Monday, March 25, 2013

Fellowship -- A Component of "The New Hilltop"

[This was written for the October, 2012 Newsletter.  I post it to my blog so I can reference it easily in other articles I may write/create.]

In March, key Hilltop leaders made several bold decisions aimed at recreating Hilltop. The belief was that unity would be realized by moving to a single worship service and using elements of the national church’s Vital Congregation elements to focus on Christian education and fellowship. When we talk about it, key leaders use the image of a three-legged stool to remind us that the elements—worship, Christian education, and fellowship—are to be understood in unity. If any leg of a stool is too long, or too short, the stool is improperly balanced and is less than it can and should be.

I was not here to witness the three different worship services that existed before the current unified service. Reports I hear are that bold moves by your leaders are proving fruitful in bringing a new energy to Hilltop worship. The New Hilltop will continue to seek avenues for us to experience in community through worship all that God plans for us.

In last month’s newsletter, I invited you to explore a deeper relationship with God through intentional growth as disciples. Some accepted that invitation, and I hope and pray that from those seeds we will experience a thirty, sixty and hundredfold harvest. This will continue to be a regular and focused priority with your leaders.  We will now turn our focus to fellowship which has received the least attention in our three-legged stool paradigm.

I believe fellowship and small groups go together.

Through the end of August, nearly four hundred different Hilltop people had participated in a small group of some kind this year. That is nothing short of fantastic!  That is about half of all who call Hilltop their spiritual home. Even with that success, I still want to invite those not part of that number to find a small group of some kind and participate on a regular basis.

We have consciously increased the small group opportunities that focus on our development as disciples. But small groups also include our music ministers, the men at Britton’s on Wednesday, the women in their regular meetings, the card crafting, and our ministry opportunities at Crossroads and with Family Promise. That list is illustrative and not intended to be exhaustive. We get to know each other by taking part with others in Hilltop activities. Jesus brought together twelve men from disparate backgrounds, and they transformed their world and ours. I strongly endorse our gathering together to fellowship across age and gender, for example, fellowship at 10 or 11:30 on Sunday morning or during pot-lucks.
I re-invite all to find and connect with a small group at Hilltop. That group might be one that is growing in discipleship, but it might be one that is in service, provides music, or gathers by age or gender.

I have recently challenged key leaders to ask themselves who is not a regular participant in the life of Hilltop and to discern what they might do to invite those not at the table to be part of the oneness of Hilltop. Jesus did not stand in the synagogue and invite the broken of his time to find their way to him, he rather went out looking for them. Those we invite to join us on our spiritual journey will be blessed and enriched through our three-legged paradigm of worship, discipleship through Christian education, and fellowship of fellow sojourning Christians.  That’s our prayer, our call, and part of our mission and vision.

Pastor’s Musings – October 2012

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hilltop highly resolves to … what?

There is a lot of energy present in the sanctuary when we have nearly 300 people present. As I stand in the middle of that gathered body I feel like I am at one with you. It is often extremely uplifting.  Why can’t we just keep it like it is forever?

Does anybody really believe that something that is not growing can hold a level of energy indefinitely? I would suggest that one of our New Year’s resolutions is that “Hilltop highly resolves to … keep growing.” Product innovator Robert Cooper sounds like a theologian when he writes, “Every moment of our lives we are either growing or dying—and it’s largely a choice, not fate. Throughout its life cycle, every one of the body’s trillions of cells is driven to grow and improve its ability to use more of its innate yet untapped capacity.” Paraphrasing a little what Jesus says in John 10: “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.” We have an enormous amount of untapped capacity at Hilltop to extend God’s Kingdom in the South Valley and share the abundant life that comes of knowing Christ.

We have begun the conversation necessary to start framing what a second service might look like. Here is what we are thinking:
· The current multiple musical groups and styles will be the framework at 9:00 am.
· Sunday School is retained for now at the 9:00 hour because we know there are parents who want to worship while their children are in Christian Formation.
· Launch in September.
· Make the decision if we are going to Launch in September, in May.
We would like to see attendance targets of about 275 as an average achieved for non-Easter Sundays in March and April along with clear covenants by enough, about 100, to make such a service well attended and have energy.

I believe we need to continue to grow. Yes, retain elements of our history but also to grow. The product innovator I quoted earlier, Cooper also writes that such thinking “…turns conventional thinking upside down…As … people—there is no staying the same. If we aim for some middle ground or status quo, it’s an illusion—beneath the surface what’s actually happening is we’re dying, not growing. And the goal of a lifetime is continued growth, not adulthood.”

I believe that our Triune God calls us to constant and continued growth.
I suggest that one of our community resolutions be “Hilltop highly resolves to launch a second worship service in September, 2013.”

 (Pastor’s Musings – January, 2013)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Renewal Theme Article

(This is my April newsletter theme article.)

I looked up the word “renewal” in an online dictionary.  I like to be sure I know what a word means so I turn to the experts.  The dictionary said renewal was:   The act of renewing or the state of having been renewed.   Something renewed.  That was a little less than helpful, maybe even decidedly less than helpful.  My faith in the internet was momentarily damaged.
However, taking new hope, I tried again with “to renew” and, unsurprisingly given I used “to”, I got it is as a verb:  both transitive, the verb can take an object and intransitive, no object.  For transitive the verb might mean to make like new: restore to freshness, vigor, or perfection, to make new spiritually (offering that wonderfully theological word:  regenerate), to restore to existence, revive, to make extensive changes in, rebuild.

But the intransitive possibilities were also rich:  to become new or as new, to begin again, to resume.
Isaiah says on behalf of the living God:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Now that is decidedly helpful.  My faith in the living God was never at risk.
Easter is celebrated in Spring, a time when the world is renewed and we are invited after our spiritual Lenten Journey to see ourselves as regenerated, i.e., to be renewed spiritually.  I think I lost the object there somewhere, but never mind, I am sure your faith in me doesn’t hinge on my understanding of transitive and intransitive, but rather on how we understand what it is to be renewed.  The world is being renewed in a physical sense, but God is constantly in action making “ALL things new” over and over.  I know some of us love the idea of a static, unchanging world, but to paraphrase Bob Dylan, “the times, they are a changin’” and in reality, they have always been ‘a changin’.  If there is one thing that is a constant, it is that change is part of what surrounds us, a part of life.

We worship a God invested in renewal, a God constantly working to refresh the creation.

We worship a God interested in us being regularly renewed spiritually. We are renewed by our annual deep and intense reflection in the joy found in the ideas associated with the empty tomb and recognition that Jesus is calling us by name.
I invite all who call Hilltop their spiritual home to begin again their journey, or possibly to resume that journey,  with Jesus in the getting to Jerusalem.  We are now there:  the tomb is empty.  Jesus is calling you by name.  He is Risen, He is Risen indeed, Hallelujah!

Pastor Dennis

Are We There Yet?

I used to drive my parents crazy when we’d start out on a long trip by asking the question:  “are we there yet?” At some point, I figured out that driving from Atlanta to Tampa was going to take about twelve hours and as interstates were developed, the time kept dropping.

At the beginning of our own Lenten journeys we have some idea of what lies in wait for us at the end. We will have the smell of Easter Lilies and we will hear the choir and bells singing and playing Christ the Lord is Risen Today. Lent will be over and Easter beckons.
I took my first intentional Lenten Journey in 1995 and when we got to Easter, I was ready to explode in joy. My emotional response to the empty tomb and Mary being called by name was almost more than I could take.


I think it was because for the first time in my adult life, I had actually used the church season designed for contemplation and reflection for reflection and contemplation. I didn’t intentionally wear, like a leper might have, sackcloth and spread ashes in front of myself and utter “unclean, unclean” but I let the meaning of the Lenten experience create in me a wide-ranging set of spiritual responses.

First, the weekly reflection on key themes penetrated like never before. Words like “sacrifice” and “change” were given newer and richer meanings. “My journey” took ideas that I thought were previously understood and gave them new meaning. The cross took on a whole new meaning. Grace was a gift and more than a word to indicate a prayer or a kind remark.

Second, I wonder if I didn’t start to ask myself questions about who I was and what God was calling me to do? I used the Kirbyjon Caldwell observation a few weeks ago about the two most important moments in our life: ‘the moment we were born and the moment we discover why we were born.’  Slowly, in the mirror, dimly, I began to start to comprehend elements of God’s plan for the rest of my life. It most certainly didn’t evolve as a precise plan of do this for five years, apprentice in a Colorado Springs church for three years, get your own leadership experience for nine and then head to Utah. But it did include elements of making my journey deep and profound rather than quick and superficial.

What is God saying to you as you start your Lenten Journey?

    How might you make your own journey deep and profound?

       How might you get to the empty tomb bathed in the scent of lilies and have your heart explode in joy over the Easter tunes that take on deeper, richer meaning.

I suggest the answer to the question of “are we there yet” is probably no. But we can get “there” by simply getting started on that journey, and making it with Jesus. He is looking forward to being our guide.

Pastor’s Musings – Feb 2013

Countering Negativism

William Safire, before he moved to being a respected political opinion writer, was a speech writer for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Agnew is ignominious for the distinction of having to resign from the Vice Presidency because he was under investigation for various crimes earlier in his career, which included his time as Vice President.
Safire create a characterization of people for Agnew that was quite the rage when it was first uttered: “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
To natter is to speak casually.
      A nabob is a person of high status.
          Negativism speaks for itself, but it includes skepticism as a vital element of understanding.
In my still not too extended time at Hilltop, I occasionally encounter those who start sentences with something like “I don’t understand” but then complete what begins as a quest for understanding with why what they don’t understand is clearly wrong, stupid, or something they strongly disagree with. To be totally fair, this is basic human nature:  it is part of the human condition.
My reaction when this negativity happens is to think “you must think you understand enough about this idea to say you don’t like it.” I hear the religious authorities of Jesus day saying “I don’t understand this Jesus dude, and I don’t like him.”
I confess I find this type of conversation jarring. I operate from an idea of hope and enthusiasm. I am enthusiastic about being the Pastor at Hilltop. I see hope in our future. Good things are happening here. I spoke to this at the last Church Council meeting and how negativity can damage the positive elements of our current paradigm shift that is ongoing. If fact, I operate in the faith that optimism, enthusiasm, and hope are contagious. I sense a renewed, positive self identity at Hilltop, and I see this as part of the New Hilltop we are trying to create.
May I invite all who call Hilltop their spiritual home to be part of the spreading the contagion of optimism, enthusiasm, and hope? May I invite all who call Hilltop their spiritual home that when you hear someone state they don’t understand but then immediately follow that up with a negative statement, invite them to replace in the quest for understanding the negative “I don’t like it” and replace it with the idea of “help me understand.”
In the 1951, John Huston movie “The African Queen” the character played by Humphrey Bogart laments that how he behaves is “only human nature” to which the Katherine Hepburn character answers:  “Nature … is what we are put in this world to rise above.” We are Easter people. Let us endeavor to spread the joy of the empty tomb in all that we do and not become casual but important people who spread skepticism in all that they do.
John Wesley wrote: “I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful.” 
     I think it can be argued that judging too quickly is a form of judging too severely. 
          I wonder if in seeking understanding, it might reduce the need to request mercy later.  
(The above article appeared in the Hilltop newsletter as Pastor's Musings for March, 2013.)