A Different Kind of Rich

Last night I finished reading Rich In Heaven by Chris Mackey.

This morning I got an example of what Mackey wrote about told to me by a stranger. There’s something about snowbirds (a northerner who moves to a warmer southern state in the winter) and conversation. They don’t shy from it.

I’m on vacation in Orange Beach, Alabama. If I turn my head just so, I see the Gulf of Mexico right now. This morning I decided to walk the beach first thing. After being stopped by one snowbird to view passing porpoises about 100 yards out in the water, I was stopped by another couple to chat. I really don’t know what started the conversation. But 10 minutes later, the husband had told me all I needed to know about his family.

I didn’t ask his name. Since he’s from Gardendale (which probably doesn’t really classify him as a snowbird…it’s in the same state), I’ll call him Dale.

Dale is retiring April 1st from Alabama Power where he’s worked for 46 years. One of his younger brothers retired today. His wife said Dale’s a little miffed by that. His other younger brother took over the family farm. His wife said he’ll figure out that wasn’t a good move.

Dale doesn’t care for the beach; he’d rather be on a bushwhacker. That reminds him of growing up on the farm with his parents. They’re both gone, but he’s very proud of who they were. When his dad passed, people told Dale stories of how he’d done something personally impactful for them that they’d never forget. That’s who he was.

From Dale’s own experience, he remembers when his Dad would announce in church that the next weekend his corn crop would be ready for people to come get whatever they wanted. They stood in lines for that free corn. And the same with the family chickens. They always had 2,000-3,000 chickens (Dale said that wasn’t a lot. I’ve never had one, so that sounded ginormous to me.). Dale’s dad would announce a Sunday prior that fryers would be available the next weekend. That meant Dale and his brothers would have to skin them to be ready to give away.

Dale said he never got a satisfactory answer from his dad why he didn’t ask folks to pay for that corn or those fryers. His dad only said, “One day you’ll understand.” When Dale said they were never rich or anything, I replied, “Your dad was a different kind of rich.” He replied, “And I understand now.”

Chatting with my vacationing neighbors reminded me of a few things Mackey wrote:

We ought to think about “us and ours” instead of “me and mines.”

The way to more blessing is giving what you have away.

God is displeased, not by what we choose to give Him, but by what we refuse to give Him.

The two types of people in this world are not the haves and the have nots but the “use wells” and the “do nothings.”

The rich in heaven are those who are not okay with God working out His plan apart from them.

Nothing promotes inaction more than comfort.

It is the place where you refuse to grant God access that marks the extent of heaven’s reign in your life.

I met some rich folks this morning. I’m richer.

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Post It Note Prayers

Yesterday, I had a first. My pastor’s wife sent me a handwritten letter; never gotten one from any pastor’s wife. It was a gracious note of thanks. I want to share a little of it and then reveal an observation.

Dear John,

…Six years ago we spent money on a keyboard. We had no one that played keys, but we went ahead and purchased the keyboard for the church. There were so many weeks, months, and even years the keyboard went untouched, and the post it note of a prayer request sat on the wall of the office. It read, “A keyboard player.” We all prayed and we waited; we believed God would bring someone who would want to serve in worship and use their giftings on that keyboard. This past Sunday I was reminded that GOD IS FAITHFUL-not always in the timing we want but always in His perfect timing! Thank you…

Cool story, right? What she didn’t know, and no one at church knew until now, was that God and I had a completely different conversation that same Sunday about my playing keys at church. I mean completely different.

Not to go into too much detail, but very few people really know the work I’ve done over the years to not be too hard on myself when it comes to music, particularly playing the piano/keys. I’ll never live up to my perfectionistic expectations, and sometimes it gets the best of me. That Sunday it did.

After the worship set, I was pretty much in a wrestling match with God, couldn’t concentrate on what the pastor was saying due to all the guilt and overreacting stuff that comes with perceived failure. If I’d written a post it note in that moment, I’d probably had to have immediately brought it forward for confession, if you know what I mean. There wouldn’t have been anything holy about it.

If I’ve learned nothing else in these moments in my adult life, I’ve learned that 99.9% of the people that were in the same room have no idea what I’m thinking about that “failure” and would say if they did, “What are you talking about?” The honest ones would say, “Get over it, John.” And my real friends would say, “Get over yourself, John!”

God and I talked about this for the next 10 hours. That conversation is between me and him. But the end result was my acknowledging I knew the solution and had been holding out on it. A figurative post it note I’d had for a few months was more a “want” than a “need.” And in this case, God showed me that the want wasn’t necessary, and the need was actually more important. I got over myself.

There are numerous observations from these two stories about a Sunday service and a keyboard. But the one I most appreciate is this: God has zero problems having multiple conversations with his children at the same time about the same thing going in completely different directions.

That’s my God.

That’s worth another post it note.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Sunday after Ian

I left town for Ian; technically, I left the state. Even though I don’t regret the decision, there’s a weird sense of guilt that comes with it (that may be for another post).

I got back to West Bradenton Thursday evening. Electricity on. Wi-Fi working. Cul-de-sac cleaned. It was like nothing had happened. But all you have to do is open any social media platform and be brought into the reality that something most certainly had happened.

Friday morning, my church sent out an email stating that the Sarasota elementary school where we meet isn’t able to host us today. So the challenge was issued to, instead of attending a service, serve the community. Here’s the challenge:

Even though we may not be gathering as a church this Sunday, we can still BE THE CHURCH. This Sunday, we invite you to join us in a SERVE SUNDAY. Would you get out and serve the people around you? Imagine the church in action spread throughout our neighborhoods and our city. What a beautiful thing that will be.  
Serve Sunday doesn’t have to look like just cutting debris and clearing yards, although it might be. This could look like making a meal with your kids for families still without power. This could look like taking some cookies to the local fire department. This could look like simply walking the neighborhood and checking in on each home, asking if they need anything.  
Let’s do this, if we see a need, let’s meet a need.

My guilt was already driving me to do something, which I managed to do on Friday and Saturday. I could have let that be it. But something was telling me that wasn’t enough.

This was supposed to be the first Sunday of my serving in a role that had me showing up at 7AM. With that off the table, I decided to drive to the beach to run, of course, but also to find answers to “enough.” Three hours later, God had given more answers than imaginable.

Before heading to the beach, I stopped to fill up the car. I overheard normal conversation about how other customers had fared the week and how challenging it was to have to keep generators running. AWARENESS #1: Not everyone has power yet.

I always park on the Gulf side of Coquina Beach. But not today. The main public parking was not open. Across the street, however, is a smaller parking lot where boat trailers park and have water entry access. And across the street is where you get a great view of sunrise. I arrived just in time to get this shot.

AWARENESS #2: The sun always rises.

I took off north to head back to Cortez road and cross the bridge to Cortez Village. I had just come to the first bend in the sidewalk and this is what I faced (I took pictures after my run for better lighting).

AWARENESS #3: Ian didn’t respect age.

Few people were moving about as I made my way to the bridge. Honestly, I’m not sure how many people are back. Other than cars on the road, it felt mostly abandoned. When I got up to the bridge, I was thinking about just running up to the draw bridge and turning around, but I felt the urge to continue over. As I ran down the other side, my left shoe felt loose. At the foot of the bridge was a slight right turn into a mobile home park that I have never explored. I saw a sitting bench, so I paused there to tie my shoe. That led me down a further exploration of this park and Cortez Village, which was a first.

All along my run to that point, my “enough” was to pray for the residents, visitors, store owners, and businesses of Coquina Beach. As I continued that as I ran through the village, out of nowhere sat this little neighborhood church.

Photo from their Facebook page

At first, I ran by it. But then I knew I was to pause and serve this congregation by praying for them. I walked the parking lot. Nothing seemed damaged. It didn’t even look like there had been any debris. Either they’d already cleaned it up and disposed of it, or this little spot had not been touched. I counted the parking spaces; only 15 spaces, four of them handicapped. I thought about the pastor of this congregation. How unique his service is. How alone he may feel. How tempted he may be to believe the lie that his work doesn’t matter. AWARENESS #4: All service to others is service to God.

As I started back over the bridge to head back to my car, I still was asking God to show me what else I could do besides pray. The line “let’s meet a need from the email was my focus. And then it was clear. I had already heard the need. The folks buying gas beside me earlier illustrated a clear need people have. That was the final “enough.”

So back to the gas station I went. And I’m thinking, this is going to be a little weird-walking up to strangers and offering to pay for their gas. And my counter to my self talk was, “It’s only weird if you make it weird, John.”

My question after I pulled into a parking space was, how do I determine who to approach. I decided to just watch and see who might look like they had the most need. And as I watched and waited, it became clear.

I ended up approaching two customers. The first one was an elderly couple in an older car with a handicap license plate. He started walking toward the store with cash in his hand. When I asked if he’d allow me to pay for his gas with my card, he paused to see if I was serious. I let the silence speak. He said, “I have the money.” I replied, “I see that, but how about you keep it for something else.” And that was it. Nothing weird. Just mutual gratefulness. AWARENESS #5: Generosity is a universal language.

The second customer I suspected was serving others himself. He opened his truck’s tailgate and started taking the caps off of three 5-gallon gas cans. When I walked up and asked him if he’d paid for his gas yet, he said no. I asked then, “Will you let me pay for your gas?” Too bad we haven’t figured out how to take photos just with eye contact yet. He looked stunned, and his mind was swirling. Again I let the silence speak. The first thing he could say was, “I’m usually the one offering to help others. No one has ever asked me something like that.” My search was over. Customer #2 was enough. Those gas cans were to keep the generators running in his neighborhood. AWARENESS #6: Seek and you will find…God honors those who serve their neighbors.

Thank you, Hope City, for the challenge. The Sunday after Ian will always serve me as a reminder of the many ways God gives us enough.

The Church Gathers To…

I’m now in the bonus episodes of The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill. The episode Everything is Still Falling Apart has this quote that had me saying, “Heard.”

The whole purpose of the gathering of the church is to prepare people for their encounters with death…Everything we do runs in the opposite direction. It’s all in the direction of triumphalism. It’s all in the direction of how great life can be if we get our act together or follow this leader.

Mike Cosper is referring to the writings of another leader. It richly resignates with me. It seems like another way to paint the picture of living for the kingdom of heaven, not building treasures here, etc.

In some odd way this thought validates what I’ve often told people. If I had a choice between participating in a wedding or a funeral, hands down I pick a funeral. Whatever you call it, life celebration/memorial service/funeral, everyone comes with a reality check in their minds and souls. So much room exists, so many impactful moments are possible in the days surrounding the passing of a loved one. If we are prepared, we don’t miss them, and they have the potential for even deeper joy in our sorrow than we experience in other expected, highly anticipated, and tremendously prepared for joyful life moments.

How’s your church preparing you for death? Probably not a question you’ve ever asked. Which probably indicates it’s worth answering.

Photo by Antoine J. on Unsplash

Caved, Endured, Benefited from The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill

I completed a journey today I didn’t want to take for two reasons: a little bit of pride and a little bit of anger mixed with fear. I caved, mostly from the encouragement of two friends. I’m glad I did.

At my pace, the journey took almost two months. Necessary stops and starts to digest, to breathe, to clear, to process. The journey took me to expected and unexpected places; some I knew I needed, some I surprisingly didn’t know I needed. I’m glad I endured.

The journey was listening to the main twelve episodes of The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill podcast. One description of the podcast reads:

Hosted by Mike Cosper, this Christianity Today podcast takes you inside the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle-from its founding as part of one of the largest church planting movements in American history to its very public dissolution-and the aftermath that followed. You’ll hear from people who lived this story, experiencing the triumphs and losses of Mars Hill, knowing it as both an amazing, life-transforming work of God and as a dangerous, abusive environment. The issues that plague Mars Hill and its founder…aren’t unique, and only by looking closely at what happened in Seattle will we be able to see ourselves.

There would be no point in retelling the story. There’s plenty of that available. Rather, I wish to encourage those like me resistant to giving the podcast a chance to consider these thoughts:

  • We can learn from failure. Along with learning, we can also grow. In order for both to happen, we have to set our minds for them. We can listen to this story, pass judgment, shake our heads, drop our jaws, defend, sweep, have any of all the possible reactions. But if all we do is emotionally react, CT’s work has been in vain. If the message is received like a Netflix binge, we have missed the opportunity to learn and grow. If you are a person who doesn’t want to miss the opportunity, it’s time to cave.
  • There is such a thing as church trauma. If you’ve spent any time in the church, you know it. But what you probably don’t realize is trauma’s impact, subtleties, layers, history, and power. Under so many holy labels, trauma is happening right now. And the danger is we don’t even realize it. Wolves are feasting. If you are a church leader, paid or volunteer, who feels powerless to speak about what’s troubling your spirit, it’s time to endure.
  • Stories are sacred and deserve dignity. Our desire to avoid pain inhibits healing. Our wish to consider it “not my problem” disregards the wounded’s sacredness. Facing our fears, weeping with the discarded, listening to the angry, offering safety, and naming evil must be available in the church. If your church makes these things unavailable, it’s time to listen and restore.

Several moments in the hours of these twelve episodes I felt these words by Mike Cosper:

Part of what drew me to this project was my own history. The fact that even from a distance, I heard echoes of my experience and the stories coming out of Mars Hill. The more time I spent with that story and especially the more time I spent with these people, the louder those echoes got. Now, having seen the story go back out into the world, I’ve genuinely wept at how many others are hearing their experience reflected here too.

Aftermath, December 4 episode

I’m better for having caved and endured. I’ve benefited from meditating, weeping, discussing, and repenting. If someone has encouraged you to listen and you’re resisting, odds are you will also benefit. It’s time.

That time Jesus said, “None of your business.”

They could not have looked like promising revolutionary material. That they should see themselves as deliverers of Israel was ludicrous. Their grasp of the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection was still tenuous and their perception of their future confused.

What was going to happen on the political scene? What role would they play? Seated among the young olive trees they asked him: “Do you plan to restore Israel’s sovereignty?” Many eyes were turned on him.

“None of your business” was the effect of his retort. “That’s God the Father’s affair. He currently organizes the political scene. Your job will be to bear witness to me not only here, but in broadening circles throughout the earth” (see Acts 1:4-8).

Chapter 4, On Being a Signpost, of The Fight by John White

These three paragraphs start White’s chapter teaching on what it means to bear witness. This “none of your business” interpretation is of verse 7 where Jesus is quoted, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

As I read this, I was reminded of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29. The receivers of his message were not unlike those hearing Jesus’ message in Acts 1. They had a lot of questions. In their confusion and reaction they were tempted to believe and pursue just about anything, including doing what made sense for self-preservation without yielding to the all-knowing and all-powerful work of God.

American Christians would do well to listen to Jeremiah and Jesus. Our actions and words too often sound like we’ve got it all figured out, like we haven’t really heard what was said. Too often, the voice of God is hushed by our demands and declarations, in essence telling him how to do his job. Too often, we ignore the truth that it’s none of our business.

The Soul Of Shame (book review)

I first mentioned Dr. Curt Thompson’s blog Being Known over a year ago in this post: https://johngregoryjr.com/2021/04/25/storytelling-finding-joy/. After listening to the majority of the episodes and hearing references to his books, I finally got around to reading one. Thanks to hoopla, I just finished The Soul of Shame.

Like the podcast, this book is one to be revisited. Like the podcast, it’s not over your head. Like the podcast, it breathes life into its consumer.

We become what we pay attention to.

Chapter 2, How Shame Targets the Mind

If my highlights are an indicator, apparently my attention got stronger as I moved from chapter to chapter. The first four chapters build the case for the universality of shame’s reach. Then starting with chapter five, Thompson explains shame’s role in the biblical narrative, how it impacts our own narrative, and the remedies that produce redemption.

Honest vulnerability is the key to both healing shame-and its inevitably anticipated hellish outcome of abandonment-and preventing it from taking further root in our relationships and culture…To be human is to be vulnerable…God is vulnerable in the sense that he is open to wounding. Open to pain. Open to rejection. Open to death.

Chapters 5 & 6

Thompson declares that shame pushes us into isolation to keep us from pursuing being human, being vulnerable. To counter shame’s work, Thompson encourages us to understand our cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 11-12), pursue nurturing communities, and renew our vocational creativity.

We will not be rid of shame this side of the new heaven and earth; rather, we grow in our awareness of shame in order to scorn it…There is no more significant place for us to counteract shame than in those venues where we spend most of our waking hours. In these places we are called to be agents for creating goodness and beauty, but these are the very places where shame is more than willing to do its most effective work.

Chapters 7 & 8

A word to the church: Thompson believes “the family of God is the crucible in which we learn what real family is about and in which the what and how of education is ideally imprinted into our souls, transforming both our life in our biological families as well as all that we learn about our world and our place in it.” The church gets the opportunity to help people choose between shame and love.

I encourage you, especially if you are in a place of influence and leadership, to read The Soul Of Shame. Shame won’t like you for it. Your soul will.

Let’s Seek a Better Understanding

Last week I was given a book to read. Each page has grabbed me, but none like the start of chapter five, “Defending Slavery at the Onset of the Civil War.”

Let me share a few lines.

As historian Mark Noll has written, no single individual characterized the conflict better than Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was inaugurated for his second and very brief term as president in 1865, a Union victory was on the horizon. Robert E. Lee would formally surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, just a month later. Rather than gloat about his military success, Lincoln’s address struck a somber and reflective tone: “Both {Union and Confederacy] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully”…Throughout the conflict, Christians of both the Union and the Confederate forces believed that God was on their side.

This startled me. Change a few elements of the storyline, and I feel like he’s describing today’s America.

We should be startled. We should not be divided.

We should be humbled. We should not be puffed up.

We should be listening. We should not be yelling.

In his review of Tisby’s call to repentance, Daniel Williams ended with these words:

Racial reconciliation, Tisby argues, won’t occur without confession of sin and repentance from white Christians—a repentance that some Reformed churches have already started to model, but which hasn’t yet occurred en masse. With God’s grace, it can occur. For those seeking a better understanding of what this confession and repentance might entail, Tisby’s book offers a helpful guide.

History does not have to be repeated. Let’s seek a better understanding.

Every Circle Grace

Grace is an interesting topic. In my years in the church, the focus of grace has mostly been on the grace we receive from God. Rightly so. And during this Lenten season, it deserves top of mind.

Devoted followers of Jesus’ teachings believe we are to give what we receive. Everything we receive from God we are to pass on. Love. Mercy. Forgiveness. Faithfulness. And even Grace.

My observation is we tend to gift grace in various degrees. Some people give themselves plenty of grace…much more than they give to others. Some people disproportionately give their family members grace in comparison to others-some more, some less. One amazing observation that stands out more and more is the grace people in the church give to themselves compared to the grace they give people outside the church. Again, it goes both ways. Some people give better grace to their fellow churchgoers while others give better grace to those outside the church.

For better or worse, I’m the latter. For the record, neither is correct. Grace is to be shared with all people equally.

Looking at Jesus’ relationship circles, we observe supernatural grace giving. He gave Peter as much grace as he gave the woman at the well. He shared his grace equally with Nicodemus and Judas. His mother and Pilate both received appropriate grace. What an example he left us.

I most often fail at giving grace to those in my closest relationship circles. That awareness provides growth opportunity so whether in the next hour I engage a stranger in the store, a friend on the phone, or a colleague in the office, my grace is for every circle.

Jesus practiced every circle grace. His resurrection power says, “So can I.”

Too Comfortable?

This quote is a screenshot from a Sunday morning message given this past week by Pastor Jordan Easley of First Baptist Church, Cleveland, Tn. He’s in a sermon series entitled “How the Church Acts.” In this message, he addressed that the church is to be made up of people who live with purpose. It wasn’t a message that churchgoers haven’t heard before, but this statement shed a different light on the message.

What is a non-negotiable anyway? My words-something that a person won’t budge about. For instance, I’m an Alabama fan-not going to budge on that one. I don’t eat brussels sprouts-pretty sure that’s not going to change. You get the point.

So when it comes to churchgoers, how is it possible that they have non-negotiables? According to Pastor Easley, it’s possible because they’ve become too comfortable. He wasn’t necessarily referring to being too comfortable in our lifestyle; he’s referring more to our view of God, our relationship with the Giver of Life both now and forever.

This statement made me think the rest of the day. Made me question what non-negotiables I may have. Made me wonder if I could be drawn to making some and what would be the result. Made me wonder enough that I’m sharing it with you.

Non-negotiables won’t exist in heaven. Makes me want to eliminate them today.