Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Principle

    I love governing principles. They beat rules anytime. “Love the Lord your God with all your....” is a great governing principles. “Love your neighbor as yourself” really goes well with the first. As a matter of fact, a close reading of the Gospels would lead you to believe that Jesus was a huge fan of governing principles as is indicated by His, “but I say unto you” comments of Matthew 5. The more that I think about it, even the parables were about governing principles. The beauty of principles is that they are true anytime and anywhere.
    One of the things that I love about principles is that you don’t have to know all of the details of a particular discipline to benefit. If I understand the basics of physics, I don’t have to know what an ‘m’ or a ‘v’ or a ‘c’ stands for in a particular equation to know that “what goes up must come down”. If I understand the basics of geometry, I don’t have to be able to recite all of the theorems proving that the square of a hypotenuse is equal to the sums of the square of the other two sides to know that the ladder I’m using has to be longer than the wall its against. I only wished that my physics and geometry professors had appreciated my appreciation for the principles of their disciplines! I never got an ‘A’ on principles although I was acquainted with the principals.
    What’s really cool is that principles apply to everything, including reaching unchurched people and planting churches. Since Bill Hybels and Rick Warren planted Willow Creek and Saddleback, there have been thousands of wanna be church planters who have tried to copy them. There have now been thousands of failures with only one Willow Creek and Saddleback. Why? Replicating practices does not equal to replicating principles, therefore will not replicate success. Having attended their conferences way-back-when, I remember them learning to say, “Do not try this at home.” More churches were blown up than thrown up or grown up by attempted replication. The mega successes that do exist are because others understand the principles behind their effectiveness.
    “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” is a great church planting principle. It also happens to be a great principle for dealing with pagans or hard core atheists. We are enduring another advent-holiday-merry-whatever season and another round of victim-minded-believer rants. We can’t pray in school. We can’t post the Ten Commandments. We can’t call them “Christmas Trees”. We can’t wa, wa, wa... A neutral observer could easily reach the conclusion that the Jesus solution to every issue is forced conformity to our way of thinking, especially on non-believers. Geneva revisited. Compulsion does not equal to conversion. Simply getting all of the horses to line up at the same watering hole doesn’t prove anything other than their rear ends are all pointing in the same direction.
    It was in an attempt to answer my brother-in-laws question, “What’s this about you and Christmas?” that I realized a principle of reaching people with the Good News. Most everyone I know was exposed to some form of Jesus-based-teaching growing up, but walk away from it. The well-intentioned efforts of family, friends and God-fearing people attempting to compel them to at least practice faith even if they didn’t believe it, didn’t do anything positive to attract them to it. Rubbing someone’s nose in creamed spinach isn’t going to alter their gag reflex if they don’t like it. If we really believe that “no one comes except the Spirit draws”, we can go about our business of praying, celebrating and preaching without sounding like victims of a cultural war. Winners attract admirers while whiners attract scorn. Sounds like a great principle!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

    Even though I’m a Reformed Theologian, I’m still amazed at the providential happenstances of God’s provision. Add to that my interest in Physics and processing the quantum possibilities necessary in arranging the exponential details to bring about His desired results and you simply can’t be a “what luck” kind of thinker. The laws of probability require intentionality. If you didn’t understand what I just said, make no mistake. I’m not as smart as that made me sound!
    Kingdom work is either good/bad fortune or a divinely guided journey. If I’m playing golf and the ball one hops into the cup on the fly, I have no illusion regarding my ability. I’m okay calling it “dumb luck” as opposed to “astounding giftedness”. I understand fully the physics involved in potential/kinetic energy coupled with the geometry of angles of flight and descent that lead to a dimpled ball landing in a small cup. And no, I don’t think that God gives a rip about my golf game, unless it effects my spiritual walk and witness.
    Recently, I was responsible for assisting two out-of-town church staffers in a “get acquainted” tour of our area as they prayerfully consider partnering with prospective church planters. Two day, lots of miles, several meetings, good food and better fellowship. On their second and last day we took a walking tour of the Unites States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Since the Baptist Student Ministry Director was out-of-town for a conference, we were on our own. If you’ve never been, there’s a lot to see and ground to cover. We entered several of the historic buildings including the chapel and its basement where the remains of John Paul Jones are enshrined in an ornate coffin. Before completing the tour, our guests wanted to visit the souvenir shop for family gifts. It would certainly be more impressive than making a run to the local Walmart. That’s where need and opportunity converged in the improbable of divine providence.
    We really didn’t know where we were going. We were simply told that it was “way over there” and given some simple instructions. We hoofed it to “way over there” until we were at risk of running out of campus. The visiting Lead Pastor did the normal, “You ask around. I’m looking over there” routine. His associate and I did what men are accused of never doing: we began asking those we saw for directions. The first couple, obviously not military, said, “Don’t ask us, we’re lost too!” From a nearby building emerge a man in uniform. He courteously stopped at our approach and we discovered that he was a chaplain and a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; my alma mater. He pointed us in the right direction and then moved on as I took note on his name tag: Chaplain Carey Cash.
    You need to understand. I had been attempting to connect with Evangelical Academics in our area to accompany me to a banquet with our Turkish American Muslim friends, by special invitation. We simply don’t have those kinds of people in our church! I’m in full scramble mode. Following the encounter, I thought to myself, “Self, it doesn’t get any better than this. You just met the Chaplain at the Naval Academy who knows EVERYBODY.” I did what every red-blooded American does to make that connection: I Googled, “Chaplain Carey Cash.” Consequently, I was able to speak with him about this great ministry opportunity to reach out in-the-name-of-Jesus to our Muslim friends. Even though I went unaccompanied to the banquet, the groundwork has been laid for future opportunities.
    Kingdom work can’t proceed without God’s special intervention. It’s way too cool to be in the middle of His stream of influence. By-the-way, Chaplain Carey Cash is the great nephew of Johnny Cash and the brother of Kelley Cash: Miss America, 1987. How cool is that?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

What an adventure!

    Never are differing personality types more conspicuous than when it comes to risk taking and adventure. It doesn’t matter which inventory you use to assess the types, the result is the same when it comes to which ones will bungee jump and which will not. I think that it’s safe to say that the average person prefers to play it safe. I have never been mistaken for that type.
    I’ll be 59 my next birthday. My Dad’s Dad died at 59! He was a farmer for whom life was about plowing, planting, harvesting, feeding the chickens and seeing after his family. A whole lot of work but not much adventure. It suited him well. While I understand the appeal of the agrarian lifestyle (and I have spent more than a few hours on a tractor), there is a sort of wanderlust in my soul that seeks satisfaction at the edge. Life is for living, not spectating. No doubt, that has contributed to my success in ministry and particularly as a church planter.
    For most, the fact that I ride a motorcycle is adventurous. When I say “ride”, I really mean RIDE. I am not one of the “I own a motorcycle” crowd whose great adventure is showing up at the local coffee shop. I don’t see much adventure in, “Latte or Frapacino?” I began riding in 1973. I have ridden all over Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma in the southwest and from Bangor, Maine to Niagara Falls to Key West, Florida in the east. My wife, who doesn’t particularly love to ride and who is NOT a risk taker/adventurous type, has only logged about 50,000 miles with me. We do at least one trip a year of 2,000 miles in a week. My dream is to ride to Alaska, and back!
    Two years ago I experienced a different kind of adventure. I had read and watched with awe and admiration the tales of people who have hiked the Appalachian Trial, all 2250 miles of it. I decided that it was time to do more than read and watch. While I had no illusions of being able to give the six months necessary for doing the whole trail, I could, at the very least, do 50 miles of it. Having shared with my brother-in-law (age 66) and my college roommate (age 58) my dream and the invitation to join me, we planned the adventure. In September of 2010, we converged in the Great Smokies of western North Carolina. What we discovered was that we had chosen the most difficult section of the trail for our virgin hike! Sweat, mountains, gorgeous scenery, blisters and bear warnings marked our journey. What an adventure! I’m planning on another stretch next year.
    My most recent adventure has been the decision to move from terra firma to a boat. While it has been no secret, neither has it been common knowledge. In November 2011, Sarah and I bought a boat and in December moved aboard. We are now approaching a year of life afloat. For most people, that’s adventure over-the-top! There have been two things that we’ve discovered about everyone who has visited our new home: how many are subject to sea sickness and how many have harbored dreams of doing what we’re doing! Then came Sandy, the never-before-convergence of a hurricane with a “nor’easter” on the mid-Atlantic coast. I remained aboard our home from beginning to end. What an adventure!
    I now have a new appreciation for the words of Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God...” Until we put ourselves at risk, we are not living by faith and will never discover the fulfillment of these words. By-the-way, I’m looking for my next adventure.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Against The Tide Revisited

    Against the Tide. I repeat: Against the Tide. I find myself, on occasion, asking, “Why did I entitle this blog, “Against the Tide”? When I face the daily challenges of church leadership, it doesn’t take long to remember. When I confer with other pastors and the challenges they have faced, it doesn’t take long. When I mentor church planters and the challenges they will face, it doesn’t take long.
    I have recently been blessed with the privilege of sharing a trip to Turkey with six other pastors. We were the guests of the Maryland American Turkish Inhabitants organization, a local expression of the Gulen Movement in which cultural and interfaith dialogue is being encouraged between moderate Muslims and Americans in order to engender international peace. Without becoming the boring vacationer with lots of slides that no one really want to see, indulge me a moment to write about Ephesus.
    For a week we met with groups of educated, professional Muslims for food, fellowship and conversation. We ate outdoors, indoors, in restaurants, business cafeterias, school cafeterias, school meeting rooms and in homes. At times we felt like the fatted calf, we were so well fed. As a further expression of their desire for a peaceful coexistence, we were treated to sites important to Muslims, historians, educators, journalists, Christians and tourists, among which was Ephesus.
    While I could, and probably eventually will, write about Cappadocia, Istanbul and Haran (where we were just ten miles from Syria), Ephesus serves the greater purpose today. In archeological terms the site is relatively recent. That explains the extent of preservation. In fact, they were digging while we were there and will be doing so for the balance of our lifetimes. Having wandered from the top through the ancient streets and columns we wound our way to the bottom and a great amphitheater that faced a wide street leading to nowhere. That’s what it looked like. While it could be assumed that the “end of the road” was merely the “beginning of the road” leading into town, it was not. In the days of Paul the road ended at a harbor, the kind with ships and water. Now, the Aegean Sea is more than three miles removed.
    An unrelenting and, at times, imperceptible march of resistance. A combination of erosion from the top and sedimentary deposits from the tides at the bottom resulted in a road to nowhere. A scourge of Christian history is the failure of spiritual leaders to recognize and respond to the seemingly imperceptible cause of decline and demise. Success has always been the result of resistance to the unrelenting tides which do not stop and can carry you away into nonexistence. Not a single church that was planted in Asia Minor (Turkey) remains. Kingdom work will always be against the tide.
    If you’re a fighter by nature, you may be church planting and/or church leadership material. All of the accolades, admiring glances, pats on the back and invitations to heady events are often offered as though you are a genius who somehow figured it all out. No one rarely recognized the hard fought inches and ounces of progress that were required to get there. As blessed as our journey of church planting and growth has been because of the miracles accomplished by the Spirit, it has been as roses among thorns. Paul’s “we wrestle not” is not a summary statement about Easy Street. It is about spiritual tides that never cease, powered by the dark forces of the enemies of God. My advice? Don’t enter the water unless you are prepared to swim against the tide until Jesus returns.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Being restored

    38 and counting. That’s 38 in addition to. I made my commitment to Christ at age 6 in a church that my Dad was pastoring. I waved the white flag of ministry (better known in those days as “surrendering”, appropriately so) at age twenty on August 8, 1974. If you count the time that I spent as a PK, that qualifies me to an opinion about life in the glass house of ministry. Allow me to ramp up to today’s epiphany.
    For generations, Americans have been influenced by the Puritan work ethic. While believing that prosperity was an evidence of God’s pleasure with a person or group of persons, the Puritans none-the-less subscribed to a life of hard work. Small wonder that they did so well. Unfortunately, austerity was the hallmark of their journey, including but not limited to their worship practices. In a very old volume appropriately titled The Sabbath in Puritan New England are accounts of the primitive nature of the Puritan church meeting place and the retrospectively entertaining sagas of benches, endlessly long prayers, dry preaching and the debate over providing a source of heat during the brutally cold New England winters.
    While making his way from truck driver to Pastor my Dad encountered the salt-of-the-earth kind of folks who believed in hard work for everyone, including the preacher. We had that joyful experience of living in housing provided by various churches known as a parsonage. The good church folk treated it as a great favor to the Pastor, especially by conveniently locating it next to the church building. And because the Pastor was so favored with such accommodating living arrangements, he certainly didn’t need as much income to survive. What they never admitted to was that this living arrangement allowed them to “keep an eye on the Pastor”. Many a Pastor has lived under this kind of microscope in which the Deacons all had keys to the parsonage and felt no need to announce themselves upon arrival. Oh, how I miss those romantic days. NOT!
    Scrutiny. Good word so long as I am the scrutineer. Not-so-good word if I am the scrutinee. How a Pastor spend his time is important. The Puritan work ethic scrutiny expressed itself over time as making certain that the Pastor “puts in his time”. Churches historically have expected the Pastor to be working when they are (8-5) and then ministering when people are available (5-whenever). While offering him vacation time, there have always been those who have “watched the clock” and “watched the calender” to insure that he has “put in his time”. It’s almost as though there was an unwritten rule: “we have to punch a clock to get paid, so should you.” Need anyone wonder why my call to ministry was a “surrender”?
    38 and counting. That’s 38 in addition to. My journey has never been about whether I “put in my time”. I’ve been a workaholic. I don’t doubt that the long days, weeks and months of self-denial have paid huge dividends to church growth, including our success in church planting. I know what it is to go weeks (made up of 14 hr days) without a break. I know what it is go months without a week off. Frankly, I can’t second guess whether I was right or wrong during those stretches. After all, when you bring the baby home from the hospital, you do what you have to do, when you have to do it for the sake of the welfare of the child. That was then. This is now.
    In 38 years there have been a lot of casualties. Very few that began their ministries at the same time as I are still “pulling at the oars”. While some crashed and burned under the strain, other went down in flames to immorality, impropriety or infamy. It’s been tough learning how to “take it easy” but I’m working on it. The predecessor in my previous church didn’t buy into the expectation of others. When criticized for not “being in the office” enough, he responded with, “You don’t even know what I am doing when I am there. For all you know, I could be playing video games.” Of course it didn’t hurt that he was retired military. I plan on serving until I don’t, not going down in flames.
    I think that I finally get it. 38 and counting. The first Deacons were enlisted to allow the preachers plenty of time with God and the Word. When was the last time that anyone complained, “Preacher, your not spending enough time with the Father!” Over the last 19 yrs, I have set my own schedule. In the last few years I have been allowing more “God time” than “ministry time”. Then, while sitting here today, it occurred to me that the phone wasn’t ringing, I had no pressing engagement, the sermon was ready (relatively) for next Sunday, I wasn’t expected anywhere by anyone for anything. The Spirit brought to my mind the words, “He restores my soul.” We all know where that comes from, but do we permit ourselves the luxury of having our souls restored without feeling guilty over the expectations of others? No one came screaming, “Pastor, you’re working to much”, or “Pastor, we need to pay you overtime”, or “Pastor, we need to send you and your wife on a cruise” during the first three decades. Now that the Good Shepherd wants to “restore my soul”, I’m not going to feel guilty. I’m sort of liking this....

Monday, July 9, 2012


    I ride a motorcycle and not just any motorcycle. I’ve been riding since 1973. Mine is probably a familiar account. Growing up, my mother was as opposed to the idea of her children ever owning a motorcycle as any mother might be, until. The big ‘until’ was when Dad bought one. “Thank you Dad!” Climbing onto the back of a motorcycle cured our Mom of any anti-motorcycle thinking. Even today, at age 79, she loves riding as much as anything else in her life. Dad and I began with Honda 350s and worked our way up. I’ve never owned anything but a Honda. Never needed to. My current ride is a 2002 Honda Gold Wing. What makes a Gold Wing so special is that it is super smooth, super quiet, super quick and it really loves curves.
    If you’ve never ridden, chances are you can’t appreciate the appeal of curves to a motorcycle enthusiast. My greatest riding days are when I see a road sign with the familiar “Curves Ahead” symbol. I guess that the appeal is that you can take curves at a much greater speed on two wheels than on four. There is an adrenalin rush that comes from left, right, left at high speeds feeling the tug of gravity that does it. Perhaps the most famous curved road in America for bikers is known as the “Tail of The Dragon” at Deal’s Gap, North Carolina: 318 curves in 11 miles. While I may love the curves, my wife does not. Obviously, curves aren’t for everyone.
    Church work and especially church planting is about dealing with curves. While it may be theoretically possible for someone to go from 0 -1000 in church growth in a straight line, I haven’t met that person. In Kingdom work, curves are those unexpected challenges to a perfectly good plan of getting from here to there. It all looks so easy and simple on paper. It all sounds so effortless in the books and at the conferences. The book that needs to be written and the conference that needs to be offered is “Curve Management in Kingdom Strategies”. There is a famous Tree of Shame that stands outside the Deal’s Gap Hotel decorated like a Christmas Tree with various parts of motorcycles that have been recovered from the bikes that didn’t make a curve.
    When we were looking to plant in 1993, our first curve was a law making it illegal for churches to occupy commercially zoned space. I didn’t see that one coming. Along the way another curve was the Life Safety requirement for a voice evacuation fire alarm system that added another $7000 to an already over-extended budget. I didn’t see that one either. The biggest curves have become County Inspectors who have their own set of rules, not even on the books, that have to be met before they will approve construction. If you haven’t figured it out yet, curves can make you or break you. While I may love them on a motorcycle, I don’t love them in life. How many church planters crash and burn because they can’t take the curves? The solution?
    Major League Baseball is all about hitting. If no one hits, no one wins. The greatest hitters in the game do so by anticipating the pitch. Most big hitters love fast balls because they are straight pitches and require the least amount of solid contact to clear the fences. A good curve ball or slider may be the hardest to hit yet some have made it their bread-and-butter. Casey Kotchman plays first base for the Cleveland Indians. While the average player aspires to a .300 hitting average over a season, he has raised the bar. In 2011 Casey hit .453 against slider and curve pitches. When you figure it out, a curve can be an asset. If you wonder why it’s been two months since I last wrote, just think c-u-r-v-e.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Et tu Brute?"

    Gaius Julius Caesar, who lived from July 100 BC to March 44 BC, was one of the most accomplished of ancient leaders, playing a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. In 60 BC he formed a military-political alliance with Gnaeus Pampeius Magnus and Marcus Lincinius Crassus known as the First Triumvirate. He became the first general to cross the English Channel by launching an invasion of Great Britain and the first to cross the Rhine when he built a bridge over it. The death of Crassus in 53 BC led to a political showdown with Pompey who, with the backing of the Roman Senate, ordered Julius Caesar to stand trial on various charges in 50 BC. His response was to march on Rome with a legion of soldiers, crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC. Pompey managed to escape to Egypt where he was assassinated. Politically unopposed, Caesar was appointed dictator by the Senate for two one year terms, then to a ten year term in 46 BC, and finally in February 44 BC as dictator for life. His life term lasted only one month. On March 15, 44 BC, as he appeared at a session of the Senate, he was attacked by approximately 60 Senators, stabbed 23 time and according to Shakespeare (among others) uttered his immortal words, “Et tu Brute?” before dying.
    Is there a moral to this story? More than a few. In the context of spiritual journeys and church planting, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” just not too close!
    Politics played a big role in my decision to plant. From my entrance into Baptist Church life as a child until 1993, I had witnessed, participated in and been the victim of church politics. Whether it was annual, quarterly or monthly business meetings, the politics of church life were the bane of Kingdom work. Historically, such democratic processes were born of the need for an antidote to hierarchical religious life that had produced such structures as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, where all power and authority was reserved for the “clergy” (a term that is unbiblical and personally detestable). While empowering every believer with a voice in church life, it also provided a forum for the least spiritual to set the agenda.
    I planted because I wanted the freedom to pursue God’s will without either having to ask for permission or apologize for having done so. Planting requires walking by faith, where, when and how it doesn’t make sense. Why should I, with the gift of faith, be denied the exercise of it by a vote of those without it? While some vestiges of church life benefit from a popular vote, vision does not. Someone has describe the perfect balance as that of “benevolent despotism”. A wise leader knows when and on what to vote on without giving up the responsibility incumbent on the position. I thought that I had figured it out.
    In the beginning, God blessed, the ministry prospered, I was admired and respected and the people were happy. While there were a few who fell away, most weren’t noticed or missed because they were replaced ten fold. One area that didn’t prosper was in giving. Converted pagans have really messed up finances and require a while to give as they should. Consequently, we were never able to steal someone else’s highly qualified leaders, but rather had to do the best we could with what we had when it came to staffing.
    The first time it happened to me was in 2000 and the last time in 2010. You would think that the greatest dangers in Kingdom work would come from the enemies of the Cross. Such enemies can be people, circumstances or systems. What Gaius Julius Caesar discovered was that conspicuous enemies are more easily dispensed with because you know who and where they are. He was successful against every one of those. His undoing was among those who had declared him “dictator for life”. Brutus, an assumed trusted friend, betrayed that trust to the dismay and demise of Caesar, hence the, “You too, Brutus?” Successful church planting brings out the best and worse in those who share the journey. There’s nothing like a “vote by blade” to thrill the soul of a planter!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Over rated or not

  I think it needs to be added to the short list: pregnancy, owning a business and church planting. If you happen to be unfamiliar with the connection, is goes something like, “There’s nothing as over rated as pregnancy or owning your own business.” What a disparate list! Obviously, I can’t fully appreciate the first physically, only vicariously, but I do get the general idea and understand the connection. Someone once said that “distance lends enchantment to the view,” meaning that time/distance skew reality. Down the road we can talk about how wonderful an event or time in our life was only because we are no longer living it (much like “the good ole days”). Almost two decades removed from planting, indulge me in one of those moments.
  We can string them together. It is the highest form of what is known as “proof texting”, that citing of biblical passages that support our previously drawn conclusion. It doesn’t automatically neuter the truth of the passage (although it can), rather it can make it sound easier and better than it really is. Take for example Paul’s, “and my God shall supply all of your needs” and couple it with Jesus’, “seek and you shall find” and you end up with an Aladdin’s biblical lamp to every challenge. Admittedly, at times, it does look that easy, hence the over rating.
  The property that our church owns is a small 4.04 acre parcel of commercial real estate, developed in the era of the strip shopping center, c. 1960. While the church utilizes the majority of the space, we still have three paying tenants. My office is located in one of the former suites. The furniture that serves me is an old desk, chair and matching credenza. I keep it because of the story it tells.
  As a church growth pastor, prior to being a church planting pastor, I understood the value of sufficient space for growth. When we began in 1993 in rented space, I immediately began looking for space # 2. When we relocated after two years I began looking for space # 3, etc. It was while we were in space # 2 that I contacted a local property owner, Mr. Ward, about renting some of his space. When I told him the purpose, the conversation ended, abruptly. After two years, we moved to space # 3, eventually ending up at the local high school. Having always had our own space, we now needed somewhere to house our offices. It just so happens that the high school was located next to Mr. Wards shopping center which had an unoccupied suite.
  Believing that “God can change the heart of a king” led me to contact the listing agent. As it turns out, Mr. Ward was in poor health and his wife, Ellen, was now managing the business and agreed to rent us the space. In time, the largest suite in the building became vacant and we were able to negotiate the rental of it with Ellen, including a contingency that should they sell the property, we would have the right of first refusal. While we were doing the build out, Mr. Ward died. Within a matter of weeks Ellen called me stating that she we selling their house and had all of his office furniture to dispose of which she was willing to give to me. Was I interested? Duh! Within a matter of months she called me stating that she was going to sell the property. Was I interested? Duh!
  Fast forward. I now sit at a desk situated in an office located on a piece of property that the owner would not even talk with me about in 1996. Does God have a sense of humor, or what? The furniture was free and the property is worth twice as much as we paid for it, but the story? Priceless. Is there a moral? At least a couple. First: “Distance lends enchantment to the view” because it now sounds soooooo easy. Second: Pregnancy, business ownership and church planting aren’t necessarily easy but well worth the adventure, over rated or not.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bye, Bye Birdies!

  Unexpected? Yes. Unanticipated? Absolutely. Unappreciated? Not on your life! I'm thinking that it is not unlike marriage. For the man or woman who thinks that they fully understand the opposing gender, let them try marriage to dispel their illusions. So it was with my church planting experience.
  Having been born in the middle of the Baby Boom Era (1946-1964) framed my evangelical, ecclesiastical influence. America was still assumed to be a “Christian” nation and the spiritual haves and have nots were conspicuous not only by the regularity of their participation in church life but more so by their lifestyles. Among Baptist, it could be summarized by “we don’t dance, smoke, drink and chew, neither do we run with those who do.” One wonders how anyone managed to climb over those kind of walls and gain entrance into the Kingdom of God via Baptist churches! In was only later in life that I discovered that my own family had been living on an island, shared by few, yet claimed by the masses. Needless to say, I carried that ecclesiastical naivete into my own ministry voyage. Where did it get me? The island turned out not to be the Isle of Paradise but the Isle of Frustration.
  Fast forward a few years and enter the Contemporary/Innovative Church Movement. For those who lived through it, you will remember that it was not a painless, seamless process. If we thought that church people fought over the color of the carpet (which may account for why much of it was red), it all paled by comparison to the assault on “sacred” music! You would have thought that we were the ones inside the city of Jericho and those pseudo-spiritual, worldly minded liberals were marching around with guitars waiting for the demise of our defenses. During that period, I had one well intentioned, albeit uninformed saint say, “If the music has a beat, it is godless!” It became apparent, at least to me, that what many were believing and espousing as spiritual stalwart-ism, was in fact spiritual rigor mortis.
  Done is done. Enough is enough. In the words of Roberto Duran during his second pugilistic encounter with Sugar Ray Leonard on November 25, 1980, “No mas”. Little did I fully appreciate the yet-to-unfold implications of my waving the white flag. I was through with business-as-usual thinking about the Kingdom. I was going to focus on reaching the unreached, letting the dead bury the dead, and so I did in 1993, the year that I bought a house with a Sweet-gum tree overlooking the backyard.
  I don’t remember now how she and her husband ended up at our place. They were formerly churched people who had dropped out, a long time ago. We were in the throws of another relocation, finally legal (that’s another story), yet facing the daunting challenges presented by code compliance with the county before we could receive our Certificate of Occupancy. We had always been a cash strapped, pay-as-you-go, do-it-yourself kind of ministry. I was in over my head, knee deep in alligators, at my wits ends when someone suggested that I talk with Donna. Donna? What could she possibly do? As it turned out, Donna was a bartender at a local watering hole and had been so for 17 years. My evangelical, ecclesiastical roots wanted to sprout!
  Before there was Facebook, before there were cell phones, before there was email, there were watering holes. They were the original social networking environment and in many places still are. There are thousands of communities around the globe without a church building, but they will all have a tavern. Donna was the social networking queen. She knew everyone and everyone knew her. At her request, those responsible for overseeing the inspection and permitting process came to our rescue. Additionally, she invited Brenda, who began attending. Brenda, it just so happened, was a Permit Expeditor. In time, Brenda would have a new boyfriend who had a friend that did tree removal. Guess whose Sweet-gum tree got removed for free? Brenda’s father (Murph) and brother (Chuck) owned a salvage/construction company. Over the years, their business has provided us with massive amounts of building materials, free. Chuck, using a backhoe, removed the enormous root system to the Sweet-gum tree for free. Bye, bye birdies!
  What’s the moral of the story? We actually have a couple to choose from. When I began this saga it was going to be “never underestimate the power of networking when it comes to God’s methods and means for supplying our needs”. But on second thought, perhaps more churches should consider planting in taverns! Oh, I can hear it now, the voice from an island far, far away.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sweet-gum Saga

  Liquidambar styraciflua, better known as Sweet-gum, is a tree that can be both blessing and curse. Please bear with my Sweet-gum saga.
  Upon the realization that I should plant a church, the first order of business was to purchase a place to live. We had hitherto been captive to occupying a church owned residence, known in Baptist circles as a “parsonage.” Since the church we were serving at the time had no interest in sharing in a birthing process, it was assured that they would not take kindly to our remaining in their house. Our search led us to a property in close proximity to the zip code that represented those who had proven most receptive to our previous three years of ministry. (Philosophically, this is going where the fish are biting.) It was a house built in 1958 on a small lot with a Sweet-gum tree overlooking the backyard from the street side of a chainlink fence.
  Over the years, this tree served several purposes. During our children’s formative years, and especially our son, it was a place of adventure, exercise and observation. During the summer months it was the source of ample shade from the hot and humid days. During the fall and winter months it provided practice material for my golf game in the form of its round, prickly fruit as an abundant source of substitute balls. And then, there was another side.
  At some point, my having taken down a section of the fence for a driveway and storage structure, it became a good place to park a vehicle under its sprawling canopy, providing relief from the brutal summer sun. It didn’t take long before I realized the downside to this parking arrangement. Certain types of birds love Sweet-gum trees, not only as a perch but also as a roost. My truck began to look like it had been parked in a barn yard rather than a backyard. Assuming that the problem was caused by a fowl perching practice, I took my trusty chainsaw, scaled the heights and eliminated all of the branches that extended over the fence and above the parking spot. Amazingly, nothing changed regarding the problem because these foul fowl did what they did immediately after takeoff and prior to landing! Since my plans included either a garage or carport, the tree had to go!
  There are a number of myths endemic to our culture. There is the myth of what is known as “Banker’s Hours”, a reference to when a bank used to be accessible to the general population for business, typically 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. I fully understood the mythical component while working for a bank from 1972-1974. My “Banker’s Hours”? 11:00 pm until 7:00 am, better know as the “graveyard shift”. Then, there is the myth of preacher income.
  The joke goes something like this. Three boys are out fishing and began talking about how much money their dad’s made. The first boy says, “My dad is a lawyer and makes $50 an hour.” The second boy says, “My dad is a banker and needs a vault for his money.” The third boy says, “My dad is a preacher and it takes four men to carry all of his!” While there are a few preachers who make millions a year, most of us are at the other end of the income spectrum. When it comes to having extra money for the removal of trees, it’s just not in the budget.
  Fast forward a few years. The tree is long gone and it didn’t cost me a cent. This Sweet-gum saga is less about tree problems and removal than it is about social networking for church planting. And just as the tree removal had to wait, so will the rest of this story......

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


  It was an unanticipated conversation. We had arrived for the December Coffee House at NAC and after having greeted several regulars I sat down with one. The conversation immediately turned to my vacation type experiences, ranging from house boating, to motorcycling, to hiking the Appalachian Trail. We went on to talk about several other things that I want to do, although not qualifying for long term trips, do fall into the ‘not normal’ category (bungy jumping, mountain climbing, spelunking, parachuting, hang gliding, etc.). Eventually we got around to the “Why?” question. Why do I seek out adventure when most do not? Am I simply a thrill seeker or an adrenalin junkie? Admittedly, I think that if you have to ask the question you probably wouldn’t understand the answer. I am not seeking a new thrill. I do not get a buzz from an adrenalin high. I am simply not satisfied with what has been.
  Somewhere, couched within that rambling conversation was the nexus of an epiphany. It was while I was attending the recent Church Planting Catalyst Conference at BWI that it occurred to me. It is now conspicuously obvious that my life isn’t as partitioned as most (marriage, ministry, pleasure). As I was attempting to understand how men in long term ministry could protest a vision so in keeping with their stated Kingdom values that my bulb came on. (You know, the one over my head.) Where once they had dreamed about the possibilities of the future and been fueled by the prospects, they no longer were. It is not unlike most marriages that begin in passion and end in apathy.
  I have been marriage more than 35 years. Honestly, it is better now than it has ever been. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not a hopeless romantic. No one who knows me would ever draw that conclusion. What keeps the flame alive is that we have never stopped dreaming together. Before we had kids or two cents to rub together we used to go to RV shows or dealerships and bask in their wonder. “Oh cool, a microwave, color television, refrigerator and a bathroom with a shower!” We then returned to our two person tent absent all of the innovations. It was the dreaming, not the having, that inspired us and continues to do so. As we look toward our retirement years, we are doing so sharing a dream of our next adventure.
  Just as my personal spirit of adventure and my marriage have never stopped dreaming, neither has my Kingdom consciousness. What keeps me engaged and compels me into multiple church planting activities is my Kingdom dreaming. I am fully convinced that dreams are an evidence of vibrant life, regardless of the arena and the minute we stop dreaming, we stop living.