 of them are teaching elders.

Another personal note, I greeted former RUF minister at Emory and Intown Jeremy Jones who is a pastor in Memphis and his oldest son who is now 17 and, who I interviewed for confirmation, is now taller that Jeremy. Like many, Jeremy and his family cherish the relationships they had at Intown Community Church and School.

Reflections on friendship from my pre-GA activity

Friendship and camaraderie in the battle

This 42nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America officially comes into session this evening. During the day, six additional committees hold meetings as most of the six from yesterday completed their work. Of course the Overtures Committee will continue meeting today and the next couple of days most likely.

Yesterday, during an early morning briefing, I had one of those “is this seat taken” moments when the person asking turns out to be an old friend of mine.


Matt Cadora, now pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, used to live in Atlanta and was eventually an assistant pastor at my Intown Community Church home. We talked a little before the meeting got rolling and then a bit more afterwards. Like many, Matt sees the GA as a family reunion and a time to get refreshed. We spoke at a heart level very quickly.

Later in the day I had lunch with Greg Poole who is pastor of discipleship and adult ministries at Oak Mountain Church in Birmingham, AL. We’ve become friends through our participation in the Wellspring Group retreats and being fellow runners. We talked about our children, churches and an idea for a book project that we might collaborate on in the future. We were surprised that an unassuming looking restaurant called The Grove that was near the convention center hotel was actually an upscale watering hole for the business elite and wannabe’s. We went


on in wearing our running shoes and casual attire. And enjoyed some good salads and good service.

The bonds of friendship, when built on experiences of work, struggle and honesty, are easily picked up at a moments notice. These two men reminded me that we are wealthy, indeed, if we have friends with whom we can be ourselves. And with a good foundation, we can re-connect and find rest for our souls.

I’ll post some more reflections later this evening.

Day One (or -1) of the 2014 PCA GA – Pre-General Assembly Committee Meetings

Caring for physical and spiritual needs

I’m participating in one of the committees of commissioners this year. This is about as pre-pre as one can get without being a director or staff member with the denomination’s various offices and subsidiaries/ministries.

As with most conventions, many things have changed over the years. Most of those changes have been precipitated by the growth and collaboration of para-church ministries, technology and expectations.

With an ever-increasing exhibitor population, from the get-go pastors and ruling elders are attention challenged.

The General Assembly has some very specific business matters to handle as, essentially, the denomination’s supreme court. At the same time, it is equal parts family reunion, worship retreat, fellowship, training seminar, networking event, and oversight body hearing reports on progress within the denomination’s agencies.

In the briefing session for committee members, the General Assembly’s Stated Clerk Dr. L. Roy Taylor said, “Everything should be done decently and in order.” He also said that it is part of our DNA as Presbyterians that we are distinctive with regard to our governing structure. But that’s not a bad thing if we are able to learn from the lessons of the past and seek to affirm the commitments that have brought us to where we are and not try to re-invent or re-do the past, even if we are allowed.

There were six committees that met today and there will be six more tomorrow.  I served on the PCA Retirement and Benefits, Inc. Committee of Commissioners. It was my first experience on this committee and I was officially representing the Metro Atlanta Presbytery. Each presbytery may have one ruling elder and one teaching elder on each committee.

Amongst the highlights of my experience were hearing that there is a benefits guidelines package for churches and presbyteries to use when new pastors are called, the amount of capital that a non-profit provider needs is equal to six months of operating expenses, and preparing “baby boomers” for retirement is a growing trend.

The agency has taken some commendable steps in recent years to provide the kind of products and services that are of the highest quality and best practices for a community of faith in Jesus Christ. PCA R&BI has transitioned two large-cap investment funds to 75% morally screened index funds and they are offering to provide management assistance with no special management fees to all retirement plan participants. So, participants will get the kind of portfolio balancing necessary for optimal returns targeted to their expected retirement age. Of course, participants can opt out of managed offering if they want to continue to direct their investments personally.

The aspect of the agency that I was personally most taken by was PCA Ministerial Relief: A ministry of encouragement and financial assistance. This is the ministry to widows and widowers within the PCA family, as well as pastors and their families who are in financial or other types of distress. Widows are a growing segment of society’s population and the church is no exception. So, there is an equally increasing opportunity for caring for and befriending the widows in our congregations and communities.

Several months ago while in Montreal, Quebec, I read a major study in a local newspaper on how many people live alone, eat alone, and spend their days without connecting with anybody. The numbers are staggering. And the older we get, the more “alone” we become. Like most people, our widows need friendship and normal relationships. Like people who have disabilities, cancer or other health challenges, we shy away from engaging with those who are different from ourselves. Of course, this flies in the face of the way that Jesus lived when he went out of his way to connect with the outcast or the isolated. From the tax collector and the leper to the widow and the disabled, Jesus felt a special connection to those who were friendless.

I felt strongly challenged by the Spirit and the Word to re-think my giving priorities and to look for ways to reach out to widows and widowers in my local congregation and community. One disappointing statistic that challenged all of us was that the ministerial relief team has received approximately $665,000 in gifts and donations this year for giving to those in need and some 70 percent of our churches do not participate at all. It seems that this is incongruous with the vision for our diaconates and small groups who are charged with taking care of the poor and needy among us.

These passages from Scripture instruct our hearts to action:

Acts 6: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

1 Timothy 5:  Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

I’ll leave you with that from today’s PCA GA. The peace of the Lord be with you all.





Blogging the Presbyterian Church in America’s General Assembly: “I remember when…”

I’ll be attending next week’s (June 17-20, 2014) PCA General Assembly in Houston, TX. It is the denomination’s 42nd such gathering and this year’s theme is “Proclaim Christ, Disciple the Nations” and was chosen by the host presbytery’s in Houston. The Houston Metro and Korean Southern are the local hosts and they report that Houston officially has 70 countries represented in the metro area of southeast Texas. There are 32 PCA churches in this area and most are Korean.

My first PCA GA was in 1976 in Greenville, SC and was the denomination’s fourth such gathering. Lots of things have changed since then. I was a young campus staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship working at Georgia Tech, LaGrange College and a few other colleges and was a member of a PCA Church. I had joined First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, while in college at UTC in 1972. So, I was in that church when we voted to leave the PCUS and help start this new denomination. While working with IVCF in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin, I was an associate member of two PCA churches and one PCUSA church, respectively.

So, I attended that 4th GA representing InterVarsity with a table to promote our college student and faculty ministry and the huge Urbana Student Missionary Convention we sponsored in December that year. I have three rather vivid memories from that event.

One, I arrived early to set up my table with IVP books, Urbana brochures and flyers on our ministry to college students in the Southeast. Some friends at InterVarsity Press had learned of my participation at the event and offered me some plastic InterVarsity Bags to give out at the event. So, I had a car trunk full of these shiny white bags with logos all over it and a nice handle. The idea of bags at conventions and trade shows was a very new innovation and not as common as it is now. I went to the registration table and observed all of the material that folks were being asked to carry. I talked to the woman managing the process and said that I had all these bags that we’d be happy to provide for all of the commissioners. She was thrilled! And so was IVCF Regional Director Pete Hammond when he showed up at the event the next day wondering what I had done to get everyone to be a walking advertisement for our ministry. That experience became a career changing experience for me later on and I moved into public relations and media work.

My second memorable experience happened a couple of nights later. I was driving to my motel (Day’s Inn) after a long day of talking to pastors about college ministry and went through the parking lot of a large shopping center where there happened to be a movie theater. I saw a man in a suit, carrying a raincoat and what looked like two or three newspapers walking across the lot headed toward the theater. I thought he looked familiar, so, I circled back and was pretty sure it was Rev. Ben Haden my pastor from Chattanooga who had a growing presence on radio and TV with his sermons on the “Changed Lives” program. I thought this was a good opportunity to visit with Ben. First Pres. was a major supporter of my ministry and Ben was always intrigued by the university world. It would be fun to talk with him.

Ben had already gone into the theater by the time I parked and walked to the ticket window. This was a duplex theater with two screens (another that’s changed dramatically since 1976). I asked the girl at the window if she remembered for what movie the man in the suit had just bought a ticket. She said, “Yes. Who is he?” I said that he was a well-known preacher from Chattanooga and a friend of mine. And I bought a ticket for the same movie and went inside. This was a massive theater by today’s standards and it was a weeknight. There were probably 12 people in a room that would seat 400.

Am I really going to do this? I walked down the aisle to where Ben was sitting and asked, “Is this seat taken?” He immediately looked up in wonder about who wants to sit here when there are hundreds of empty seats and then burst into laughter when he recognized that it was me. I sat down and we were able to chat during the movie without disturbing the sparse crowd watching the original “The Bad News Bears” with us! I eventually drove Ben back to his hotel and we sat in my car and talked about people, lawyers, newspapers, the Gospel and our callings. In the years that followed whenever I saw Ben, especially in a crowd, that story would surface and he would laugh at my “Is this seat taken?” question in an empty theater. Ben loved a good story and this became one of his favorites.

Finally, the third memory from the Greenville gathering (although this one is a bit fuzzy and may have occurred the following year in Smyrna, GA) was sitting in the balcony of a church beside R.C. Sproul during some business proceedings and a worship service. Non-commissioners were relegated to the balcony and that included Dr. Sproul even though he had spoken to the assembly. During the previous winter, I had enjoyed the privilege of attending a weekend conference at R.C.’s Ligonier Valley (PA) Study Center. He was an emerging leader in reformed theological circles with an aptitude for contemporary issues that made his study center (with a growing archive of resources modeled after Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri community in Switzerland) the secret landing spot for political figures like Chuck Colson who were looking for theological answers to some of life’s hard questions. My conference experience was a rare and intimate time with a man who gave me confidence that Christianity could withstand any intellectual or scholarly pursuit. He also impressed me as a man deeply humbled by the grace given to him and he was as surprised as anyone about his love for debate and philosophical endeavor along with doctrine and theology. And he loved golf. I, also, got to see him co-teach with his wife Vesta on marriage and family. Again, a rare and special treat to have been at his home in Pennsylvania and now to sit beside him at GA. His annotations and quick-witted observations, salted with quotes from theologians of the past made for an entertaining session at the meeting.

I’m not sure what memories I’ll take from this upcoming assembly, but I do expect to have them. I’ll be representing my church Intown Community Church and the Metro Atlanta Presbytery as a commissioner and a member of PCA Retirement & Benefits Committee. My last GA participation was in the Lone Star state, too, when the denomination met in Dallas in 2008. My strongest memory of that experience was spending the last 24 hours of the meeting with a terrible case of food poisoning and getting to meet Dr. Marvin “Cub” Culbertson and receiving his wonderful care and friendly doctor advice: what a gentle and loving spirit.

Look for my reports from Houston.

Why is Tim Keller publishing so many books? And how could that be hurting the church?

Just about ten years ago, Rev. Timothy Keller was known as one of America’s truly great pastors and church planters. He had gone into one of the arguably toughest cities into which to build a church and actually succeeded in planting a sustainable church that led to several other churches being spawned in the Northeast United States and in other major cities around the world. Demand for Keller’s help began to increase and like most in demand people do, he began to think about how to package his insights, strategies and approaches to understanding God, the world and the Bible so that he could satisfy the demand. He hired editors and marketers and communication professionals to assist him. And, in short order, Keller became a New York Times Best Selling author. Given what I know of Rev. Keller, I’m sure it is not his intention to undermine the work and service of anyone.


In American business, sports and in American Christianity, success breeds success. Effective authors become popular and build a following of readers – an audience. And as Keller became more popular demand for his published works increased. Sound familiar? In 2008, he published two best-selling books and since then he’s published eight more, plus three study guides for small groups. And more have been published since I drafted this essay about 10 months ago.

My concern with this common occurrence is that my local pastor and your community’s leaders get compared to Keller. Our society is full of the competitive spirit. And while competition may be helpful in sports and business, it can be harmful in community and relationships. A person created in God’s image and with a special part to play in God’s eternal love story doesn’t get appreciated and encouraged to play their part, but is seen as lackluster and average compared to the more successful members. The Apostle Paul spoke straightforwardly about this in the early life of the communities who followed Jesus. Competition was a problem 2,000 years ago, too. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul said that God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 

The competitive spirit is one of the things that can wound us. Paul knew this and Jesus taught this. So often Jesus talked about raising up the lesser among us and those who are weak would be made strong through hanging out with him. Jesus knew, as creator, that everyone created has a gift to bring to the community. And Paul taught this for the early followers of Jesus.

When was the last time that you heard a leader in your faith community promote the church down the street? Or a speaker praise another speaker and say that you should listen to him or buy her books before buying mine? When was the last time that a conference promoter encouraged you to hang out with the poor or immigrant in your community before attending another religious event? And this is not the whole point of my essay today. My point is that we need each other. And if we are too focused on those in the spotlight, we will miss important gifts to be received from those on the fringe. And my other point is that competition can undermine our brothers and sisters among us who have valuable contributions to make.

Jesus calls all of us to be compassionate as his heavenly father is compassionate. And compassion which quite literally means “to suffer with” requires less competition and focus on how we are different, but focusing on how we are the same. What we have in common leads to community and compassion.

A few takeaways from “In the Name of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen

I read this book over a year ago and some of the themes raised by Nouwen are still resonating with me. Here are a few:

Reflections on Christian Leadership based upon a lecture he gave in Washington DC in the mid 1980s on The Future of Christian Leadership.
Reflections on Christian Leadership based upon a lecture he gave in Washington DC in the mid 1980s on The Future of Christian Leadership.

1. The Temptation: To Be Spectacular. What are ways that I try to do things individualistically? Most everything — around the house; with my health. Instead of asking for help, I tend to say, “I’ve got this.” Why do I hesitate to ask for help? Am I afraid to expose my weakness? Fear of confessing my sin? Instead, we try to show strength, think big, pray big, so that we can become big. I don’t recall “blessed are those who think big for they will become big.” Instead Nouwen calls leaders to listen to Jesus who said, “Feed My Sheep” and to live lives of confession and forgiveness.

2. Henri shows profound insight to the challenges that pastors, ministers and church leaders face: “What if my people [congregation] really knew how I feel?”

He wrote, “When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the Gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body quickly takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy. Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body, not only their own bodies, but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit.” (pp. 67-68)

This is so powerful. And is an approach that many can’t take because we lack faith. We fear being vulnerable. How do I do this in my church? Can you help us, Lord? Where do you want us to live in the body?

3. Recapturing Community — The need for simple community is real and ongoing. While we desire closer connections with fellow human beings, we fear the disclosure that more intimate connections will bring. Nouwen challenges leaders to allow themselves to be led.

If my friends come for a meal, they will see my old furniture, dirty carpet, and my food choices. What will they think? The first century church saw a vision of the body of Christ and the beauty of enjoying freedom and grace. They looked at each other and saw the resurrected Jesus. Instead of old carpet, we can see the hospitality of Jesus.

This book is available on most every book selling website. Here is the publisher information:

  • Paperback: 107 pages
  • Publisher: The Crossroad Publishing Company (October 1, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0824512596
  • ISBN-13: 978-0824512590

Cardiac Rehab: Chapter 7 – Chicken, Chili and Cornbread

I love receiving freshly cooked meals delivered to our door. It makes being under the weather just a bit easier to bear. And the visits with some of our closest friends during January and February made the food taste just that much better.

Food-Wine-3         Most folks had a few minutes to visit and usually started off by saying, “You look good. How do you feel?”

Remember: It’s hard for me to give a short answer. “I feel good, a bit tired, but happy to be home,” I said. “I find it hard to believe that I actually had a major heart attack,” I explained.

I remember a conversation with Dan and Debbie Gyger. They are some of our longtime friends through our church. Dan is an elder and residential contractor and had recently remodeled our kitchen, dining and living rooms. Debbie is an accomplished nurse and grew up in Brazil as part of a missionary family. They have three daughters and brought us some amazing tortilla soup and salad.

Jenny was not home from school yet, so I sat and talked with Dan and Deb. Being a nurse, Deb had pretty specific questions about where the blockage had been and what the doctors did. She instantly picked up on the seriousness of having a one-hundred percent blocked left anterior descending artery was and how close to death I had been. They were both very serious in their comments and thankfulness to God on my behalf. Dan prayed for Jenny, our family and me before they left.

I coughed through most of the conversation as I was still feeling the effects of my allergic reaction to Benazepril. Even though the cough was the result of a chemical reaction, it was like most every cough that took on a mind of its own whenever the air flowed through my throat. It was uncontrollable. So, the best way to quiet it was to close my mouth and calm myself. Of course, the cough made my visitors uncomfortable as they were thinking that they didn’t want to make things worse for me. Consequently, they didn’t want to linger and make me have to talk to them.

The gifts of food and the visits of friends was another example of how suffering is a catalyst for community. If we are willing to share our weakness and fragility with others, folks are eager to come to our aid. My friends Jean Vanier and Curt Armstrong of L’Arche have pointed this out many times. Namely, we should be more trusting of the human heart. As we trust and allow others to share in our weakness, we bring out the glory and essence of our brothers and sisters who have been made in the image of God. I found this to be true as friends shared their good food and acts of kindness with us in our time of need.