|Celebrating His Presence #5
Show Us Your Glory! (#5)
January 31, 2005
[Preached as a dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly]
Rubel Shelly: John, you and I wrote a book together that has a chapter titled “Why ‘Church’ Is a Dirty Word.” It made what I fear is a rather obvious point that the church – not the abstract “universal church” or the church of God’s intention but the church as people encounter it in the real world – often fails to live up to its high calling. Represents Christ poorly as his body in the world. Looks a bit too tawdry to be his radiant bride.
But there’s another side to that story, isn’t there? Churches can be the redemptive communities God had in mind. A group of sincere believers can – for all our faults and shortcomings – rise to the occasion of spiritual opportunity. Surround a family with love when there is a terrible accident, illness, or death. Support an alcoholic or drug addict through recovery. Help people who have been bruised or broken by life get a new start.
John York: I was thrilled to get home from last weekend in Fresno, California, to learn some details of “Grace Home Andhra” and what we are going to get to do to help rescue, educate, and nurture some fifty or more children who were left orphaned by that awful tsunami last month. To learn this week that a second floor of the building actually was underwritten by a person sitting in the audience last week as you first were telling the story is testimony to God’s stirring of our hearts in such times. We are constantly reminded of God’s desire for us to be the physical expression of his love in times of crisis.
But if India is far, far away from Nashville, we probably need to remind ourselves of some of the things that go on right under our noses here every day.
Rubel: I wonder how many of you know that ten twelve-step or similar support groups meet on this property fifty-two weeks of the year? Another two every other week? These accountability and recovery groups deal with issues ranging from alcoholism to spousal abuse to debt to sexual abuse.
John: I wonder how many know about Bethesda Ministries? Marnie Ferree and Dr. Mark Laaser lead this nationally recognized ministry that helps people deal with sexual addictions. Marnie was interviewed on NBC’s "Dateline" last year, and she and Mark lead workshops not only in Nashville but in places across the United States that give men and women tools to deal with sexual addiction and co-addiction. This ministry has saved so many marriages that seemed doomed, so many persons who felt hopeless.
Rubel: Then there is the Counseling Ministry housed on this property. It works with hundreds of people every year to provide spiritual nurture through a variety of crises. Scores and scores of marriages are rescued. People whose marriages are unrecoverable get help through painful divorces and life reorientation. Children and adults, singles and marrieds, members of our church family and people from the larger Nashville community – all kinds of people are given hope and skills and solid help through difficult times.
John: And there is the incredible outreach and service to both our family here at Woodmont Hills and the larger community of Nashville that Joan Gregory and her assistant Suzan Hicks provide on a daily basis. The physical and financial needs that are met through their efforts in our Caring Ministry go beyond anything I’ve experienced in any other church setting. And the graciousness of members here to provide for the Hobson House, a place for families to literally get on their feet financially, is powerful testimony to the compassion of Jesus in our midst.
Rubel: And you know one of my most passionate interests is CCSI – Christian Community Services, Inc. It is our partnership ministry with the Schrader Lane Church. Jackie Corley and Gerry Householder from this church work with Beverly James and Patrick Johnson to serve people from Vine Hill and Preston Taylor toward self-sufficiency. Some of Nashville’s most vulnerable citizens whose lives had been sustained in public housing with welfare checks have trusted us, come to this building for adult classes and child tutoring on Tuesday nights, accepted mentoring from families at Woodmont Hills or Schrader Lane, and moved to a stability they never dreamed possible. With the help of Dave Ramsey, Lewis Falzetti, and a host of mentors, they have been helped to maximal employment goals, gotten off state and federal welfare, and become tax-paying homeowners in Davidson County. To date, fourteen have reached that goal and three more are scheduled to move into their homes this spring!
John: When church works the way God meant for it to function, it isn’t a building or a few assemblies each week. It is an authentic community where the Kingdom of God is put on display through transformed lives. To borrow from the images and language of 1 John, it is people walking in the light as God himself is light. It is bringing together our efforts to know God and our relationships with the humans made in God’s image. Love for God is expressed in our love for one another; loving one another is the tangible expression of loving God.
Rubel: One of the beautiful ways in which love gets lived out in this church is in the small groups where lives are transformed, ministry is done, and new people are able to make connections with this body. On that last point, by the way, I’d like to encourage all our small groups to avoid seeing yourselves as closed groups within an open church. We need you to be willing to receive new people who are looking for connections in this larger body.
John: Some of our “small groups” may have morphed into “too-large-to-work small groups.” Any group that approaches say twenty participants needs to think about giving birth to another group from itself. That way we multiply entry points for people wanting to connect with others. I really want to encourage those of you who lead groups that are shepherding groups in Sunday School, Teen LifeGroups, Ministry Groups, Study Groups, or Support Groups to attend the dinner coming up in February. Its purpose is to cast a vision for our small-group meetings as places designed “to create healthy groups that ultimately produce healthy spiritual lives.”
Rubel: A couple of weeks ago, John, you and I told of a couple of personal experiences with church and church people that created some wounds and discouragement for us. But there are also times, places, and people where church has been everything God intended as a redemptive community of love. I mentioned the Whitehaven Church of Christ in Memphis when we did that sermon two weeks ago – a godly brother named Smith Howell in particular.
Even though I have been a “minister” to this church for over twenty-five years, I have not only given but received over that time. My family and I have undoubtedly received far more from our experience here than anyone has ever received from us. The summer we moved here, Myra’s father died. A few years later, I lost my dad very suddenly – and my mother through a slow, awful death from Alzheimer’s Disease about three years ago. We’ve had illnesses and setbacks, stresses and strains, frustrations and failures – all of them in very public view because of the nature of my “career” as a preacher. But we have been treated with such grace and gentleness and generosity.
There are very few churches anywhere in the world where someone could have fumbled and stumbled his way to think through, find his way out of, and implement so radically different a theology as I have – and stay in place through it all. From legalism to gospel. From fair-haired boy of the right wing of our fellowship to scapegoat of the right wing of our fellowship. And the shepherds and members of this church questioned and searched and loved one another through that process. And God has blessed the pilgrimage. Woodmont Hills Church has not only survived but prospered. We have been used by God to model a new and healthier way of doing some things among Churches of Christ.
John: Our family has not been here that long – we’re going on seven years here, with my official working relationship now going on five. But what drew our family here was our experience of God-presence in this place. My wife and sons and I experienced the Family of God at Woodmont Hills as a safe place; safe, not in the sense that nothing ever changes, but safe in the sense that you can be honest about your life here among a group of people whose constant desire is to experience God, to share his grace and mercy. We’ve become part of this “pilgrimage” – the Journey – because the focus is on being the people of God here, not being better or righter than those people in some other church setting. It is that redemptive, non-judgmental, loving sense of God-presence that allows me to be so graciously received as your side-kick on Sunday mornings.
Rubel: These things allow us to celebrate the presence of God in our midst. Not to thump our chests and say how good a job we have done but to praise God for being so patient, gracious, and redemptive in our midst. Not to claim we have things all figured out but to affirm that God has always honored and blessed the honest struggle of his people. God blesses the pursuit of his kingdom reign. He shows up and bestows favor. He generates life and health – and dreams for the future. The same God who has done good things in our midst will surely do greater ones, if we are willing to pursue the journey by faith!
John: And we would be less than honest if we said there are no difficulties or relational bumps in the road along the way. Living in any family is not easy, and we don’t always get it right. But even in our failures, God is reminding us of the glory that awaits us. I find myself drawn repeated to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians about us being given a ministry of reconciliation and not losing heart when reconciliation and healing is experienced as pain and suffering. Listen again to his words:
"For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us….But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – 'I believed, and so I spoke' – we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling – if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him" (2 Cor. 4:5-7; 13-5:9).
There are still lots of things God wants to do at Woodmont Hills that we haven’t had the faith yet to dream! But you were talking about some personal dreams with me the other day, Rubel.
Rubel: Yes, there are a couple of stirrings that Myra and I still cherish in our hearts personally. One is to be very directly involved in the training of young men and women for ministry in local churches. I was not prepared for the thing I wound up doing for all my adult life, and she and I believe we’ve learned some things – at the expense of this church, I might add, in our “on-the-job training” here – that we would like to try to pass on to others. Christian colleges and seminaries are doing a good job in most cases with teaching text, languages, church history, homiletics, and the like. In my opinion, though, there is a great need for some people who have invested their lives in local churches to be involved in training those people in the real-life, practical, and hands-on side of what to expect. And the second is to participate in planting a new church somewhere – starting from scratch and working off a blank sheet of paper.
Several of you know that Myra and I have looked at some possibilities and options tied to these two things over the past few years. And today is the day for us to let you know that we have informed the shepherds a few weeks ago of our intention to transition into one of those options later this year.
John: Since I know what you’re about to tell these folks, let me ask everybody here this morning to take a deep breath and hear the word “transition” in that last sentence of yours. You’re not about to retire. You’re not quitting ministry. And you’re not leaving Woodmont Hills. Just writing a new chapter. Transitioning. Changing your role with us.
Rubel: Correct. And here is a broad outline of what is coming. This summer I will move to a part-time status on the ministry staff at Woodmont Hills. I won’t be preaching on Sundays anymore after July 2005. The time has come for me to lay down that role in order to focus on something different. In terms of this church, I will continue to write and teach from here – concentrating on regular Wednesday night teaching. I will write “The FAX of Life” and continue to play whatever role the shepherds wish me to fill in helping connect us to the larger community through service projects – Faith Family Medical Clinic, Operation Andrew Ministries, and the like. I especially want to help with the Grace Home Andhra project that was announced here last week. But I will no longer be the “Preaching Minister” or “Senior Minister” at Woodmont Hills.
We are transitioning my role here – not quitting, not leaving, not moving from Nashville – in order for me to accept a faculty position at Rochester College. I will join the religion faculty at that 1000-student college just north of Detroit to help prepare some people to do what I have done for the past quarter century. Dr. Mike Westerfield, President of Rochester College, and his colleagues at the school have been gracious enough to offer me that opportunity. More specifically still, pending approval by the Higher Learning Commission of the State of Michigan, they plan to initiate a graduate program in urban ministry that could use somebody with the sort of experience I have been privileged to get here. And I am thrilled at the opportunity.
John: Rubel, you and I have talked many times about the wonderful people at Rochester College. I know that many of our members have come from that area and have great hearts for the mission and ministry of that school, so it is hard not to cheer for Rochester College and the gift of teaching that you bring to the students and the colleagues that you will enjoy in that setting. I have a number of good friends who teach there and I know how excited they are at the prospect of your coming. At the same time, you did say that you are not moving to Michigan, right?!
Rubel: This is “transition” and – don’t get your hopes up out there! – not departure. In fact, it is the sort of transition of roles that could be precedent-setting in Churches of Christ. How do most churches make preacher changes? With blood on the floor and with people angry with one another! How do preachers too often leave works? In a moving truck in the middle of the night. What kind of relationship exists between that preacher and the church he has served? None. Or a very tense relationship. One of the final “new” things I’d like to be part of at Woodmont Hills is a smooth, loving, healthy transition to far better days than this church has experienced to date.
Nothing would cause me to feel better about the time Myra and I have spent here than for this church to grow, prosper, and thrive as we step back a bit here. I’d like to think we have helped lay a foundation that others will build on for generations to come!
John: Personal faith and the life of any church should always be driven by passion for the future. All of us who work in ministry, and for that matter all of us who live on this planet know that life is about change and becoming. We can fight change and never win – just hide from the realities of change occasionally. We can also embrace moments like these as part of the process of ever increasing glory, with all of us seeking to learn and become. As Paul says, “So we do not lose heart!” This is a journey at Woodmont Hills, not a destination, for all of us.
Rubel: The life of this church is not about John York or Rubel Shelly or Terry Smith or . . . Well, it’s not about any of us. It’s about Jesus Christ. Constant openness to the Spirit’s transforming presence. Being surrendered to the Father’s will for us as a group of his children. So it would sadden me terribly if this news about a fresh chapter in my life were to unsettle or obstruct the progress of this church. I plan still to be part of its growth, progress, ministries, and outreach in Nashville and the mid-state area. Myra and I ask for your affirmation and joy over our new prospects – as well as your prayers for our place in the training of young couples for ministry.
John: Rubel, you know the heart’s desire of this church is be completely supportive of you and Myra in life and in ministry. Times like these arouse almost instant anxiety and I admit that for myself and for our shepherds and for all of us as we begin to wonder what comes next. But I also know that faith is always about the unseen and being people of the Kingdom of God means living with an openness to God’s future, never knowing exactly what that future looks like. The Kingdom of God is always to come – always pulling us into the unknowns of the future, always calling us to let go of what is for what will be. So we will make this new part of the journey with you and see what God is doing in our midst! You did say you’re not leaving, right??
Rubel: When I gave the staff a heads up last Tuesday that this announcement would be made today, Randy Gill began laughing. He said, “Well, I guess we’d better change the song we have on the outline to follow the lesson!” I asked what it was, and he said, “He Has Made Me Glad!”
It is Christ who gives joy! He has made us a glad, serving, and optimistic church. And we welcome you to join the journey of this church by committing yourself to be a pilgrim-seeker of Jesus Christ. To pledge to walk with us by faith and not by sight. To share the excitement of celebrating his presence today and tomorrow and into eternity.
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