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.

Soon

(From 1987 to 1999 I wrote a monthly column in the publication of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where I was director of communications, called In a Word. This piece is reprinted from a 1997 column, written while my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college)

Shuffling down the hallway in the early morning, the glistening blue of Nathan’s freshly polished truck in the driveway arrested my sight through the window.

The little truck represents a promise I made to the kids that if they ever earned a full college scholarship, I would get them a vehicle to drive to school. Nathan did his part, and will be playing basketball for UNC Greensboro this fall.

I stood with my arms across my chest, watching the rising sun lay dappled ribbons of light across the pickup, and I pondered sadly the thin week that stood between that moment and Nathan’s departure to write a new chapter in our family’s life.

That evening my wife and I visited a young couple who were still doey-eyed and dopey over their eight-day-old baby. We toured their new house, admired the baby’s room, and talked of the tremendous emotional highs and lows that lay ahead of them through their daughter’s growing years.

It’s a brief journey, I said, from the hospital to college. Nathan’s leaving has taught me the shortest measurable unit of time is the moment between the delivery room cry, and the dorm room good-bye.

Why didn’t someone warn me about that when Nathan constantly wanted me to throw a ball, ride bike, shoot baskets, play with Legos, and read, read, read to him? Or when he fussed with his siblings on long drives? Or when he consumed the month’s grocery allowance in a week?

I confess to lunacy, actually having hoped some trying moments would pass quickly. I thought “how long?” when I cringed with him in the bathroom, trying to peel a gauze pad from the back of his 7-year-old thigh. He’d hit a bump, got tossed from his seat and his knobby bike tire rubbed off a 4-inch diameter of skin, two layers deep.

Like a fool, I put gauze over the open, oozing circle. Two days later we had to soak him in the shower to peel off the pad. I still hear his screams.

“When will you have it, dad?”

“Soon,” I said.

When he entered the Optimist oratorical contest I promised to help him edit his speech. Caught up in other work, he pestered me about when I could help him.

“Soon,” I said.

As he grew, and the family grew and my job grew, but the hours of my day stayed forever stuck on 24, “soon” seemed a reasonable answer to his requests. When could I help him memorize his play lines? When could I show him how to change the oil in the car? When could I take him practice driving? When could I talk to his teacher about math? When could I teach him a hook shot? When could I help him paint a 3-point line around his basket in the driveway?

Soon.

I don’t worry as much as their mom when the kids are out with friends. But now, watching the blue hue lighten with the rising sun, I remember once waiting through the interminable minutes for the clock to lift its heavy arms to curfew hour. With a shudder I feel the terror that grips a parent when the appointed hour arrives, but the child does not. Tingling ears measure the speed of every passing car, listening for one to slow, hoping the next one is his.

Yawning and stretching, my wife came out of our room, looked at the clock, and asked when I expected Nathan to be home from his early workout.

Soon.

Today she looks at his empty place at the table, walks past his room devoid of trophies, pictures and inspirational posters, marvels as the pantry shelves stay full like the widow’s oil lamp after Elijah’s promise, and pats the washing machine at rest. She cries, and asks when I think Nathan might come home for a visit.

I put my arm around her, look out the window where his truck used to sit, and say, “Soon.”

 

Learning terror on the highways

Self-driving cars are racing into our future. They supposedly will cut fuel consumption, extend our suburbs yet decrease commute times, cut the number of cars on the road by more than half, ultimately make our roads safer and cure the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Scientists theorize that a car with a dozen or more computerized “eyes” that are constantly alert and instantly responsive will be safer than a car with a human driver with just two eyes whose response times vary because of distractions like sleep deprivation, cell phones, music, mirror checking and messy sandwiches.

In the meantime, we humans are going to have to continue to navigate our crowded, crumbling roads and teach our offspring to drive safely upon them as well. It’s an important, and potentially terrifying lesson.

In fact, I remember just how terrifying it can be.

The 1979 movie “Alien” was the most terrifying cinema I’ve ever watched. I was sure the monster was in the cat and I urged Sigourney Weaver to leave it behind as she abandoned her space ship, but she went back for it!

I didn’t know until the final credits rolled that the movie was over. I relaxed for the first time in two hours and my stomach was sore three days from the tension.

But I didn’t know terror.

I’ve been trapped in a July hailstorm above timberline on Pikes Peak with the trail disappearing beneath ice and darkness approaching. We couldn’t have survived a night on the mountain me and three buddies braved the storm, climbing, exhausted, to the top.

But I didn’t know terror.

When I was sideswiped on a rain slick interstate by an 18-wheeler on a cold dark night, I still didn’t know terror.

I’ve taken the subway from New Jersey into Manhattan at midnight, heeding a native’s warning to sit as far front and as near the conductor as possible. I perched on the scarred plastic bench holding my country mice eyes unseeing, straight ahead. I pled silently for a cloak of invisibility to drape over me and to cover the neon sign I knew flashed above my head saying “Easy Mark.”

But terror remained only a textbook definition, a movie subject, an Edgar Allen Poe concoction. I only thought I knew terror, like a boy thinks he knows love.

Then, I took my 15-year-old daughter driving for the first time. And I discovered terror.

I grew up on a farm, driving tractors and trucks in the field from age 11. I learned the levers and pedals that made things go in slow-moving vehicles, in wide open spaces.

I had no idea until that first driving lesson how narrow are the roads or how close to the roads are mail boxes, or how sharp are the curves and how abruptly the pavement drops at the shoulder, or how wide are oncoming vehicles.

In the very first moments, after Erin adjusted the seat, mirrors, seatbelt, radio, sunglasses and hair, and figured out which pedal was go and which was stop, she almost took out one of those mailboxes. Fortunately, the ditch we rolled into on the other side kept the box safe.

It’s a helpless feeling, to be sitting on the rider’s side, with no brake and no steering wheel when all manner of disaster careens at you. I pushed a size 10 footprint into the floorboard when Erin didn’t seem to turn the wheel enough to accommodate the slow rolling curves. Unlike a 3-D movie simulation, these terrors really can jump off the screen like a Velociraptor to bite off your head.

I told Erin to ignore the cars on her bumper, and not to fear the ones coming toward her seeming to take up the whole road. When they get closer, you’ll see the road really is wide enough for both of us, I assured her. And the bridges only seem too narrow. And 30 miles per hour is fast enough!

You cannot imagine how dizzyingly fast 40 mph seems to a dad when his first time driver is behind the wheel.

To her credit, Erin finished the one-hour session with a new appreciation of how difficult and mind bending it is to drive well – a task that looks so easy when observing an experienced driver. She made a lot of progress and our next session was much easier. (I won’t go into the part about trying to teach her how to drive a stick shift.)

And importantly, I was reminded that the best way to overcome the terrors that lurk “out there” – under the bed, around the corner, in the operating room, on the next calendar page, when the phone rings, when your wife says “we need to talk” – is to face them. Get in the car with them and stare them in the eye while racing down the open highway.

Of course, it’s better to have a brake pedal on your side when you do.

 

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 toward the ground like a spear 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 painfully tentative when he saw my brace, staples and stitches 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.

Hold the Ladder

Hold the ladder

 When I came back from a trip to Bihar, India, I thought I knew that in those dusty villages with dung-daubed mud brick walls lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I went to Haiti after the earthquake.

I was convinced then that in those barren tent cities with no apparent water source, no services and acrid smoke permeating the humid, tropical air lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I heard K Brown’s stories and saw his pictures from Ukraine.

Once more, I knew that in those frigid and muddy streets twisting without rhyme or reason between leaky shelters cobbled together with nails, wire and plastic lived the poorest people in the world.

I think I’m right this time.

After his first trip to Ukraine, Brown, a masterful video story teller, brought home haunting images of the murky, fetid streets and shacks of the Roma village in Mukacheve. Their Ukrainian neighbors consider the Roma, or gypsies, untouchable. But Brown and his team found them so winsome, transparent and hungry that he has become a regular visitor, planning and bringing medical teams and vacation Bible school workers back every year.

So often our mission trips become a four-act play of we go, we minister, we cry, we take pictures to prove we care. We leave behind everything we brought to be distributed among the people because we feel suddenly selfish having extra when they have nothing.

Dana Brown left behind more than her extra jeans. Dana, who assists her husband K on most of his documentary journeys, is the victim of a genetic defect — cardiomushextremis. Basically, she suffers from an extremely soft heart, susceptible to the emotive vibes of the poorest among us, those who feebly cling to life’s fragile fringe.

Dana finds relief for her condition only in ever higher doses of gypsy children, administered through hugs and smiles that communicate more love without words than a common language ever could.

She paints fingernails, holding each little hand in her larger hand, skin on skin, dirt on clean, hope on heart. More than polish the kids want their hands in hers and they run behind a building and scratch off the color so they can jump back in line to have Dana paint their nails — and hold their hand.

Dana encouraged an older woman waiting on the edge to join them. She at first declined but Dana’s disease is communicable and the woman softened. When Dana reached for her, the woman clutched Dana’s hand and touched it to her lips, and cried as if she’d never seen love before.

In discussing the incident K said it is not unusual for a gypsy’s only experience with touch to be harsh, from the scourge of anger or the hard discipline of a parent or spouse frustrated at the impotence imposed by poverty.

“Maybe it’s been a long time since the older woman felt the simple touch of kindness,” K says. “Maybe she has no one who snuggles up and says ‘I’m here simply because I love you.’ The tears mean something. I just wish I knew the whole story.”

K says all the noise and chaos of village life fell silent behind the tableau being painted between two strangers, with a brush of love on a canvass of common humanity. The only sound, he said, was the drop of tears into Dana’s lap.

K is inspired by the faith of gypsy Christians who see the hand of God caring for them in the worst of circumstances. A Hungarian translator keeps going back to the village “because I feel like I’m climbing a ladder to heaven every time I’m around them.”

K and Dana keep going back. They’re looking for others to help them hold the ladder.

(This story printed in the November-December 2014 issue of Herald, a publication of Baptist News Global)