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Monday, September 30, 2019

"A Disciple named Tabitha" (Acts 9:36-43)

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Sunday, September 29, 2019

            “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha.”  Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, does not go out of his way to explain why a woman could be a disciple.  Yes, he knew that the 12 were all men.  But we know, because we’ve read his two works, Luke and Acts, that there were many women who followed Jesus with devotion and at great personal cost.  They were among the most crucial in his circle.  It was this way from the very beginning.  Luke offers no qualifiers or any word that minimizes what he’s said.  There was a disciple; a passionately devoted follower of Jesus.  Her name was Tabitha.
            Luke does tell us she was “devoted to acts of charity.”  When I started at HillSong, our mission statement was “we exist to make passionately devoted followers of Jesus.”  We understand devotion.  The word Luke used that is translated “charity” literally means “good works;” works that help people who need help.
            The picture comes into focus.  In Joppa, this disciple stood out for her care for people, especially the most needy of people.  She did not do it to be recognized and admired.  No one seeks glory by devoting their time to serving the poor.  No, Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, followed where Jesus led.  Jesus led her to poor widows, among the most vulnerable people in a society without any form of social welfare.  Once Jesus led her there, she loved with action, out of her own abilities. 
            Then, the story takes a drastic, unwelcome turn.  Dorcas the Jesus-following caregiver died.  The heartsick community so blessed by this disciple did what we’d expect them to do.  They washed her body and prepared her.  The women who followed Jesus intended to do the same thing with his body upon his death.  They went to the tomb with spices to clean him and bury him properly.  These women around Dorcas, the Jesus follower did the same – except, they knew the story.  They knew Jesus rose from the grave.  So, after the washed Dorcas, they didn’t bury her.  They laid her body in an upper room.
            Then they sent for the disciple, one of the 12, Peter, the miracle worker.  They knew Peter’s power came from the Holy Spirit.  These Joppa Christians had been in Jerusalem and seen the Spirit’s power themselves.  Or, if they weren’t present at Pentecost, they came to faith in Jesus through the preaching of some who were.  Either way, they knew Peter was connected to the Spirit of God.  And they knew whatever Peter did came not from himself but from the power of God.  So they sent for Peter.
            He was, Luke tells us, going here and there among the believers.  His agenda was whatever God set before him.  Oh, a disciple devoted to acts of love for the poor has died and the grieving community wants me to come?  Peter went.
            He was greeted by weeping widows.  The text says they showed Peter the tunics and clothes Dorcas made with her own hands.  The English doesn’t indicate as clearly as does the Greek: the women were wearing these clothes.  They reason they could be dressed in nice garments instead of filthy rags was Dorcas made the clothes herself.  They didn’t show the wardrobe to Peter.  They displayed it on their bodies thus giving witness to how much Dorcas had blessed their lives. 
            Having taken in the scene and absorbed the sorrow, he put the mourners outside.  Then Peter did what he had seen his Lord do.  He knelt by the body of the deceased woman and channeled the life-giving breath, the Holy Spirit of God.  “Tabitha, get up,” he said.  She opened her eyes and he helped her to her feet.  When he expelled the weeping widows from the room, it was not done out of insensitivity.  He had to do God’s work, just as Dorcas had done God’s work by caring for them, and they had done God’s work by calling him. 
            The final act in the drama is verse 42.  The raising of Dorcas, verse 42 says, became known throughout Joppa.  We tell stories from scripture to testify that the power of God saves us.  The church has been testifying in this way from day 1 of its existence.  As followers of Jesus, as his church, we are a story-telling, testifying people.
            In recent weeks, we have looked at the S.H.A.P.E acronym, originally found in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life.  S= spiritual gifts; H = your heart’s passion (what really motivates you); A = is your abilities; P = personality; E = experience; it all comes together to describe each of us as disciples.  Furthermore, as we live into our shape and then out of our ministry shape, we serve God and love people and do so working out of our strengths. 
            Peter possessed spiritual gifts that are easy to see.  In Acts 2 – 5, he preaches with transforming power.  He exhibits leadership and clarity of vision.  Now, here in Acts 9, he demonstrates miracle-working in the most dramatic way, bringing someone back to life.  Spiritual gifts are very important.  We can see Peter’s easily.  Yet, Spiritual Gifts are just one facet of the S.H.A.P.E. picture. 
            Peter’s experience also comes into play.  He was willing to hang around the city Lydda, being present to the nascent church there.  He was then available when believers from Joppa called him.  We know Peter was married.  We don’t know if he had children.  We don’t know if his wife was back in Jerusalem or traveled with him.  Whatever happened in that aspect of his life, his experience made him available to God. 
            What excites me more than just Peter in this story is the way God speaks through Tabitha’s shape.  Tabitha, Dorcas, had a heart for God.  We become devoted to something when it grabs us.  That was Dorcas when it came to caring for the needy.  She was a disciple, active in the church.  When she met poor members, she didn’t need the pastor or anybody to tell her how to care for them.  She just knew and jumped in.  There’s some aspect of church life or ministry or community life that just comes naturally to you.  Susan Dunn and record-keeping and history is something that immediately comes to mind for me.  She just knows how to keep the minutes and keep track of the church’s story.  If I had a dime for every time I tapped into her institutional knowledge, I’d pay off our mortgage.  That’s one example of a passion matching a ministry need.  I could offer many other examples.  And that it certainly not Susan’s only passion.  Dorcas was passionate about helping the poor.  That’s the ‘H’ in her shape.
            We also see the ‘A’ displayed on the bodies of the women who loved her so much.  Can you sew and make your own clothes?  Some of you absolutely can.  You can identify with Dorcas better than me.  She used her ability to meet a very practical need for impoverished people. 
            The story of Dorcas is not important because she was raised by Peter’s miracle. She would go on to die again and, then, like all of us who are in Christ, be raised when Christ returns at the end of time.  The importance of this story is the way we are invited to retell it in the living of our lives. 
            Acting out of her heart’s passion, Dorcas offered what she had and God’s church was blessed.  What do you have to offer?  What is your ministry shape?  This summer on the youth mission trip, some of our teens were exceptionally outgoing.  They easily befriended kids from other groups.  Others in our group were shy and falling into isolation.  I am glad I was there to witness what happened.  The kids with the outgoing personalities almost literally dragged the shy kids into interactions with other students.  By the end of the week, those shy students sat at the center of the crowd, enjoying the ministry.  They got there because their fellow students loved them enough, acting out of their outgoing personalities to include them.
            Recently, we had families with teenagers visit and our youth group went out of their way to welcome these families.  One of our members commented to me, “I was so glad to see our youth go over and speak to those visitors.”  That’s an example of a young person leading the way by living out of his ministry shape, specifically his personality. 
So, what do you have to offer?  What are your spiritual gifts, your heart’s passions, abilities you’ve developed in your life, your personality, and your experience?  Put this all together.  It’s not for the sake of you or me brilliantly leading people to Christ and building up the kingdom.  It is God’s kingdom and God doesn’t need us.  We bring our ministry shape to God as an offering.  The story of Dorcas invites us to do what she did. We offer ourselves to God for God’s use in the kingdom.    In Philippians 2:17 Paul writes “Even if I am poured out as a drink offering … I rejoice.”  We offer our very selves to God to be poured or used as God sees fit.
One of the ways churches are critiqued is with this question: if the church disappeared would anyone notice?  If HillSong suddenly stopped existing as a church, would Chapel Hill notice?  I think so.  When Dorcas died, the people around her noticed.  Dorcas was caught up in serving God and people wept at her passing.  Our Chinese Pastor, Hong Zhou puts it this way.  When she’s trying to get people involved in ministry, she incredulously asks, “Don’t they realize this work of God is the most amazing thing they’ll ever be part of?” 
Do we see that?  Do we see that when we serve God, especially when we serve out of our shape, who we truly are, we will know the greatest joy that can be known?  They noticed when Dorcas was gone.  God worked through her.  She was passionate.  And lives changed.
Her story begins “A disciple whose name was Tabitha.” 
Now, it’s time for your story and mine.  What we’ve read in the Bible comes to life when we walk of here following Jesus, serving him out of our shape.  We are passionate.  God works through us and people are blessed.  And lives are changed as they turn to Jesus.
The opening lines of this story are “A disciple whose name was _________.”  
Your name fills in that blank .

Monday, September 23, 2019

“All In” (1 Corinthians 12:12-26)

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Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, September 22, 2019

            Who’s heard of Korey Cunningham?  Anyone?  How about Joe Thuney?  Ok, who’s heard of Tom Brady?  The Quarterback out of Michigan is widely considered the greatest player in the NFL at his position.  But if his left tackle, Thuney, his left guard, Cunningham, and the rest of the offensive line didn’t block, he would not have time to throw all those touchdown passes.  He needs his line’s protection.  He needs his receivers to catch the passes.  He needs his defense to stop the other team.  Brady may be who people know, but there are many essential roles on a football team.
            Take another example, the presidency of the United States.  Everyone around the world knows President Trump, President Barak Obama, President George W. Bush, and so on.  I’ve been reading the autobiography of Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State.  She gives an insider’s perspective of everything required to make things run in the executive branch of the U.S. government.  There’s one president, but how many people work in the executive branch? There’s the vice-president, 15 cabinets heads, and 4 million employees.  In order for the president to be successful, those unknown workers need to do their jobs well.
            In church we aren’t trying to perpetuate the New England Patriots’ dominance or cement Tom Brady’s place in the football Hall of Fame.  We aren’t trying to support the leader of the free world.  Our calling is much higher.  We’re here to glorify the one true God whom we know through Jesus Christ, God in human flesh.  We want to worship and exalt him, love one another in his name, and draw to Him all who do not know Him. 
            I keep saying “we” because we can only be God’s church when individuals comes together to form one body.  First Corinthians 12:12-26 is about the church – the church universal, all Christians everywhere; and, it is about the local church, our specific congregation.  We discover unity and show the world Christ when we celebrate our diversity as each of us brings our unique qualities together for one work, building one community, and giving testimony to the one God.  The church is diversity because Christ is diversity; the church is unified because Christ is one. 
            As verse 13 indicates, “all-in” means all people are welcomed into the body of Christ.  Jews or Greeks; ethnicity does not matter.  We could just as easily say, North Koreans or South Koreans; Jews or Arabs; black or white; Tar Heels, Wolfpack, Demon Deacons, or Blue Devils; well, in that last example, we might need to check some nicknames!  Verse 13 also says, “Slaves or free.”  In other words, just as unity transcends ethnic and racial backgrounds, it also transcends socio-economic classes.  In Christ, black and white, rich and poor, stand side-by-side as brothers and sisters.  The church will not be its full self until it is open to and full of people from all expressions of humanity.  All are invited to (1) repent of sin, (2) die to self, (3) receive forgiveness, and (4) begin new life in Christ.
            Once you are in church, in the body, it quickly becomes clear that all have an important role to play.  The left tackle is as important as the magazine-cover quarterback.  The government worker matters as much as the president.   In a church that has 4 or 5 services per weekend, with thousands attending each service, the pastor is recognized, maybe even famous.  Media outlets rush to interview him.  From a Biblical perspective, the front door greeter matters just as much.  No one will remember the usher’s name, but in God’s way of seeing he is just as valuable to the church.  In fact, verse 22 says, “The members that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.”
            Everyone matters.  You matter because you are you.  Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback church authored The Purpose Driven Life an immensely popular book that talks about what it means to be a Christian.  I find chapters 30-32 to be the most helpful.  In that portion of his book, he says everyone has a ministry “shape.” 
            S = Spiritual Gifts
            H = Heart (your passion)
            A = Abilities
            P = Personality
            E = Experience

            Last week the sermon was about spiritual gifts.  You can listen to it on our website, get the text by reading my blog honesttalkwithgod, or email and I can send the manuscript to you. 
            The ‘H’ in the acronym is ‘heart.’  This is your passion, what truly motivates you.  Some believers are fired up about worship.  Others get excited when they are involved in justice ministries.  In our church are attendees who faithfully do the tutoring ministry on Saturdays and they love it.  What is your ministry passion? 
            The ‘A’ indicates your abilities.  Last year when we built a ramp for a family with a family member in a wheel chair, David Seng and Tom Ross both used their construction and carpentry abilities from their professional lives to lead on that project.  Next week, we’ll look at the story of Dorcas in Acts chapter 9.  We’ll pay attention to her heart’s passion and her abilities and the way God blessed others through her life. 
            The final two letters in the acronym are ‘P’ for your personality, and ‘E’ for you experiences.  In July we took the Growing Young congregational survey and in October we’re having everyone in the church take a spiritual gifts inventory.  We don’t want to wear church members out with questionnaires and surveys, so we won’t do this now.  But at some point it really would be helpful if everyone involved in our church took the Meyers-Briggs personality type indicator. 
            I used to hate personality tests, but now, I find it useful in understanding myself and in understanding those around me and how I relate to them.  The Meyers-Briggs assigns letter combinations based on how you answer the survey questions.  The last time I took it, I came out as an ENFP.  I’m slightly extroverted and more inclined to intuition than to sensory data.  I’m going to respond more to feelings than thought, and I pay more attention to how I perceive the world in the moment than to judgments that are made.  The fact that I am a P and not a J has really helped me understand why some leaders in the church find the way I plan to be frustrating. 
            This matrix that is unique to each person, as understood by the S.H.A.P.E. acronym, has the potential to make our church life vastly more enjoyable, efficient, and effective.  Take the final letter, ‘E.’  When I am talking to someone new in the church, if he’s into sports, I can draw on my experience playing college football, even though I only played on season.  It’s a point of contact.  I can draw on my experience in army basic training to relate to someone with a military background.  Last week we had a first time guest and I as heard his experiences, I realized one of our members had similar experiences.  I introduced them and within seconds they were talking like they had known each other for years.
            We all have Spiritual Gifts.  Every one of us has a passion, a heart for some aspect of God’s truth.  We all have abilities we’ve developed in our lives be it video gaming, cooking, or design.  Everyone has a personality and everyone has experiences.  You have a unique combination of these five that no one else has.  Paul’s metaphor in verse 21 is apropos.  The body needs ears, eyes, hands, and feet.  The church needs the outgoing greeter, the quiet servant working in the background, the devoted pray-er, the committed small-group attendee, and the on-stage personality.  Paul cannot be clearer.  Each and every one is a valuable member of this body.  “All-in” means use what you have to glorify God, lead others to Christ, and build the church.
            At the end of verse 24 we realize that when we’re part of the body, we’re not just doing our share, meeting our responsibility.  We also enter God’s joy.  God’s hand guides the diversity in the local church.  The second phrase in verse 24 says, “God had so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.”  When we are humble and give our best, each one of is that inferior member honored by God. 
            All are included.  All are important.  All are honored.  In verse 25, we realize all in the church must be invested in faith and the work of the church.  God has arranged things “that there may be no dissention within the body” Paul writes in that verse.  We don’t come with our own agendas.  We don’t participate in church in order to assert our rights and have our voices heard.  Our mission is to follow Jesus, love others, and share hope.  In the final words of verse 25 we read that church members “care for one another.”  Disagreements are O.K.  When we have passionate, respectful debate over topics of great importance, we all get smarter and stronger.  As long as in the end, we agree to glorify God and build up Jesus’ church.  We welcome healthy disagreement but allow no place for dissention.  All-in means we believe God has a purpose for this church and we are committed to advancing the mission of this church.
            Finally, all-in means we are connected to each other.  “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, we rejoice together.”  That’s verse 26.  America has promoted individualism from our nation’s very beginnings and American churches are plagued by this individualistic mindset.  When we are in Christ, we belong to one another.  We are accountable to each other in love. 
            If we are all in, what exactly does the church look like?  Hopefully, we’ll find out.  I close by inviting you to consider Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 12.  Are you all-in with Jesus?  Are you all-in with the church universal?  Will you be all-in with HillSong Church, soon to be Hillside Church?  Serve God with joy, out of your gifting, strengths, and experiences, and enter into intimate relationships of trust with other church members.  If we have enough people committed to that, then we will be the church God wants us to be.  If we are the church God wants us to be, we will hear God say to us, “Well done, my faithful servants.  Come, enter the joy of your Master.”  That’s really what I long to hear from God.  How about you?

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Day in the Life of a Seasoned Pastor

The Higher Calling on a Nondescript Wednesday in September

            I am sitting at my desk, at work, and it’s 8:05AM on a Wednesday.  I’ve been sitting at this desk since I began on September 17, 2006.  Thirteen years is certainly long enough that I have seen wonderful things in my work, and I have had really hard, bad days at work.  Sometimes, my work thrills me.  Sometimes it feels like a real slog. 
            Some readers would find it off-putting for me to talk about what I do as a “job” and to discuss my job as “work.”  I am a church pastor.  Lay persons (non-clergy) may find the idea of a pastor to be mysterious or inaccessible.  What does he do all day during the week when we are all at work doing real jobs?  Pray? Well, yes, I do pray during weekdays.  I would suggest all Christians do that. 
            Other non-clergy might think of the pastorate as a “higher calling” or as “holy work” not to be compared to more mundane employment.  It certainly is a high calling.  Pastors are called to holiness.  My understanding of 1 Peter 2:9 is that every Christian has a high calling.  Everyone who wants to be identified with Jesus is called to holiness. 
There’s no question, professional ministry is unique work.  We pastors have a different work week than most who do Monday-Friday, 9-5, or some version thereof.  We have 50, 60, 70-hour weeks sometimes.  Some weeks, we work less than 40 (well, I do).  We do enter into extreme human discomfort when we sit with a wife as her husband of 40 years slowly, agonizingly dies.  We get caught in thankless, ugly work when we try to convince two people headed for divorce to stay together or try to help an addict change his life trajectory.  We embrace what is always at the top of the phobias lists - public speaking. 
It’s work I love.  I absolutely believe I am called by God to do it, so I would do some version of pastoring for free if I didn’t have church paying me.  I am really glad I have a church paying me.
Pastors do the same things after a bad day (or a bad week or a bad year) at work that others do during hard times.  We complain about our jobs.  We think about changing (as in pastoring a different church).  We think more about changing (as in doing something other than being a pastor).  We look into other possibilities.  But, because of the public nature of our work, we try to be surreptitious about it. 
Isn’t unseemly for a pastor to be surreptitious?  Is it unseemly for anyone to be surreptitious?  What does surreptitious mean, anyway?
Sorry, I digress.  Pastors often do.
Where was I?  Oh yeah, pastoring when it’s a tough day (or week or month or year)!  If a pastor is wise, she or he will pray like crazy, pray until going crazy, and then do what God says to do.  If the pastor loves the church, but God tells her to move, she puts her resume out and tries to discern where to go.  If a pastor hates his situation, but God tells him to stay, he stays. 
But he doesn’t just stay and grumble, “Fine God, have it your way!   I’ll be miserable.”  That would be a martyr complex.  It’s pathetic.  The pastor stays and determines to do his pastoring work with joy no matter how hard it is or how unappreciated he feels.  What way other than joy is there to represent the risen Lord Jesus Christ who calls all of us to resurrection and eternal life in the Kingdom of God?  When you think about it in those terms, that a pastor’s job is to represent God, then it is obviously the best job in the world. 
So, 2018-2019 has been the toughest stretch of my ministry career for a variety of reasons.  I’ve already mentioned what pastors do when the work is hard; the same thing everyone else does when the work is hard.  Still I am right here, right where I was on this same day in 2006 when everything was bright and new.  I am still optimistic.  My optimism has some rough edges time always brings.  But the optimism is still here and am I am too. 
What’s next?  It’s a Wednesday in the life of a pastor.  I have to study 1 Corinthians 12.   I have a bunch of people to email.  I have three ministry meetings to be ready for between now and Sunday.  And I have to pray so that I’ll be ready when the unpredictable happens.  In ministry, the unpredictable always happens. 

I keep stepping forward, not toward a finish line.  No, when the journey is with God, it doesn’t end; not with retirement, not in death, not ever.  It just keeps moving onto new ground or into new space.  It’s always new, even when you sit at the same desk for 13 years (and counting).

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