Money and Me

July 12, 2017

Worried About Money

So I am enjoying a kind of preaching sabbatical due to different circumstances intersecting (regular Sunday off, preaching intern, mission trip), which provides me a rare opportunity to plan my next sermons over a longer period. All year my preaching focus has been themed around “seeking first the kingdom of God”–obviously from Christ’s incredible Sermon on the Mount. During the summer I have narrowed that focus to what I call “kingdom values.” Next up my plan leads me to address the use of and attitudes toward money in the kingdom (so Levy be warned!) It will not be a “sermon on giving” (or as the classic Marvin Phillip’s line goes–a “sermon on the amount”), but rather what Christ taught about money and possessions along with how they are best used in his kingdom.

As I have been reading and ruminating over this, it has caused within me a growing tension. It has resulted in me coming face-to-face with and acknowledging my own weaknesses and failings in this regard.

It can be rather convenient for preachers to pick out our texts, work our sermon plans, and have a go at the church without ever allowing the message to become deeply personal. After all, we have to move from one sermon to the next fairly quickly. Sermons are our products. We have to produce one weekly, which often does not allow time for self-reflection. Due to the accidental sabbatical I am enjoying self-reflection opportunities right now–and it is working me over.

I admit to always having a struggle with money. I grew up with very little of it and have never managed to accumulate a great deal of it. Overspending, though, has never been much of a problem. I hate debt even though I have never been totally free from it. I don’t sense within me the love of money that is rooted in all kinds of evil. I don’t have any great internal problems or hesitancy with contributing.

It is just this–I worry too much about it.

Interestingly enough this has only increased within me as I have gotten older. It has compounded due to having younger children. I now find myself on occasion being fearful about the future–will I have enough to help them through college? What will happen if I am not able to keep working? Are we sure we have enough money to cover all our responsibilities? Some of this may seem like typical concerns. Some of it quite honestly is just an irrational lack of faith. But it is the tune Satan keeps playing for me in the recesses of my mind.

Let me make this clear however–it does not come from a kingdom perspective at all.

In fact, Christ teaches exactly the opposite. Don’t worry. Seek first the kingdom and God will provide. Prioritize your money and resources from a kingdom perspective and be set free from our consumer driven social conditioning. I know this. My wife, Terri, reminds me of this quite frequently. God has always had our back, so why worry now? But I still do. Therefore the tension mounting within me.

I confess this here for a few reasons. First, confession really is a balm for the soul. It puts your struggle out there, forcing you to deal with it differently than if it is kept hidden. Second, preaching about money sometimes can be a tricky proposition. I want Levy to know that I am first preaching to myself. That my agenda is not just to challenge others to live out the kingdom values, but also to embrace them more fully myself. And third–to seek prayers from others on behalf of my struggle.

I must overcome Satan’s song with the beautiful words of Jesus:

So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or”What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. –Matthew 6:32-34

Money and me have always had a complicated relationship. More than anything I want that relationship to be better defined and prioritized God’s way. I want to be set free of the tyranny of worry and fear.

 

 


Why So Isolating?

June 19, 2017

iso cell phone

I was reminded again recently while grocery shopping with my wife in our local ubiquitous gigantic one-size-fits-all store about how things have changed within my lifetime. As a child I have fond memories of walking the few blocks from my house to our neighborhood grocery market—Lucky Food Store in Greenville, MS. It was small but adequate. Folks frequenting this store knew each other. I could go there unaccompanied at a young age, browse for comic books on the rack while feeling safe and at home. It was a community of sorts.

I felt none of that familiarity in Wal-Mart. No knock on them—it is just the way of things now. It also made me contemplate what is next. Soon it appears the need to shop in the big stores will transition out. On the horizon is online grocery shopping. Need milk and bread? Just order it up on the website and have a drone deliver it to your door. Convenient for sure, but healthy? Maybe not.

What is getting squeezed out in our technology is contact with people, relationship and community. In all of the convenience we are increasingly isolating ourselves.

Everyone seems to have their own personal screen. Just look around the next time you are in a public space. You probably will notice more folks looking down at their phone than interacting with each other. This occurs in homes as well. Vanishing are our dinner times together or even shared TV watching. We are segregating by our own streaming preferences—just me and my screen.

And when was the last time you enjoyed a nice telephone chat with a friend? We text, message, tweet, and maybe still email. They all serve a purpose. Social media is here to stay, but no amount of proficiency with or time spent on social media replaces the benefits of personal contact.

Then there is this. It seems that even the old standby business lunch is fading and being replaced by people eating alone at their desks.

So why my lament about all of this?

God created us not to be isolated, but for community and he created a community for us that we call church. From the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Our trending isolationism is not healthy emotionally, physically or spiritually. God’s community was designed for personal relationship, hospitality and fellowship. Those cannot be experienced through a screen.

Sure it gets messy sometimes (just read any of Paul’s New Testament letters), but it is worth the struggle. The community and connectivity we enjoy in Christ is but only a glimpse of the fully realized and shared kingdom of heaven that is to come.

This post is not meant to be a deep study of the dangers of our increasing trend for isolation or a detailed discussion of the need for community together as believers.

Certainly it is a lament—loneliness is more common than we imagine—but it is also meant to hopefully spur us to rethink our own tendency to isolate—if we do.

So, invite someone to lunch. Demonstrate hospitality in your home. Put the screen down and engage someone the next time you are in a public area. Enjoy a meal together with your family. Call someone on the phone just to chat. Start up a conversation with a fellow shopper in the big box superstore. Go to church—regularly. Meet someone new there. Hug an old friend. Celebrate God’s community. Discover the blessings within it.

It is not good for us to always be alone.


The Kingdom Difference

June 14, 2017

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Recently while on vacation I met up with a good friend for lunch. As usual our discussion was wide ranging. Part of the conversation concerned how my 2017 preaching theme of seeking first God’s kingdom was transforming me—as well as my understanding of God’s kingdom—in profound and unexpected ways. The next day my friend texted me stating that he would enjoy a further conversation about this, specifically how this was personally affecting me.

I’ve ruminated over this a great deal in the few weeks since. Surprisingly I find it somewhat difficult to articulate it adequately. I have twice posted since about the impact the kingdom is making. It remains a journey for me—a process to grasp just how deep and wide the challenges of the kingdom are. Some of them I do not like. They make me uncomfortable and expose too many of my weaknesses.

But I am going to take a shot at it and attempt to explain what I am learning. To me the kingdom of God:

  • Is not about me. I really enjoy things being about me. I like to get my way. I dislike having to compromise. I generally believe that I have the best ideas and typically have a strong desire for events to turn out in my favor. But unfortunately this is not a kingdom focus—actually it is far from it. Read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)— Christ’s first public teaching about the kingdom and its values—and you will see it threaded throughout. Then later (Matthew 16:24-26) he makes it even clearer. There just is no self-focus in the kingdom and I haven’t figured out how to get around it—even though a large part of me wants to do so.
  • Is about submission. Here we go again. The kingdom is about me submitting my will to the Father’s. Christ himself emphasized this (in John’s gospel) and modeled it perfectly—in a way I cannot even imagine. In order to fully embrace God’s kingdom and thrive within it I have to give up. Period. My old self will has to die and be buried according to Paul in Romans 6:3-4. Out of that submission God will raise me up anew and begin his process of reshaping me for the kingdom. Nowhere, however, is there ever a claim that this would be easy. Worthwhile—definitely, but easy, no. I typically like easy.
  • Is others oriented. I guess at this point, this could go unsaid. I posted about the “least of these” kingdom focus earlier. They are the others.
  • Upends conventional wisdom. Starting with the idea of submitting and giving up, but going deeper. The poor, the mournful, the pure, the merciful, and even the persecuted—they are the blessed ones. Enemies? They are not to be hated and destroyed but to be loved (when was the last time I prayed for or had a loving spirit toward a terrorist? Yea. Tough.). Being first is not what matters—being last does. Have a lot of money, land and stuff? Maybe the best use of it is not to invest it to gain more stuff, but to diverse yourself of it and give it away (like many did in Acts). Someone strikes you, don’t strike back, but rather turn the other cheek. Put your swords away. Go the second mile. Those are the actions reflective of God’s kingdom. Its values indeed come from another place (John 18:36). All of this creates big-time tension within me. Can I–coming from the place of conventional wisdom–really put into practice these unconventional teachings?
  • Is all about trust. And this is where the true test for me comes. I can know all of the above in an academic, skim-the-Bible-kind of way, but do I trust God enough to personalize them and go all in? The trust-building promises are all there. Seek first and God’s got your back–no need to worry. Humble yourself and God will elevate you in his way. Give of yourselves and God will give back many times over in various ways. Be last and then become first in the kingdom. To actualize this I really have to let go of the control of my life and hand it over to God. Can I see past the short-term to grasp the endgame of God? Short-term none of this has any appeal to me. Long term? I must trust God explicitly. It is the only way to see the value of what he is asking. It is the only way to really make the kingdom become present and alive within me (Luke 17:20-21). This, as they say, has rocked my world.

This is where I am—venturing out in baby steps toward greater trust and in so doing finding God changing me; learning to view people, possessions, and priorities differently; all while being constantly confronted by the kingdom. Sometimes I manage to be selfless through it all, but sometimes I don’t. I suppose that why it is called seeking–it remains a process.

In the end it is all about God’s will. That is the kingdom difference. I find myself praying more like Jesus:

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Props to Harding University

June 12, 2017

 

Harding-University

Harding University, in Searcy, Arkansas, is a liberal arts college affiliated with the Churches of Christ. It’s scenic campus sits not that far from the Levy church’s campus in North Little Rock, AR. As a result of this fortunate geography we are quite often the happy recipients of Harding’s products–both their graduates who move into our area and their professors who occasionally speak here.

So I give props to the university for their good work in emphasizing Christ in their educational process. We have different generations of Harding graduates at Levy and all bless our church. Within our leadership–among our shepherds and staff–we have Harding graduates. We get to enjoy a wonderful stream of young people fresh from the campus. They bring energy, vision, and faith, which in turn, continually creates a fresh, rejuvenating spirit within our congregation.

My personal experience at Harding was through their Master of Ministry program. That was a tremendous growth period for me, but I have never been a resident student there. Our current preaching intern and several of our youth and children’s ministry interns are from Harding also. I am impressed by them all. And while I realize that there is no perfect school (and also acknowledge that Levy is blessed by those from other fine Christian schools and other universities)–Harding has indeed been a notable blessing to the Levy church over the years.

So thanks to everyone who keeps the Harding tradition going! May God continue to bless the university! At Levy we look forward to future Harding graduates potentially coming our way.


Selfish Ambition

June 7, 2017

me

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself. Philippians 2:3

I suppose it would not be shocking to confess that over the course of my life and ministry that this verse (and its context) has haunted me.

I recently took the enneagram personality test and my number came up 8. A number 8 is identified as a “challenger.” Detailed this means, “The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational.” Notice that humility is not listed.

It is not just humility, but also the “selfish ambition” part. This can be nuanced. There is a line between ambition and selfish ambition I guess, but often that line blurs. I’ve asked myself many times—how much of my ministry has been motivated or at least partially shaped by personal ambition? Am I like Paul, who stated (twice) his desire to only “boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17) or does my boasting reflect something entirely different?

I have a vivid memory of a guest presenter who spent a weekend with my church leading a seminar on evangelism. He was a gifted speaker who motivated that church, so much so, that dozens responded to his call to recommit to evangelism on Sunday morning. It was a powerful and pivotal moment for that congregation. As the shepherds and I were busy assisting those who came with their prayer requests and statements—the speaker decided to use the time to promote himself as well as his books, urging everyone to stop by his table and purchase one or more. This bothered me (and being the challenger that I am, I told him so). To me it was totally inappropriate—not the time for self-promotion.

So is there ever a time?

I have certainly done it—to angle for a speaking gig or recognition or whatever. After all isn’t this the way to get ahead, to get noticed, to get likes and retweets and to succeed in your profession?

But it leads me directly back in conflict with Philippians 2:3 and all those pesky kingdom values. Vain conceit—ouch. Do nothing out of selfish ambition—how difficult is that! Actually consider others needs more than my own—is that even possible? Yet that is the “mind of Christ.” That is exactly what I am called upon to model.

I’ll be honest. For me this remains a work in progress. It is quite the challenge for the challenger. I always have to remember:

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:10

In the end this is the only ambition that matters.


Meet Will

June 7, 2017

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Serving as preaching intern this summer at Levy is Will Brannen. Will will be a junior at Harding University in Searcy, AR studying Bible and ministry. He is from Houston, TX. He and his family worship at the Bammel Church of Christ.

I have known Will since 2003 when my family and I moved to work with the Gateway congregation in Pensacola, FL. Will and his family were living there then.

Will has an amazing God story to share about his life. He had a heart transplant as an infant and is a two-time cancer survivor. He plans to tell us a little more about that soon at Levy.

In spending dedicated time with Will–studying text; talking ministry and preaching; visiting people–I am deeply impressed by Will’s desire to serve God, his genuineness and his maturity.

I am thankful that Will is with us for six weeks and I urge everyone at Levy to pray for him, encourage him and support him in his pursuit of a life of ministry.


The Least of These

May 18, 2017

Over the last few months I have been preaching from the kingdom parables in the gospel of Matthew. These stories along with Christ’s other teachings and personal ministry reveal the nature and values of “the kingdom of heaven.” To me as I read the entire story as it unfolds in Matthew, the kingdom was on the mind of Jesus from the very beginning of his teaching ministry (the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-7) until his last public teaching before his arrest (chapters 24-25).

As I understand it, the kingdom of God has an “already here/but not yet” aspect to it. The kingdom is here Jesus taught—among us and in us, but not in it fullest state. We still get to anticipate, yearn for, and look forward to it. To me, the best way to understand the kingdom is like this:

  • It is where God is/rules. Wherever the reign of God can be seen, his kingdom is present.
  • It is within us. So Jesus stated in Luke 17:21. When God rules within us his kingdom then is evident in us.
  • It is from another place. So Jesus stated in John 18:36. This speaks to the values of the kingdom. This is what Jesus began sharing in the Sermon and throughout his ministry. These kingdom values are usually at odds with those of our world.
  • The kingdom focus is on the least of these. This was among what Matthew last recorded Jesus saying before his arrest in a section we know as “The Sheep and the Goats” or the great judgment scene. Found here is a major way that kingdom values differ from the world.

“THE LAST WILL BE FIRST”

As Matthew presents Jesus, we hear him say these words more than once and we witness him practice them. Sure there is the backstory of the Jewish establishment’s rejection of his Messiahship—the “first” in God’s story refusing to embrace God’s Son while reacting as the invitation goes out to the “last” folks they ever expected to be in a kingdom celebration (or wedding feast as Jesus imagines it in Matthew 22:1-14). But there is more to the story than just proving a point to hard hearted Jews.

The kingdom of God really is about the least of these. I love the way Jesus replied to some disciples of John the Baptist who came asking if Jesus was, in fact, the true Messiah  (Matthew 11:4). His answer was about the least of these. It was about how the lame could walk, the blind could see, the deaf could hear, lepers were healed, the poor hearing good news. Interesting.

You can see this all throughout Christ’s ministry—stopping to listen to blind Bartimaeus, healing lepers, feeding thousands, making time for little children, offering hope to an adulterous woman, casting out demons in people others had completely given up on. This was Jesus reaching out unashamedly to the forgotten, the devalued, the fringe, the ignored, the neglected, the last–and incredibly making them first on his mind, in his heart and in his kingdom.

Remember his disciples squabbling about who would be the greatest in his kingdom? This is so like most of us—seeking the edge, maneuvering for position, wanting to be number one—first! Matthew shared this unflattering episode in 20:20-28. Once more Jesus made it crystal clear that in his kingdom this type of ego stroking would not occur. It was about being last, he told them, not first. Or as he framed it in another conversation–giving up of ourselves; our self-will and ego in order to gain much more in him.

Do we get it? It is all about the least of these. Once Jesus said that if we harm or injure one of his little ones—specifically little children in the context of Matthew 18:1-15—that it would be better for us to have a millstone (read very heavy weight) strapped to our neck and cast into the sea. Not sure how much plainer it can get than that.

It is about justice, mercy, grace, empowerment, forgiveness, hope, compassion, healing and love—demonstrated to those who frequently do not receive much of it. This is what Jesus came to deliver. This is what his kingdom in its present form is to emphasize. And when the kingdom comes in its fullest—forgotten folks like poor, sick Lazarus will enjoy an eternal place at God’s table. The last will be first.

THIS HAS CHANGED ME

On a personal level this “least of these” emphasis has changed me. First, I can relate to it. Honestly, I often feel like one of the “least of these.” This has more to do with believing Satan’s lies than Christ’s teaching, but it is a real struggle for me at times. Quite often I assess my life and feel like a failure on different levels—wondering if my life has made any real, lasting difference; questioning if my attempts at preaching really matter in the big picture; wondering if I have helped or hurt my family; at times feeling lonely and afraid–just out on the fringe. I do realize and acknowledge that these thoughts come from my enemy who wants to “steal, kill and destroy” me, but they are honest emotions. And it is good to know that when I am thus struggling that Christ is there. This is the “when I am weak, he is strong” promise of 2 Corinthians 12:10–which is simply another way of restating his kingdom focus.

It has also changed me in how I look at others. How often have I brushed aside the Bartimeaus’s of the world in my rush to pursue my own ends—my own place at the chief seat in the kingdom? How often have I ignored the last? Had no time for the least of these? How many times have I been so focused on the winners, while denigrating the losers that I lost sight of the real purpose of my life within the kingdom of God?

God forgive me. I have come to realize that those I have called “the losers” are exactly who Christ valued–the least of these.

The evidence is just too overwhelming. Read again Matthew’s story of Jesus. It is right there—repeatedly. In God’s kingdom:

Whoever wants to become great among you must become your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. 

It really is about the least of these.