Saturday, October 25, 2008

It's A Small, Small World!

I was about 13 or 14 years old the first time my dad traveled any distance away from home. There were some practical reasons for that. His job as Service Manager at a Ford Dealer kept him close. Also, we lived on a little farm. The three Holsteins didn't stop producing milk just because dad wanted to "get away." AND he really didn't like being far from his family.

Dad was asked to attend a special class related to his work and the assignment demanded that he FLY to San Francisco. I think he was gone for a total of two nights, but the way we all acted would make you think he had to be away for a year or more! I remember the excitement upon his return and to this day I can recall his vivid description of flying on an airliner. (He had flown as a ship's mechanic/navigator in bombers during WWII, but this was WAY different.) We lived in New Mexico, the air was clear and he described familiar mountains he could see for miles.

My first commercial flight was after I started college. No wonder we didn't fly as much then. A round trip between PHX and ABQ now can be purchased for about the same price as that ticket cost almost 40 (ouch!) years ago.

It's no longer a big deal to be talking today with people who just arrived from or are just departing to anywhere in the world. A lady named Sandy took the membership class at our church a few years ago. That was before she retired as a senior flight attendant for a major airline. During the class, she casually mentioned that her work was flying to Paris twice in the previous month. I know -- I'm jealous, too!

I just attended the Change of Command Ceremony, in which a friend took command of a Sector of the United States Border Patrol. Sitting on the front row of the event -- in dress uniform -- was the man's son who proudly and intentionally serves our country in Afghanistan. He was able to come home for this special day in his dad's life, but he must go back.

Here's the amazing thing: that far-off land where he serves? I know someone else there. You probably do, too. AND I know others who serve elsewhere in "The Big Sandbox." Some of them just got there; others are about to come home; still others may go there next week and be back here within just over a week after they leave. I never know who may walk in the door after an absence or who may stop to say "farewell" for awhile.

It's a small, small world!

p.s. You probably be humming that tune for the rest of the day. I'm truly sorry!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Hands Across The Water

I arrived at our campus early Thursday morning. I was there to pray with a team of short-term missionaries on the way from our church to the Dominican Republic. This group of six -- four men and two women -- will spend the next week wiring a building for electricity. I definitely needed to stay home for this project!

As usual, the people on the team are making a sacrifice to go. Two of the men own small businesses and know the risks of walking away for a week. One of the guys has already made several construction trips out of the country this year. All of them could give great reasons to stay home. But they went.

It's the fifth time this year that a team has left our parking lot headed for the same destination. There's a story to tell...

Almost exactly six years ago we were invited to bring our Worship Band and me down for a gathering of their association of churches. We left on that trip with the usual trepidation many feel as they step on a plane, knowing their next steps on terra firma will be in a third world country. That trip was an emotional roller coaster, leaving some of us simply glad to get back home and others getting in line for the next experience. Soon we were involved in a formal partnership, sending construction teams twice a year. More people kept signing up to go.

As our DR relationship grew, one skeptic was left behind -- me! I just didn't get it. I seriously wondered if we were really accomplishing the work Jesus had for our church. Mark, our Missions Team Leader, urged me to come back down in the Spring of 2005 to see what was happening there. That's when God started rocking my missions boat.

I had a long talk with Manolo, the Dominican pastor, asking him how I could help. My offer may have been the typical, "Let me know if I can do anything to help you," which usually gets no response (which is exactly the hoped-for response!). Welllll, Manolo told me exactly how I could help, then had the sheer audacity to invite me back one month later!

That "one month" took a little more than two, but it started a journey that keeps changing my life. Each summer, we invite other churches to travel there with us and see the work. The Dominicans and the Haitians who live there are planting churches like wildfire. Their resource needs are incredible! We look for American churches that want to get involved in hands-on missions and are willing to consider a partnership. At least four other churches are now actively involved.

In the meantime, people from our church want to go down and serve. Besides construction, we have sent medical teams, VBS leaders and a Biblical Counselor. Well over 100 different people have gone from our church at one time or another. When you count the other teams we have taken, over 200 have served.

Skeptical no more, I just sit back in awe of God's kindness to allow us to be part of His work! I'm thrilled that we have been able to send five teams this year. I can't wait 'til we can send ten!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Snakes On A Staff

"If you are cheerful, you feel good; if you are sad, you hurt all over. " (Proverbs 17:22 CEV)

I'm really glad someone figured out that one of the signs of a healthy church is abundant laughter. Life is full of pain and it can sit like a dark cloud on those who do ministry as a profession. We can become overwhelmed by the pressures of broken families, serious illness and death. Additionally, for those of us who also preach, Bill Hybels has mentioned that "Sundays come around with amazing regularity."

That's why I think it's amazing that our staff rarely gets together without something being said that leaves us all in stitches. Yesterday's lunch (appreciating us "bosses") ran the gamut of conversation from the possible merger of General Motors and Chrysler to the recent incident in which one of our most joyful servants had a mishap in an automatic car wash. I will only say this much: when you are helping one of the pastors by washing his minivan and your wife wonders which button to push to tell the outside temperature, DON'T turn her loose to push buttons until she figures it out. Those automatic sliding doors and self-opening rear door aren't very waterproof in the open position!

I'm not really sure how the conversation went to snakes. But the stories began. One guy fell out of a tree when he was a kid because he didn't believe it when his brother told him there was a snake inside that hole up there. Our Youth Minister chided Josh, the macho marine Office Manager, because he (one of her volunteers) wouldn't touch the "pet" python she had around her neck for a camp demonstration. One of the ladies grew up in Yuma and she told her girlhood story of the 5 foot rattlesnake that somehow got in the house and coiled under the TV set. AND our Children's Minister shared her terror that began when she was a girl. At Children's Camp, one of the boys put a garter snake down her back.

We laughed. We cheered. We ooooohed and aaaaahed.

None of us will sleep for a week!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A River Runs Through It

We had a sermon at Small Group on Monday night.

To explain, let me tell you a bit about our group. First, we're multi-generational. One couple is busily raising two preschool sons. Some have kids in their high school years or just entering adulthood. A few others are enjoying their grandchildren.

Second, most of the group has been directly involved in the armed forces. We have at least three group members who are retired from the military, two others who currently serve and several who spent many years in the service before getting out to follow different pursuits. They have served in places around the world and fought for our freedom in Viet Nam, Iraq and Mogadishu.

One of the group elements I love most is that about half are new/young believers in Jesus or are just getting serious about their faith. We have baptized at least six members of the the group in just the past few years. They approach the Bible with a rare freshness and are unafraid to ask questions or tell us when they don't understand something. It can be a hoot to watch each of them work their way through the pages to find a Scripture passage we're discussing.

Finally, this is the most "real" group I have ever been around in church. They haven't lived nice, churchy lives. Almost all of them have been bruised and battered by about every kind of failure -- their own or the ones they love -- you can imagine.

We had a sermon at Small Group on Monday night.

It started with a prayer request. We had just listened to the pain of one couple. The guy's parents have virtually disowned them. It's as if his mother has developed a mental illness and his dad refuses to face it. She has become like a family wrecking ball demolishing everyone she can swing herself at. That couple's request set the scene for what was to come.

One of the ladies spoke up to ask for prayer for herself as a mom. "I need prayer," she said. Then she broke into sobs. The group gathered around her. Those with the mercy gift reached out and held her hands or put hands on her shoulders. We read Scripture (from James 5). We prayed. She cried.

After the prayer, different ones began to encourage her with practical advice. Some of those speaking are just beginning to learn what the Bible says and how to apply it directly. What they do know about is pain. Oh boy, do they know. They listened. They shared. As group leader, I mostly sat quietly. I was in wonder at what the Body of Christ looks like.

We had a sermon at Small Group on Monday night.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It grows where?

The Boston Granddaughter recently discovered the joy of fall apples. She was surprised to find out that they grow on trees!

We all know about something green that can't be picked from a tree and seems to be more challenging to find anywhere lately. Like many churches, our giving slumps some during the summer. (Can you spell 110? In the shade?) In addition, it's the time of year with the largest expenses, like camps, mission trips and VBS. That doesn't even factor in our potent electric bills during the hot months.

Every year, we seem to get back on course in the early fall and have been blessed with great financial stability. We don't say too much about finances. (We aren't shy about it -- I preach a very "no holds barred" series on managing money each year -- and we emphasize that we serve a generous God who wants us to do likewise.) Well, we aren't bouncing back as usual this Autumn.

Our attendance is stable, about the same as last fall. That means a lot, because we have a ton of families from the military and Homeland Security who attend and this was a HUGE attrition year for us. The fact that God has given us enough new people to replace those who left is significant. The money, though, has slowed down. It could be the economy. Or the time gap between attending and faithful giving. Whatever the reason, we are forced to make adjustments.

Enter Josh. Josh is a fairly young guy who spent ten years flying helicopters in the Marines. Josh was the surprise applicant when we told the church we needed a new Office Manager. Josh has capably been learning to manage our day-to-day budget. Now, Josh is getting his baptism of fire. He didn't create this mess, but he somehow feels it must partly be his fault. I asked him to bring me a report of exactly where we stand. He brought that report to me yesterday, along with projections and prognostications based on past performance.

This is where it gets funny. Imagine Josh, still with a buzz cut, maintaining much of the bearing and control common among "The Few... The Proud..." Josh, the faithful listener to right-wing radio talk shows. Josh, the tall, strong, macho guy that I thought would strangle me when I quipped (joking) that I was voting for Hillary in the primary. Josh, I am certain, has lost sleep over our finances. What can we do? Where will this lead?

"The thing that concerned me most," he said, "was that I knew we would be okay if we could just raise church taxes. Oh, no! I've become a Democrat!"

Monday, October 20, 2008

I won!

I can't believe it, but I just won a game of Pounce! I've had to disconnect my wife's computer from the internet, though. I found her online looking for a tetherball (see "The Biggest Loser" post) to install in the backyard. My, my, my...

The Biggest Loser?

After my wife and I had been married for a few years, we went on a little retreat. I can't really remember where we went, but it was some kind of Christian camp and it was off-season. That means we were about the only ones there. We took a walk and noticed a tether ball just hanging there begging for a game.

Now I'm a reasonably good-hearted guy and I wanted to make sure I didn't do anything to spoil the great time we were having. Therefore, I decided to "take it easy" on her. She immediate took advantage of the situation and demolished me! Certain that I had made it too simple for her to win, I amped it up a bit. She stomped me again! After several games and total humiliation of my male ego, we (blessedly) quit.

It turns out that my wife is quite a competitor and she LOVES games. We play some sort of table game at mealtime almost every day and sometimes we play at both lunch and supper. It only takes 10 or 15 minutes and it's an important part of our marriage. Our current game is a fast-paced double solitaire we call Pounce. Some of you call it Nerts. We both have winning streaks from time to time and she is currently heaping me with daily doses of humility.

Still, I hate to lose! It's as if a volcano erupts within me when I can't seem to get ahead. Why is that? Am I really so fragile that a meaningless table game can spoil my meal? How does that fit in with the Fruit of the Spirit?

My struggle in this part of life is like a microcosm of something which I think is far more important: it's hard to rejoice when my church seems to struggle and another one is doing well! I started learning this many years ago. A young married couple started attending the church I pastored in Phoenix. Our church was growing rapidly at the time and they were an important part of it, leading a class of others their age. After about two years with us, the man approached me and asked my permission to try other churches. I was impressed by his humility and knew that I must say "yes" even though it broke my heart.

They tried a church or two, then he started a small fellowship of his own. What made it especially painful was that most of the people in his new church were ones who used to attend the class he taught in ours. They had gradually filtered away from us and most were still looking for a place to call home and he was able to provide it.

Within a year or so after that, I was asked to be pastor in Yuma. The move to a place three hours away completely changed my perspective! I'm sad to admit this now, by I no longer saw my friend as a competitor. In fact, before long, he was calling me asking for help with things like preschool policies.

Over twenty years have gone by. That church my young friend started with a handful of people is now one of the largest churches in Arizona. Literally hundreds and hundreds of people have come to Christ through their ministry. Once I got past the horrible thoughts of competition, I was able to embrace what had really happened: God was expanding His Kingdom and I got to be a part of it. I now proudly refer to that pastor as a son in ministry. One of the men who came to Christ in that church told me some years ago: "You're my spiritual grandfather!" Definitely not the competition.

I'll leave this one here for now. My wife is at the table shuffling cards!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"And so it begins..."

I have always been a verbal guy. You have heard the phrase "thinking out loud." I have found that talking through something helps me clarify my thoughts. I am mystified that I even want to write a blog. A couple of years ago, blogs were cutting edge. Don't you wish you had a nickle for all the ones that have started -- and already stopped?

On the other hand, I'm at a stage in my life that I want to chronicle some things. I have been doing what I do for, well, a loooong time. It's still strange to have staff who tell me they think of me like a dad.

As to family, my wife and I have three grown kids and at this time three grandkids. Each of my children has done some blogging, but it has been my daughter that has piqued my interest in this endeavor. Her blog is a great place to catch up on her family, hear some very interesting experiences and perhaps find a recipe or two.

Back to me. I have been in ministry my entire adult life, have pastored for almost 28 years and have been in the same church for 22. Our church has moved from a fairly traditional, denominational church to a relatively contemporary place in a post-denominational age. We have relocated, changed our name, and overhauled our way of making decisions. We have been through the pain of a church split, the grief of leaving an old campus and the thrill of being culturally reborn. Our median age has dropped radically, our staff is relationally close and we are passionate to accomplish God's purposes in this life season.

I have some stories to tell...