Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why We Say 'Living Relationship' And Not 'Personal Relationship'

If you have been to Good Shepherd for more than five minutes, you have heard the church's mission statement:

Inviting All People Into A Living Relationship With Jesus Christ.

Thanks to our friend Will Mancini, we chose every word in that sentence with great care, as each one conveys something essential about our church.

And several times over the past few weeks, I have tried to articulate why we chose "living relationship with Jesus Christ" rather than "personal relationship" with him.

After all, the phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is a hallmark of modern American evangelicalism.  I've even seen it used as a litmus test:  "Do you have a personal relationship with Christ?"

Well, here are a few reasons why we consciously avoided personal and were so grateful to land on living:

1.  A personal relationship with a living Savior IS in fact where faith begins.  We do believe that each one of us -- either through a gradual process or decisive encounter -- will come to that individual realization:  I am the problem but Jesus is the answer.

2.  Yet while faith begins personally, it can never remain there.  If all we want from our connection to Jesus is a "personal relationship," that quickly devolves into a private relationship:  me, Jesus, and the TV set.  That sort of private religion has no place in New Testament faith.

3.  Speaking of the New Testament, the people in the early church could not conceive of anything like a "personal" or "private" relationship with Christ.  They lived before the Enlightenment, before the rise of the individual, and so could not imagine their own lives apart from their community.  So their faith in Christ was not merely a personal affair; it was lived out in the messy beauty of Christian community.

4.  All that is a way of saying that the corporate faith of the earliest Christians was a living thing -- growing, surging, struggling, changing.  That's how we envision faith at Good Shepherd in the 21st Century:  never static, but always moving to maturity.

5.  We hope and pray that a living relationship is the opposite of dead religion.  We've all had enough of that and have decided not to participate, thank you very much.

6.  Finally, what word better describes Jesus himself than "living"?  According to Revelation 1:18 he is "the living one."

So in the grand scheme of things, we're inviting all people into a living relationship with a living Savior.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top Five Tuesday -- Top Five Reasons We Don't Do Fund Raisers

There is no Fall Bazaar at Good Shepherd.

No bake sales.

We're not a hot dog church.

No barbecues, yard sales, or pumpkin patches.

We don't even operate as a consignment store one weekend a year.

In fact, not only do we not do extra-curricular fund raisers, I go further and contend that such activities are an afront to God and an impediment to the gospel.

Why have such distinctly un-Methodist views?  Here's why:

1.  We will not nickel-and-dime the people of Good Shepherd.  When people in a congregation are repeatedly asked to give money to various causes within the church -- the youth's spaghetti supper and the pre-school's carnival, for example -- they feel nickel and dimed.  And do you know what you get when you nickel and dime people on the small stuff?  Nickel and dime givers on the big stuff.  I'll take tithers instead, thank you very much.

2.  We teach tithing.  Anytime you tell the people of a church they can support its mission by buying this or growing that, you are teaching them not to tithe.  We believe instead in that standard that is introduced in the Old Testament and then magnified in the New -- where, after all, they gave everything and not a measly ten percent -- and so we teach it with clarity and conviction.  We invite people to give to God expecting nothing in return -- which, when you think about it, is the opposite of traditional church fund raisers where people give in order to get.

3.  We don't believe in asking the community to pay our bills.  As my friend Charles Kyker says, "The unchurched think that all the church wants is their money and so we have barbecues and bake sales and remove all doubt."  Well said.  Further, if a church wants to support either a mission project or its own operating expenses, it should do so via budgeting and projecting.  If you can't afford the project through internal church support, then don't do the project.

4.  Church fund raisers damage legitimate businesses.  Every barbecue plate or hot dog supper a church sells harms the for-profit businesses in the community selling those same items for their livelihood.  Churches are not in legitimate competition with the nearby Sonny's Barbecue, for example, and can dramatically undercut them on price.

5.  Fund raisers divert people's time and energy away from legitimate ministry.  We act as if rising early in the morning to barbecue chicken or pork that we will sell later that day is somehow ministry.  It's not.  Give that food to the Rescue Mission, distribute it under bridge overpasses, surprise teachers at the local school with it . . . and then  cooking becomes ministry.  In general, we devote too much precious time to raising funds that should go to making disciples.

6.  (One extra, but I really believe in this topic!)  We do the one fund raiser Scripture describes. Because people are not harrassed to give to this effort or that cause, they give freely to the one fund raiser the bible endorses: the offering at worship.

And the result of the No Fund Raiser Policy at this particular United Methodist Church?

More than $300,000 given to missions each year ($700,000 in 2013), annual surpluses in the budget, and even an asset replacement fund that allowed us to put a new roof on two buildings earlier this year without passing the offering basket a single extra time.

Think of it this way: when churches stop having fund raisers, they start raising some serious funds.

Monday, September 29, 2014

"All Of Me" Recap

Preaching at Good Shepherd really is an incredible privilege.

Not only because of the size and style and multi-cultural demographics, as great as all those blessings are.

An even greater privilege rests in the the freedom the people of the church give me to explore some of the most provocative themes in Scripture and they ways those themes intersect with our lives.

Yesterday's message is perhaps the prime example.  Called "All Of Me"  -- and yes, Chris Macedo sang that gorgeous song by John Legend to set up the sermon -- my talk delved into some of the most scandalous conversation in the Song Of Songs.  It all led to a bottom line inspired by my friend Matt O'Reilly: The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.


A few weeks ago, I started off the Love Song series by telling you that the Song Of Songs (SOS) almost didn’t make it into the bible and when it DID, people then misinterpreted and misapplied it.  And then I told you how once it got IN many rabbis said a man should not read it until he is 30 years old. Well, today we’re going to see first all WHY SOS has been the subject of such controversy (so all you under 30, please leave).  We’re going to look first hand, primary source, at some of the most scandalous, “I can’t believe that’s in the bible!” verses; the type of words that make Steve Miller singing about peaches and trees seem innocent in comparison.
            But before I do that, I do need to tell you about one of the oddest, saddest counseling relationships I ever had.  It was many years ago, another church, another town, and a woman comes to see me.  And she tells me, “I’m 40, I’m a virgin (insert movie joke here), and I’ve been married for 20 years.”  Let that settle in your head for awhile.  40, a virgin, married 20 years.  Turns out she and her husband had grown up in a spirit of repression, much of it fostered by the church, and then magnified by certain family dynamics & psychology, and the result was this fear and loathing of sexual intimacy.  In marriage!  That marriage, in a real, raw sense, was not a marriage – at least a biblical one.
            And I don’t know how many here wrestle with issues like that, but I’m sure it’s here.  Especially after having heard so many NO messages on sexual intimacy outside of marriage.  And some of you have heard so much NO around sex that it is very difficult for you to say YES with your whole self to it even IN marriage.  And I acknowledge that from my position as proclaimer and teacher here – especially with having a front row seat to so much of the damage brought by our OVERsexed culture – I really emphasize celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.  Abstinence and chastity.  Both of those are hard to come by and I emphasize them so much even I might have contributed to a NO problem even w/in the otherwise YES confines of marriage.  Maybe I've spoken so much about the NO beyond that people have difficulty celebrating the YES within.  Which is why a refresher course on SOS is so helpful.  Because it draws a very different picture of intimacy between husband and wife – and yes because of something I’ll show you in a bit, we do believe it’s a husband and wife speaking here.
            Or singing.  You may remember that we approach SOS almost like a romantic/erotic opera. There is a back and forth between the two main characters, a man & a woman.  There’s even a Greek-like chorus of apparently single women.  Some teachers have suggested that it’s not an opera but a collection of poems or even a lovesick journal that someone found and released to the world.  Like sharing someone else’s secrets on Facebook.  Whatever the original presentation of it, what we have is frank, graphic, anything but repressed, and it uses some imagery that is quite foreign to us.  We’ve got a couple of related sections we’re going to look at today, starting with 4:1a where the man is speaking to the woman: 

 How beautiful you are, my darling!
    Oh, how beautiful!
    Your eyes behind your veil are doves.

Love the affirmation!  You’re beautiful!  And then immediately to the eyes.  So he is looking her directly into her eyes, which conveys personhood, intimacy.  She is not just her body parts – which is how mean treated women in that day – but she is an authentic person, his equal.  Then he continues in 4:1b: 

Your hair is like a flock of goats
    descending from the hills of Gilead.

A flock of goats.  Not goat hair; your hair like a flock of goats descending down a hill.  Huh.  Remember: he’s complimenting her but how that’s a compliment is a bit beyond me.  Guys: can we agree that this may have worked in ancient times but it does not work now?
Then 4:2: 

 Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
    coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
    not one of them is alone.

 We saw some of this earlier.  What a great strategy for romance!  You compliment her on her full complement of teeth.  They’re clean and you got em all.  Then he moves down at 4:3a: 

 Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
    your mouth is lovely.

So with the lips it’s getting more graphic, more sensual.  Then an odd detour in 4:3b: 

 Your temples behind your veil
    are like the halves of a pomegranate.

Temples?  I’ve never stared at someone’s temples and thought, “man, she’s hot there.” Maybe I’m the odd one.  And pomegranate?  Do you KNOW what a pomegranate looks like?

            Then he starts descending and begins appreciating, celebrating, and describing her neck in 4:4: 

 Your neck is like the tower of David,
    built with courses of stone[a];
on it hang a thousand shields,
    all of them shields of warriors.

 OK.  We’ve never excavated a Tower Of David so we don’t know what it looked like.  Apparently it was strong and smooth and beautiful.  And why is hanging a bunch of shields on a neck a good thing?  I don’t know!  But it is! Remember: this whole section is explaining why she is beautiful.  And so then by the end of 4:4 we’re at the bottom of the neck, he is describing her body, you remember you’re reading the bible and we’re in a public place, you might even be next to your parents and so you’re like, “Stop there!  Don’t go lower. Don’t go lower!  DON’T GO LOWER!”  
            And then he goes lower.  Look at 4:5: 

 Your breasts are like two fawns,
    like twin fawns of a gazelle
    that browse among the lilies.

Every middle schooler here is now snickering right now (cuz they under 30!).  And, frankly, so are most adults.  Because WHATEVER descriptive words you’ve ever thought of for that part of the female anatomy, GAZELLE FAWNS  is not one of them.  And then end result is that she stands there, probably naked but definitely vulnerable and certainly NOT ashamed, as her man admires & appreciates her with his eyes and his words.  He finishes this section with 4:7: 

 You are altogether beautiful, my darling;
    there is no flaw in you.

which is a bookend (inclusio) to 4:1.  Here’s an idea of what she might look like if you took all that imagery LITERALLY: 

            One other verse here really matters at 4:9: 

 You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride;
    you have stolen my heart
with one glance of your eyes,
    with one jewel of your necklace.

Ewwww!  Except then we learn that “sister” was just a figure of speech people used then in referring to their wives. Odd to us, but then again so it gazelle fawns and goat hair.  Bride is more what is going on. So there is this incredible frankness but it’s within a marriage relationship.  So husbands: I challenge you – recite SOS 4:1-7 to your wife TONIGHT and no telling where the evening will go!
            And then, because SOS is an opera with a back-and-forth and because there is a radical equality here, it’s the woman’s turn.  Look at 5:10 where she begins to describe him. Remember, these two are standing open, vulnerable, and unashamed: 

 My beloved is radiant and ruddy,
    outstanding among ten thousand.

At 5:11 she moves to his hair, the thickness and wavy-ness of which I think is completely over-rated: 

 His head is purest gold;
    his hair is wavy
    and black as a raven.

Then she goes on a full body tour in 5:12-15:

 His eyes are like doves
    by the water streams,
washed in milk,
    mounted like jewels.
13 His cheeks are like beds of spice
    yielding perfume.
His lips are like lilies
    dripping with myrrh.
14 His arms are rods of gold
    set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory
    decorated with lapis lazuli.
15 His legs are pillars of marble
    set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
    choice as its cedars.

The same pattern that her husband had used: top down.  The same kinds of things are analogies: buildings, eyes (person), even strong arms and legs.  It’s as if the guy is on staff and in a Mr. America and she’s the only judge.  He, too, is vulnerable, unashamed, and ultimately appreciated.
            And check 7:1 where it’s the man’s turn to admire again.  Because remember: this is a back and forth reminiscent of an opera.  But look: he starts at her feet in 7:1 and moves UP.  To her legs. To her navel:

How beautiful your sandaled feet,
    O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels,
    the work of an artist’s hands.
Your navel is a rounded goblet
    that never lacks blended wine.

 Huh?!  And then at 7:7-8, some of the most suggestive words in the whole SOS, he wants his body to do what his eyes have just done: 

 Your stature is like that of the palm,
    and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
    I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
    the fragrance of your breath like apples,

It’s clear these ain’t no 40 year old virgins; they are instead expressing what has often been repressed.  Kinda graphic. Really shocking.
            And I just think it’s fun to list all the animals to which they compare each other (AV): doves, goats, sheep, gazelles, fawns.  And then the garden/fruit (AV):  pomegranate, lilies, wine, wheat, grapes, apples, palm tree.  Whew!  Where John Legend sings “Love all your curves and all your edges” the SOS answers “Love all your fruits and all your veggies.”  
So what do we make of this PG 13 at best show between these two vulnerable people, each under the intense gaze of the other?  How open to public ridicule & embarrassment if their words for each other ever got out (which they did!)  And I have to believe that the “bride” part of 4:9 is the key: READ.  Ominous forces loom in the background of the book, the king is a collector while the husband is a keeper.  I realize this:  The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
            See, in sexual intimacy the man and the woman here are completely, abjectly vulnerable. They are literally at the mercy of the other.  You give the most intimate and precious part of yourself to someone else.  And when that act occurs without the safety of marriage, well . . . every pastor I know has been confronted with more than one out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sometimes involving their own children.  They know exactly what I’m talking about.  And so do you, too.  From an unplanned preg in your life to an STD to the emotional weight of encounters gone by.  You were vulnerable, you were held up for inspection (!) but it wasn’t safe because you didn’t have the protection of marriage behind you.  And you want those encounters back but the past holds on to them.
The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.

            But on the flip side there is the SOS and the rest of Scripture, which show us that when you have vulnerability and it is coupled with the safety of marriage, the result is beautiful.  Open, honest giving, much like what is between F, S, and HS.  You see that the church missed the mark when it was historically all about repression – it has repressed or treated as ugly something which is actually quite beautiful.  There is the totality, the ownership, the exclusivity . . . and that is beautiful.  You express physically what had long been repressed strategically.  It’s a bit like what happened when author Sinclair Lewis received a letter from a young & pretty woman who wanted to be his assistant.  She said she could type, file, and anything else he needed and she concluded the letter with “When I say anything, I mean anything.”  Lewis turned the letter over to his wife Dorothy – she must have had goat hair! – who wrote back: “Mr. Lewis already has an excellent sec’y who can type and file.  I do everything else as well, and when I say everything I mean EVERYTHING.”  Touche!  The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.
            Really what SOS and the rest of the bible show us is this:  AV of tennis court.  Yes!  Back in the day, if I hit it outside these lines, it wasn’t safe.  It was out.  I would lose.  I would throw my racket and cry, but that’s another sermon for another time.  But inside those lines?  GOLDEN!  That’s where it was fun, where the ball went the right place, where I won, and where I got carried off the court on the shoulders of my adoring fans.  It’s the same with married folks! (except for the fans, we hope – bleh).  Inside the lines, the boundaries, you’re safe.  You have the protective canopy of God’s blessing and favor and spend as much time and intensity and creativity in those lines as you like.  It’s beautiful.  Outside: you lose and so does everyone around you.  Inside: what a celebration of all that is right in the world and true about God.  Say it with your words and then show it with your self.  This is the urgency that made it into the bible.  The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.

            So singles and adolescents and single agains:  postpone your vulnerability until you have safety.  With the safety of marriage, that vulnerability becomes beautiful.  And marrieds: you’ve got that safety.  Celebrate it.  Wouldn’t it be great if the marrieds of Good Shepherd got so much practice being vulnerable that it became beautiful?  The vulnerability of sex requires the safety of marriage.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Song, Week 4 -- "All Of Me"

I'm putting all of me into "All Of Me."

Meaning:  my most thorough preparation, most serious prayer, and most honest question -- "can I really say these things?" 

Of all the Love Song messages, this one more than any other deals with those sections in the Song Of Songs that will make you blush, start you giggling, and leave you asking, "how did THAT make it into the bible?"

Which I guess is why although it's only Friday, I really can't wait until Sunday.

8:30.  10.  11:30.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Throwback Thursday -- Pictorial Directory 1999

Here's my family from a 1999 Good Shepherd Pictorial Directory (sorry, Olan Mills, but does anyone even do those anymore?).  We had been here in Charlotte and at this church for about two months when this photo was taken.

In the photo our son Riley was seven; he is now a 22-year-old senior at Chapel Hill.  Taylor was then 10; she's now a 25-year-old public relations professional in Atlanta.

And Julie and I were . . . late 30s then!

Which makes us early 50s now.

Which I think I like better.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

An Office? Or A Study?

Pastor Dave Claassen posted these words back in 2013:

There’s been a subtle name change going on with the space where pastors work. What used to be called the pastor’s study is now called simply the pastor’s office. Why?

More and more the pastor is called upon to do leadership and management in the church. We go to leadership conferences, not study conferences. I’ve been at the same church for over 38 years and I can testify that church ministry is far more complex than it was the first years of my ministry. This requires more time to shepherd these complexities that can take away the time we spend providing green pasture upon which our people need to feed.

The pastor’s study was a place where the pastor, well, the pastor studied! The title was a reminder to the pastor and also the people that this was the primary task of the spiritual leader.

My goal is to be a pastor who studies. It’s important that I maintain set hours when I work on the sermon. The secretary has instructions to tell any caller that “he’s studying for his sermon right now. Can I take a message, or is this an emergency?” I consider it holy time and space where the sermon must come to life.

I also try to be intentional about doing some general reading in the first hour of each work day. Many days it’s less than an hour and some days no time at all, but it’s what I aim for. I need to be taking in more than I deliver each week in sermons, Bible studies, and writing. I need more input than I have output. This reading is in a variety of areas – theology, spirituality, church health, etc. It’s amazing how many books and articles you can read if you devote just 45 minutes to this work even four days a week.

Occasionally someone will glance into my office while I’m studying for the sermon or doing my general reading. I sometimes catch myself wishing the person had caught me on the phone or shuffling papers. I’m tempted to day, as I look up from my reading, “I really am working!” Why should I have to explain? After all, one of the primary tasks of the pastor should be to study, in his study!

I think of Paul’s advice to young Timothy. “Study to show yourself approved before God, a workman that doesn’t need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)


You can read the original post here.

Claassen raises interesting questions and has me asking as I walk through the door of the room where I spend much of my dad: is this my office or my study?  Can I work where I study and can I study where I work?

The kingdom coming may not depend on the answers to those questions, but the pastor's sanity might.  






Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Top Five Tuesday -- Top Five Songs You've Never Heard Of From Artists You Have

Back in the era of "album rock" (may he rest in peace), they used to call them "album cuts." 

More recently, "deep cuts."

More plainly, "songs you've never heard of from artists you have."

What am I talking about?  Songs that make up the bulk of individual albums but never get released as singles and so consequently never appear on the radio.

But if you've ever owned a good album (OK, CD), you know that such "filler" often include some of the best music on the entire disc.

So here are my five favorite songs you've never heard of from artists you have.

1.  Tom Petty, Too Good To Be True from the album Into The Great Wide OpenThis one doesn't need any more cowbell.  It has the perfect amount the way it is.

(By the way, For All The Wrong Reasons from the same album easily could have made this list.  Here it is:)

2.  Led Zeppelin, Out On The Tiles from the album Led Zeppelin III.  This one has so much working against it: it is on Led Zeppelin's least popular album, it has to share space on that disc with The Immigrant Song, and the title phrase is lost on most American listeners.  Nevertheless, the musical progressions and song design helped pave the way for later, longer, layered guitar tracks like Kashmir and Achillles' Last Stand.

3.  Bruce Springsteen, All That Heaven Will Allow from the album Tunnel Of Love.  Bruce in love.  For a little bit.

4.  Don Henley, A Month Of Sundays from the album Building The Perfect Peace A Farm Aid song before there was ever a Farm Aid.  Leads directly into Sunset Grill.

5.  John Mellencamp, Just Like You from the album Cuttin' Heads.  Mellencamp released this album just after 9/11; otherwise, I believe more people would have embraced just how many good songs it contains.