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-199x300

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

images

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Is this heaven?

It was the night of February 28 – March 1 when I had been up all night the day before with an acute case of pancreatitis that I had this dream about heaven. It was, at least, a dream about a place where Jesus was present along with lots of people who loved him. You can decide if it sounds like heaven to you.

I was in the hospital for what would become the first of seven nights when I received this gift to comfort me in the midst of pain. The pain had quieted enough for me to sleep, which was something I hadn’t experienced for a few nights.

Being able to remember the details of a dream and to be buoyed emotionally by that memory are unusual for me. Like most folks I tend to dream various themes related to daily activities or past experiences that are quickly forgotten once I am awakened. This was different.

The dream began in a car. I was traveling with a few friends. Some I hadn’t seen in years and others I knew quiet well. That was typical of a Facebook-enriched subconscious mind. We were driving a bit too fast going south on Briarcliff Road in northeast Atlanta. As we turned left onto E. Ponce de Leon Avenue, we lost control and in a flash we were traveling in a hovercraft and making our approach into a welcome center port that reminded me of the entrance to an Epcot Center exhibit of the 1980s. We climbed out and were greeted by very deeply pleasant people of varying ages. You can tell when people are authentically happy by their eyes and demeanor. They were fully present with us. They directed us toward a portion of the expansive lobby that was a bit more narrow and featured window displays and exhibits of food, clothing and vehicles. I sensed that I should pay attention to these exhibits for future selections. I didn’t notice what people were wearing as I was so drawn to their faces and expressions of peace and wholeness – what we often call shalom.

Shortly, then, I walked outside to a beautiful sunlit sky and people in all directions as far as I could see. Everyone was walking and talking. And as I passed by there was a smile and a nod. Some of the people I passed I felt that I knew or had some connection with. I noticed one friend and went over to greet him. I observed that nobody was alone. There were some folks walking and some sitting, but nobody sat alone.

Occasionally, I caught the brief flash and gleam of another hovercraft landing near the entrance of the cave structure. And there were storefronts scattered along the way. I couldn’t tell if they were bakeries or coffee shops, but there were many one-story buildings and people walking in and out in random patterns.

Also, there was an unmistakable buzz. Something was about to happen. Jesus was on his way to speak to everyone. The buzz was one of familiarity. His appearance was not being anticipated with fear or uncertainty, but with a positive energy, like a friend saying, “This is going to be so good!”

I had never been in a place or atmosphere like this. It was new, but I felt completely at home and relaxed. Everyone was so happy to be here. Everyone.

That’s when it began to dawn on me that this must be a vision of heaven. Where else would it be?

  1. Everyone happy to be there.
  2. Nobody was alone.
  3. Folks couldn’t wait to see Jesus.

Heaven.