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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on friendship from my pre-GA activity

Friendship and camaraderie in the battle

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

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


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

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


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

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

I’ll post some more reflections later this evening.

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

Caring for physical and spiritual needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These passages from Scripture instruct our hearts to action:

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look for my reports from Houston.

Cardiac Rehab – Chapter 10 – My February 7, 2013 Reflection

I have been reading “Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year” by Henri Nouwen over the past three months. I have felt a strong connection with Henri for a few years, but I’ve recently felt an even greater kinship since getting to know his close friend Nathan Ball and also having a heart attack as Henri did twice and eventually died from the second attack in 1996.

Henri didn’t know that his sabbatical year was going to be his last on earth. He had written and published journal-style books a couple of times previously. Both “The Road to Daybreak” and “The Inner Voice of Love” were diaries of significant times in his life. Henri always wrote. And his interaction with God and others has made for instructional and inspirational reading for many, many people.

I have the feeling that I need to write for publication. I’m not sure if it’s because of my exposure to Nouwen and experiencing his books so profoundly or because writing comes naturally. I am able to share from my heart so readily. I have thought about turning my heart attack experience into a book.

It’s possible that my heart attack was a catalyst to get me to listen to God’s voice that has been calling me to write for some months, years. As I’ve mentioned before, there is a certain freedom that comes from a near death experience that I had only theorized about in the past. We all tend to theorize about life’s “what if’s.” If I won the lottery, I would…. The truth comes when we have the fulfillment of one of those “what if” scenarios.

I started a book in the summer of 2011 and had the manuscript pretty well completed by the beginning of 2012. I had asked a few friends to read it and received some good feedback, but the publishing process had stalled out, as I had no sense of urgency.

Sacred Heart Attack 2: Rehab – Chapter 9 – “What about all of that running?”

It was about two and a half weeks after my heart attack that I was talking to Lauren, RN with United Healthcare, about what had happened and how my recovery was going. The conversation was a bit of an odd experience. If you ever have a major illness or medical emergency, these days, a nurse from your insurance company will likely call you to see how you are doing and to offer suggestions. In my case, it was a welcomed voice in the midst of a rather quiet time of not doing anything, but waiting for my body to get stronger. {Of course, I was reading a bit and I had started journaling the events of Montreal that would eventually become my book Sacred Heart Attack.}

At some point in our conversation, I told RN Lauren about all of the running I had done over the last five years and being fairly active all of my life. She said that it was probably my running and the strength of my heart and lungs that allowed me to come through the heart attack. “Otherwise, you might not have survived,” she said.

I had heard some similar words from a nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital in Montreal. This reminded me of the fragility of life.

It was around this same time that I was talking to one of my good friends who had just seen an email from me regarding my experience of a heart attack. Milton had just found the email when he was looking through his junk mail folder before deleting the unwanted missives. I had sent him the email a couple of weeks earlier and he was traveling out of the country at that time, but when he saw my email he immediately sent me a text message. Then he called me on the phone to talk.

After I told Milton what had happened, he shared how he had just a few days earlier been in an ambulance with his brother-in-law who was having a heart attack as a result of blockage in the same artery where mine occurred. He said that unfortunately his brother-in-law didn’t make it. “Jimmy, if you had 100% blockage of your ‘widowmaker’ artery, you are unusually blessed, brother,” he said. “God must have something else for you to do.”

Milton’s words have rung in my ear for many days. As have the stories I’ve heard many times upon sharing my experience.

There’s always a decision I had to make during the first few weeks and months when I would see someone I hadn’t seen since January 9th. Do I mention my heart attack or not? Especially when someone asked, “So, what’s new?” or “How have you been?”

Because I knew that my story, however brief, would lead to more questions or a story from the other person’s life. Whether someone shared about their personal heart event or someone they knew, they would feel compelled to share a story, Sometimes the story was happy and sometimes sad, but ultimately my story would become connected to theirs.

I’ll talk about this more in future chapters, but one of the things that seems to be important is sharing my stories publicly through my website and books. Not that God has made my life as a writer easier or the decisions on publishing simpler. And that’s been frustrating! I remember when I was a young Christian thinking that since God probably wanted me to have a platform for sharing my faith and being successful would provide that opportunity, it will probably be easier for me to be successful. Obviously, I had a me-centered theology at that point. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite for most of us. But what has changed is my willingness to take risks. I have an internal conviction that publishing is something I’m called to and must do. Having survived the worst-case scenario, gives me courage as long as I can lean into that place on a consistent basis. The tendency is to feel better and better until I forget that I almost died and begin to live in the fears and anxieties of “normal.”

Before I close this chapter, I’m happy to encourage folks to run, walk, and exercise because while we may not be able to change our DNA or genome codes, we can change our weight and the strength of our lungs and heart. So, if you believe that coronary heart disease may be in your future, eat less and walk more, my friend!

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem With Writing on Spiritual Topics: Everyone is an expert.

I started writing things that would be published when I was in junior high school. That was in the 1960s and junior high included grades 7 to 9. As you are probably aware, “middle school” effectively replaced junior high sometime in the 1980s in the United States. While middle school started popping up in the 1960s, it wasn’t the predominant structure for that transition from elementary or primary school to high school until probably 20 years later. Like the Middle Ages, middle school was a dark time when there’s lots of reviewing going on about things we’d learned in elementary school and lots of preparation going on for the important things we were going to learn in high school. There are still 1-8 schools, K-8 schools and a few junior high schools around, but the majority of schools are K-5, then 6-8 and finally 9-12.

Nonetheless, when I was in junior high we had a randomly published newspaper and “yearbook.” The reason I put yearbook in quotes is because it wasn’t the sort of annual or yearbook that most of us remember or see today. It was a smaller format with a card stock off-white cover that was saddle stitched (stapled) and everything was printed in black and white. I did a bit of writing for those publications. Then I became a “stringer” for the sports section of The Chattanooga Times and I was paid for the first time for my reporting. My job was to attend certain high school sporting events, keep statistics on each team and take notes on significant plays: like who scored points and, of course, who won the game. Sometimes I would get a quote from a player or coach. Then I would go home and call one of the writers or editors at the newspaper and tell him everything over the phone. What I reported to him would show up in the next day’s paper as “from staff reports” which my family and I knew was me. And I got paid for each game I reported on. I don’t remember how much I was paid, but it was real money.

Hixson High School - Herald Newspaper - Assistant Editor 1969-1970
Hixson High School – Herald Newspaper – Assistant Editor 1969-1970

In high school, I was on the newspaper staff as sports reporter, then sports editor, and in my senior year I was named assistant editor for the monthly publication. In that role I wrote editorial or opinion pieces for the newspaper. And that was the first time that I published an essay on a spiritual topic.

I’m going to skip ahead to when I was a news correspondent for Christianity Today. This was a freelance role separate from my fulltime jobs and I ended up usually reporting on events that happened to be occurring wherever I was living or that I happened to be attending. The primary challenge then was to remain objective when people or event leaders that I was writing about wanted me to be subjective and sympathetic to their position. The sentiment was, “we may be acting petty and self-centered, but we’re your brothers in Christ, so give us a break.”

And there it is. Whenever I write on spiritual topics, I know that someone is going to critique my theology, another person may question my application and, certainly, someone will find my practice suspect. The good news for me is that usually I’m writing about an experience or theme where my weakness, brokenness or human fragility is readily exposed. In fact, my imperfections may be the focal point.

So, why do I do it? Or, why does anyone write on a subject they know will be criticized?

I can’t speak for others, but I write on spiritual topics for a few reasons. Firstly (sorry for the British grammar), I write because I have to. I truly have an urge and need to process my life through writing. And after neglecting this need for a number of years, as I re-discovered the love of God over the past six years or so, I have a greater sense of urgency to write my life. It becomes a record of my past and a guide for my future. I feel God’s pleasure in it, too.

Secondly, as I share what I’ve written, those who read it tell me that they like what I say or it’s helpful and encourages them to do good things. There’s nothing like a phone call from someone who’s using my devotional book and saying that they were in tears before God that morning and wanted to tell me “well done.” It is thrilling for me to get word via social media or an email that my writing helped someone see their situation or God in a new and enlivening way. So, I’m motivated by the feedback and by helping people.

Thirdly, writing is a way that I connect my story with God’s larger story. Even in our brokenness, we each have a part to play in that larger story and if we don’t find a way no one will. This is my part. It’s important because it is connected to the Creator and expresses God’s essence placed in me. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory, “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Like Lewis, I believe we are eternal beings, and that the spiritual life is an eternal connection between our Creator and us. And that might be a fourth reason. I write and publish because it has eternal significance for all of us. That universality means that many of you may have an opinion or experience that conflicts with what I’ve written.

Sometimes that presents a problem to me. Do I want to write something that may be criticized? And that takes me back to the reasons that I write. Lately, my convictions about writing are stronger than my fear of being criticized. So, I’ll close with a final reason for writing that’s related to having the sense vividly imprinted on my heart that my life has been preserved for a purpose. Once we realize that today may be our last, choices come into focus rapidly. On most days, I’m going to choose to write. I hope you will choose to do what connects your story to God’s larger story. I long to see your glory lived out today.

Chapter 6 – Relational Re-Entry: Who knows and who doesn’t?

There were a couple of things that I knew would occur over the next few weeks. One, I’d be greeting good friends about every other day as they delivered meals to us. Some would want to visit and see how I was doing and ask a few questions. Others would want to make a quick stop, drop off food, but wouldn’t have time to visit. As one who has been told he has the “gift of gab” and finds it difficult to give short answers without appropriate context, I could expect to be frustrated by the brief encounters.

Ever leave a suitcase only partially unpacked after a long trip? We do it with our emotions, too.
Ever leave a suitcase only partially unpacked after a long trip? We do it with our emotions, too.

And the longer visits would be deeply satisfying while helping me to release some of the emotional baggage I was carrying.

Good baggage, but baggage that needed to be unpacked and put in its proper place and perspective. Tears would show my fear, pain, anxiety and joy. Amazing what shedding a few tears can accomplish.

Secondly, I knew that “I had a heart attack a couple of weeks ago or a couple of months ago,” would be a part of my conversation with most everyone for a while. And with those who knew of my surprise heart event I would be explaining symptoms and warning signs that I had experienced before and during the attack.

Again, I felt a combination of anxiety and welcome as I anticipated future encounters. I would learn later that one thing I had not anticipated was a conversation where my fellow traveler would share about someone close to them who didn’t make it to the hospital in time or doctors weren’t able to save them. And, thus, the blocked artery had killed somebody closed to them.

These encounters hit me hard with a combination of sadness and wonder. Sadness was for my friend’s loss and wonder at God’s tender mercy for saving my life. I would ask myself what my life now meant. Was I suppose to make dramatic changes? Had God saved me for some enduring quest? Was he planning to re-direct my path into a new world? Or did it mean, simply, and profoundly, that my time on earth was not done. And the God of Wholeness had more rough edges to shave off before I was ready for heaven.

What does it mean that I am still alive? It is a question that would be my constant companion for months to come.