The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

Caught from behind

Basketball shot

We trailed the Fall River Pirates by 14 points with just six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a high school basketball game. Everybody beats this team, and we had too, earlier in the season.

Yet, we were getting creamed. Their fans were rocking. Ours were bewildered. My team finally put together a little rally to unveil a glimmer of hope. I was a starter, but not a star. I could shoot the ball, but as my coach told me, “You may not be tall, but you’re slow.”

The ball bounced off the opponent’s rim and I had a clear path to the rebound. I took it on the run and dribbled as hard and fast as I could the length of the floor toward our basket. Somehow a defender was there, between me and the basket. I should have slowed, faked left and gone right to the rim for a layup.

But, I didn’t dare slow down to make a move, because I was terrified of being caught from behind.

Our senior point guard could catch people from behind and knock the ball out of their hands and I always thought the guy who lost the ball must have been totally humiliated. Caught from behind. How awful. How embarrassing.

Instead, I dribbled right at the defender, and elevated to the apex of my 4-inch vertical, and shot the ball in his face. As any athlete can tell you, certain moments burn themselves into memory like a hot poker writing script on your belly, and you can recall them as if they happened after breakfast this morning.

I remember that shot because when I went up, the only thing I saw was a floating rim: no backboard, no bleachers, no lights, no ceiling, no defender. Just a big rim floating independently above me. I released the ball and fell down. I didn’t even know if I’d made the shot.

That moment returned to me last weekend during a mandatory quiet period at a four-day men’s retreat. The overall theme of the retreat – a “basic” event through Ransomed Heart ministries – was recovering a man’s masculine heart.

Speakers assumed every man carries with him at some level a wound inflicted by his father, a wound we must identify and forgive before we can be whole. After another thoughtful presentation, we were sent out to find a quiet spot at our expansive, wooded conference center to contemplate several questions relating to both our earthly and heavenly fathers, and our own willingness to grow into sons.

We were to consider the questions, “Where do you feel unfathered?” and “Where and how is your Father inviting you to become a son?”

“Since we are the sons of God, we must become the sons of God,” according to George McDonald.

I don’t know how those questions prompted the spirit of God to impress upon me the 48 year-old-memory of that rebound, race and shot moment, but the ultimate revelation for me is that I’ve lived my life afraid of being caught from behind.

It’s why I worked so hard, so long, at so many tasks, in so many places. It’s why I bit my tongue and choked down insights, information or contradictions I should have offered, rather than risking the opprobrium of my bosses, or peers.

It’s why I actually told W.C. Fields, my first and best boss in denominational life, that I was too busy to accept his invitation to ride with him in his glide plane on a beautiful spring afternoon. Dumb. One of my few regrets.

I had not learned to live into my position as a son of God, bold and free with a warrior spirit.

John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart and the amazing Beautiful Outlaw, says a man’s greatest need is validation. I was too afraid someone was going to catch me from behind and expose me as insufficient, not enough, inadequate. If so, from where would come my validation?

Of course, the point is that all the validation a man or woman needs is to recognize we are children of God. No one can catch me from behind when the Father is reaching for my hand to pull me over the finish line.

I made that shot by the way. And we went on to win in double overtime.

Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

Foxes lurk outside school hen houses

Each Monday I go to a local elementary school to be a reading buddy for a second grader named Patrick.

Patrick’s school is in the part of town I don’t drive through without locking my doors. It anchors blocks populated with old, wounded cars parked half onto the sidewalks in front of old, weary houses.

Girls who look too young to wear makeup walk around broken pavement with a baby on their hip. There are no shops and no grocery stores on this side of the freeway, which slices the neighborhood off from a prosperous urban center like a cleaver through spareribs.

This morning in the media center I selected four books about farm animals. Most city kids think milk comes from the refrigerated shelf in the grocery store, or that chocolate milk comes from black cows, and that McDonald’s whips up chicken in the back room.

We talked about pigs and cows, chickens and eggs. Roosters and hens. When I couldn’t recall what the thick red hangy-down thing is under a rooster’s neck, I looked it up on my phone. I actually googled “hangy-down thing on a chicken” and it came up “wattle.” Of course. Patrick laughed delightedly and repeated, “wattle.”

Chickens on the farm live in a coop, our little book said. Pictures showed a coop on wheels inside a fence. It said the farmer moved the coop daily to give the birds access to fresh grass and more bugs.

What the book didn’t say was the coop gets moved so that chicken droppings continually fertilize new areas. Hey, I grew up around farming.

The little book introduced hens and roosters and eggs and chicks. And then, it introduced a full page, bright colored rooster, with a bright red wattle, screaming lungs out at a fox, lurking on the edge of the fence.

“Why is the rooster so upset?” I asked Patrick.

“Because the fox eats meat, and chickens are meat.”

And, because we read about dinosaurs last week, he reminded me that people are meat too. Like meals on wheels for dinosaurs.

Then Patrick made a simple observation that caused me to pause and cringe. The rooster screaming “cock a doodle doo” to the others in the coop “was like lockdown at school” he said. Matter of factly. Like saying, “I got a drink from the bubbler.”

His principal was like the rooster, shouting a warning and getting everyone into a safe position. Who knows who the fox represents. Someone hungry for meat. Someone anxious to see chickens flying and flopping around, feathers torn and floating through the air. Someone thrilled by the pierce of screams, who licks his lips on the taste of terror.

It was the simple directness of his statement that struck me. “Like lockdown.”

As the rooster is alert to an encroaching fox, the principal is alert to the possibility of a shooter in her elementary school. Alert to a fox. In the henhouse.

And Patrick, who comes to school with all his friends to learn reading and writing and math so he can grow into an independent, self-sufficient adult, is forced to learn also that foxes lurk outside his coop.

And they are hungry.

 

Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.

 

 

 

Possess the New Year

How are things going for you so far in this new year?

Lots of bad things are going on in the world. No need to enumerate them. You have your own definition and awareness of those things that makes you feel threatened.

And yet: the economy is showing slow, steady growth, unemployment is at its lowest rate in many years, the stock market is near record highs, building cranes mark the skylines of many cities, the U.S. is making a peaceful transition of leadership and optimism seems on the increase.

So if things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem, why do they seem so bad?

Uncertainty and insecurity are the biggest wet towels draped over our plans for 2017. It is tough to act in the face of uncertainty.

My sister was a nurse in a major veterans hospital and she says when most cancer patients in remission suffer a reoccurrence of their disease they are not frightened, but are almost “relieved” because they expected it to come back eventually. They dreaded it of course, worried about, feared it…but now they don’t have to worry about it showing up any more. It’s here, and they can deal with it.

Doing a story in Houston once, I met a former New York actress who fled an abusive relationship. She huddled each night in the closet with her baby, listening to her boyfriend’s footsteps up the stairs, knowing that if he doesn’t beat her tonight, he will eventually. Still, she told me that the certain knowledge of a beating was better than running out the door with her baby in her arms into an uncertain future.

In the second year after the ancient Hebrews fled centuries of slavery in Egypt they arrived at the land God promised them. The barrier, of course, is that the land wasn’t gift wrapped. Other tribes occupied it, and the Hebrews would have to deal with those tribes before they could possess the land.

Moses wanted to know what his people were up against, so he assigned 12 men to scout the land, including Caleb and Joshua.

For 40 days the 12 explored, skulking around the desert, checking out crops, cities and people. They found a land flowing with milk and honey, rich in fruit and cropland. The grape cluster they brought back as evidence of the land’s bounty had to be carried on a pole between two men!

But they also saw those people who occupied the land, and it was scary. To the scouts, according to the story in the book of Numbers, chapter 13, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Yikes. How often is your self-image determined by comparison to others? As someone said long ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

The scouts saw the occupants as giants compared to themselves. Their fear was not misplaced. Those guys were big. Taking that land would be tough sledding. Ten scouts thought it would be too tall of a task and they recommended slinking away.

This is what happens when we compare our situation to someone else’s without taking into account the promises of God.

Human nature dreads an uncertain future. We dread it even more than we hate a horrible past. We’d rather live in a paralyzed present.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, considered the promise and said, “Let us certainly go up – and we have possessed it; for we are thoroughly able for it.” (From Young’s Literal Translation) As far as they were concerned, the job was as good as accomplished.

It is only when we see ourselves as God sees us that we are empowered, encouraged, and enabled.

Three things to remember from this story as you race toward December:

  1. To gain a more accurate view of yourself and of your possibilities, raise your eyes. Don’t compare yourself to your friends or colleagues or neighbors. Don’t hold your successes up to theirs and find yours to be less. See in yourself the giant God sees.
  2. The past you cling to wasn’t all that great.

The 10 fearful scouts tried to persuade the people to go back to Egypt, where a king “who knew not Joseph” had enslaved the Hebrews, cut their food rations, increased their quota for brick making and ordered midwives to kill any male child at birth.

  1. Don’t paralyze your present by preferring the past.

In Caleb’s mind the land was already theirs. It sat like a great, unopened present under the Christmas tree.

The new year stretches before you. I know it’s just a quirk of a calendar page, but Januarys give us a chance to reset our emotional clock; to clear our desk, empty our inbox and embrace possibilities.

What has God promised you? “What?” God told Moses, “Are my arms too short to do what I promised?”

Can we say with Caleb at the start of this year, “Let us go up and possess the land?”

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.