Thursday, June 28, 2012

Insights from Adam Hamilton, Part 3

(This is the last post on highlights from Adam Hamilton's teaching at last week's Western NC United Methodist Annual Conference)

OK, finally. The one thing Adam Hamilton said leaders DON'T DO. 

I have to admit that this one really challenges me, because, to be honest with you, I do this more than I should.

The one things leaders DON'T do? Give up. 

Adam shared personally and openly from a time in his life when he considered giving up. He had preached a well-researched, well-thought out sermon that he believed God wanted him to deliver. (He didn't tell us what it was about--he did say it was on a controversial subject.) The week after the sermon, he received 40 letters or e-mails from people who said they were leaving the church--some who had been with the church (and Adam) from the very beginning. Adam told us that if that had been the extent of it, he might have been able to lick his wounds and move on--but the e-mails and letters kept coming over time, and the members kept leaving a few at a time--meaning that he had to face this pain week after week after week. Seven months later, as the calendar year concluded, around 800 people had left the church because of that sermon. 

Adam told us that at this point he gave serious consideration to leaving the church he founded--the largest church in the United Methodist denomination. In the end he decided to stay, but he shared with us very honestly that it took him a full year to get over the depression caused by these events. He did say, however, that since that time God has shown up in amazing ways at Church of the Resurrection, and today powerful things are happening that Adam could not have foreseen. In the end, he said, he's really glad he stayed.

In my 23 years of ordained ministry, I've served 6 churches. I've never "given up" on any of them, by which I mean I've never asked for a different appointment because I was frustrated or upset. Now let me be honest: I sure thought about doing that many times--way more than I probably should have. And again, full honesty: There were times when I breathed a sigh of relief when I was re-appointed to another church! But I've never given up on a church. 

What I have done, though, is given up on countless projects, initiatives, ideas, etc. So many times I've been a part of starting something or trying to reinvigorate something and I've thrown in the towel when things got hard. Adam's words have challenged me in this area.

But I wonder: When is discontinuing something that's not working the right thing to do--and when is it "giving up?" How do you tell the difference? One of the things we've all been taught at church growth conferences is that it's not wise to keep pouring time, money, and volunteer energy into something that God is clearly not blessing. Give it a decent (respectful, grateful) burial, find out what God is blessing, and get on board with that.  This is especially important when the program, ministry, idea, etc. is not fulfilling the mission of your church. 

So how do we know the difference between discontinuing something for good reasons and just flat "giving up"? Maybe this helps (I'm just sort of thinking out loud here ... well, thinking in print): Let's suppose you want to get to California. That's your mission, your vision, your dream. Now suppose you start driving west on I-40, and somewhere around Oklahoma you hit a snag. A bridge is out, or the highway's under construction, or there's a 235-car pile-up that will take weeks to clear. So what do you do now? (Choose one):

  1. Give up. Return to North Carolina. Accept that you'll never get to California.
  2. Refuse to give up and stay the course. Sit and wait for I-40 to re-open, even if it takes a year or more. 
  3. Refuse to give up--and recognize that the road you're on is not the same thing as the place you're trying to go. So you "give up" on I-40 and find another route on state highways and back roads. But you don't "give up" on your goal. 
I suppose that when we're thinking of discontinuing something the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Are we giving up on the (God-ordained) goal, or are we simply recognizing that the road we're on is not the best way to get there?" 

Of the three choices above, leaders never do the first one. Sometimes they will do the second one. But I think leaders who are smart will do the third one more often than not. 

What do you think? 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Insights from Adam Hamilton, Part 2

(Continuing to share highlights from Adam Hamilton's teaching at last week's Western NC United Methodist Annual Conference)

Yesterday I shared some of the things Adam said leaders DO. He also shared one thing leaders DON'T DO. I'll get to that in just a minute ...

But first I want to share another leadership principle Adam taught that really grabbed me. Every last one of our churches, including the one I serve, needs to get a firm hold on this principle. I've seen this play out over and over in my life and ministry.

The principle is this: "Change, innovate, improve, or DIE." To illustrate this, Adam showed us a vinyl record album from the 1970s: "Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii." Then he showed us the same album on an 8-track tape. Do you remember those? (If so, you're really old.) I'll never forget when I got my first 8-track tape player in my 1964 Ford Falcon. I was so cool. Until somebody broke into my car and stole it!

Anyway, Adam went on to show us the same album on a cassette tape. Cassettes held more songs in less space, so they quickly outpaced 8-tracks. Then he showed us the same album on CD. CDs hold even more songs in less space, and you can go right to the song you want without rewinding or fast forwarding.

Finally Adam showed us his iPod, which fits in his pocket and holds 20,000 songs--so many that you could drive across the United States 10 times and never hear the same song twice! Then he turned it on, and voila! There was Elvis singing the same songs that were on the original vinyl record.

Then Adam asked us, the delegates of the Western NC Conference of the United Methodist Church, this question: "Is your church like this (the vinyl record), or like this (the iPod)?" A great question for us all to ponder.

What if the record label who owned Elvis' music had said, "We only want to put it out on vinyl. If people really want to hear Elvis, they'll make the effort to listen to it the way we present it. There's no need for us to change or innovate in order to get our music (read "message" for us Christians) out to new generations of listeners."

To think of a record company doing this is ridiculous. And yet churches do it ALL THE TIME. Even contemporary churches. Even churches like mine and pastors like me get stuck in our places of comfort. But if we do that, we die.

"Change, innovate, improve ... or die." 

Oh dear, I see this post has gotten long, and I haven't told you the one thing leaders don't do! Well, I guess I'll have to save that for tomorrow ...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Insights from Adam Hamilton, Part 1

Last week I attended the annual gathering of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Annual Conference typically consists of a lot of business stuff, reports, and debates that are boring at best and downright depressing at worst. But this year was different. This year a large portion of time was devoted to some really good teaching by Rev. Adam Hamilton.

Adam is founding pastor of CHURCH OF THE RESURRECTION in Kansas City. COR is now the largest church in our denomination.

Some insights he shared that grabbed my attention:

  1. Leaders set the tone of an organization. Your personality shapes the organization. People "get it" more from how you act than from what you preach.  (This scares me. Sometimes the way I act is not near as exemplary as how I preach!)
  2. Leaders clarify and champion the organization's mission. You have to keep it before people. You have to keep asking whether a considered action serves to accomplish the mission. Otherwise we drift off and start doing good things instead of God things.
  3. Leaders radiate hope ("positivity") rather than contribute to a "downward spiral of negativity." That downward spiral only gets deeper and worse as people contribute to it.
  4. Leaders produce chaos! That's right ... our natural inclination is towards comfort and routine. Growth, however, requires change--and change often results in (or results from) chaos. That's an insight that challenges me, because I definitely gravitate towards comfort and routine, and I really don't like chaos! (Especially as I get older.)
  5. Leaders discern by nausea. What is "discernment by nausea?" Well, it's like this: Adam shared that many times when faced with a choice between several options, it was usually the one that made him sick to his stomach that turned out to be the one God wanted the church to do! This is to say that God likes to lead us out of our comfort zone into things beyond our natural ability. Things that will only work if He is in them.
Adam said that there's one thing leaders don't do. And I'll tell you what that is in tomorrow's post ...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday Recap: "Gray Areas"

As I started my sermon today, I asked the congregation to name some Christian taboos they knew about or grew up with--things Christians aren't allowed to do. The list was long: Various groups at different times have said that Christians aren't allowed to drink, dance, play cards, go to movies, wear shorts, wear make-up, shop on Sunday, farm on Sunday, wear pants (women), or have long hair (men).

Many of the taboos that Christians follow and argue about are actually gray areas. In other words, there's no clear, direct "black and white" Scriptural command saying you can or can't do it. Some Christians see good reasons, based on what Scripture does say, to avoid these things. Other Christians say, "Scripture doesn't say I can't, so I'm gonna!"

How do we navigate these gray areas? And what do we do when we just flat disagree with each other?

In last week's Corinthians Challenge Scriptures on sexual immorality, Paul was black and white: Don't do it! But in the Scriptures for this week (1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10) he seems kind of wishy-washy. He's writing about eating the leftover meat from animals that had been sacrificed to idols. That's where most of the meat sold in the markets of Corinth came from--and the Corinthians were asking Paul whether it was OK to eat it.

At some points Paul says it's OK. At other points he says it's not OK. So which is it?

Apparently for Paul, it depends on the situation. If you're a strong Christian who knows idols aren't real, you can eat that leftover meat with a clear conscience. But if you're a new believer who just came out of the idol-worshiping lifestyle, then it's probably best for you to stay away from it.

And, if you're one of the strong who can eat it, but your doing so will cause a faith crisis for the new believer who sees you doing it--then put down the prime rib and head for the salad bar.

This whole meat-eating business is a gray area. It's not black and white. What's OK for one person, or for one situation, might not be OK for another. 

Now, am I saying there are no absolutes? Certainly not!  Some things are absolutely black and white. Adultery: it's never OK, at any time, for any reason, for me to sleep with my neighbor's wife. Idol worship: if I was to put a little statue in my home and bow down to it every morning, that would not be OK--not now, not ever. Belief in Jesus: If I were to stand up in worship one day and say, "I don't believe Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins--he was just a good man," I should be removed as your pastor, because belief in Jesus is an absolute for us. 

We Methodists have a great slogan that can help us here:

In Essentials, UNITY
In Non-Essentials, LIBERTY
In All Things, CHARITY (love)

The Essentials are the absolutes -- the things that are black and white. These include belief in God as Father and creator; belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; and belief in the Holy Spirit as the presence of God at work in us and in the world. In these, we must have Unity. 

The Non-Essentials are the gray areas--the things that equally committed Christians disagree on and sometimes argue about. For example ...
  • Drinking: Some Christians point to verses that forbid drunkenness and say, "It's better not to touch the stuff." Others say, "It says you can't get drunk, not that you can't drink at all. And besides, Jesus drank wine!" 
  • Dancing: Some Christians say, "Look, dancing is in the Bible! King David danced!" Others say, "Yeah, but that was before all the bumping and grinding and being all up on each other that people are doing today! Better to just stay away from that." 
  • Worship Styles: Some Christians point to verses like, "Make a joyful noise to the Lord," and say, "We should get loud in worship!" Others point to verses like, "Let all the earth be silent before him," and say, "Worship should be quiet and reverent." 
  • Politics: Some Christians say, "I'm going to vote Democratic because they care about the poor." Others say, "I'm going to vote Republican because they are stronger on moral issues and family values."
As strongly as you might feel about some of these issues, the fact is they "do not strike at the root of the faith" (John Wesley). They're Non-Essentials. We have to give each other Liberty to "think and let think" (again, the words of John Wesley). 

Finally, the motto reminds us that in all things we must have Charity (the King James word for love). I think Paul would agree. In helping the Corinthians navigate their gray areas, he says, " No one should seek their own good, but the good of others" (1 Corinthians 10:24). Love is the key. Don't judge other Christians who don't rise to your standards. And if you feel free to do something, don't look down on Christians who don't feel free to do it. Above all, don't divide from each other because of  issues that are not essential.

Love each other. That's how you navigate gray areas. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Annual Conference

This week I've been attending the annual meeting of the WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA CONFERENCE of the United Methodist Church. Our conference includes all United Methodist churches in the western half of the state of North Carolina (pretty much Greensboro and all points west.) The gathering includes all United Methodist ministers in this area, and one lay person for each minister (so if a church has two pastors, it sends two lay persons). For us pastors, attending annual conference is a requirement.

We meet at LAKE JUNALUSKA, about 30 minutes west of Asheville. I love being at Lake Junaluska. It's holy ground for me. I grew up going there every summer with my dad; my kids have grown up going there every summer with me. I was ordained there, and my son and his wife were married there. We have a house there, where we plan to retire. Besides all that, it's just a beautiful place.

But I hate the fact that the facilities and accommodations at Lake J are simply not adequate for a conference of almost 3000 delegates. It's impossible for everyone to fit into the auditorium where the meetings are held. Many of the delegates end up staying in hotels that are miles and miles away. Then when they drive their cars to the meetings, there's nowhere to park. To me this seems horribly unfair.

I love gathering in the auditorium to worship God along with 2000 other people. Talk about some great singing! One really cool thing is that, even though the majority of our UM churches in this region are pretty traditional, contemporary worship is showing up more and more at annual conference. At last night's communion service, the opening song was Chris Tomlin's "All My Fountains." You would have been amazed to see all the dignitaries processing in in their fancy robes while the praise band was going full blast and people in the congregation were raising their hands in worship!

I'm not so crazy about the business sessions with all the reports. But huge props to Bishop Larry Goodpaster  and the Committee on the Annual Conference Meeting for doing everything they can to reduce these and bring the focus back to worship, inspiration, and training.

For example, this year we're having ADAM HAMILTON speak. He's the well-known founding pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City--a prolific author, and a great speaker. People travel a long way and pay lots of money to hear him--and this year at Annual Conference, he's coming to us! This is actually quite awesome.

I love seeing old friends. It's like a family reunion. I get frustrated sometimes because, with so many people there milling around and saying hello, it's hard to have more than a surface conversation with anyone. Still, it's great to reconnect.

I confess with some shame that I usually go to Annual Conference grumbling and complaining that I have to be there. And sometimes during some of the reports and debates, I cop a really bad attitude. But usually by the end of the week I find myself inspired and refreshed, with a new passion for ministry, and ... (those of you who know me may find this surprising) ... glad to be a United Methodist and a member of the Western NC Conference.

Father's Day, Part 2

Do fathers matter anymore? 

It's almost like we've become unnecessary. For the first time in history, the majority of US babies born to women under 30 are born outside of marriage--meaning there's no dad in the home. The NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE that reported this trend quotes a sociologist saying, "Marriage has become a luxury good." One of the women interviewed in the article said about getting married, “I’d like to do it, but I just don’t see it happening right now. Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.”

I find this heartbreaking. 

Marriage is way more than "a piece of paper"--but that's a subject for another post. What I want to lift up today is the importance of fathers. According to THIS ARTICLE, a recent study shows that whether or not a father goes to church has a greater impact on his children's future church attendance than what the mother does. Apparently dads do matter when it comes to faith development. 

And I believe dads matter in all kinds of other ways as well. My father, thank God, gave me a role model to follow in every area of life. When my son left for college four years ago, he wrote me a letter telling me the same thing. And this week while we were hiking together he told me that I was one of his favorite people to hang out with. That's a great compliment, but consider this: What if his favorite people to hang out with were, as we say, "the wrong crowd?" Could it be that David's enjoyment of our relationship played an important role in the good choices he's made throughout his life? I'm not trying to brag here--I'm trying to illustrate something important from my own experience.

Dads matter. Fathers who are reading this: You matter. Get active in your kids' lives. Be a role model. Spend time with your kids. Get down on the floor and play with them. Take them along with you on your favorite activities--and join them in theirs. 

Last week somebody asked me if I was going to preach to fathers on Father's Day. This person laughed as he told me that in his experience, Mother's Day sermons usually praise our saintly mothers while Father's Day sermons usually bash fathers for not doing their jobs! I'm not trying to bash fathers in this post. But as I think about my friend's comment, I have to say, "I wonder why that is?" Why do pastors so often find themselves praising mothers and fussing at fathers? And how much better off would society be if dads stepped up to the plate? 

The recent movie Courageous provides a dramatic example of some fathers who decide to step up to the plate. Yeah, it's melodramatic and it's cheesy at points, but it has a great message, and it puts it out there boldly and without apology. (It's also hilarious at points!) I recommend it. Why not rent it and watch it with your family? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Father's Day, Part 1

This past Sunday was Father's Day. This year represented a first for me. It was the first time ever that on the same weekend, one of my kids traveled from somewhere else to see me, and I traveled to somewhere else to see my father. And in the place I traveled to to see my dad, I also saw my other kid.


David, as you know if you read this blog, is newly married. He's been in college for the past four years, but he's been home during the summers. So this was the first time he came home specifically to see me on Father's Day. But I wanted to go see my own dad, who lives in Greensboro. So on Sunday afternoon, Lauren and David spent the day with her dad, and I drove down the mountain to the city where I grew up. As a bonus, my daughter Mary came over and joined in the Father's Day feast prepared by my mom and my sister. Mary's in Greensboro attending summer school at UNCG (to get ahead, not because she's behind).

And then David and I hung out on Monday (my day off). In my honor, David suggested we engage in one of my favorite activities: hiking. We drove north on the Blue Ridge Parkway to the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park, where we parked and did the hike to POTATO KNOB. The trail itself was as beautiful as the view at the end. Then it was on to the GREEN KNOB FIRE TOWER trail. It was fun to watch David's dog Ellie muster up her courage and climb the fire tower stairs by herself several times, each time climbing a little higher than the last. Finally, we drove further north on the Parkway and did the hike to CRABTREE FALLS. Gorgeous!  With the recent rains, the falls were beautiful and full.

Instead of driving home on the Parkway, we took Highway 80 to Burnsville. On the way we took in a breathtaking view of Mount Mitchell and the other Black Mountains. Man, I love living here!

Tomorrow I want to say a few things about the importance of fathers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sunday Recap: "The Talk"

Parents dread giving their children "the talk" about ... uh ... you know ... sex. Well, in 1 Corinthians 5, 6, and 7, Paul is having "the talk" with the church at Corinth. Not because they didn't know where babies come from. And certainly not because they didn't know the mechanics. It's because they didn't know the purpose of sex, God's plan for sex, and the spiritual power of sex.

Sex is like fire. Fire is a very good thing. One of the lies running around out there is that Christians are anti-sex--that we see it as evil and dirty. The fact of the matter is that God is pro-sex. God created sex. God created a man and a woman, gave them no clothes, put them in a garden, and said, "Be fruitful and multiply," which is Bible language for "have at it!"

Fire is a good thing--but take that same fire out of the fireplace, and it becomes a raging force that can burn out of control and destroy homes, destroy families, and destroy lives.

In our culture today, the fire is out of the fireplace: 

  • 16 million Americans are addicted to compulsive sexual behavior
  • 40 million Americans are addicted to online porn
  • 1 in 3 American teens get pregnant before age of 20
  • For the first time in history, the majority of babies born to women under 30 are born outside marriage, meaning they have no father in the home. Studies have shown that these children are 5 times more likely to live below poverty level than children who live in a home with both parents. 
All of this stems from the sexualization of our culture. Sex is used to sell everything from clothing to shaving cream. The covers of mainstream magazines, visible on the racks at your local drugstore, feature provocative photos of models or movie stars, and articles like "10 Ways to Drive Him Wild in Bed." If you're an average television viewer, you're going to witness 14,000 sexual acts on TV this year--nearly all of them will involve unmarried people--and in almost none of them will there be any consequences such as unplanned pregnancy, AIDS, herpes, or low self-worth resulting from feeling used. The overwhelming message is, "Everybody's doing it, it's all fun, nobody gets hurt, there are no consequences, and no responsibility." 

The Corinthians lived in a very similar culture. Paul writes to them in 1 Corinthians 6 to avoid sexual immorality (sexual activity outside of marriage). But it's not just because he's a prude. It's because of his high view of the human body. Paul says that for those who belong to Jesus, our bodies are "parts of Christ"--what we do to our bodies, we're doing to Jesus. And when two bodies join in the act of sex, "the two become one." Sex is more than a few moments of physical pleasure--it's a spiritual experience in which two lives are joined at a deep level. God's plan for this is expressed in Genesis 2:24--"This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one." These words are repeated throughout the New Testament, by Jesus, and again by Paul in Ephesians 5. 

Paul's advice? "Run from sexual sin!" (v. 18). Notice he doesn't say, "use your willpower!" He says, in effect, "Put a concrete firewall between yourself and any fire that's out of the fireplace. Don't play with it. You will get burned." 

Parents: Talk with your kids. Not just about the "Birds and the Bees," but about your values. About how your family is different from the culture around them. In a survey of 1000 young people between the ages of 12-19, 85% of them said it would be easier to postpone sex if they were able to have open, honest conversations with their parents about such topics. 

Married couples: Stoke the fire! Get it burning so bright and hot that nobody else can touch it. Strengthening your relationship in every area--especially the spiritual area--will strengthen what happens in the bedroom. 

Singles (including young people): Think about your choices! Someone who knew I was speaking on this topic allowed me to share her story of being on "both sides of the coin" when it comes to sexual morality. She had had several intimate partners before she began dating the man who is now her husband. She says:
"My husband had saved himself for me. He was still a virgin. He thought that, because he had saved himself, God would have set aside someone for him who had also saved herself. Instead, he fell in love with me.We struggled through his heartbreak and my guilt. Sometimes even after marriage, the devil will rear his ugly head and remind us of that sin ... If I'd thought I was cheating on my husband, maybe I would have made different choices." 
Finally, if you're a sexual addict, or addicted to porn: get help! REV. WES SHARPE, who was once on staff at Covenant, is now a specialist in this area. He's a good place to start. 

Paul wraps up "the talk" with these words, which beautifully sum up everything he's said:
Don't you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.  -- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Monday, June 11, 2012

Sunday Recap: "Foolishness"

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Remember the old "Karate Kid" movie (the original, not the remake)? Daniel Larusso was in trouble. He needed to learn karate. He needed the power to defeat his enemies and the wisdom to know how to do it. So he went to Mr. Myagi and asked for help. And what did he get? "Wax on, wax off." Foolishness!

Maybe you're in need of help. You're dealing with enemies like loneliness, depression, addiction, financial struggles, relationship struggles ... You need the power to defeat these enemies and the wisdom to know how to do it. So you turn to God. And what do you get? A man bleeding to death! 

It seems like foolishness. The man had such potential: the power to heal people ... the wisdom to teach people. He attracted a huge following, and he could have accomplished anything--but instead, he walked right into the middle of his enemies, refused to defend himself, and basically allowed them to put him to death. How much wisdom is there in letting yourself be killed? How much power can you have when you're dead?

The message of the cross is foolish to some, but to others it is the power and wisdom of God. Why? For one thing, the message of the cross says, "You're a sinner." Some say, "That's foolish--I'm a good person. Stop judging me!" Others say, "You're right. I've messed up."

And the message of the cross says, "Jesus didn't fail. He gave his life willingly to pay your sin debt." Some say, "That's foolish. What does a man dying 2000 years ago have to do with me?" Others say, "I get it. He took my place. He did for me what I was powerless to do for myself."

To accept the message of the cross requires humility. It means confessing sin and asking Jesus to save you. To live the message of the cross requires doing things that seem foolish: like being meek instead of aggressive; like being poor in spirit instead of self-confident; like making peace instead of arguing; like loving your enemies; like giving control of your life to somebody else.

If you're struggling with an enemy (such as depression, addiction, relationship problems, etc.) then maybe the smartest things you can do are two things that seem very foolish--the spiritual equivalent of "Wax on, wax off." First, accept the message of the cross and the humility that comes with it. Second, live the message of the cross in your daily life, in all your dealings with other people. Accept it. Live it.

These may seem foolish at the time, but in the end they will pay off. Do you remember that scene where Mr. Myagi reveals to Daniel that all the time he was waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences, he was really learning karate? Because he did what Mr. Myagi told him to do--even thought it seemed foolish--Daniel received the wisdom and power he needed to defeat his enemies and prevail in the end.

Accept the message of the cross, and the humility that comes with it. Live the message of the cross and the foolish things it requires. Accept it. Live it. See if it's not the wisdom and power of God.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Dad is 85!

Dad and me at David and Lauren's wedding--May 26
In June of 1927, two twin boys were born prematurely in New Orleans, Louisiana. Neither was expected to live, and one of them died after two days.

The other twin managed to survive, and just a few days ago we celebrated his 85th birthday! My father's name is Ralph Earl Kayler. But hardly anybody calls him that. When he was about a week old and his mother was trying to nurse him to health, his older brother had a suggestion for infant nutrition. Not knowing the baby's name, he blurted out, "Give Jack a cookie!" And ever since then, my dad's been known as Jack.

Dad was one of nine children--8 boys and 1 girl. Today he and his sister are the only ones still living. They grew up poor, at one point living in a three-room house in the country with a dirt floor. Later when times were better, they lived in the city of Gastonia, NC, right next to West End Methodist Church. It was in that church that my father heard a call to ordained ministry. He's been a Methodist preacher for over 60 years now. He has served small rural churches in the middle of nowhere, and he's served mid-size churches in cities like Charlotte and Greensboro. He retired in 1993, but almost immediately went back to work as an interim and as a church staff member. He even worked for me as "Minister of Visitation" at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte!  Dad only quit working regularly a few years ago when severe back pain and a 10-hour surgery forced him to stop. Today he has to use a walker or ride in a wheelchair to get around; but despite his physical limitations, his mind is still sharp, and he still preaches from time to time!

At my Ordination Service in June, 1992
Something that has always amazed me about my dad--and it continues to this day--is his ability to remember names, faces, and what's going on in people's lives. When he talks to people he always asks about what's going on in their particular situation: "How's your mother doing? Did your daughter get that job she was applying for? What about your brother who had surgery last month?" That's a pastoral gift that I don't have. 

My father is a special man whom God has used to touch countless lives. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Locking and Ringing on Saturday Night

I'm part of a 50-member men's chorus called the Land of the Sky Barbershop Harmony chorus. We have a big show coming up this Saturday night at Tuscola High School in Waynesville. The show is called, "It's Not My Vault!" (For more info, CLICK HERE.)

Barbershop Harmony is a uniquely American art form. It's a particular style of 4-part a capella singing that uses a lot of interesting chords. As one writer says, "It all converges to produce a marvelous blend of sound and a ringing sensation that barbershop singers learn to strive for and expect. A large part of the allure of this music is the ecstacy experienced by the singer upon hearing his voice in a locked chord."

He's not kidding. I've experienced a lot of goose bumps during our Tuesday night rehearsals. When we get it right, it's awesome.

Another aspect of Barbershop that I enjoy is the goofy skits that we do between the songs in our shows. This year we're spoofing the summer olympics. We've got a hilarious group of male synchronized swimmers, a ton of really bad puns, and a member of our chorus who will high jump over the rest of us (using some interesting special effects). Corny stuff, but really, really fun.

One of my dreams is to one day be good enough to be in a Barbershop Quartet. It's not easy. For one thing you have to carry your part all by yourself. You can't hit wrong notes, you can't lean on the guy next to you if you're unsure of yourself, and you can't stop singing in the middle of a phrase to take a breath. For another thing, you've got to match the vowel sounds of the other three guys perfectly, which is challenging when you're all from different parts of the country (you know how northerners say, "Pen" for a writing instrument and "pin" for something you stick a poster up with ... and for us southerners they're the same word: "Pee-yun").

"Barbershoppers" are some of the most enthusiastic, most encouraging, friendliest and funniest guys you'll ever meet. When I first joined the chorus four years ago, they  gave me a hero's welcome. A couple of the guys took me under their wings and got me up to speed. We have new guys every week who all get the same great treatment.

My greatest Barbershop thrill has been singing the National Anthem at Asheville Tourist games, and at the championship games of the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament. Our arrangement is awesome, we have it down pat, and we always "lock and ring" the chords. And we always get a standing ovation (ha ha--get it? People are already standing up for the National Anthem). Seriously, it's a thrill to sing for that many people, and you can tell that they really appreciate our rendition.

OK, there's a little peek into one aspect of my life. If you're not busy Saturday, I hope you'll think about driving over to Waynesville and checking out our show!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Corinthians Challenge FAQs

If you've set out to read along with The Corinthians Challenge, you might have some questions. Let's see if I can provide some answers. 

How do I do this?
Get a modern translation Bible, and a small notebook or journal. Set aside 10-20 minutes at the time of day that works best for you.  Whether it’s morning, nighttime, or during lunch, it helps if you do your reading at the same time everyday. Read the passage for the day, reflect on it, and record what God says to you. The S-O-A-P method is an excellent way to process what you’re reading. People have told me that this method of reflecting on Scripture has made a huge difference in their spiritual growth.

What if I don’t understand something I read?
Don’t freak out.  Even long-time Christians and seasoned Bible scholars don’t understand everything the Bible says.  Writing about Paul's letters, the Apostle Peter said, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand…” (2 Peter 3:16). Maybe Peter was talking about some of the stuff in 1 and 2 Corinthians!

One way to deal with things you don’t understand is to give your questions to God in prayer – and then get busy with what you do understand.  Obedience often leads to greater understanding.

In addition, you might invest in a one-volume study bible with notes that shed light on difficult passages. The NIV Study Bible and the NLT Life Application Bible are popular choices.

What if I get behind?
Saturday and Sunday are designed as “catch-up” days. But if you get several days to a week behind, it’s better not to try and catch up. Instead, start reading again on the day everyone else is on. 

Do I really have to write in a journal?
People who use the SOAP method have found that this journaling process makes the Bible come alive for them. These folks would tell you that writing in a journal is key to hearing God speak to you in the Scriptures. But if you honestly don't have time to do that, I'd rather you just do the reading than do nothing at all.

So, what is this “SOAP method” you keep talking about?
SOAP stands for Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer. Here’s how it works:
  1. You sit down with your Bible, your notebook, your pen, and your cup of coffee if you’re into that sort of thing.
  2. You pray that God will speak to you as you read His Word.
  3. You open your Bible to the passage for the day. You read it—slowly, carefully, prayerfully. 
  4. As you read, something will jump out at you. It might be a verse or two, a phrase, or even just a word. This is your “S.” Copy it down into your notebook.
  5. Now write down why this verse or phrase caught your attention. That’s your “O”—your observations about the Scripture—what you noticed—what you observed.
  6. “A” stands for application. What is God calling you to do with this new insight? Be specific.
  7. Now, “P”: Write a prayer asking God to empower you to carry out what He’s calling you to do. Pray for other needs and concerns while you’re at it. And don’t forget to spend a few moments thanking God as well!
How could I learn more about the history and background of 1 and 2 Corinthians? 
For information on the city of Corinth, CLICK HERE. For a concise article from the NIV Study Bible, CLICK HERE. For a longer article that includes information about the founding of the church at Corinth, CLICK HERE

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sunday Recap: "Relationships"

Relationships are what life is about. Relationships with friends ... family ... fellow church members ... romantic relationships, husband and wife relationships--and of course, a relationships with God--these are what make life worth living.

But if relationships are so important, why don't we invest more in them? Why do we keep pushing them to the back burner? Why do we stay busy all the time and neglect the people we love? Why do we throw relationships away over petty disagreements, instead of working to keep them healthy? 

At the beginning of 1 Corinthians, we see that the Corinthian Christians are having a fight. They had a personality cult going. They were dividing into camps based on which pastor/church leader they thought was most important. They were quarreling (the Greek word indicates strife or contention, not just a mild disagreement). 

This broke Paul's heart. Why? Because it was a sign of spiritual immaturity. Paul says, "For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not still worldly?" (1 Cor. 3:3). He even refers to them as "mere infants in Christ" (3:1). The take-away for us is ... 

Spiritual maturity is not how much you know ... it's how well you love. 

Where did we get the idea that spiritual maturity is stuffing our heads with knowledge? You might be thinking, "From pastors like you, Claude!" OK, good point. Let me explain. I'm all for biblical knowledge. I've dedicated my life to gaining and passing on biblical knowledge. But knowledge is a means to an end. And the end is love. Relationships. A relationship with God. Stronger relationships with others.

As you read along with The Corinthians Challenge (and I sincerely hope you will), remember that the goal is to gain knowledge that will strengthen our relationships. Because spiritual maturity is not how much you know. It's how well you love.

Here are the readings for this week:

Mon: 1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Tue: 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5
Wed: 1 Cor. 2:6-16
Thu: 1 Cor. 3:1-23
Fri: 1 Cor. 4:1-21

Check back tomorrow for some FAQ's about participating in this challenge!

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Corinthians Challenge

This Sunday we begin a new series based on Paul's letters to the church at Corinth. I'm calling it the Corinthians Challenge for several reasons.

First, I challenge you to read along on your own during the week. This Sunday in worship you'll receive a bookmark with daily readings that will take you through 1 and 2 Corinthians by the end of July.

Second, I challenge you to not only read, but to reflect on the daily readings. One good way to do this is to use the SOAP method devised by PASTOR WAYNE CORDEIRO of New Hope Community Church in Hawaii, which you can read about HERE Another way is to identify a word, a phrase, or a thought from the Scripture and carry it with you throughout the day, repeating it to yourself, considering what it means and what it requires you to do (this is called meditation). Another way is to just sit quietly and reflect, and write down your thoughts. Of course all of these methods should be preceded by prayer for God to speak to you as you read.

Third, the Corinthian letters themselves are a challenge. They speak to difficult issues that we are still dealing with today. Some of the things Paul writes in these letters stand directly opposed to the values and mores of our culture. Some of the things he writes are confusing and difficult to understand, and have been the source of disagreement among Christians for centuries. All of what he writes is challenging to anyone who compares himself or herself to the standards presented in these letters.

Finally, this series will challenge us because it's all about relationships--and relationships are challenging! In our fast-paced society, we want things to be quick--but relationships take time. We want things to be easy--but relationships are hard work. We want things to make us happy, and when they don't we want to throw them away and find something else. But relationships require commitment--a commitment that hangs in even when things are tough.

Relationships are challenging--but they are what life is about! So let's dive into this series and see what God has to teach us about how to develop deep, fulfilling, Christ-centered relationships.