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

kingdomofgod

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.


Becoming an Effective Assimilating Church

April 20, 2017

This was a presentation I gave in a class at Levy. 

If a congregation becomes successful in becoming a visitor friendly church, a good percentage of guests will desire to transition into permanent membership. That is a wonderful and desired result of a relevant welcome ministry. It also brings with it challenges of assimilation—moving guests into involved membership.

Just as with becoming visitor friendly, assimilating new members into involved membership must be an intentional effort by a church. If not, then many unwelcome consequences could occur—including missing out on the giftedness of new members, alienation of new members eager to plug-in, and of course, ultimately losing the new members altogether. This is why it is just as imperative to become an effective assimilating church as it is becoming a visitor friendly church.

All Have Gifts

In the apostle Paul’s divine efforts to correct the dysfunctional situation among the Corinthian church he left us with a beautiful text on how the church functions as a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-25). Here he emphasized that in order to operate at its highest level the church needs every member in place and functioning efficiently—everyone has a place and everyone is needed in their place for God’s church to be healthy and growing.

Within this text is the idea that every member has a gift to offer and contribute to the overall health of the body. In fact, Paul teaches, God put every member in exactly the right place within the body to best use the gifts he gives them (vs. 18).

So everyone is gifted. God has put every new member coming into the Levy family into the body exactly as he desires. He recreated them to fit and plug right into the body of Christ. It then becomes up to local body to help them assimilate in order for them to use that gift.

Purposeful Assimilation

To become an effective assimilating church means making the transition from guest to involved member as seamless as possible. Included in this process is:

  • Giving the new member an easy entry point to consider how and where to get involved. This is one purpose of our Levy 101 orientation class—to offer an introduction to the church and provide ministry information along with a simple and understandable way to sign up for ministries that connect and relate to each new member. Whatever the method/approach an effective assimilating church will provide each new member timely ministry information and have a proactive process in place to help them find where they fit—along with an encouraging atmosphere for getting involved. Many new members come into the church with an expectation of this—desiring to plug-in and make a difference. This is one of the strongest characteristics of the millennial generation, for example. So it is essential for effective assimilating churches to provide an entry point to involvement.
  • There must be timely follow-up by ministry leaders/deacons, etc. After providing an entry point the next step is to share the information provided by new members to appropriate ministry leaders. Once this information is passed on, the ministry leader should be ready to contact the new members in order to help them connect and become involved in their ministries. This allows the new members to start contributing to the work of the church and the overall kingdom quickly, which also gives them a sense of purpose and place in their new church home. It demonstrates that their new church takes seriously God’s call for everyone to use their gifts for ministry. If anywhere along the way, this process breaks down or is not in place, then it can adversely affect the new member’s relationship with the congregation, while also hurting the church by not utilizing the giftedness of the new member. Going back to the Corinthian context, it is a way for the eye to say to the ear that it is not needed. Our ministry leaders and deacons are greatly appreciated for their dedication in using their gifts to volunteer and lead ministries. An important part of that is to be sensitive to new members, always being prompt in reaching out to them if they have indicated interest in their ministry area.
  • Continuing focus on involvement and growing gifts of ministry. Assimilating churches work to create a climate of involvement beyond the details of a specific welcoming/assimilating ministry. Ministry fairs, tools to help members identify their personal ministry gifts, leadership being open to new ministry ideas from within membership, giving honor and appreciation to those involved in various ministries, etc. all work to help plug-in members and encourage them to grow their gifts of ministry. And while some of this will organically happen (which is also very healthy) an effective assimilating church will be very intentional in helping create this kind of climate.

Closing the Back Door

One significant characteristic of an effective assimilating church is that they limit the number of members leaving through the “back door,” that is, members leaving due to not being involved, becoming distant from the congregation at large, and deciding to go elsewhere. Certainly, involvement must generate from within individuals. Even the best assimilating approach will fail if a person decides not to become active within a church, but the back door will stay wide-open for churches who are not intentionally seeking ways for members—new and old—to become and stay involved in ministry that makes a kingdom difference in their community.

It is an entire church initiative. All of us—even if we are not a ministry leader—can help in the assimilating process and help close the back door. There are social aspects involved as well. We can all greet and welcome new members. We can invite them to lunch. We can take the time to get to know them and make them feel at home. An old study revealed that new members need to make seven new personal connections at a church or they would exit in just a matter of months. Regardless of the accuracy of this statement—it is true that unless new members are made to feel at home, involved, needed, and a part of their new church, they likely will take the back door—sooner rather than later.

Be Sensitive and Proactive!

So in whatever capacity that we can—be sensitive to helping our new members assimilate as quickly as possible. If you are a ministry leader do not neglect to contact new members if they express interest in your ministry. If a new member volunteers do not ignore that—put them to work! Greet all new members. Go out of your way to make them feel welcome. Put the power of prayer to use on their behalf. If we are truly working to build a strong family for the glory of God, all of this should be a central focus of that goal.