Friday, October 31, 2008

Thanksgiving List - November, 2008

Not that my list is any more important than yours, but perhaps my prayerful reflections will spur you to write your own list. In fact, would you do that in the next week – make your own list and thank God often for each item on your list all through this Thanksgiving month of November. After all, a thankful heart creates a positive perspective/outlook on life. If our gratitude is specifically directed to God, true joy becomes a reality in the heart of the Christ-follower. Without further ado:

I am thankful that God chased me down in 1972. For some time my testimony implied that I found the Lord. Through the years I began to realize that God found me! Only one month before graduating from high school, Jesus became the Lord of my life and the focus of my attention. Thank You, Jesus, for dying for me. Thank You, Father, for protecting me in those years of reckless behavior just before bringing me into Your family. Thank You, Spirit, for showing me my sins, then leading me to repentance and faith in Jesus.

I am thankful for God’s Word. Oh, what it means to have guidance in this dark and painful world! God did not save me and then say, “You are on your own – hope it goes OK for you!” He told me exactly how He wants me to live. He prepared me for good times and hard times. In this season where Christ-followers are reminded of God’s gifts, His Word has to be one of the finest gifts ever given to mankind. It is so good to be part of a church that has great respect and appreciation for Scripture.

I am thankful for thirty-one and a half years of marriage to an incredible lady – God’s gift to me: Linda Faile Talley. What can I say? The first years of our marriage weren’t great (Linda would have told you the same thing), but we were committed to God, and thus, to one another. I recognize that commitment is not always enough – but, this is my list. Somewhere along the way, we figured it out. We stayed together long enough that God took our marriage from acceptable to good to fantastic. Tennyson was right as he articulated the best we can find in this life: “Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” Oh, thank You, Lord, for beautiful, sweet Linda!

I am thankful for my family. Three incredible kids and their incredible spouses, three perfect grandchildren, a mother who is with the Lord and a father whose mind has him between here and heaven but still loves us deeply, a step-mother who loves me dearly and whom I love dearly and is better to my dad than any of our family deserves, two great sisters and their families, an extended family of many Failes who continue to love me and keep up with me, uncles, aunts, cousins and many more. Why should I be so blessed?

I am thankful for Grace Community Church. Linda and I had dreamed and prayed about being a part of this wonderful church for a year before we actually began our time in harness with our dear brothers and sisters in Christ at Grace. GCC has grown considerably in these last ten years, so the family of dear brothers and sisters in Christ continues to grow. I am so grateful. Could anyone have sensed more love than we did during our great trial? No. That’s the only conceivable answer I can offer. Thank You, Jesus, and thank you, Grace Community Church Family!

I am thankful for elder-rule. Our church is made up of several pastors, not just one. It would be impossible for me to tell you how much of a blessing that is to me. I have strong opinions – and, I can be indecisive. Elder-rule is a protection against both extremes, but allows for the best ideas to proceed while the worst ideas end where they belong – in file 13. That is not only true for me, but for all of the men our church has chosen to lead here. I say every year that the most important decision we make as a congregation is who we will ask to serve as an elder at GCC. When you realize that every person on the elder board is a pastor, you recognize the importance of the decision. (BTW, we will soon begin the process of bring new elder(s) into service at our church) I am especially grateful that the elders allowed me to serve my wife and family (and you, reading on the blog) this past year by filling the gap that my attention to Linda created. I am also extremely grateful that the elders encourage me to make teaching God’s Word my first priority (see above about Scripture).

I am thankful for the staff at GCC. There are too many blessings on this point to enumerate. We are saying goodbye to our office manager of nine plus years on the day I write this article. Becky Brisson has blessed so very many of you at Grace. For those of you (on the blog, maybe) who do not know her – I am sorry that you never got the chance to interact with a godly woman who has served the Lord for most all of her 83 years. The image you have in your mind of an 83 year-old woman working in a church office is wrong – Becky Brisson is in better health and more active than you can possibly imagine! Well, I have to move on to say that KJ, David, Bill, Keisha, and Shaun are family to me – true brothers and sisters in Christ. The ways that they served our family and our church during Linda’s illness and home-going cannot be adequately described. No one deserves such love and care as I have received from these guys – I LOVE EACH ONE OF YOU!

I am thankful for you. Whether you are reading this in the church newsletter, on the church website, or on my blog, I want you to know that I thank God for you! It is impossible to place a value on friends. Some of you are a part of my life while there are some of you I have never met. I know you care about me, though, and it is most likely because of your relationship with Jesus. He brings us together and molds us into one family. As we move toward the Advent Season, let us lift our hearts in unified praise and gratitude for/to the one Who humbled Himself, left heaven and came to earth (talk about downward mobility!), kept all of the law and lived a perfect life, was mocked and put to death, but rose from the dead that we might have eternal life for all who will believe! It is a “foolish message” to the world, but it is life to us who believe – and I am grateful!

Monday, October 20, 2008

As Promised . . . At Long Last!

I have promised for some time to publish a paper that Linda wrote several years ago when she applied for a certificate program as a teacher of English as a Second Language. This paper was read today at the school where Linda taught when a bench was dedicated in her memory. It was a wonderful service, though tears were mingled with smiles as we remembered Linda's love for children, her love for teaching, and her love for all people. Her impact on teachers and parents equaled the influence she had on the students she loved so dearly. It was a great day, but I wanted to wait until after the dedication to share this paper with you.

So, with a great deal of love and pride, I present the words of dear Linda:

My Professional Goals

I grew up in a home where books, reading, and learning were highly valued. My mother was a teacher, and my father a minister, so books were everywhere, our schools and teachers were supported, and a night of “Scrabble” was considered as much fun as television. My father encouraged us to tell him words new to us from his sermons, to increase our vocabularies. I always wanted to be a teacher, and some of my earliest memories involve “playing school” with friends and younger siblings.

In college, I studied Elementary Education, but did not actually finish my studies and graduate until after raising my own three children to school age. Instilling that same love for books, reading, and learning into our children was a very high priority for both my husband and me. Besides parenting, my school experiences including volunteering, substituting, and serving as an instructional assistant for three years, until I finally became a teacher with my own classroom in 1996!

For six years I have taught first or second graders, and have enjoyed it so much. There is no thrill quite like teaching a child how to read, or watching children learn to love books, words, and just learning about the world in general. Unfortunately, my voice has not cooperated: if overused, such as projecting for a large classroom of children, it tires and strains easily. Last year, I took a break from the classroom to rest my voice, but was able to tutor students privately all through the year, so I did not totally stop teaching.

When I was approached about the opportunity to teach ESL students, it seemed just right for me. I have always felt drawn to my ESL students, and they have always had a special place in my heart. Not only will there be smaller groups of students, which will be much easier on my voice, but I will be able to be a true advocate for them, creating a safe, comfortable place for them to learn.

Even though this is a brand new field of study for me, it is actually just a different way for me to continue reaching my own professional goal-to instill a love of books, reading, and learning in children. Even though the methods may be different, and the group of children I will be serving may be different, my goal is still the same-just in a dimension and with a depth I have not yet experienced. I am very excited about taking this new step professionally!

Linda Talley

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Who Do You Love?

The much anticipated letter from Linda will have to wait one more day - our family (including Linda's parents) will be attending a special presentation at North Harnett Primary School on Monday morning, October 20th where a bench will be dedicated in memory of Linda. There is a possibility the letter will be used there. Whether it is or not, I will publish it the first chance I have after the ceremony - hopefully, tomorrow afternoon/evening.

The Lord showed me a few things about my perspective on life this week that rather surprised me. I wanted to share them with you, but the best way is simply to publish the sermon I preached this morning. It is the sixth message (David Calvert led one of those) this fall on the topic of spiritual formation. If you have time/interest . . .

His Image:
Spiritual Formation through Self-Denial
Luke 14:25-33; 9:23

Our economy is in a mess. Somebody needs to be held accountable for this mess! In fact, I know who is to blame. It is somebody else. I cannot name names, but I can absolutely tell you that it is not my fault! It may be your fault, but it is not mine! Well, actually it is my fault. And, it is your fault. Our problem is greed, and not one of us is immune to the promise and lure of “more.”

If you use a credit card, in some way you have contributed to our current crisis. The average American household owns 13 credit cards and 40% of them carry a balance. Oh, I know that you pay your bills on time, but just the idea that we can purchase what we want today and then pay for it over time along with exorbitant interest rates lends itself to a dangerous mindset as a nation. You do understand, don’t you, where the 700 billion dollar plus bailout went? A lot of it went to financial institutions so that they could keep loaning us money. Our economy runs on credit.

When you think about it, credit is a way to realize otherwise impossible dreams – and it is a way to live in a false world for awhile. Don’t get me wrong – I am not against borrowing money. It would be almost impossible to buy a house without credit, and most of us couldn’t even drive a car without credit. If debt is used responsibly, businesses and nations will prosper. So, I am not against credit, but I am against borrowing money on a whim, or without careful thought and prayer. That’s not the way most of us borrow, is it? We think, “Oh, I will go ahead and borrow money for that and I will pay for it with my bonus this year, or that raise I might get.”

Of course, when you are talking about necessities, you just have to borrow, don’t you? I am talking about necessities like new carpet or a new car, or the newest line of clothes, or just treating your family to a holiday cruise – necessities that you deserve. That’s where we are as a nation. And we will be paying the price for our excess. It was predicted, you know. Not by Obama or McCain, but by Solomon. Proverbs 28:19: “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.”

It is not that we have failed to work our land in this country, but we have chased fantasies, possessing goods before we pay for them and ultimately allowing the goods and the lenders to possess us. Eventually, though, the time to pay arrives, and pay we will as a nation over the coming months, and maybe the coming years.

The way out of this mess is to take control of our foolish spending, which means, of course, to change the way we think about our lives. We need to get back to self-discipline. That’s what the message is about today, self-discipline. Actually, it is about much more – the message today is about self-denial, as called for by our Savior.

Today’s text is Luke 14:25-33, then we will flip over to Luke 9:23 that will guide us in understanding how God forms us spiritually through self-denial. Would you please stand as we read God’s word together?

25 Now great crowds accompanied Him, and He turned and said to them,
26 “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.
27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.
28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?
29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,
30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?
32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.

And then, Luke 9:23: “And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’”

As we do every week while we are in this series on spiritual formation, we will review our definition: “Spiritual formation is the process by which God the Father transforms Christ-followers into the image of Jesus, individually and communally, as the Holy Spirit leads them into devotion to Christ and obedience to God’s Word.” That will be on the screen for just a moment, so if you want to write the definition down please do so now. The emphasis today is going to be on our response in obedience to Christ’s call on our lives, found in God’s word. I have taken great pains to emphasize the Spirit’s role in our spiritual formation. We will not be spiritually formed simply on the basis of a routine we devise and follow. It is equally true, though, that God will not cause us to grow apart from our response to Him, and one of our responses involves self-denial. Next week we will talk about spiritual disciplines, but we will begin today with Jesus’ call for sacrifice in our commitment to follow Him.

We call ourselves “Christ-followers.” You have heard me use that word often in the last year or two. It is the latest designation for a Christian. Not long ago it was “believer” and before that it was “disciple.” “Christ-follower” is perhaps the best description yet for a Christian. If you ask Americans whether or not they are Christians, they would likely answer “yes” in pretty high numbers. If you then asked them whether or not they are Christ-followers, without doubt the numbers would decline significantly. But Jesus’ call is unmistakable. Look again at Luke 9:23:

“And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”

Ah, you say – we need to make a distinction between a Christian and a disciple. Please show me that distinction in Scripture! There are carnal Christians, to be sure, but one who is mostly uninterested in following Jesus seems to lack a relationship with Him. That is intended for inward reflection, by the way, not for judging others. What is required of a follower of Jesus? Three requirements are listed in Luke 9:23 – deny yourself, take up your cross every single day, and follow Jesus.

Deny yourself. That fits right in with our culture today, doesn’t it? In fact, our culture is about as far from self-denial as you can get. “Indulge yourself,” is the cry of our day – but that may well change in the near future.

The kind of self-denial called for by Jesus goes far beyond a commitment to diet, to exercise, or to control shopping sprees. The self-denial Jesus called for goes to the very core of our beings. It is the kind of attitude embraced by John the Baptist when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In other words, Jesus’ claim on my life, my plans, my desires, my schedule, must become the focus of my life and I must give up – either temporarily or permanently – those things that are not necessarily wrong in and of themselves, but that distract me from Him.

When you think about it, how can spiritual formation occur in our lives when we are constantly indulging our every desire? Oh, of course we go to work, we study for class and generally do things that we would rather not do, but at the first opportunity, we are right back to pursuing pleasure, or at the very least to pursuing fulfillment in life.

This past week, my son, Michael, went for some tests because of stomach problems he was experiencing. On Tuesday, a CT scan was scheduled for Thursday with the results expected no later than Friday. Two weeks ago, Michael almost had his appendix taken out, but the decision was made to wait. The pain continued, but there was a growing suspicion that his problem was more significant than appendicitis, thus the CAT scan. It hit me for the first time on Tuesday that Michael’s problem could be somewhat serious.

I have to tell you, the death of my wife has been difficult for me – far more difficult than I anticipated. I trust God completely, but I find myself struggling when I hear other people’s bad news. When I read in the paper that someone has a brain tumor, or cancer, I am intensely sad. So, when it first hit me that Michael may have Colitis or Diverticulitis, the dark cloud that is rarely far from my emotions grew darker still.

It was then that the Lord began to speak to me. Now, you must know that He spoke to me on the basis of my knowledge of Scripture, so when I tell you how He engaged me, ultimately it was through His word. A question formed in my mind even as deep discouragement fought for control of my mind. The question was simple: “Is it possible that you love your life too much?” It stunned me to realize that my problem is not that life is now dull for me, but rather than my love for this life has increased.

The question that formed in my heart is a legitimate question for all of us, isn’t it? Is it possible that you love your life too much? That may seem like a strange question, but think about it. We are Americans. Until we really suffer, we tend to feel entitled to a problem-free life, even those of us who cry out against the entitlement mentality in our society. And, the longer life goes well for us, the greater the temptation to feel entitled for an unending idyllic life for me and mine.

In Mark 8, Jesus elaborated on His call for self-denial.

34 And calling the crowd to Him with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.
35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

It really boils down to whether we love our lives – that is, life in this world – or, Jesus. And the irony is that when we seek to establish ourselves here, even if our goal is simply to build security, we ultimately lose. But, when we give it all to Jesus, we gain everything, regardless of what we have or do not have! It is not that Jesus is saying we shouldn’t plan and pursue careers or obtain possessions. He is saying, though, that He must be first. After all, a Christ-follower ---- follows Jesus. And His plan may not be our plan. In fact, His plan may seem to be contrary to what is good for us, though His plan is always the absolute best for us. We dare not forget that taking up our cross involves suffering and also the shame identified with a life committed only to Jesus and His will for us.

All of those things went through my mind this week when I thought about Michael. On Friday he called and said that the CT scan revealed all the signs of Crohn’s Disease. Further tests will confirm it, but the doctor is reasonably sure it is Crohn’s. Hey, it’s not stage 4 cancer, but Crohn’s can be tough. Ask Tom Ray. Tom is a great role model for Michael – he handles his difficulty with grace.

For Michael to be diagnosed with Crohn’s is almost the same as if I had received the diagnosis myself. Of course I will not live with the physical implications for the rest of my life like Michael will and like many of you live with Diabetes or other conditions, but emotionally it almost felt like I had received the news myself. And if I love this life, this news is pretty tough. But, if I love Jesus, difficult though it may be, I can rest in Him and trust that He knows best. If I am following Him, and if Michael and Laura are following Him, this is the path down which He is leading us. And it’s OK, because if I will lose my life now, I will gain it in the end.

This message has taken a far different path than I anticipated. I planned to talk about spiritual disciplines of denial, but I very much felt led to talk about dying to self, which is one of the primary principles behind disciplines of denial. Next week we are going to talk about the value of spiritual disciplines and also about how to incorporate spiritual disciplines into our lives while being careful not to be legalistic or dependent on the flesh. I want to end this morning, though, by visiting some specific ways in which we are called to deny ourselves that will lead us to a life wrapped up in, and led by, Jesus. I will not go to any specific Scripture to support this list, but I feel certain you trust me enough to know that I would not suggest something that could not be backed up biblically. Indeed, biblical principles abound to provide a foundation for these areas in which we say no to self in order for Jesus’ life to shine brighter and brighter through us.

Probably the first area of self-denial that would come to mind would be the practice of fasting. Because of time, we will look at that discipline next week, but I wanted to include it in our list.

Denying self is about giving up rights. We are going to either allow Jesus to be in charge of our lives, or we will be in charge. In addition to being willing to deny ourselves food from time to time, we should be willing to give up the right to our possessions. Do you see your possessions as something you deserve because of your hard work, or do you see the things that belong to you as gifts from God, and even your ability to work as a gift from God? It is not wrong to have nice things. But a Christ-follower must be willing, if so required by the Lord, to give up all that he has.

We must also be willing to give up our right to fill every minute of our day with activity and noise. Now, I know some of you would love more quiet time. The truth is that we plan for very little of it, but that does not mean we do not need it. Self-denial? Yes, because sometimes the only way we can get quiet time is to forgo some recreation that seems very important to us.

When it comes to our interaction with other people, we need to give up the right to be right all the time. There will be times when you need to stand for your belief, but you don’t always have to be right. In fact, you don’t even have to be heard all the time, nor do you need to always be the one to decide the evening’s activities. Learn to hold your tongue. Scripture promises great blessings for those who do.

And while you are holding your tongue, hold your bottom lip in, would you? Deny yourself the pleasure of pouting when things don’t go your way. Even if no knows you are brooding, God knows and these disciplines of denial are between you and Him anyway. He wants to mold you into the image of Jesus.

This list could go for quite a long time, even if we didn’t take the time to elaborate on the various ways we can obey Jesus’ command to deny ourselves. I suppose the content of this particular list may reveal something about the nature of my own struggle for righteousness. Ah, but here is good news – I do not have to struggle in the flesh. If I yield to the Lord, He will guide me and empower me to deny myself, take up my cross daily, and to follow Him. Would you yield yourself again to Him this morning?