Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Top Five Tuesday -- Top Five Steps To Continual Improvement

Over the last several weeks, a young man has begun attending church with some friends and family.

That's not all that unusual or extraordinary, with one difference:  he grew up in this church, drifted away when he graduated college, and so is returning to worship after an absence of about ten years.

And so what I so want to ask him is this:  am I any better at this than I was ten years ago when you last saw me up there yammering away?

Now that question supposes that as a teenager he was a) listening consistently and b) listening closely enough to evaluate quality.  Both suppositions are possible; neither are probable.

Nevertheless, the question remains: am I better the preaching task than I was ten years ago?  Five years ago?  Last year?  Is any preacher better?

And, if improvement is possible, how does it happen?

Well, since I'm asking the question (silently) and writing this post, I believe preaching improvement is not only possible but pivotal.  And here are five ways I attempt to go about it:

1.  Read Novels.  Over the last ten years, I'm sure I've read 100 novels but only one book on preaching (of course, that was Andy Stanley's extraordinary Communicating For A Change, so that counts for way more than one).  I have found that in reading fiction I can gain insights into truths about human behaviors and motivations that I never could if I stuck to more general preacher fare.  Plus, good novelists write with the kind of effortless grace that you know takes a lot of effort -- much like a strong sermon.  Just yesterday, while reading Stephen King's Revival, I came across this gem:  Christ drove the money-changers from the temple, but we all know those quick-buck artists never stay away for long."  Indeed.

2.  Tweet.  Yep, Twitter helps preaching.  It sounds sacrilegious -- or at least my attempt to justify something I'm already doing -- but the ability to craft meaningful statements in compelling ways is at the heart of a sermon that sticks.  And a twit that tweets.

3.  Read Sermons.  MethoHeresy Confession:  I read John Piper's stuff.  Often.  Sometimes it makes me mad; more often it makes me think; occasionally it makes me weep.  Learning from his sermon design helps my own.

4.  Exercise.  I'm so glad my YMCA keeps pens and pieces of paper handy, because that's where my best inspiration occurs.  So I'll run over, write it down, put it in my locker, and the rest of the workout goes that much better.

5.  Find A Wordsmithing Friend.  One of my colleagues at Good Shepherd knows that he'll be asked each week to weigh in on which version of a sermon's bottom line "pops" with more emotional punch and theological accuracy.  When possible, I return the favor with him.  I believe we are making each other better.  I just hope the recently-returned Good Shepherder notices.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hidden Heroes Finale -- The Sugar Momma Hero

For the final message of the Hidden Heroes series, I left Colossians 4 and went to Romans 16.


Some complicated but (I think) ultimately sound reasoning.

1.  I knew we needed a "shero" -- after six weeks of male heroes, I felt the church needed to hear about an early church heroine.

2.  The only female in the Colossians 4 roll call has the name of . . . Nympha.  I honestly didn't think I couldn't on that name in English with a straight face.

3.  In Romans 16, Phoebe's brief reference centers on generosity, and that was a subject we needed to reinforce at Good Shepherd.

So here is the Sugar Momma Hero, a message with this bottom line:  Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.


One of the most gripping descriptions of what Ebola is like in Liberia comes from Aryn Baker of TIME magazine: 

 It is strange to be in a place where you can’t touch anything: no shaking hands, no comforting a woman whose mother has just died, no tap on the back when you want to get someone’s attention.  I never thought before how much touching is a part of how we communicate, she says.  I saw a little girl the same age as my daughter fall down in the street the other day, and it went against every instinct I have as a mother not to rush in and pick her up.  One of the nurses at the temporary orphanage I visited told me that sometimes she puts on a protective suit just so she could hug a crying child in need of comfort.

 I saw a headline that went along with it:  Ebola’s cultural casualty in Liberia: Hugs.  Sad, sad stuff when touch gets taken away.

            Because I know you, you people of Good Shepherd.  I see you with your families, with the ones you love, I see your desire to help even people you don’t know.  I know that you want to help in dire situations, and I know from watching you in Kenya, India, Haiti, and Guatemala that you love to touch, you love to hold, and that children in particular are on your heart.

            Yet there are a lot of ways in which you feel something like those parents and those volunteers in Monrovia: your touch only goes so far.  Because of geography and circumstance and time . . . you have a life here.  You have your own health to protect here.  And so although you want to touch more people – maybe to comfort some, to teach others, offer water, or even do work with your hands like build a house or dig a well – circumstances prevent it.  I know in my case I have a friend in prison in VA and that distance and those circumstances make speaking difficult enough, much less a strong handshake or an affirming hug.  My touch is so limited.

            And as we wind up Hidden Heroes, we come to a Shero TODAY.  Her name is Phoebe and she is not from Friends (AV, Lisa Kudrow), nor is she from Colossians 4 where we have been parked this month.  Instead, Phoebe appears at the tail end of the book of Romans, in the same kind of section of that letter – all the greetings, the names, the salutations – that we have explored on Colossians 4.  Paul is writing this letter from Corinth and it will be delivered to Rome (AV map).  And here at the conclusion he drops a clue as to who is the actual deliverer of the letter: READ 

 16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon[a][b] of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you
So – his words here are almost like a letter of reference for the person carrying the letter in the first place.  Phoebe probably shows up unannounced at one of the house churches that make up the church in Rome, says “hi,” and all of a sudden needs some credibility, some bona fides, so that this church will trust her. Paul knows all that in advance and so he inserts this brief letter of recommendation.  But you know what all that means?

            Phoebe carried the letter. From Cenchraea, which was a suburb of Corinth (its Steele Creek?) and so she was given the task of undertaking that long and dangerous journey to deliver the letter. Courage, craziness, responsibility all wrapped up into one!  Which brings up the whole & very interesting question about the role of women in leadership in the early church.  Some NT sections advocate against it – even to the point of silence – and yet other NT sections (like here) indicate something else entirely was going on and so this is one of those conversations with the bible that continues beyond the bible and of course I would ask, “what would we do WITHOUT women who were strong leaders in the church?”  And Phoebe, courageous land-traveler that she was, is among the first for sure.

            But there’s more to this she-daredevil letter deliverer.  Paul tells the Roman church to whom she will deliver his letter to help her when she arrives.  Why?  Because: 

 for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

So she apparently was well-off.  A woman of independent means with likely an independent streak.  I say that because according to the text, she has been the benefactor, the patron to many people including Paul hisself!  You know what that means?  She was Paul’s Sugar Momma!  He needed money to finance his ministry, to underwrite his letter writing, to support his travel, to extend the churches and apparently she provided it.  She must have known that Paul a unique ability with his writing and preaching and simply by the force of his personality to multiply ministry, to make the name of Jesus famous in a way she never could.  She could touch dozens with her ministry; she knew Paul could touch thousands with his. We don’t know how or when she came to faith . . . all we knew is that she saw a capacity in Paul that she lacked in herself and she decided to invest in him.  And her investment in him became an investment in the fame of Jesus.  Supporting Paul permitted Phoebe to have an influence that circumstances (geography & gender?) prevented.    

            And I can hardly fathom the significance of the fact that she delivered Romans.  Now it was pretty cool the Tychicus (from 10.12.14) delivered Colossians but no matter how much I love that book even I have to admit its influence does not measure up to Romans. The letter to the Romans is Paul’s version of Beethoven’s 9th, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of George Lucas’ Star Wars, of the Eagles’ Hotel California, of Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart (play clip) . . . in other words, in terms of influence it is his Best. Letter. Ever.  Influenced the church massively in its history, reinforcing periodically that truth that we don’t have to DO anything to earn God’s favor; that’s been DONE for us in Christ.  It’s called grace.  Even for us Methodist, Romans has this enduring influence because that’s the book that set John Wesley on fire and his fire turned into to the Methodist movement.  Of all the books in the biblical library this one might have the most reach of them all. 

            And Phoebe not only delivered it; she underwrote it.  Her money made this masterpiece possible.  She realized that her resources were to resource the spread of Jesus’ fame.  Her own words and presence likely would not have had the same impact, but she enabled it to happen.  Why?  Because her money allowed her reach to exceed her touch.  And that’s what’s true for us today.  You’re not going to walk from Corinth to Rome.  You’re not going to deliver the letter to the Romans. You’re not going to influence John Wesley.  But but but you – You!  Your money – whether you live in an abundance of it or you struggle to eke out an existence – your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.  Because, like Phoebe, your touch is limited by geography, circumstance, and time.  Yet your money given to God for the advancement of the kingdom and the fame of the king extends and exceeds all that.  It has a multiplier effect.  I mean look at what Phoebe’s money is still doing!

            My goodness.  I can’t speak for money given to all churches or all non-profits, but I can say something about here.  A dollar you give her trains pastors in India and those same pastors baptize people away from the worship of local gods into the worship of the infinite Christ.  

Another dollar provides those same pastors with bicycles to travel from village to village.   

A dollar given here trains business leaders in Russia . . . and uses US-based training as an entrĂ©e into sharing faith.  A dollar given here helps to restore the body, mind, and spirit of an adolescent girl rescued from domestic sex trafficking in the Hope House.  It serves lunch at Dove’s Nest. It allows our ministries to children and students. Think of it! Some of you can’t are scared of teens and can't talk to children.  You may not do that ministry, but your generosity ensures that the ministry happens.  Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.

            Now is it OK if I name what’s going on in the room right now?  There is some natural objection occurring.  Especially for those of you who aren’t really sure where you stand with Jesus.  You’ve heard that all we want is your money and now it seems as if that is the case.  And others of you are believers in Jesus; you’re money just hasn’t gone where your faith is.  And so you hold on to your money.  You hold on to it so tightly that it holds on to you.  You’re holding on to it with such tenacity that there’s no way it helps your reach exceed your touch.  Almost like the guy in Germany who had a “friend” cut off his thumb and forefinger so he could collect insurance money. For real!  But the 8 fingered crook got caught and is now serving time for insurance fraud.  Oh, that’s extreme but it does show what happens when your money holds you tight instead of you holding it loosely.  Because what you keep increases your anxiety but what you give produces serenity. 

            So . . . what?  I invite non-givers here to become % givers.  Find a % and stick with it all the way through Christmas.  I suspect you won’t miss it because it wasn’t yours to begin with.  And you’re not just a non-giver but you are a non-believer as well, please hear this:  even if you don’t believe in Christ, your soul still needs for you to give your money.  Somewhere.  Put someone else in front of you in the line.  Choose the Salvation Army or the Rescue Mission or a charity you believe in.  And don’t give randomly; give with a purpose and to a percentage.  2%, 3%, whatever.  Find one and stick to it.  See?! We don’t want your money . . . but we DO want you to understand that giving more of it away is the key to your emotional health and we believe to your financial health as well.  Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.

            And to those of you who are % givers . . . man, I invite you to increase that %.  Move it towards that OT standard called the tithe, which is 10% of your income.  That’s where Julie and I started out as newlyweds, and we have never missed what is not ours.  And if you want to move more to the realm of NT giving, listen to the Spirit but be prepared because in the NT church he almost never said that 10% was enough. They tended to give it all.  Julie and I started out at that 10% as newlyweds 30 years ago but for the last 15 years or so we’ve been inching well beyond the 10%.  We never miss what’s not ours to begin with.  Why?  Out of obligation?  No!  But because I want my reach to far exceed my touch.  I can’t touch all the kids personally here, but I can make sure it’s done.  I can’t touch all the Russians, but can make sure it’s done.  Even though I go to India, I can’t touch the 36 million ppl in Orissa, but I can make sure it gets done.  It’s almost like that guy who said to his pastor, “I don’t think I can give a tenth, preacher.  Is it OK if I just give a fourth?”  REFRAIN.

            And young people, just making your way, you’d probably give anything to tithe that first million, wouldn’t you?  Well you know the best way to tithe on your first million? Tithe on your first one.   Your money allows your reach to exceed your touch.

            That’s no doubt what Phoebe, the Sugar Momma Hero, did.  Her reach went much, much farther than her touch. Her money made a masterpiece possible. May yours as well.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Hidden Heroes, Week 7 -- The Sugar Momma Hero

Yes!  They exist!

Not just Sugar Daddies, but Sugar Mamas as well.

I've never eaten them (how could I, with all those Nutrageouses?)

But Sugar Daddies and Sugar Mamas are more than just candy.  They are providers, patrons, benefactors.

And there's one hidden in the pages of Scripture whom we are going to locate and celebrate.


8:30.  10.  11:30.

AND DON'T FORGET TO RETURN YOUR OPERATION CHRISTMAS CHILD BOXES THIS SUNDAY!  Let's send our radical impact all around the world.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wouldn't You Really Like To Know?

The authors of the bible use incredible restraint.

In contrast to our modern culture's tendency towards too much information, the scriptural writers were masters of understatement.

Perhaps that's because the process of writing was both expensive and painful in ancient times. 

Maybe it's because the people of antiquity didn't devote as much energy to emotional health and dysfunction as we do.  Or maybe it's because biblical authors are masters of literary craft.

Whatever the cause, the result is that we have an incredible number of unanswered questions about the characters and narratives that inhabit the pages of the bible.

Here are a few:

And just where did Cain's wife come from?

What was the relationship like between Abraham and Isaac after that little "testing" episode in Genesis 22?  How much time did Isaac have to spend on a therapist's couch processing that?

Speaking of Abraham, how did Sarah feel every time he'd say, "I'd like you to meet my sister"?

 How did Mary and Joseph deal with the fact that baby Jesus bypassed the terrible twos?

What did Jonah smell like?  You know, afterwards?

After the incident described in Galatians 2:11-14, were Paul and Peter friends?  Enemies? Frenemies?

When Luke adds the superfluous detail that Paul "kept on talking until midnight" in the story about the guy who falls asleep and then falls out of the window in Acts 20, did Paul think it was funny?  Or did he get ticked off?

How did Peter feel when in the course of telling the resurrection story John very slyly includes the detail about how the two of them raced to the tomb but John won?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Presidential And Pastoral Dangers

As you can tell from looking at the "Books I Like" column to the right, I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt & The Home Front In World War II.

The book fascinates on many levels, but most especially in its portrayal of the deeply loving yet painfully awkward marriage of Franklin and Eleanor. They were rarely together, they both engaged in extra-marital relationships that likely would have ended his presidency in this internet & cell phone age, and yet through it all they had a shared forcefulness unmatched in our political history.

And in that vein, I was struck by the kinds of women with whom FDR surrounded himself during Eleanor's many absences: younger beauties who delighted in his stories, laughed at his jokes, and didn't discuss public policy while drinking private cocktails. You couldn't say any of those things about Eleanor.

But as I was reading, I jotted this down:

FDR would rather be SEEN and ADORED than to be KNOWN and LOVED.

Being seen and adored requires a public persona and a personal charisma.  FDR had both in abundance.

Being known and loved requires vulnerability, honesty, and the frequent need to ask for forgiveness.  Goodwin's book suggests those qualities weren't part of the Roosevelts' vocabulary, much less their marriage.

Seen from a distance and adored for a performance.

Or known intimately and loved anyway.

I think those of us in pastoral ministry can all too easily opt for the adrenaline rush that comes from being observed and affirmed.

It takes a lot more work and a good deal more integrity to allow people to know us, to acknowledge our struggles, and finally to permit them to love us because of our flaws and not in spite of them.

I know that given a choice, my natural inclination would be to adopt a persona and seek to be seen and not known, admired and not loved.  I believe Paul would call that living "in the flesh."

But by living "in the Spirit," that same Spirit is moving me slowly but surely out of performance and into relationship.

Because although I am pastor and not president,  I don't want my legacy to be one of painful awkwardness in the most important relationships of my life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How Something I Never Thought Would Happen Happened

That's me, signing a contract with Abingdon Press to publish a book of mine to be called Head Scratchers.


I'm sort of scratching my head at all this myself.

Here's the backstory.  For a couple of years, I have had several people in my life telling me that some of the sermon series at Good Shepherd should be published in book form.  The thinking was that those sermons could work as small group curricula and could help fellow preachers looking for ways to grow in sermon design and delivery.  Part of me wanted to believe those people, part of me was skeptical, and part of me had no idea how to make it happen anyway.

Then, as some of you remember, we did The Storm Before The Calm in the summer of 2013 at Good Shepherd.  I knew the content was good, the graphics were beautiful, and the topics were compelling. So with the help of my friend James-Michael Smith, I turned it into an e-book.

Then, to help promote that e-book, a friend from church gave me some lessons on social media and the next thing you knew, there I was with a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/talbotdavis) and a Twitter handle (@talbotdavis).

Then, a grad school friend who works with a publishing company told me on a couple of occasions that he and his team liked The Storm and might be interested in publishing it in book form.

Well, in response to that possibility, I got several people praying.  I still thought the chances were remote and so I didn't want to set myself up for failure by getting a large group out there praying; instead, I limited it to about seven people who seemed to have an interest.  "Would you pray that somehow, someway a publisher would be interested in this material and these sermons could get out there?"

So pray they did.

And then we did The Shadow Of A Doubt earlier this year, which people again told me was worthy of publication.  One friend offered to help underwrite a publishing venture.  So my longing increased.

And still people prayed.

And then my grad school-connected publishing friend talked to me about some other possibilities, but let me know that his group wasn't quite geared up to publish a sermon series in book form.  It was both encouraging and sobering at the same time.

But still those friends were praying.

And then in early August, out of nowhere and completely unsolicited and unexpected, I got an email from an editor at Abingdon Press (an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House) who said that he had seen the Head Scratchers sermon series online (preached in June of 2014), liked it a lot, and asked if I would be interested in them publishing it as a book and study guide for use by small groups.

It was sort of like asking if I'd be interested in taking my next breath.

By the way, part of what attracted my new-editor-friend to the Head Scratchers series was the collection of weekly sermon bumpers by Chris Macedo and team:

The Abingdon editor then navigated Head Scratchers through the approval process within the publishing house, giving me periodic email updates, and while I was waiting, what did I do?  Asked those same people to pray, of course.

I got the final confirmation a couple of weeks ago and then received the contract late last week.  

The Head Scratchers book will be released sometime during the summer of 2015.

And all the time, I've been thinking: "Head Scratchers?  Abingdon? It was supposed to be The Storm Before The Calm or The Shadow Of A Doubt and with someone else!"

But through it all, God has been saying, "You get a group of people praying for the same thing at the same time and leave the details of how it gets answered up to me."

Lesson learned.  And celebrated.  And even signed, sealed, and delivered.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pros & Cons Of A Sunday Away

I was away from Charlotte from early Thursday morning until Sunday after church.

Which meant, of course, a Sunday away from the people and the pulpit (except it's really a table, but table wouldn't alliterate with "people") of Good Shepherd.

So here are some pros and cons of missing yesterday's worship gathering:

The people of the church get to hear a different voice -- in this case Student & Family Pastor Devin Tharp.

The staff and leadership get confirmation of what they already know: they are fine without me.

The church gets a reminder that the mission is more important than the minister:  inviting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ does not hinge on the personality of the person proclaiming it.

When we were away, I got to see the Jimmy Evert Tennis Center in Fort Lauderdale, a non-descript (by today's standards) public tennis facility where Chris Evert, Harold Solomon, Brian Gottfried, and other world-class players learned the game.

I turned 53 while hundreds of miles away from people who might just have made fun of me for it.

Because we were in South Florida we enjoyed 80 degree sunshine while the people of Charlotte . . . didn't.

I missed the "Hero" medley that was the prelude to Devin Tharp's sermon.

I missed Devin Tharp's sermon.

(But I -- and you -- can watch it online here!)

I have to hear all about how great Devin's sermon was.  Enough, people.

When I write my notes to first-time guests (a vital part of my Sunday night routine) I have to explain who I am.

 I still have to come back to work in the morning.

When I see people from church next week, it will seem like I haven't seen them in a month.  That's not the way it is; it's just the way it feels.  Unless they haven't been there in a month.

It's not 80 degrees and sunny here.  And it won't be until next April.