“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.

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.

What Does Beauty Tell Us?

I’ve been using John Eldredge’s “Knowing the Heart of God” devotional this year. The daily entries are excerpts from his and Stasi’s books. So, it is a bit uneven for me, but lately I’ve drawn inspiration, comfort and insight from the entries.

Right now the entries are on Beauty. From their book “Captivating” John and Stasi shared this excerpt from St. Augustine: I said to all these things, “Tell me of my God who you are not, tell me something about him.” And with a great voice they cried out: “He made us” (Psalm 99:3). My question was the attention I gave to them, and their response was their beauty.

I love the obvious and profound that is often overlooked in search for the complicated and esoteric. As we celebrate the beauty of nature in the springtime of the year, let us receive all that beauty offers us in appreciating the life given us by God. We are reminded again that the heavens are telling a story. And so are the Azaleas, Tulips, Davids and Jennifers.

Beauty tells us that God values completeness and heartfelt rest and room for our souls to breathe. We were made for harmony and wholeness, and beauty has a role in restoring the brokenness as God uses his Best to bring us back home.

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.

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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.

Anima Christi

Although this has been around for 600 years or so, I have just recently discovered the beauty and power of this prayer.

Soul of Chirst, sanctify me

Body of Christ, save me

Blood of Christ, inebriate me

Water from Christ’s side, wash me

Passion of Christ, strengthen me

O good Jesus, hear me

Within thy wounds hide me

Suffer me not to be separated from Thee

From the malicious enemy defend me

In the hour of my death call me

And bid me come unto Thee

That I may praise Thee with Thy saints

and with Thy angels

Forever and ever

Amen