Friday, January 24, 2014

"And so it goes"

   It was written in 1983, although not released until 1989, and was described in 2010 by its composer as both his best work and least appreciated. According to our Web Bible (Wikipedia) it was a song about a doomed relationship between Billy Joel, who was in his mid-30s, and Elle Macpherson, who was only a teenager.

   In every heart there is a room
   A sanctuary safe and strong
   To heal the wounds from lovers past
   Until a new one comes along

   I spoke to you in cautious tones
   You answered me with no pretense
   And still I feel I said too much
   My silence is my self defense

   And every time I’ve held a rose
   It seems I only felt the thorns
   And so it goes, and so it goes
   And so will you soon I suppose.

   As I have contemplated my blogging silence over recent months, I came to terms with two issues: first, unlike many bloggers, I am not compelled to constantly post every meaningless life experience and thought; and second, there are times when I simply have a clog in my blog. “And so it goes, and so it goes.”
   Unlike many of my contemporaries, I have viewed my role as less that of a priest and more that of a prophet. Even though, as evangelicals, most would be quick to claim a New Testament title of “pastor” and renounce any suggestion of being a “priest”, since Christ expanded the priestly role to every believer, still the charge is not without foundation. Since our culture does not use a biblical paradigm, they are not prevented from assuming and confusing a New vs Old Testament concept. Personally, I think that in many cases they are more honest about reality than are “men of the cloth”. The very fact that most use the distinguishing labels of “clergy” and “laity” validates my claim. “And so it goes, and so it goes.”
   Any time a spiritual leader merely carries out the function of the office in such a predictable manner that there are no surprises, they are functioning as a priest. They are “doing what they are paid to.” While a prophet may indeed carry out the same functions in spiritual leadership, they do not restrict themselves to these, but continue to seek a fresh word from God that challenges the status quo. They are convinced that if the “boat ain’t rocking”, at least some of the time, “then I ain’t doing my job!” “And so it goes, and so it goes.”
   It should come as no surprise that my return from a two month sabbatical has compelled me to spend a great deal of time commiserating with Old Testament prophets. While away, I was able to process a journey that led to a clogged blog. Our twenty years as a church has been frenetic. We moved from place-to-place, schedule-to-schedule in such rapid succession that I was spending too much time “spinning plates” rather than preparing meals. The revolving door of leaders that came and went like seasonal migrating birds left me “spinning” and my head too! “And so it goes, and so it goes.”
   My return has me back in my prophetic garb. I know now that I must guard against the influences that would redefine my calling, dull my sword and clog my blog. It is going to be a challenge because the birds keep migrating. Where’s Elmer Fudd when you need him? “And so it goes, and so it goes.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me;  from my mother’s womb He has spoken my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,  in the shadow of His hand He hid me; He made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in His quiver. He said to me, “You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will display My splendor.” But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.”                             Isaiah 49:1-4

   The desert can be a beautiful place if you’re a tourist. There is abundant life there if you’re a reptile or insect. There are vast oceans there if you are looking at a mirage. You can die of dehydration or, strangely enough, of hypothermia. That being said, it should come as no surprise that much of Scripture revolves around desert places. The desert, it turns out, is a place of contradictions. Such is ministry.
   “When are you going to post again?” “I enjoy your blog. Why haven’t you been writing?” These are the questions that I get from the two people who actually read this blog. Rarely a week goes by that I haven’t thought about it and concluded, “Nah!” Until today. My quiet time had me in Isaiah 49. It was one of those regular moments, spread over 50+ years, when I can honestly say, “I get it. Thanks, Isaiah. Apparently, you knew the feeling, but knowing didn’t change it.”
   In a time and place where people would say, “I would give my right arm to know why I am here”, I’ve got news for them. It ain’t as simple as you think. There is no question or doubt in Isaiah’s mind as to who did what for whom and why. He was set apart by God before birth and equipped by God after birth to be used by God to display the splendor of God. “What more could you possibly want Isaiah?” Apparently, a sense of fulfillment that can’t be satisfied by knowledge.
   Please let me introduce you to my kindred spirit, Isaiah. “Dude, I feel your pain.” He knew what it was to be human, called to divine responsibility. He had his long stretches of time in the desert when, like a tourist, he couldn’t simply go back to the Hilton and say, “Wasn’t that nice!” It’s not recorded, but I have no problem imagining his flock saying, “What do you have to be discouraged about? You have the best job in the world: working for God!” If I might be indulged to speak on behalf of Isaiah: “Working for God is awesome. Working with the people of God is another story!” (Gently stated)
   I am officially on a sabbatical. For the less spiritual among us, that is a time when a really spiritual person gets away from the people they are serving to be personally renewed in the hope of finishing their assignment. It is not to be confused with a vacation. Mine officially began on November 1. The reason that I have not blogged is because I have been in desperate need of a sabbatical. I have been in a desert and still am. When you are not a tourist in the desert, you don’t have anything to write about nor a desire to do so. Because of prior commitments, this is really the first day of being off, and where should my quiet time have me? Isaiah 49.
   I waved the white flag of surrender to ministry in 1974. While doing other types of ministry afterwards, I finally began pastoring in 1977 at age 22. It has been anything but a cruise! Regardless of the good times, when the tank runs empty, it’s time to refuel. The objective of refueling isn’t to have full tanks, it’s to continue and ultimately finish the journey. While the temptation existed (and still does) to call it quits, Isaiah had this to say, “Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. “Okay, Isaiah, I get that too!”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Whose idea was this?"

  "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty."
  I think that it must be one of the many weird things about the English language that makes it confusing for the rest of the planet: "awfully good"; "jumbo shrimp"; "pretty bad"; etc. The words alone offer no confusion of meaning but their combinations do. Paul's words from Philippians describe the extremes involved in a normal life, yet they are not the same as what has come to be known as "extreme living", but they should! Or should they?
  We are privy to more information about the context of these words than many from Paul because we have the Philippian story, but unfortunately we treat it like a cleaned up version of the old west as portrayed in Gunsmoke. I recall my parent's complaining about the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood and how bloody they were, never acknowledging that the violence of Matt Dillon spilled more than a few drops albeit, never shown! The Philippian church was planted by the blood coursing from the wounds of a jailed, beaten missionary. In a matter of hours his beating translated into a baptism for the jailer and his family. He began in need and finished with plenty. Although not a proper description, it certainly fits the profile of "extreme living".
  This is the observed pattern that I wrote about last month: the cycles of life. In retrospect, they last for a brief moment but, when we are in them they can seem eternal. The problem of human nature is in wanting to treat the extremes as the norm. The "for better or worse" in marriage vows is a perfect example. Oh, that the honeymoon were what marriage is intended to be like! Then, there is the first fight, mean words, cold shoulders. This is what we were warned that marriage is really like: cohabitation. It is why so few marriages last past a few years. Or, like learning to drive. The laws of physics tell us that the nature of motion is to go in a straight line. Our minds tell us that we have to steer the car in a straight line. With our hands white-knuckled at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, we will be fighting the car to keep it between the ditches, never realizing that if we just relax it won't need our help!
  Don't let me lose you now. In Kingdom work, we will have moments of success, excitement, appreciation, approval and victory. If we have been to the conferences and read the books we will conclude that we are doing something right and make our plans to never change a thing. We are the captains of our fate and we are good! But, in Kingdom work, we will have moments of failure, sameness, betrayal and defeat. If we have been to the conferences and read the books we will conclude that we must be doing something wrong and make our plans to change everything. We are the victims of our fate and want to walk the plank! Don't tell me that the Apostle Paul didn't know the feeling.
  How did he manage to endure until he lost his head? In his own words we find the answer, "I have learned to be content." What? Paul didn't know everything that he needed by divine inspiration? Gasp! Blasphemy! Heresy! No, relief! In almost 40 years of ministry and 20 year as a church planter I can honestly say that "I have been to the mountain and it is a volcano!" The peaks and valleys of the cycles of life and ministry are what they are, they just don't happen to represent where success is measured. I am currently in a valley and don't like it. Never have. Never will. Have I learned contentment? No. I have learned to make no rash decision either here or on the mountain top.
  A couple of years ago my brother-in-law, college roommate and I hiked 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokey Mountains. As we began, someone asked, "Whose idea was this? This is awesome!" By the end of the first day, someone asked, "Whose idea was this? This is awful!" Same day, same trail. By our journey's end, the question was, "When can we do this again?"

Monday, August 5, 2013


   A Bucket List. I believe that everyone has one and our DNA determines both how long it is and what’s on it. Not only is mine long but it continues to get longer. Check one more thing off of my list or at least put an asterisk next to it. I took a flying lesson.
   From that period as a child when my brothers and I would jump off of a mound of earth hanging onto a big piece of cardboard (way before hang gliding was invented) to marrying the daughter of a pilot, I have loved the idea of learning to fly. Last September I purchased an online coupon for a discounted flying lesson at a local airport. As life happens there never seemed to be an acceptable alignment of circumstances to use it before it expired in June. I had to use it or lose it. I make the appointment and show up the last week, on a day when the wind was blowing 30 mph with gusts! After the pre-flight orientation we roll the aircraft out of its hanger, climb aboard, taxi down the runway, turn and begin the 36 minute flight. Just getting off of the ground was a trick accomplished only by turning the plane slightly sideways to compensate for the crosswinds. I take the controls, cross the Chesapeake Bay, turn around and return to the airstrip. Upon the approach my instructor resumes control and brings us safely home. The flight fits firmly into the category of a “white knuckle” experience: watching the altimeter, airspeed indicator, altitude indicator while being bumped, dipped, buffeted and bounced around, listening to the instructor and enjoying the sights! The asterisk is for the yet-to-be-determined future of flying lessons.
   Junior High School (I’m showing my age). Reading class. Mrs. Holder. She had a nickname: Hawkeye Holder. It was well deserved! You couldn’t blink without it attracting her attention and then she was fond of using a ruler but not for geometry. She survived the years and excelled in her discipline because of her keen powers of observation; a lesson not lost on me.
   The day of the flight only one person knew where I was, a friend who agreed to take the pictures. Because the takeoff what so hair raising, I did two things: first, I thought about the fact that we could crash and die and my wife would not even know it; second, I asked the instructor, “How many people under these conditions say, ‘Take me back to the hanger!’?” I am taking serious mental notes about the experience because I felt like it was just another day in ministry.
   Of late I have begun to understand some patterns of human behavior based upon personal process and observation. I have become my Reading Teacher. There was more to the flight than the flight. There was the compulsion for flight that had nothing whatever to do with altimeters and flap controls! Consequently, I am gaining increased insight into the conduct of Biblical characters and patterns of behavior among spiritual leaders. When we planted twenty years ago, we were followed by several others within a couple of years. They were friends, confidants, fellow laborers and golfing companions. Only one of them survived beyond five years.
   New experiences that we aspire to, regardless of whether it is a new career, a new church or a marriage begin the same; on a note of exhilaration! We’re excited, the future is bright, everything and everyone are wonderful. We can’t wait for the next day, the next assignment, the next experience in the journey. We’re pumped. We’re excited. We’re the poster children for whatever it is. This is what we have lived for. This is what we were created for. This is our place in the universe! It just doesn’t get any better than this. (The Apostles had to feel the same way immediately after answering the call to follow Jesus.) Then we climb into the cockpit and attempt to take off in 30 mph crosswinds. Honeymoons are awesome, but they are not what life is made for... (to be continued)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Knowing Our Limitations (continued)

   In 1991 I had the privilege of attending a John Maxwell Leadership Conference. Having been around church for a lifetime and having served in various churches doing youth, music and pastoral leadership gave me a great appreciation for his Five Levels of Leadership. His message resonated when he made the statement, “and if you don’t take enough people with you to the next level, they will cut a hole underneath you and you will be on your way out of town in a U-Haul truck!” While Senior Pastor of the Skyline Wesleyan Church in Lemon Grove, California, he lead his church to plant. Their first Sunday for the new plant saw 800 people in attendance. He recounted the story of connecting with new people in subsequent weeks by knowing their names because he had one person responsible for taking photos, writing names on the images and placing them on a flip-ring for him to carry around! John got the credit while someone else did all of the work. He simply knew his limitations.
   From 1975-1993 I was simply another hireling. That’s what most churches wanted in leadership, be it the primary talking head or a subordinate staff member. My objective was always simple: lead the church to a new level of reaching people and making disciples. I didn’t realize then that sacred cows have horns which serve principally as altars of sacrifice. I had never been warned that being called to a new church was akin to the annual event in Pamplona, Spain. It was only after having violated some sacred tradition that I would hear the approaching hoof beats: the running of the sacred cows. I’m such a quick study that I figured it out after only getting gored and/or trampled twelve times! I was beginning to learn my limitations.
   1993 was supposed to be the beginning of a new day. What could be better than Mark Twain’s solution of “outliving your critics” than predating them? Planning, organizing and launching a new ministry without a stable for sacred cows was supposed to be the answer. Twenty years of hindsight merely allow me to place little crosses beside the road where I’ve been gored and/or trampled since. The primary difference this time is that it has been those whom I had invited to serve along side me that have driven other kinds of trampling herds. How ironic is that?
   I think that I know how Moses felt. It wasn’t enough that he hadn’t volunteered for the job. It wasn’t enough that he didn’t have an advanced planning guide for the journey. It wasn’t enough to be hated by the Egyptians. It wasn’t enough to be herding ungrateful, fickle cats (a.k.a. “Israel”). It wasn’t enough to have an unsupportive wife. He had to have a brother and sister who overestimated their own importance. Rather than seeing their relationship to God’s chosen leader as one of privilege, Miriam and Aaron both view it as a stepping stone to personal greatness.
   And what about David? Like the legend of Daniel Boone, David had not only killed a bear but also a lion in route to slaying a giant. I’m reasonably convinced that the lowest point in his long and arduous journey from herding sheep to dying as King was the heartbreak of being undermined then hunted by his own son, Absalom.
   It was Machiavelli in “The Prince” who said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” What he didn’t tell us what how to distinguish them. The great travesty of leadership and certainly church planting is knowing that we need others to make it happen yet never knowing what we’ve got until they’ve attempted a coup. “Et tu Brute?”

Friday, June 7, 2013

Knowing Our Limitations

   Unlike many of my acquaintances, I am not a movie buff. One of the many reasons that I don’t bother with crossword puzzles is to avoid the frustration of the frequently provided actor/actress clue. I confess, as a rule, I am clueless. But, even though I am not a buff, I do enjoy a good flick. It may have come about as the result of that stage of life when my brain was much more impressionable than it is now or it may have been the result of a sense of affinity with the primary character, but in the end, the ‘why’ really doesn’t matter; I was smitten with Inspector Callahan in 1971. Me and a few million others. As it turned out, he would become one of the most quotable characters in film, more affectionately known as ‘Dirty Harry’. Case in point: how many of you have ever said, “Go ahead, make my day?” You can all put your mental hands down and thanks for making my point. As easy as it might be do to a philosophical quote-by-quote blog, I’ll save the rest for later. For my confessional purposes regarding church planting, growth and spiritual leadership, I’ll restrict my observations to this one: “A man has got to know his limitations.”
   Having been raised in a pastor’s home marked me for life. Having been raised in ‘one horse’ churches, marked me in a different way. My reading has convinced me that the average size church in America of 75 is so, not because of spiritual reasons but sociological ones. Social scientist tell us that our relational network hits a wall at 60 people. We can’t really know, with any degree of closeness, more than that. Economically, it takes roughly 75 good, God-fearing, church-giving-folk to provide the financial support for one pastor. Additionally, the average pastor encounters the ‘Peter Principle’ somewhere along the way. It is here that Inspector Callahan would say, “A man has got to know his limitations.” This is where leadership faces a test.
   Every aspiring young preacher begins with big dreams. They will typically have more than one role model that they admire and see themselves in those shoes. I’ve never met a preacher yet who will admit, “I’m really terrible at preaching!” I’m reminded of the pastor, who having delivered what he believed to be a history changing message, asked his wife, “Honey, how many really great preachers do you think there are?” She responded with, “One less than you think!” I’ve dispensed with those illusions a long time ago. Even the truly gifted communicator cannot grow a great church on Sunday morning alone. Accepting our limitations means either finding contentment in those ministries of obscurity or recognizing that we will need the help of other people to distinguish our ministry from the rest. What we do at this point will probably determine how long we last in the trenches.
   He was generally a good man. He had been married for 50 years, operated a good sized farm in north central Texas and was a Deacon at the local Baptist church. I was his pastor. When my wife and I failed to be appointed as Foreign Missionaries in 1988, I made the mistake of thinking that we could remain in leadership at that church. Once again, I was wrong. Paul was among the Deacons seeking my removal. I met him at his farm with a question: “What is the Biblical basis for your actions?” He answered my question with a question: “What does the Bible have to do with it?” It was at this point that I knew that we had nothing else to talk about. He then went on to say, “Pastor, what you need is to be somewhere with good people around you.” It was in that moment that I recognized my limitations. My ministry will never rise any higher than those who serve with me will allow it to.
   (To be continued....)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hitting the Wall

If you have tracked with this blog very long, you recognize that I am not an every day blogger. Neither am I a weekly blogger. I suppose that if I were a W. Robertson Nicoll, who as a cigarette smoking invalid with little else to do, I might have more to say, more often. (He is responsible for The Expositor’s Greek New Testament.) I am none of the above. I have concluded that there needs to be another spelling: blah-ging. Even as a once-a-month writer, I find myself challenged in offering something of enduring value beyond mindless musings. My confession this time for being a week overdue is a deep seated belief that I have “hit the wall.”
In itself “hitting the wall” is an odd but highly familiar metaphor. Through most of life it was associated with long distance runners who, regardless of conditioning, talk about that point between starting and finishing when the certainty of crossing the line was subject to doubt. In recent years I have heard it referenced on the popular food-a-thon known as Man vs Food in which Adam Richman takes on the challenge of consuming copious amounts of it. Regardless of venue the meaning is the same: “It would be real easy to quit right now!” In both cases success comes by “pushing through”. While it is somewhat accurate to describe life/ministry in terms of a marathon, let it be said that having consumed far more than is healthy in a diet of either crow or their droppings will also so manifest itself. (If you are asking yourself, “Did he really just say what I think he said?” Yes!)
In his helpful work, Halftime, Bob Buford provided guidance for people in the tough middle years make sense out of that normal time of assessment and struggle. It was nice to know that what we were experiencing in our 40's was normal. It was more of a hump than a wall. I have certainly recommended it to a number of people who looked and sounded like they could benefit from it. “Hey, Bob, how about writing about hitting the wall!” I suppose it may be out there and I simple haven’t had it recommended or stumbled upon it. In any case, here are my thoughts about it.
While it may be advisable for a runner to alter their pace as they regroup, it is never recommended to simply stop. (I suppose it could hold true with eating, but let’s stick with the running scenario.) Whether the wall is physiological or psychological or spiritual doesn’t seem to matter. Once you stop, it is really hard to get started again. In a recent conversation with a retired pastor friend, I asked him what his journey had been like and what he would do differently. (This is real evidence that I am not who I was at 30. I’m asking what someone else thinks!) He confessed going through the same struggle and suggested taking a sabbatical in order to regroup, something that he didn’t do. It appears far too easy to make poorly informed, rash decisions under the stress of the moment. Slowing down is preferable to sitting down. At the very least it allows you to make certain that you are running in the right direction.
I’m always very guarded when it comes to humanizing the experiences of Jesus. Since I subscribe to the doctrine of His impeccability, I simple can’t support the more emotionally driven analogies. That whole scene in the Garden, the night of His arrest, makes me wonder if He had “hit the wall”. I’m okay with His complete Godness and yet total human exhaustion in that moment of His race. I just don’t happen to think that He considered quitting. It looks and sounds like He slowed sufficiently to ramp up for the Grand Finale.
I plan on finishing the race. If it looks like I’m not doing as much as before, it’s because I’m not. I’m slowing my pace at the advice of Isaiah to make certain that the pace setter is in front, not behind. I am “waiting for the Lord” in the confidence of “renewing my strength”. Come to think of it, I like the idea of “drafting” behind Jesus!