What do you expect God to do? Part 1: Respond

If you are a person of faith or a person of prayer, you must’ve asked that question in your conscious or unconscious mind at some point. And if you are a person who reads the Bible or listens to others read it in a house of worship or in your own house, you may wonder what should you expect to happen after you read a few or several sentences in one of the books of the Bible.

Just this morning I read Psalm 106:1-5 in the October 21st liturgy entry in “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals” (Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove & Okoro) and I was struck by what I was reading. Even more, I was thinking that these verses were a prayer or song directed to God when they were originally written, and that I had a choice in my own heart as to whether this was my prayer, my spoken words to the Holy Spirit. Or, I could just mindlessly and heartlessly read them and go ahead and finish the whole liturgy for the day. Do you ever do that: Read something of profound value without any engagement whatsoever? Do we expect that through some mystical operation we will derive some benefit from silently mouthing the words of Scripture? Thus, the bigger question: What do we expect God to do?

First and foremost, we should expect God to respond. At the most basic level, it is fair to expect engagement from God if we have engaged with the words we are saying/thinking that are addressed to our Creator. Now, do you wait for a response?

Let’s look at the prayers that I read today. This is verse 4: Lord, remember me when you show favor to your people. Help me when you save them.

So, if you said that to a friend, a parent or a sibling what would you expect in response? Maybe a quick, “OK,” or perhaps a “got you covered!” would be fine or perhaps a more in-depth, “You are one of mine, so, yes I’m going to save you when I save all of my children.”

Would that be a fair expectation? Does that seem too casual for God?

Jesus and Thomas by Caravaggio (1602)
Jesus and Thomas by Caravaggio (1602)

Or would any of those sound like the resurrected Jesus when he said, “Put your finger here (in my side),” to Thomas in response to his indirect request for concrete evidence that the same Jesus who was crucified was now alive.

Don’t you think it is fair to expect that statements, conversations and requests that are recorded for our benefit in the Bible should be actionable for us today?

And Thomas wasn’t even in the same place with Jesus when he made his request. And it was a random request that didn’t follow any liturgical framework or Jewish tradition. [the painting was by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio whose works I have used before]

And Thomas’ response to Jesus’ response was worship. Not surprising either. So, I would suggest to you to try expecting God to respond when your words are heartfelt and expressive of your true desires. Listen for his reply. Give some time to the conversation as you would anyone else in your life. Expect God to do something. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Look for “Part 2: Offer a new idea” at this same site next week.

Going to the temple at the hour of prayer: Who does that?

It seems crazy, but I’ve recently been thinking about the concept of having a regular hour to pray. When it comes to exercise, reflection, quiet time or personal study time, most of us establish a pattern. Many of us like routines, habits and schedules. And those of us who don’t like schedules realize that with our busy or over crowded lives we have to schedule some things in order to meet the expectations of others.

I’ve come to see prayer as a conversation with the triune God: Father, Son or Jesus and the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God who lives in our hearts. Unfortunately, I have too often felt or believed that there is a fixed distance between God and me, so I’ve often felt that I was speaking to someone “up there.” You know, “the Man upstairs” or the “King who sits on a throne high and lifted up.” It makes it hard to feel any intimacy with God with those images. But I’ve more recently come to see God as a real father and Jesus as the one that so many people – especially the weak – approached when he walked the streets of Israel’s cities and villages and the Spirit as actually, truly residing in my heart. I’ve come to take the teachings about God in the Bible as actionable. Our re-born bodies are even described as the “temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Needless to say, that has improved my relationship with God in some amazing ways. With the Spirit living with me, I can have an ongoing dialogue instead of always talking to myself like I used to do. I’ve turned the monologue into a dialogue. With the closeness of God being a reality, I now realize that I don’t have to talk ABOUT God when I could be talking to him. I don’t have to try to impress others with my theological depth or saying things in a certain sequence (Jesus called that “piling up empty phrases” in Matthew 6:7), but I can be real and speak directly to God. It’s amazing, but it’s been God’s approach from the very beginning. Like when he used to walk through the garden in the cool of the evening to check in with Adam and Eve. Our relationship was broken, but then Jesus paid the price for our restoration.

Certainly there are enough illustrations in the Bible that would lead us to accept that we can pray most any time and most all the time. Is there also a place for a scheduled time to pray? Do we want to make sure that we not only pray in the quietness of our own souls, but also in community or family?

Although I don’t know how the tradition came about, in first century religious practice there was a “Jewish” or faith community habit of a daily hour of prayer. We first see this in Acts 3 when Peter and John went to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour or 3:00 PM.  This seems like the perfect time to pray, especially as a community. It is usually a time when we are looking for a second wind for the day. This is a coffee break time for many. It is the break from an after lunch siesta or a short nap in some cultures.

If you try to work at your vocation until 5:00, 5:30 or 6:00 and you are a knowledge worker or even a physical worker, this is a critical time to decide if you’re going to accomplish anything else during today’s work segment. If you are a fulltime parent or caregiver, you may have a different routine. But it is pivotal. It can be a time of temptation or it can be a time of miraculous healing. For Peter and John it was a common activity based upon a desire to connect with each other and with God. But for those who were crippled, it was a time of deep longing for wholeness, for help.

Here’s the story,

Acts 3 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple.  Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.  But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (ESV)

But for those who were crippled, it was a time of deep longing for wholeness, for help. In some way that applies to all of us. This man was not even expecting healing – perhaps he had given up – but God heard his deepest longing.

Have you given up on the healing of your deepest brokenness? Have you given up on praying at all, but you can still muster a cry for help to people who will listen and help? Even if you can’t bring yourself to pray, ask somebody to pray for you. And if you pray, think about setting a time each day to go with others to the temple.

 

 

Testing My Heart of Faith

There are times when I (we?) feel good about how I’m doing in my walk with God. I feel as though I’m listening to God’s voice and making sincere effort to follow His commandments. It is a comparison game that my own self-centered hearts get’s me into. You know, I haven’t yelled at anyone in the last week. I’ve been listening well and being fully present with those I’ve encountered. And I’ve tried to be honest and not deceptive in my work.I’ve been friendly to my neighbors.
Comparison in our own minds is a dangerous endeavor.
It distracts me from doing what I need to be doing. I’m in essence patting myself on the back for having received some measure of grace, but somehow thought that it was of my own doing. How self-diluted of me. What’s the corrective in these situations when I’m giving myself of good grade? Reading any word from God’s Word. The Spirit has a way of using a word of truth to break down our walls of self-centeredness. I’m not talking about the times when we hear the voice of the Father say, “Well done.” Or an echo of God from my fellow travelers who appreciate me and the acts of kindness I do. I’m talking about when I’m operating from the false self, not the true me. The I’ve got it all together false pride from some kind of score keeping that I do.
That’s what I was doing this morning when I was reading the June 26 entry in “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals” that was put together by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove a few years ago. And the Spirit took Psalm 119: 136 and pierced my gut with it. Here are the words the Psalmist wrote:

My eyes shed streams of tears,
because people do not keep your law.

“When have you done this? “ the Spirit asked. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that, I thought. 
That’s the kind of testing of my heart that God had for me today. It was eye-opening and heart-awakening.

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

“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.

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.

Chapter 3 — In Search of a Cardiologist

I’m not sure how many hours I slept last night, but I was eager to get up and get started in finding a cardiologist. Jenny and I both made calls to Emory Clinic doctors. I called Dr. Donald Davis, my internist and primary care physician, to let him know about my surprise heart attack and to ask him for a recommendation to a cardiologist. His nurse responded with a “glad you’re okay” and no particular recommendation, but a blanket recommendation of any of the Emory cardiologists.

Jenny talked to her cardiologist who said that he could see me next week. I held out for someone to see me this week. So, we contacted the general cardiology department at Emory and were offered an appointment for Friday with Dr. Wissam Jaber at Emory Midtown which used to be Crawford Long Hospital. We took it and continued doing research. My friend Joe Hope had touched base with me and had said that his neighbor was a cardiologist at another hospital and he could ask him for a favor if I wanted. Ultimately, I declined in favor of staying in the Emory system for this initial visit and then we’d decide about ongoing care.

That would turn out to be the right decision for a surprising number of reasons. Dr. Jaber went to med school at American University in Beirut, Lebanon and then had residency at Duke University Medical Center and The Mayo Clinic. He was fairly new to Emory Healthcare and I would come to know – fluent in French. So, at our first appointment on Friday he could read that summary notes that my Dr. Guy Lalonde, my Montreal cardiologist, had written in English as well as all of the notes and write ups from other members of the medical team that were written in French. This was truly evidence of God’s sovereignty in our daily lives and a significant encouragement to me in my desire to begin understanding the sacredness of my journey toward rehab and improvement.

In the midst of a growing realization that “yes” in the largest sense I was “OK”, but that I was forever changed and my body could fail me, the signs of God’s love and care were often like flashing lights on a roadside barricade reminding me that he was still aware of my journey. This was comforting to know as my cough and sleeplessness would persist.

Dr. David Benner’s Great Essay on Prayer as Conversation

Prayer as Conversation 

By Dr. David G. Benner

One of the problems with so-called “conversational prayer” is that our prayer is nothing more than a monologue.  We do all the talking and never even consider that God might be doing more than listening. The problem with our understanding of prayer is that we don’t take it seriously enough.  If we really believed that prayer was conversation we would not be nearly as rude as we often are.  We would talk less and listen more.

The good news is that God is ever reaching out in self-revealing love and has no more ceased being Revelation than being Love.  The prayer conversation always begins with God.  It does not begin with us.  Prayer is our response to a Divine invitation to encounter.  The prayer conversation has already begun because God has already reached out, seeking our attention and response.  Until we learn to attend to the God who is already present and communicating, our prayers will never be more than the product of our minds and wills.  But prayer has the potential to be so much more.  It can be the response of our spirit to God’s Spirit as we open the totality of our being to the God who resides in our deep center and longs to meet us there.

From:  Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer

Pausing for Reflection:

§  How would your practice of prayer be different if you really believed that the prayer conversation starts with God? How could you better attend to the God who is already present and already communicating?

Prayer:    Grant me the grace to know that you have no more ceased being Revelation than you have ceased being Love.

For more great resources and something to ponder on the spiritual life go to Dr. Benner’s website  http://www.drdavidgbenner.ca/opening-to-god/ or Facebook page: www.facebook.com/DrDavidGBenner

Living our Christianity in our own heads

I recently mentioned in a focus group at my church that too often we live our faith within our own heads. Being a church where doctrinal beliefs are one of our key differentiators probably leads us down this path. And, I’m sure there are a host of other reasons. The problem is that good ideas don’t get implemented and people with quiet needs don’t get served.

Enlivening our imaginations should be the result of hearing and experiencing Jesus and biblical truth. When we hear how Jesus listened to cries for help, we should ask ourselves to do the same. It’s right to think about how I can listen like Jesus. Asking any number of questions about how my life can reflect the doctrines or beliefs that are taught in the Bible is a great exercise. The problem comes when those great ideas stay there!

Living and implementing my faith is critical to increasing the Kingdom of God, growing in maturity myself and seeing community flourish. How do we do that?

1)   Recognize we are on a common journey and ask for others to help us. Being in a fellowship or small group where there is “heart level” sharing and no fear of being embarrassed by sharing a weakness or struggle is necessary for growth and maturity.

2)   Find some time for solitude to share with God your desire to change and live more like Jesus in all of your relationships. There simply is no substitute for time alone with our Maker and Sustainer. If we want to live a Jesus-actualized life, then we don’t have to look very far at his pattern of activity to see that times of solitude were foundational for every day of Jesus’ journey.

3)   Surprise one of your friends, neighbors or relatives and share something you’ve been thinking about. It is critical to begin releasing the imaginations of your heart and mind so that they don’t stay in your head. If you have been thinking about reaching out to one of your neighbors or co-workers, next time you see them start a conversation with them. Find out what’s going on in their world and try to shake their hand, give them a hug or pat them on the shoulder. That’s what Jesus would do.

I’ve recently reflected on Isaiah’s vision for how God desires for us to live. This is from Isaiah 58:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.” If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

10 if you offer your food to the hungry
 and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
 whose waters never fail.

There are some amazing realities that Isaiah paints for us in this picture of shalom. We will be given light, access to God’s heart – “Here I am,” strength for our bones and water for the gardens of our lives. And it seems to all get rolling as we release our minds from the thoughts and fears that bind up our lives and act. Realizing that God prefers a “fast” that serves others and doesn’t focus on my sacrifice should also be a clue for us.