Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Continuing Adventures of Heather and Bekah

If you haven't read the previous post yet, you should read it before this one.

On Saturday morning, we slept in, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of pastries and cereal among the basset hounds and their owners, and casually made our way to the Summit Lake Retreat Center for our training session. Plenty of time to spare. That is, until we actually arrived at the retreat center. We got lost. How do you get lost at a retreat center that basically encircles a lake? With every turn, we found ourselves staring at dead ends or signs warning us "maintenance vehicles only past this point." And somehow, we think we are perfect candidates for Amazing Race...

The retreat session went great! I love hanging out with leaders who are hungry to learn and grow. Good times.

After our session- Lunch. I was determined to eat some good BBQ, so we made our way to Chubby's. Not in the physical sense (I made my physical way to Chubby several years ago). Chubby's as in the restaurant, if you can call it a restaurant. It's one of those great BBQ joints where your fork and knife are brought in paper wrappers and a sticky vinyl "tablecloth" protects the treasured wooden table underneath.

At the top of the menu, we read, "Best BBQ on earth. There is one place you can get better BBQ, but you have to die before you get it." I figured they were referring to Heaven. I guess they could have been talking about the Hot Place, but that never really crossed my mind. Some of the ridiculous concoctions I have spent good money on that claimed to be BBQ belong in the Hot Place. But I gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed Heaven. But that raises a theological conundrum, does it not? Pulled pork is not exactly kosher, and I'm not sure which Levitical laws will be in play in Heaven. Bekah pointed out that there might be another form of BBQ, like, oh, say...unicorn. I suggested perhaps gryphon, to which she offered Sasquatch. Nessie? Anybody up for a little BBQ Nessie?

Moving along to the next chapter of our trip. On the previous day, we noticed signs strewn along Highway 15...about every quarter mile... "New Potatoes." "Crunchy Apples." "Oh my." "Small is beautiful." "Small farmers love their work." "Come taste the love." "Do you like pottery?" "We have pottery!" "Come meet the potters!" "You know you need a mug!" Well, who could resist that. So we went to see some pottery and bought some jam for ourselves and some apple butter for Pastor Chris.

Finally...back to DC. At least headed in that direction. Until Bekah realizes that the statue of Mary at the college of Mount St. Mary's is gold. And big. When I saw a sign for Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, I swerved into the next lane to make the exit. I am a sucker for any kind of meditation garden of anglo-catholic-orthodox flavor. Bring on some Stations of the Cross. Bekah would have preferred to visit another potter, methinks. As I tried to somewhat reverently observe the stations of the cross, the soundtrack of my prayers was a consistent "flip. flop. flip. flop." Bekah had brown sparkly flip flops that doubled as a percussion section. Deciding that prayer was just not going to work on this particular day, I transitioned into sightseeing mode. The statue of Mary is indeed huge. I'll give you that. Huge. But when we walked by it, through the throngs of beautiful African pilgrims, Bekah proclaimed, "Geez. That's the hugest statue of Mary I've ever seen." Thank you for your commentary.

And I think that's pretty much the end. 24 hours. Basset hounds, Civil War ghosts, potters, Mary statues (of the huge variety), mini-golf, high fives, and Druids. It was a good weekend.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Adventures of Heather and Bekah

This weekend, I am speaking at a leaders training at Summit Lake retreat center near Frederick, Maryland. Thinking it could turn into a nice little getaway of sorts, and considering that both my husband and Ian Kitterman would be studying all weekend, I decided to drive up early and drag Bekah Kitterman with me.

Here are just a few highlights of the trip so far:
  • The evening did not start well, as we drove through ridiculous 5pm rush hour traffic out of DC in the pouring rain and fogging car (no air conditioner in the Zemp-mobile right now)
  • We finally arrived at the Super 8. Upon check-in, the front desk clerk (who Bekah was convinced was Kip Dynamite) asked me, "And how many dogs do you have with you?" Confused, I said tentatively..."none." Promptly remembering that Bekah was with me, I pointed behind me and added, "Well, just her." Evidently, the Super 8 of Thurmont, MD is hosting the Basset Hound Convention. I'm not kidding. The room across the hall from us served as the host location for the Basset Hound Convention Pawty. That's not a typo. Basset Hounds everywhere. Many giggles.
  • Recognizing we were only minutes from one of the holiest sites in all Southern-dom (Gettysburg), we jumped in the car for a quick pilgrimage. I called my mom and sister to let them know about the Basset Hound Convention, when my sister's immediate response was, "Oh Super 8 is very pet friendly." More giggles.
  • Gettysburg. Food. Caffeine. Lots of ghost tours.
  • After a quick spin around the battlefield, we abandoned our exploration of history to pursue our own battle on the mini-golf course. Heather scores a hole in one, Bekah goes in for the high five...full body miss. Complete whiff. Minutes later, Bekah has to leapfrog the romantic couple just ahead of us to make her way back to clubhouse bathroom. "Need to play through?" No. "Need to retrieve a ball?" No. "Need to..." I just need to use the restroom. I tried to keep that on the down-low. (Heather is doubled over laughing)
  • To get back to the route I knew out of Gettysburg, I had to drive back through the battleground illegally. As we drove through, Bekah was concerned about the park rangers, ax-murderers dressed in Civil War costumes, and, of course, the Druids (I have no idea).
I figure there's got to be a sermon illustration somewhere. Anyway, what in the world will tomorrow bring? So much happiness in one day!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

God is Jealous

This weekend, I continued the "God is" series at National Community Church. In this series, we are looking at various dimensions of God's character. I spoke on the theme God is Jealous. Below, I have posted the notes for this message. They are rough and raw...not edited at all. So beware. :)

If you have your Bibles this weekend, you can go ahead and turn over to Deuteronomy 6, and we’ll also have the Scriptures up on the screens. We are going to continue the God is… series. My name is Heather Zempel, and I’m the discipleship pastor here at National Community Church, coming to you from Ebenezers Coffeehouse, and I want to say welcome to all of our locations- Union Station, Ballson, Georgetown, and the first time I’m able to say it…Kingstowne. So excited to have an opportunity to share with you guys. Now, I’m new to many of you at Kingstowne, so I feel like I need to share a little something about myself just in the way of introduction. I have been in church for as long as I can remember; I was pretty much spit out of my mother’s womb onto the church pew. In fact, one of my earliest memories is being in the nursery at my Southern Baptist church in Mobile, Alabama. Now, people at my childhood church in Mobile talked funny as many from the deep South do, and that at times affected my ability to grasp basic Biblical and theological principles. For those of you who have been in the Story with me for the past month, you’ve already heard this. Here’s a great example. Baptist churches are famous for the altar call. You know what I’m talking about. After the Gospel has been preached, an invitation is extended to come forward and make a decision to follow Christ while the congregation sings one of those well-loved altar call moment songs—“I Have Decided,” “Jesus Paid It All,” “I Surrender All.” Now, here’s what I didn’t understand as a five-year-old at my Southern Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. I could not figure out, for the life of me, why we were giving our “all” to Jesus. Because in Alabama, “all is something you drill for out in the Gulf and change in your car every 3,000 miles or 3 months whichever comes first.” What did Jesus want with our “oil?”

Let me give you another example. First verse I ever memorized: John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only forgotten Son…Five years old. Can’t figure it out. Who forgot Jesus? Did God forget Jesus? How could you forget Jesus? I mean, Jesus was everywhere in my life. I couldn’t forget him if I wanted to. My mom finally explained to me that it wasn’t God’s “forgotten” Son but God’s “begotten” Son. That raised other questions...

But this idea about forgetting God continued to haunt me. And while Jesus is not forgotten in John 3:16, we do see over and over in Scripture the tragic cycle of forgetting God. Let’s look at one of them today.

Let’s look at Deuteronomy 6:1-15 (NLT)

"These are all the commands, laws, and regulations that the LORD your God told me to teach you so you may obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy, 2 and so you and your children and grandchildren might fear the LORD your God as long as you live. If you obey all his laws and commands, you will enjoy a long life. 3 Listen closely, Israel, to everything I say. Be careful to obey. Then all will go well with you, and you will have many children in the land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

Let me give you some background on the book of Deuteronomy. The first five books of the Bible- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy- are known as the five books of Moses. Genesis tells us the great stories of the very beginnings. From Adam and Eve in the Garden to Noah and the flood to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Joseph in Egypt. Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers contain the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land. The books contain history and law- how the Israelites are to live. The book of Deuteronomy was written 40 years later, and it’s basically a re-write of Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus. In fact, in the chapter immediately preceding this one, we see a re-write of the Ten Commandments that were originally written in the book of Exodus. All of the adult Israelites who had been freed from slavery in Egypt had died in the wilderness, and a new generation had been born and grown up who had not known slavery, had not been present to see God bring plagues on the Egyptian people, had not see God part the waters of the Red Sea. And Moses is writing the book of Deuteronomy to re-write the story and the law to a new generation of Israelites to remind them of who they are, whose they are, where they are going, why they are going there, and what they are supposed to do when they arrive.

4 "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again. 8 Tie them to your hands as a reminder, and wear them on your forehead. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

This passage is known in the Jewish religious culture as the Shema. It is a declaration that God is God. It is instruction on how to love God appropriately- with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. Later, when Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest, he references this. And finally, it communicates the central place that loving God should occupy in their lives. That it should be central. Repeat them. Talk about them when you are home and when you are traveling. In the morning, in the night. Wear them on yourself. Write them on your doorposts. It’s as though God is saying “There is no part of your life that is too small for me. I want to be a part of it all.” Most of us get stuck in the book of Leviticus because it contains all of those really picky laws about eating and clothing and cleansing that we kinda skip right over because they strike us as irrelevant today. Here is the relevance: God wants to saturate every moment and action of our lives. Every time the Israelites followed those laws, it was a reminder to them that they were a peculiar people who belonged to a God who wanted to be the center of their lives.

And Moses goes on to talk about why…

10 "The LORD your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land filled with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. 11 The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant. When you have eaten your fill in this land, 12 be careful not to forget the LORD, who rescued you from slavery in the land of Egypt. 13 You must fear the LORD your God and serve him. When you take an oath, you must use only his name.

It’s easy to forget God when things are going well. God is saying here, “you did not deserve any of this. You did not build it. It was not your idea. None of it belongs to you. So do not forget God. Moses instructs these young Israelites at least 14 times in the book of Deuteronomy to “remember” their God and their history. Do not forget.

And then he punctuates it here…

14 "You must not worship any of the gods of neighboring nations, 15 for the LORD your God, who lives among you, is a jealous God. His anger will flare up against you and wipe you from the face of the earth.

This is where I start to squirm.

This series is God is. We love hearing that God is faithful or God is hope or God is giving. What about God is jealous? It’s pretty clear right here that he is. But what does it mean?

I find that there are certain parts of the Bible that I read fast. Or I don’t meditate on them or pause to reflect on them because I don’t want to understand it or know what it means. But I've also discovered that those are the places that are most important for me to stop and explore. The hard sayings. The scary concepts. The places where God's actions and character don't seem to line up with the image of God that I have constructed in my head.

If I read something about God’s character or actions that don’t seem to match up with the image of God that I created in my head, then I must stop to make sure I’m not worshiping a false image of image of God of my own making. So let’s take Scripture as a whole and see what the rest of it has to say about God being jealous.

Through the Scriptures
Forgetting God, idolatry, and the burning of God’s jealousy is a theme and a pattern we see playing out over and over in the Scriptural text. If we go back to the original writing of the Law in Exodus, the original Ten Commandments, we read this:

Exodus 34:12-14
12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. 14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. (NIV)

The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. In case you didn’t get it the first time. God—also known as Jealous—is a jealous God.

In Exodus, God implores his people “do not make idols, do not worship idols, do not hang out with people who do.”

In Deuteronomy, as a new generation stands on the brink of the Promised Land, God tells the younger generation, “remember”- remember your story, remember who you are, remember me. And don’t make idols, worship idols, or hang out with people who do. God had brought the people out of Egypt, but he also wanted to bring the Egypt out of the people.

And yet they come to the Promised Land, and in the book of Judges, we see a repeating pattern:

Judges 3:7, The Israelites did what was evil in the LORD's sight. They forgot about the LORD their God, and they worshiped the images of Baal and the Asherah poles.

Judges 8:33-34, “As soon as Gideon was dead, the Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping the images of Baal, making Ball-berith their god. They forgot the Lord their God, who had rescued them from all their enemies surrounding them.

The Psalmist cries out in agony over the repeated idolatry of his people.

Ps 79:5, “O Lord, how long will be angry with us? Forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire?”

The prophets proclaim it.

Zephaniah 2:18 “Your silver and gold will be of no use to you on that day of the Lord’s anger. For the whole land will be devoured by the fire of his jealousy.”

Zephaniah 3:8. “All the earth will be devoured with the fire of my jealousy.”

Nahum 1:2 says, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God.”

God warns them in Deuteronomy—you are entering a new land, and you will be dazzled and seduced by other gods. You will be confronted with other things that demand your focus and affections, your attention, and loyalties. But I am jealous.

“Tear down idols”- give God honor and praise due to him alone

“Don’t make covenants with pagan people”- avoid divided loyalties

And from Exodus through the histories through the Psalms through the prophets, God warns—do not worship another. And yet the people of God bow down to other idols. They prostitute themselves.

But God’s jealousy burns and rages to draw his people back to the worship of the one to who their worship is due. God is jealous for his glory and for his people, and that demands our focus and affections.

Jealousy of God
The word “jealous” is specifically used at least twenty times in Scripture to describe the character of God, so we can’t ignore it. It carries with it the idea of becoming intensely red and there is a strong competitive feeling connected to it. It comes from the same root word as “zeal;” there is a great deal of similarity between being “zealous” and being “jealous.”

Even still, we tend to think of jealousy as an immoral word. A flawed emotion. To get a grasp on the jealousy of God, I think we have to consider what he is jealous for and how it manifests itself. God is jealous for his Glory—that’s the source of his jealousy. And God is jealous for his people—and that’s where we see it manifested.

Jealous for His Glory (Source)
First God is jealous for his glory. In Isaiah 48:11, he declares, “My glory I will not give to another.” There’s no way to dance around that one. He is jealous for his glory. His is jealous for his name. he is jealous for worship. J.I. Packer maintains that God’s jealousy is not reflection of a moral flaw but a reflection of moral excellence.

There is a difference between envy and jealousy. Envy is related to a desire for something that does not belong to you. And we often use “jealousy” and “envy” are often used interchangeably. But in the original writings of Scripture, God is never described as being envious. God’s jealousy is a desire for something that rightfully belongs to him. Worship. Allegiance. The Glory and Honor of his name.

Now God is not on an ego trip. He doesn’t need our worship. But Isaiah 43:7 tells us that we were created to worship. He created us to have relationship with him through worship.

Only God is worthy of worship and glory. Only God is uncreated. Only God is all-powerful. Only God is all-knowing. Only God is Love. And he alone is the reason we were created. He alone is the one we were created to worship.

When we sin, we are not just messing up. We are offending the glory of God. Jerry Bridges put it this way, “We need to cultivate in our own hearts the same hatred of sin God has. Hatred of sin as sin, not just as something disquieting or defeating to ourselves, but as displeasing to God, lies at the root of all holiness.” When we sin, do we just feel guilty about ourselves? Or do we realize that we are grieving the heart of God?

Jealous for His People (Manifestation)
God is also jealous for his people and that’s where we see it manifested most clearly. The reaction that God has because of his jealousy helps us to see it not as a moral flaw but as a demonstration of his righteousness. Jealousy implies the pre-existence of love. He is jealous for you. We see a demonstration of God’s jealousy in the book of Hosea, an “action sermon,” a living active message from God to his people about the jealousy of God told through Hosea’s life.

Hosea was a prophet who was instructed by God to marry the prostitute Gomer, who gave birth to three children, and it’s not ever clear if the last two were Hosea’s or not. Hosea gave her unmerited love. He gave her life meaning. In her state of brokenness and shame, Hosea offered her a life of dignity. And after tasting that love and experiencing that life of family and security and the love of a faithful husband, she ran back to muck and the mire of prostitution.

So what did Hosea do? He humbled himself to go to her. He bought her back. He dared to walk into the mess of her life and buy back what already rightfully belonged to him.

That is how the jealousy of God manifests itself.

The jealousy of God rages and it burns against sin. It rails against idolatry. But the rage and jealousy of God took him all the way to the cross of Calvary. God’s jealousy for his glory and his people took him to the cross, to the death of Jesus. His jealousy meant he had to pour out his wrath on his son on the cross.

So…if we are tempted to view God as being a little man because of his jealousy. If we view jealousy as un-God-like, if we are tempted to view it as a fallen, immoral response..,then just remember where his jealousy manifested itself.

He stepped into the mess of our lives and bought back what rightfully belonged to him.

God is jealous for his name and for his people, and that jealousy drove him to the cross. And that should drive us to our knees in worship.

Let me try to bring some understanding to this idea of idolatry and prostitution as a symbol for idolatry because these images show up over and over in Scripture, and they are the two areas in which God’s jealousy rises. Idolatry sounds like an ancient pagan construct that has no bearing or relevance to our lives today. But let’s consider what an idol is. An idol is anything that takes the place that rightfully belongs to God. It is anything that we worship.

John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We were created to worship. We all worship something. And we will create something to worship if we must. So we are either worshiping God or we are worshiping an idol. And our hearts are constantly shaping and finding idols to worship.

Consider the following questions:

  • What demands our focus and affections?
  • Where do we assign glory?
  • From what do we derive our meaning? What or who do we look to tell us who we are and to assign us worth?
  • What do you love?
  • What do you hate?
  • What do you fear?
  • Where do you find safety, refuge, comfort, pleasure, security, or shelter?
  • Who must your please?
  • Whose opinion counts?

Do we dream of our own glory? Or do we dream about how we might bring glory to God?

Idols might include your career, a relationship, goals, money, success, recreation. It could be acceptance of a person. It could be the need for security.

We might discover an idol in our life whenever we say, “I like to think of God as…” or when we read something in Scripture that is difficult to swallow and we think “My God would never…” then it is quite possible we are worshiping a God of our own making and not God whose name is Jealous.

How faithful are you to God? How much of your focus and affection is on God. Are you 70% faithful? 90% faithful. The scary reality is that 90% faithfulness to God is not faithful at all. If we said a man was 90% faithful to his wife, we would consider him to be unfaithful. That 10% renders him unfaithful. We can’t dabble around with God. We can’t just play around with Christianity. Either He is God and demands all our focus and affections. Or He is not and we shouldn’t even waste our time.

We don’t just wake up one day and decide to worship an idol. It’s a process that we find ourselves falling into. It’s a seduction. Sometimes, your idol stems from something bad that happened to you. And you allow that thing to define you and you then begin to draw your meaning and worth from some place other than God, and in that it becomes an idol. Sometimes it starts with good things- goals, relationships, success—but they become the center of your focus and affections. Often, we don’t even see it.

Let me give you an example. When I was at Louisiana State University, I spent a lot of time in Tiger Stadium watching the football team pummel every other team that dared to enter. I would be decked out in purple and gold. Like a good student, I could tailgate well, starting early in the morning. I would yell, scream, jump up and down, sing, slap high five. But there was one ritual I refused to participate in. At every turnover, the band would play an anthem in recognition of the superiority of the LSU defense. And the entire student section would bow down repeatedly in worship of their defensive line. Not me. I refused to engage in any practice that even hinted at worshiping something other than God. I stood there proudly and stoically confident that I would bow down to no idol—not even the LSU football team.

And yet, I would walk out of that stadium and hinge my worth on a professor’s opinion. I would weigh my value by the opportunities a ministry leader gave me. I would determine my level of spirituality by the number of people who commended the sermon at my campus ministry. Sick. And worse than simply me bowing down to success and the affirmation of people, I was desiring that people bow down to me.


Hard Sayings of Jesus
Now, some of you are thinking, c’mon, Heather. This is kinda Old Testament doom and gloom stuff. Don’t you know that Jesus changed the rules in the New Testament? Yeah, in the Old Testament, God was angry and jealous, but in the New Testament, God got saved. He became more civilized. He got sweeter. It’s a more palatable Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook. Just listen to some of the things he says:

Luke 14:26 If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.” (The Greek word there is “hate”)

Luke 18:22 Sell all you have and give to the money to the poor.

Luke 6:60 Let the dead bury their own dead.

This does not sound like nice buddy Jesus to me. These are words that are hard to hear, hard to understand, and seemingly impossible to practice. So a lot of times we just brush them aside and say, “Well, Jesus is just making a point.” But we rarely dig much further than that to confront the realities and the ramifications of that point. What is going on here? One of the rules of interpreting Scripture is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In other words, when you read something you don’t understand, you look for other Scriptures to speak to that issue. So, we know from the Ten Commandments that God requires honor to be given to our parents. God loves families. We know that there is nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself. We know that grieving is an acceptable and holy activity as Jesus did it when his friend Lazarus died. So what is going on here? Why is Jesus making these statements?

Because in every one, he is questioning loyalty. Every one of these hits at the raw center of the question, “What is your idol?” What demands your focus and affections?

Jesus is not your buddy. He is not your boyfriend. He is not hanging out in heaven wondering if you might want to come play. He is not looking for friends. He is God. He is complete and sufficient within himself. But his jealousy drove him to the cross to buy you back and to reveal his glory.

What If…
What if our primary motivation for worship was not because it’s an expression of gratitude for something God has done for us but simply because God deserves our worship? What if we lived rightly not because that’s what a good Christian does and we are confident that God has our best interests at heart but because we know that living according to God’s commands brings glory to God? What if our primary motivation for expanding the Kingdom of God was not so that we would have a better world to live in but so that God’s glory would be praised in the whole earth? What if our motivating desire to share the Gospel, to serve the poor, to go on missions was not because we loved people but because we were fiercely jealous for the name of the Lord and devoted with all of our hearts, minds, and strength to see that he is given the glory due his name? What if the driving desire of our lives was to see the name of God glorified?

What if we began each day proclaiming that the Lord is God. And devoted ourselves to loving him with all our hearts, our souls, and our strength.

Video Set-Up
In 2 Corinthians 11:2- I am jealous for you with the jealousy of God himself. For I promised you as a pure bride to one husband, Christ.

God is jealous for his son and the covenant that was made on the cross. God wants to give the bride, the church to Jesus pure and spotless. And yet every day, we give what rightfully belongs to Jesus to others. Sometimes unknowingly, sometimes willingly, always sinfully.


In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis said, “Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

And yet God still wants you. As we stand poisoned and polluted by the filth and stink of how we have prostituted ourselves to other gods, God wants us. He won’t accept you as you are. But he will accept you as you are in Jesus. He is jealous for you because of the covenant he made with Jesus on the cross. Who stands waiting for you. Our God is jealous for his name and his people, and that drove him to the cross. And that should drive us to our knees in worship.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Preacher's Confession: Reading Fast

It seems that every time I preach, I feel the need to confess something in the hours leading up to it. Here's my confession this week. I find that there are certain parts of the Bible that I read fast. Or that I just try not to understand because I'm fearful of the ramifications. But I've also discovered that those are the places that are most important for me to stop and explore. The hard sayings. The scary concepts. The places where God's actions and character don't seem to line up with the image of God that I have constructed in my head.

I've discovered that anything having to do with God's wrath or jealousy makes me want to speed up the reading. So I wasn't too thrilled when I felt that familiar Spirit nudge to preach on "Jealous" this week as part of our "God is..." series. In the movie Luther, a wise monk said, "we preach best that which we most need to learn." Whether that's true or not, I've leaned on it many times.

A couple things I'm wrestling with.

When I'm tempted to read fast or not even try to process something in Scripture, that's where I need to slow down and dig in.

When God's actions and character as revealed in Scripture don't seem to match with the image of God I've constructed in my head, then I'm not worshiping God but an idol of my own making. And that's why God is jealous-- He and only He is worthy of praise-- the appropriate praise-- and he will not share it with others. So, when I hit those places in Scripture, I need to slow down to make sure that my worship is not misplaced, and so I can come to a better understanding of who God is. Worship God. Not the god you think should be.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Book Recommendation: Simple Small Groups

Bill Search writes a simple (not simplistic) book on the fundamental principles that cut across models, methods, and demographics to make small groups successful.

Title: Simple Small Groups: A User-Friendly Guide for Small Group Leaders
Author: Bill Search, Team Leader for Community Groups at Southeast Christian Church
Reader Target: Small Group Leaders, Point Leaders searching for simple but solid training materials
Page Count: 169
Exploring Further: Check out Bill's Simple Small Groups Blog

Heather's Reflections
This book is not about a small group model or philosophy; it's about the fundamental practices and principles that make any small group successful. It's painfully practical (that's positive in my book) and stems from the experience of a practitioner in the trenches. It's raw, honest, and direct. Bill does not try to sell us a fail-safe system with over-promised and under-delivered results. Instead, he encourages us to foster 3 patterns- Connecting (the relational pattern), Changing (the growth pattern), and Cultivating (the missional pattern). Each pattern is granted two chapters- an introduction and exploration of the pattern and a practical guide on implementing it. One of my favorite parts of the book is the synthesis- Harmony. Not balance amongst the three. But harmony.

The next time I look for a book to give all of my leaders, this will probably be it. And I'm stealing some of Bill's stuff for my next Leadership Summit.

All Hands on Deck

Our summer semester at National Community Church is an all hands on deck call. We are launching our A18: Neighborhoods Experiment, in which all groups will be based on a neighborhood-- the geographic neighborhood where you live, the marketplace neighborhood where you work, or the interest neighborhood where you play. For six weeks, we will follow a sermon-based curriculum that seeks to answer the questions: who is my neighbor? and how do I love them? The semester will culminate with every group prayerfully and creatively sharing the love of Christ in a practical way with their neighbors.

Here's the all hands on deck call we put out to leaders.

A1:8 Neighborhoods Promo from National Community Church on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Beginning...

The Story ended last night. But it doesn't end with "Then End." It ends just like it starts..."in the beginning..."

I'm praying that The Story would be the beginning of a new adventure for a ton of people. That they would discover (or re-discover) the Bible. That they would begin a relationship (and just just a religion) with Jesus. That they would start telling the story of God to those around them.

We live in Acts will God write His Story through you?


I had the privilege of hanging out with several dozen leaders from Westover Hills Assembly of God in San Antonio, Texas this past weekend. This awesome church is about to launch a major small group initiative in the fall, and I was asked to talk to their leadership about healthy leaders and healthy groups. I also got to tour the Alamo, which has been a dream since watching a certain movie from the 1980s in which it was featured...along with a shiny red bicycle.

Anyway...I learned that I really love talking to leaders who are hungry. There was such a sense of anticipation and excitement in that room. It was full of people who believed that God wanted to do something important in their church and in their community. Hunger. Hungry for God. Hungry to grow. Hungry to learn. I love speaking in environments like that. But more importantly, I'm challenged. Challenged to hunger for God's presence, to desire to grow in my leaders, a longing to see the people of God connected and on mission about something bigger than themselves.

Book Recommendations

I'm going to start a series of book recommendations on this blog. As I talk to other small group pastors or folks trying to learn discipleship, I find that I'm pointing them to Activate or Simple Small Groups or Building a Church of Small Groups.

So...I'm going to start providing some short posts to include recommended audience, primary message, and summary of main points.

And while we are talking about it, what books do you recommend that discipleship pastors, small group coaches, and small group leaders read?

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Question for Your Leader

When is the last time your leader heard you pray for them out loud? "How can I pray for you right now" and then doing it could be the most important way to follow your leader today.

I just asked a couple NCC small group and ministry leaders, "when was the last time you heard someone pray for you out loud?" When I ask leaders this, their eyes always roll back as they excavate the layers of memory...and they often cannot remember.

Leaders know people are praying for them. But they are usually the ones "tasked" with the public practice of it. Ask your leader how you can pray for them today. And do it.

Two Leadership Lessons

I just met with a couple of NCC leaders, and I shared with them a couple leadership lessons that I learned pretty early on. They were hard to learn but I'm very thankful for them.

First, change what you can where you can and begin by changing yourself. Leaders see problems. They see leaks in the system. They see methods that can be improved. They smell the foul stench of "policy" when it hinders reaching the goal and they become disillusioned in the absence of good policies that could actually facilitate the goal. They see leadership weaknesses in others. When you see those things, you have a choice. You can check out. Or you can change what you can where you can. The leaders that are patiently courageous to change what they can where they can-- beginning with themselves-- are the ones who ultimately see larger change happen. Think Esther, Nehemiah, Joshua, Isaiah. Jesus. Don't check out. Make the change that only you can make, no matter how small, and entrust the rest to God.

Second, follow well. I believe this one so strongly. If you are faithful to the vision of another, God will be faithful to the vision he has given you. Sometimes, we are required to follow a leader we do not like or respect, we are asked to implement decisions we do not agree with, we are subordinate to people who are not as gifted as us. That's when we have to make a decision-- will we follow well? Or abandon post because we think (and perhaps rightfully so) that we can do it better? Anyone can bail. Only great leaders in the making can follow well. Follow well, and you will ultimately create leaders who follow you well.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hanging out in Nashville

My blog became strangely and abruptly silent last week-- silence is a rare phenomenon with me. I headed to Nashville for a few meetings and some time with the family, and I decided to unplug for a bit.

Great trip. Got to hang out at my favorite coffeehouse, Fido, with former NCC leaders Lindsey Appiah and Amanda Norwich. Brainstormed and schemed with the editorial and creative teams at Threads about my upcoming project. Lunch at the Frist Center while gleaning as much wisdom as I could from Jason Hayes, Michael Kelley, and Heather Manning. A little catfish. And a lot of play time with my 18-month old niece Ruthie. Good times...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Wear Out Your Welcome

Ryan and I have officially worn out our welcome. The "welcome" word on our mat, that is. Yesterday, Ryan noted that the welcome mat at our front door was faded and shredded. You couldn't even read the multi-lingual "welcomes" on it. As usual, our perspectives on this mundane domestic development were almost as far apart as the political views of Mary Matalin and James Carville.

My immediate reaction: that's terrible, we need a new one! Our house is a mess!

Ryan's immediate reaction: that's awesome, we are so hospitable! Our house is full of people!

It's not often that I like Ryan's perspective better, but in this instance, I'm willing to part with my opinion.

It's true, we have worn out our welcome. And I think that's awesome. Here's what I'm learning. Discipleship and hospitality are closely connected. I used to think that hospitality was about teacups, doilies, and properly set tables. That's definitely a dimension of it. But at its core, hospitality is about inviting people into safe places to encounter the dangerous message of the Gospel. It's about creating environments where people can experience the presence of God. Isn't that the most important thing we can do as disciple-makers?

Dave Gibbons described his mentoring strategy at the Willow Grouplife Conference: whenever someone asks Dave to mentor them, he tells the potential young padawan that they must come live with him. Makes sense to me. If discipleship is about "imitate me" and "doing life together," then let's do it.

If you are a small group leader, disciple-maker, mentor, pastor, here's my challenge to you today: invite people into your life by inviting them into your house. For dinner. Dessert. Games. Movies. Karaoke. To help you pack for your trip. Don't just invite them in when the house is prepared for guests. Invite them in when it bears the marks of life. Wear Out Your Welcome.

The Goose is Loose!

The new small group curriculum Chase the Goose, based on Mark Batterson's Wild Goose Chase, hit the shelves this weekend. Examining 6 cages (responsibility, routine, assumptions, guilt, failure, fear), Chase the Goose encourages readers to reclaim the adventure of a Spirit-filled life.

It's best experienced in a small group setting. So grab some friends and start running.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Energy of Urgency and Burden of Busyness

I woke up in the "6s" this morning (how John Hasler and I refer to early mornings) praying that my work today would flow from a sense of urgency but not busyness. Maybe it's a semantics issue, but I think there is a big difference between urgency and busyness. Urgency energizes me. Busyness drains me.

Urgency comes from a place of knowing that what we do is important, significant, and life changing. It emerges from a sense of purpose and a posture of playing offense.

Busyness comes from a place of disorganization, misplaced priorities, and changes only my life-- and that for the bad. It emerges from a lack of clarity of purpose and a posture of playing defense.

It seems to me that Jesus was urgent. He believed in his gut that the mission was important, and he was intentional and motivated by the idea that God's Kingdom could be established and the history of man changed. But he was never busy.

I want to minister out of the urgency of the Gospel, not the demands of busyness.