Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

To catch a hero

glove

It’s just a glove, but when you’re having a catch with a child, it’s a dreamcatcher.

I spotted my first baseball glove in the old Gambles store in downtown Rio, WI (population 788) when I was a kid. You could get anything in that store, from baseball gloves to washing machines to a nut and bolt to hold the wing onto the airplane you were building to fly off the barn roof.

If they didn’t have it, you didn’t need it.

The glove listed for $4.75 and in my imagination it promised to make me field the ball like Willie Mays, hit like Harmon Killebrew or pitch like Sandy Koufax. That’s the promise I saw in that copper colored, slotted slab of leather.

I actually dreamed about that glove between the time I saw it and when I finally got it. I dreamed about flagging down impossibly distant fly balls; of tossing the glove into the air to knock down a potential home run ball before it cleared the fence; of stretching at first base to snag an errant throw and save the inning.

That glove was going to make me a hero.

When I had saved enough I grabbed the bills and all the coins off my dresser and went to town with mom. I marched into Gambles to claim my dream – I mean, my glove.

I carefully laid it onto the counter and when the proprietor rang up $4.88, my heart sank. I hadn’t accounted for the tax man in my saving. My stomach tense, heart pounding, I dug deep and when I put every single penny I had on the counter, it totaled $4.88.

Dreams come true.

I slid that glove onto my hand with the excited reverence of a woman pushing her finger into an engagement ring for the first time. Its exotic leather aroma conjured up dugouts, strikeouts, shutouts and the hero headlines sure to come my way. I couldn’t wait to find someone with whom to have a catch.

Of course, that glove and a successor found a way to get lost in the ensuing years. But I’ve got grandsons now – and a granddaughter – who always want to have a catch. On Memorial Day weekend Grayson wanted to show me how hard he could throw. No problem, I thought. He’s only 8. I don’t have a glove, but I’ll wear my leather yard gloves and catch a few.

I’m writing this with a severely bruised hand. I also own a new glove.

After the last “ouch” I could tolerate, I hauled Grayson to the sporting goods store. One minute into the store I thought I would not be getting a glove that day. The least expensive glove on the wall was $350. They went up from there.

Then Grayson found the rack for mortals and I scanned the price tags to the bottom where they stopped at $50. Ahh, I thought. “That’s the glove for me.” Its other attributes were irrelevant.

Grayson and I headed back home and had a catch. He didn’t have to hold back for fear of hurting my hands and the snap, pop and sizzle of the ball smacking the pocket was an ear worm of joy.

Fifty dollars is still a lot to pay for a baseball glove. And I’m going to take care of this glove for the precious tool it is. Because I have 17 years of having a catch with grandchildren before the current youngest is out of high school.

And I want to be their hero.

Norman and glove

My cousin Sandy saw this post and found my glove on video! Given the event, I was about in fourth grade. That’s Sandy, trying to wrest it from me…

I don’t care what you want for Christmas

Don’t tell me what you want for Christmas. I don’t care.

I’m not a vending machine, and you’re not a quarter.

If you are on my Christmas list my goal is to gift you with something I consider meaningful that I hope becomes special to you.

I know. If you’re in charge of the gifting you worry that your recipient will be disappointed. And, selfishly, you want to be the cause of that squealing, split faced “this is the best thing that ever happened to me” moment under the Christmas tree. But isn’t “surprise” always an element of the biggest squeals?

The truth is your little gift getters and bed wetters won’t remember the next day who gave them what. And it’s unlikely that whatever you gave them will still operate the next week.

And what are the odds that their “must have” request only made their wish list because they were seduced by massive advertising, trend manipulation and herd mentality. Cabbage Patch, pet rock, beanie babies anyone?

I know, it’s easier to work from a list provided to you; easier still to give a gift card so they can “get what they want.” Honestly though, you can do that anytime.

If Christmas gift giving is our joyful response to the great gift that God bestowed upon us in the person of Jesus the Christ, let’s consider God’s rationale. Did God ask His chosen people what they wanted? They probably would have said, “Freedom from Rome,” “rain,” “food security” or a “cure for leprosy.”

Instead, God sent the gift He wanted us to have, a gift with special meaning to God. We still remember who sent it. And we still remember what it cost.

If you lament the commercialization of Christmas, do not participate. Give a gift that brings joy because your thoughtfulness made it special.

 

Can a consultant help your stewardship efforts?

‘It was different because it was better’

It takes more than a tithing sermon from Malachi 3:10 to create an effective annual stewardship campaign in your church.

The question is, if you’re going to do more – if you’re going to approach your annual giving emphasis like a real campaign – can you do it by yourself?

Let’s assume your goal is to do more than prod your members to meet a budget. You want to teach stewardship and lead them to grow in the spiritual discipline of generosity.

That requires more than a single sermon and an all church mailing of pledge cards.

An effective effort requires a major time commitment to plan calendar, enlist volunteers, establish committees, design materials, produce mailings, conduct meetings and prepare appropriate sermons. And, the pastor and staff are expected to do all of this while keeping all their other ministry plates spinning.

Is it wise to engage the help of a professional consultant if you want your annual stewardship effort to be more than, well, more than an annual stewardship effort?

Two pastors of churches that recently conducted highly successful annual stewardship campaigns utilizing a resource development consultant confessed that they could not do it all.

Davis Chappell, pastor of the 8,000-member Brentwood United Methodist Church near Nashville, TN realized he had “so many wheels turning” in his second year at the megachurch that “I really needed someone I could count on who could help us.”

“As a pastor, you say you can do that in addition to your other duties, but you cut corners,” Chappell said. “The more you have someone who can take some of that off you the more successful you’re going to be.”

Chappell led the church’s annual giving campaign the previous year himself and saw growth. “We could do it ourselves,” he said. “But we’re stronger when we have a consultant who comes in to help.”

Bruce Cochran, pastor of 250-member First Baptist Church of Seymour, IN says the professional help they received increased their effectiveness, developed leaders, freed them for regular pastoral duties and resulted in significant financial gains to support church ministries.

Cochran said the difference in conducting their campaign internally as they have done, or in using a consultant “was polish, professionalism, efficiency and comprehensiveness.”

“It was different because it was better,” Cochran said. “It was communicated better, participation was better, and it was not just the pastor standing up and saying we should do this.”

First Baptist’s priority was to return to the place where it could again devote 20 percent of its income to missions – an historical standard the church had to back away from during the recession. Results were so positive the church is again giving to missions at that generous level.

The Brentwood church also gives missions high priority and dovetailed one of its satellite churches into its annual campaign effort with professional help.

Chappell said his church did not emphasize a financial goal or the need to fund a budget. “We pointed out that the stronger our generosity the deeper our outreach,” Chappell said.

The result was a growth in commitments of “roughly 340” new giving units and an $800,000 increase in committed gifts. “That is “really significant” for us, he said.

The satellite church, which was conducting its campaign at the same time, saw an increase of 65 percent – or $100,000 – which was “enormous.”

Chappell encourages pastors to address stewardship as a spiritual discipline. Besides, he said, “everybody’s talking about money” and the conversation is better directed from the pulpit than in the parking lot.

“The only thing worse than a church that always talks about money is one that never talks about money,” he said. “I’ve never known a person who accidently tithed. Discipleship is not an accident, it’s an intention.”

What about a capital campaign?

Although churches are more likely to go it alone in an annual stewardship event, what about a capital campaign for a big project? Such a campaign typically raises significant funds from members over a three-year period to accomplish something very significant that annual budgeting simply cannot do.

Look, no consultant brings money with him or her. All the money committed during a campaign will come from the members themselves, who catch the vision God is casting for their church. “We can do it ourselves,” members may say. “We are a generous church and hiring a consultant shows a lack of faith in our people.”

Consider a couple of responses to that.

First, wisdom and experience matters, and those who provide it come with a cost.

Second, no matter which member is assigned the task of coordinating a capital campaign, responsibility ultimately falls to the pastor. Always. Now consider all of the tasks that already consume your pastor. Do you fully appreciate the hours spent in ministry, sermon prep, administration, counseling, mentoring staff, community involvement, visitation, prayer and teaching? Do you want to add another plate to those he is spinning? Another straw to the burden?

Third, although I don’t have statistics, anecdotal evidence is rampant that a pastor spends all of his or her political chips when leading a campaign. The necessity to cajole volunteers and to hold them accountable, to plan, set up and conduct meetings, to train committees, monitor budgets and materials, combined with the ongoing additional work with architects and builders simply is overwhelming. When the campaign is done, they are burned out and used up, with no political capital remaining. Too often their last official act as pastor is to lead the building’s dedication.

Help in choosing a consultant

The idea of choosing counsel to help you teach stewardship and generosity in the context of an annual campaign is a fairly new concept. “Teaching” is an added element from most capital campaigns and choosing counsel with ministerial experience and a deep appreciation for the ministries of the Church is very helpful.

The right professional counsel will offer insight, technical assistance and production services typically too time consuming for most congregations to duplicate on their own.

Make your expectations clear. The right counsel will operate in the background and will always shine the light on staff, but his/her enthusiasm and energy will infuse your staff with hope and anticipation.

Be “up front” about your church statistics and whether or not you have any issues, or skeletons, that should be addressed upfront to increase your chances for success.

Remember, your first conversation with a prospective counsel carries no obligation for either party. Consider that a consultant is coming to you at his or her own expense, so it is incumbent upon you not to host a parade of prospective consultants just to hear what they have to say. If you connect with a consultant and decide to engage his or her services, cancel any later interviews scheduled with others.

Write a clear letter of agreement or contract that details the areas of responsibility for the consultant and the client. The letter of agreement should also detail the financial arrangements, the period of the partnership, and how it can be terminated at anytime by the client.

Chemistry is important when you make your selection. And, when you have decided, work to develop trust. When you trust, and incorporate him or her into your staff and church functions, you will increase the sense of family and everyone will operate more effectively.

Your consultant can bring a sense of urgency to your effort, gently driving actions and results.

He or she also can bring a sense of confidence to church leaders. They’ve done this before. Trust them.

Call or write me and I will be glad to help you work through any questions you have about the process, with no obligation.

Building for the past

During our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Europe this spring, my wife and I visited the underground bunker being restored by enthusiasts at Schoenenbourg, France.  This impressive fortification is one element in the defensive Maginot Line built after World War I to keep Germany from invading France ever again.

Named for French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, the line was a 450-mile long series of bunkers, barriers, artillery casemates and passive impediments along the border between the two nations. The Schoenenbourg bunker is one of the few remaining vestiges of the earnest effort.

It housed more than 600 soldiers who lived 100 feet underground in a virtual city equipped to support them for months. Food, supplies and munitions moved through the mile long system on a rail network. Telephone communications connected outside spotters to inside decision makers. Redundant air pumps and filters kept the atmosphere belowground inhabitable.

There were 45 such bunkers in the line to provide live resistance to a potential invasion, along with 352 casemates and more passive barriers such as angled concrete pillars.

The Maginot Line represented a massive commitment by France even as it struggled to recover from devastating WWI. But the perceived threat of a restive Germany and centuries of cross border infiltrations and alliances merited the investment.

The problem was, the Maginot Line was built to defend against a past threat. It was built to stop infantry, open-air troop carriers and thin-skinned battle tanks of WWI experience.

When Germany invaded France in May 1940, they flew over the Maginot Line, rolled around the end of the line through Belgium and through a break in the line through the Ardennes, which Maginot deemed too impenetrable to require fortification. Germans blew past passive defenses with their fast and powerful Panzer tanks. In seven weeks they were in Paris and the French government had surrendered.

French intentions were right. Their execution was good. But they built to defend against issues and fears of the past without accounting for future threats that would be significantly different.

This is not an uncommon situation.

In current times, the music industry built a line against pirated CDs while online music distribution flew over the defense.

American automakers defended themselves against each other’s paltry products, while higher quality cars invaded from overseas.

Furniture factory owners in North Carolina defended themselves against unions and lower profits by clinging to antiquated production methods, while Chinese manufacturers built efficient new factories from scratch.

Are you crouching behind a Maginot Line at work, clinging to former processes, staffing and equipment, while competitors punch through your product line with better tools and innovation?

Is your church trying to defend itself from the perceived threat of its surrounding culture while young people who easily learn to navigate the culture are finding your bunker increasingly irrelevant?

Those who build to defend against a past threat will be overwhelmed easily by the real challenges of the future.

Rainy walk proves journey is key

Rainy weather washed out our plans to ride bikes on the greenway. So my 7-year-old grandson Grayson and I rolled pennies, of all things.

Sue Ellen and I had months of loose coins that we’d started rolling the day before, but we weren’t going to do the pennies. We were going to just run them through the bank’s counter and pay the confiscatory fee by which they charged us to count money we were going to put into an account in their bank.

We’d sacrifice the 8-10 percentage tariff for the pennies, which weren’t worth the effort, but not for the big coins.

But, with us scrambling for entertainment on a rainy day we decided to roll pennies. Anything you can do with a little boy that gives him a sense of accomplishment is a good thing. So efficient were we, that we ran out of coin wrappers.

That necessitated a trip to the Dollar Tree a mile and a half away to get some more. I hated to drive the car that short distance, and the roads were too wet to safely ride our bikes. But the misty rainfall was not too furious to keep us from walking.

After assuring me that he could do the round trip, Grayson and I took off for an adventure, him in an old cap of mine, and a raincoat that dwarfed him.

We observed three power company trucks driving through the neighborhood as we walked, and remembered how the lights had flickered at our house, but hadn’t gone out. Odd.

We chatted as we walked, noting the quiet swimming pool on a rainy day, revisiting my recent bike wreck when he had gone for help, talked safety rules about walking on the road, teased about “chasing girls” in a few years that made him turn red.

I realized he didn’t think he’d have to wait that long. On the return trip, I made sure to inform him girls have cooties.

We talked about how a hill looks much higher and steeper from the top of a previous hill, but seems to level out as you walk it. So don’t be discouraged, keep moving forward.

He sounded the “how much further” refrain after the first mile, but by then we were in the shopping district and I could point out the traffic light we needed to reach. Alas, when we got there, the store was dark.

Employees sitting in front said they had no power and could not let us in the store. I moaned. A long walk for “nothing.”

Disappointed that we couldn’t accomplish our goal, and knowing how fragile a 7- year-old’s countenance can be, we started the long walk back home empty handed. We noticed, however, that on the other side of the street lights still blazed – including at a donut shop.

I suggested a detour and took the opportunity for more teaching about power lines, grids and transformers and how one side of the street can have electricity, while the other side remains in the dark.

I also shouldered my grandfatherly responsibility to illustrate the distinct taste advantages of an apple fritter over a chocolate covered cake donut.

Just when it looked like our adventure was a strike out, a hot and tired grandson with a chocolate smear on his face said, “We’ve got to do this again, papa.”

Grayson reminded me that time is our most precious currency and when you invest it on the journey your destination is irrelevant.

 

 

Healing power of the right word

I suffered a pretty awful accident May 14 while following my grandson on a mountain bike down an open, sloping field on his parents’ property.

We’d been tooling around for an hour, just enjoying a simple ride on a perfect spring day. Who needs a helmet for that? Well, Grayson wore his because he told me, “Safety first.” I should have listened.

He led me to the top of the hill, launching from his uncle’s driveway down through the field. I took a moment to soak in the sight and relish the feeling. His joy was palpable.

He was out riding with his papa, atop the freedom of his wheels and the thrill of a downhill slope. Giving myself just a moment to appreciate the scene, I took off after him, cutting a new path to the left of his line.

A lip at the edge of the field dropped several feet. I intended just to ride it down, hanging on tightly to reach the broader, softer slope. I didn’t see the hole at the bottom until it was too late. In an instant of clarity my brain registered, “This is not going to be good.”

My front wheel hit the hole and the bike stopped dead. I kept flying and landed on my head.

Grayson ran back up the hill to see if I was all right. “No, Grayson, I’m not all right. Go get Nana.” I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a 2 x 4 and that I’d lost six inches of height from having my spine compressed.

Within moments Nana pulled the Subaru into the field beside me. She sent Grayson to his uncle Bubba’s house at the top of the hill for a towel to stop the bleeding and for an additional hand to get me into the car. By this time I’d surveyed my extremities, all of which functioned, so I knew long term I would be fine. But, oh, I hurt.

Later tests would reveal fractured skull, cracked vertebrae, bruised spleen, lots of abrasions and cuts that required 10 staples to close. But for now there was just lots of activity with the other grandkids and Bubba and his wife, Sonya while we debated calling an ambulance.

In the midst of that hubbub I heard the sweet voice of 7-year-old Grayson saying, “It’s my fault. I should have told Papa about that hole.” I reached for Grayson’s leg and told him never to think that. He bears no blame.

But during the next 15 hours in two emergency rooms and calls back and forth among family, I kept hearing that Grayson was feeling responsible. That is a heavy burden for a bright, sensitive seven-year-old. It saddened me that he felt that way.

I was released early the next morning and went home with a neck brace to rest and heal. Grayson’s mom and dad, who had been out of town celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary during all the excitement, brought the kids by the house to see that Papa was OK. I knew I needed to find the right words to relieve Grayson of his self-imposed burden of blame.

His face was so tentative and pained when he saw my brace and he was wondering how I would react now that I was upright. In an instant I smiled big, held out my arms and loudly said, “Grayson, my rescuer! You’re the one who rescued me when you went for help! Thank you, buddy.”

In that instant his face transformed from hesitant to happy, from reluctant to rejoicing, from tentative to triumphant. He went from self-blaming to knowing he contributed to my being OK after a bad spill.

Choose your words carefully. A well-chosen word has the power to heal. A quick, harsh word has the power to destroy, to tear a hole in the cloth of confidence.

I know people who still labor under the self-image an angry parent imposed upon them 50 years ago, rather than with the reality of the bright and beautiful people they are today.   Grayson is young and aggravating sometimes because he is so intelligent and curious and he insists there is nothing he cannot do.

But from this day forth, no matter how many times I huff and puff and say, “No, Grayson, you cannot use the chainsaw,” he will know that on May 14, he rescued his papa.