Companions for the Journey

In the introduction to his book on Christian leadership, Building Below the Waterline, Gordon MacDonald uses a very descriptive metaphor for what is most important and often missing in Christian leadership today.

David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline”.

The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline.

It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.

One of the most important below the water line pylons for anyone, but especially for a Christian leader is finding companions for the journey.

When the Apostle Paul was at the end of his life, he wrote young Timothy a beautiful letter, and towards the end of that letter he says,

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. 2 Timothy 4:6-12

The word “quickly” in Greek is the word that we get our English word “tachometer,” a measurement of velocity. Paul is saying, “Timothy, come to me with velocity!”

Often, we think of Paul like Taylor Caldwell in her book, The Lion of God–strong, sure, self-sufficient. But here we see an old dying man who is lonely, in need of intimate fellowship.

Towards the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus climbed a mountain with three companions for his journey—Peter, James, and John. While there on that mountain he met with two other companions as they encouraged him about his “departure” —Elijah and Moses. Then in the garden, just hours before His death, His dying heart craved companionship. He said to those same three companions, “Can’t you watch for Me and pray even for an hour?”

If Jesus required companions for his journey, and Paul needed Timothy and Mark to come to him with velocity, you and I need companions for our journey.

Author Scott Sauls reminds us,

Almost every healthy pastor I know meets regularly with a therapist and/or spiritual director. Shepherds who lack shepherding risk being eaten by wolves. Even worse, they risk becoming wolves themselves.

Or as I sometimes say, “Every pastor needs a pastor. A pastor without a pastor is usually a pastor trying to be a messiah.”

A companion for the journey is an intimate, life-giving friend who helps me pay attention to God. They will orient you towards God by asking you good questions. For example, let me give you a few that I have found helpful. I call these Spiritual Orientation Questions…

Where are you? Genesis 3:9

What do you want? John 1:38

Can you drink the cup? Matthew 20:20-23

Do you love me? John 21:17

A sacred companion will say to you, “How is God speaking to you in this? How does God want to be at work in your life through this? And how are you responding to him?”

If you find someone you might want to be a spiritual friend, don’t schedule a lunch with that person and say, “I want you to be my spiritual friend. I want to meet with you and be shaped by you and be committed to you every day for the rest of my life.” Because if that person is healthy at all, they will run out of the restaurant. And if they’re not, you’re going to end up in worse shape than they are.

Go slow, be patient. Test the relationship by taking little relational risks. Move beyond polite conversation. Polite conversation is built on trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings. And that’s not a bad thing. Spiritual friendship is different. You might begin by disclosing some area of struggle, not the deepest one in your life, but a significant one. Is there a level of empathy there?

Do they listen well? Or do they only want to focus on talking about themselves?

Are they wise and discerning in their response?

Is there a judgmental spirit attached to them?

Do they honor confidentiality?

Do they gossip with you about mutual friends?

While I am a huge proponent of professional therapy and/or spiritual direction, sometimes a good companion for your journey can come from surprising places. A few years ago, I was going through a barren time in my professional life when a man in the church I pastored called and asked if I wanted to have coffee with him.

At my favorite hangout, we had the following conversation.

“How are you doing today, pastor?” he asked.

“I’m doing okay.”

“You seemed a little discouraged last Sunday,” he said.

“Yeah, no pastor spends hours preparing a sermon only to preach it to more chairs than people.”

“It was a good sermon, Joe. I needed to hear it,” he said.

“Thanks.”

My friend is about ten years older than me, maybe more than ten years. He has a shock of white hair, a soft and smooth face, and speaks with a deep and warm Texas drawl. He laughs often. It is easy to be in his presence. No posing, no pretense, and no pissing contests.  Just the simple, quiet presence of a good man.

Later that evening I mentioned to my wife about the conversation and said how encouraging it was for me.

“What did he say that picked up your spirits?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

There are friends that you seek and cultivate. I have friends like that. I think of my friend Rob, Scott, and Cameron. I saw them from a distance and said to myself, “Joe, you would do good to have them as your friends.” And now they are great friends. Growing deeper as the months and years roll by.

But then there are surprising companions for your journey. You didn’t see them coming, but they showed up at just the right time. That’s the way it was with my coffee-drinking friend from Texas. He came along at just the right time. And I have to say that while I was deeply and darkly discouraged that day, my friend didn’t TRY to encourage me. He didn’t even buy my coffee. He just sat with me, listened to me, and laughed at anything remotely funny.

Sit. Listen. Laugh.

Pretty good ingredients for buoying a sagging soul. Every spiritual leader needs a companion for the journey. Sacred companions.

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If it’s not one thing, it’s your Mother

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that my mother had more than a few strong opinions. You name the topic; she would tell you what she thought about it.

One thing she was emphatic about, in fact, she even threatened Jay and Devyn that she would come back and haunt them—and not in a good way—was if they allowed a mic to be passed around and let folks “blubber on and on about her at her funeral”—her words.

The second item she felt strongly about is that there would be NO video picture collage with background music.

Well, as of November 4, 2021, I am no longer afraid of my mother, and I will do what I want to do at her memorial service. If she comes back to haunt Jay and Devyn, I just don’t care that much.

I am going to show a slide show right now. It is a slide show of all the pictures ever taken of her when she smiled for the camera.

(There were no pictures to be found of my mother smiling for the camera)

To my sisters Robbie and Marti, thanks for coming to mom’s home while she was very sick to care for her. You were such a gift to mom in the way you took care of her and selflessly served her. You both helped her and Jay and Debbie in great ways.

And to my brother, Jay, and his wife, Debbie, there are no words to describe the love I have in my heart for you because of the way you cared for our mom over the decades and especially in the last 6 months. The night mom died, all of Jay’s family were in the room. Holding her. Squeezing her hand. Singing every song they knew, as she passed into the next part of her sacred journey to be with Jesus.

Thank you, brother.

I’ve loved Earlene Chambers longer than anyone here today. I am also the child that caused her the most stress in her life. I was the ferial child. My coming into this world overwhelmed her. We were both children when I was born. She was nineteen. Her sleepless nights began because I was born. They continued when I was a teenager as I blew through every curfew she laid down.

One night I was sneaking out for a night of drunken stupidness, and as I slinked past her bedroom, I overheard her praying for me. I turned around and went back to my room and fell asleep.

I hurt her heart again in the middle part of my life due to some very selfish choices.

Even in the end, just a few days ago, she told my brother, “Jay, you and Lynette need to keep an eye on Joe, or he might go off the rails.” I’m not certain what she was referring to, but I haven’t seen a rail in years.

Given that often stressful relationship, I am somewhat surprised I am honored to be invited to write her eulogy. She, in essence, gave me the last word.

Lessons I Learned from My Mother

Lesson Number One: There is no tomorrow, only today.

If you think there is always tomorrow, you are fooling yourself. You can’t guarantee your own next breath, much less anyone else’s. You have today. That is all you have. You have something to say? Say it. You have something to do? Do it. You have someplace to go? Go. You have a song to sing? Sing it. You have a book to write? Write it. You have a nail to hammer? Pound it. Don’t wait.

Lesson Number Two: The person sitting in front of you at any given moment deserves your undivided attention.

It’s about them, not you. I’ve sat with countless people whose frame of reference was all about them. What they were doing. What God was doing through them and what was happening in their world. But when you are with another image-bearer, you are sitting with someone of immense value to the God who created them.

My mother was interested in the person sitting in front of her. What made her death so much of a struggle for her was that every moment was now about her. She didn’t like that. My mother valued what was happening in your life. She learned that from Jesus.

To not be interested in the person sitting in front of you is an afront to the God who impressed them with his image. So, put your damn phone down when you are with people. There is nothing on that phone more important than the image-bearer sitting in front of you.

Lesson Number Three: Leave this world better than you found it.

My mother wanted to live a significant life. She wanted to leave her mark. A mark for good and grace.

She had a fierce sense of justice. It was deep. Something was right or something was wrong. I tried to live in the gray areas when I was a teenager, and I have the scars to prove that was not going to be tolerated by our mother.

She felt that a person who got themselves into trouble needed to do their part to get out of the trouble.

What we all noticed as she grew older, however, was that intense sense of justice was tempered with growing compassion. Compassion none of us experienced when we were kids.

Earlier in her life, if she saw a person asking for a handout at an intersection she might mutter, “With all the signs for “Help Wanted” we see why doesn’t that person just go get a job?”

But with cancer raging in her body just a few weeks ago, she asked her granddaughter to take her to the store so she could get the stuff for a “Blessing Bag” so folks from church could hand them out to those in need. She would lean against the cart and point to the items she wanted to put in the blessing bag to hand out to the homeless. She loved serving the world.

I remember her saying one time that if eternal life was one’s personal influence living on through their children, then she would be fine with that—that would be legacy enough. Mom was instrumental in leading five preachers to faith in Jesus: my dad, me, my brother, my sister, and Jay’s daughter, Devyn. And, of course, our youngest sister Marti, a schoolteacher, came to faith in Jesus due to her influence. And probably her grandchildren and countless friends would say that they are a follower of Jesus because of our mother.

There are a lot of people in heaven greeting my mother because she lived her life well and shared the gospel in word and deed.

Lesson Number Four: Gratitude in the face of death is one of the clearest evidences of a maturing relationship with Jesus.

Many who have given up on our faith will point to the problem of pain and suffering in the world. Of man’s inhumanity to man. Of hurricanes and tornados and other natural disasters killing people. How do we account for Christians behaving badly? What about the way the church has harmed humanity? They will ask, “How do we account for the problem of evil and suffering in the world?”

There is the problem of evil. It’s a very real problem. But there is also the problem of good.

What do you do with the feeling in your soul when you stand with your feet in the water at the ocean’s edge? What do you do with the feeling when you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon? What do you do with the feeling in your soul when you see the towering Redwoods?

What do we do with the feeling we have well up in our hearts when we listen to Aretha Franklin sing Amazing Grace, or stand before a Van Goh, or finish reading a poem by William Stafford?

What do you do with that feeling when you hold in your arms your first or last child or, better yet, your first or last grandchild and feel them grasp your finger with their chubby little dimpled hand and listen to their soft squeals?

If you are struggling with faith, my suggestion is for you to reflect on why you feel gratitude for the transcendent beauty you see in the world.

G.K. Chesterton reminds us, The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.

Growing up, my mom had a question that she always asked us after someone gave us something or did us a favor — “what do you say?” How were we supposed to respond?

“Thank You.”

What do you say to Aunt Broma Lou for her Velveeta Cheese, Spam, and lima bean casserole? 

When Mom asked that, she wasn’t really asking a question. She was telling us to say the appropriate thing. She would have been surprised if we would have said, “Aunt Broma Lou, what in the name of heaven were you thinking? Aunt Broma Lou you should not be allowed to prepare meals, someone should put you away.”

No. That is not the proper response. “Thank You,” is the proper response.

Mom would have also been surprised if we would have said, “Aunt Broma Lou, I have a sense of awe and wonder at what I have just experienced. I’m a child. Without an adult providing for me as you have done, I would die, and yet you have done it freely as an act of love and service for me. Aunt Broma Lou, you are a humanitarian, and in the name of children everywhere, I salute you.”

My mother would have been equally shocked by that response. But parents know that even if a child doesn’t feel gratitude yet, we want them to learn to offer thanks.

Gratitude is really simple. What do you say?

“Thank you!”

I share this because Jay has told me that the salient truth about my mother’s last days, hours, and minutes was the fact that she said over and over again to everyone who did even the slightest act of service for her was, “Thank You.”

Just before she slipped from this life to the next, she looked at her daughter-in-law, Debbie, my brother, Jay, all her grandchildren in the room that had spent hours singing all of her favorite songs and mouthed to each of them, “I love you.”

You could sum up my mother’s significance with this statement: Love God, Love others, serve the world.

As most of you know, all my siblings got all the artistic talent in our family. They can all sing, play an instrument, paint, and my brother is a published poet. I never had any of those artistic expressions growing up and it cause more than a little family drama on my part. But, my mom always said I had a face for radio; so I became a preacher.

That being said, when I was just coming out of my teenage angst, I had ambitions of becoming a writer. I tried to write some short stories. I even dabbled in a little poetry. My brother is a poet, so it is a little odd that I would even try to write poetry at all. Much less read it for you today.

But at the ripe old age of nineteen, I wrote a poem for my mom. I’ll end with it.

What do you say?

*******

Obituary

Earlene Chambers of Montesano, WA was surrounded by family when she went to be with Jesus on November 4, 2021. Earlene was born on August 27, 1938 in Quanah, Texas to Oscar and Opal Johnston. She grew up in Texas and Las Animas, Colorado where she graduated from high school in 1956, the same year she was married. She raised 4 children: Joseph, Jay, Roberta, and Martha. As a Pastor’s wife, Earlene served God ardently within her church community, a legacy which continuey grew into her later life. Earlene was a master administrator in whatever she was involved in. This was proven when she was appointed Executive Secretary at Good Samaritan hospital in Puyallup, WA before she retired in 2005. Her steadfast faith in God was consistently demonstrated in her service and fellowship with her church family.
 
Some activities Earlene enjoyed included traveling, home projects, shopping for a bargain, and curling up with her dog Maggie and cat Wally to a good murder mystery. But most importantly, she enjoyed a home cooked meal spent with her family. Earlene found family wherever she could, her door was always open to those who needed a place to belong. She often said that her greatest achievement is her family.
 
Earlene was greeted in heaven by her parents, Oscar and Opal Johnston, a brother Wayne Johnston, a sister Belva Johnston, and grandson Garet Shipley. Earlene is survived by her brother Seth Johnston, and sister Darlene Sullivan. She was mother to four children Joe (Lynette) Chambers of Colorado, Jay (Debbie) Chambers of Montesano WA, Robbie (John) Harrington of Arizona, and Marti Shipley of Arizona; grandmother to Devyn (Ryan) Chambers-Johnson, Carly (Kyle) Absher, Steele (Jennifer) Harrington, Cole (Ashley) Chambers, Jayme (Kenneth) Netzer, Bree Loyd, Clinton (Rachel Reid) Chambers, Bethany (Milo) Mullins, Meg Shipley, Caleb (Mindy) Chambers, Graham (Alexis Shupbach) Chambers, Chris Wood and Kenny Darst by choice; as well as great-grandmother to twenty, with numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.
 
A celebration of life service for Earlene was held in Elma, Washington at the Olympic View Grange at 2pm on Saturday, November 13, 2021. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Chaplains on the Harbor www.chaplainsontheharbor.org/donate-now/.
 
 

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How My Mother Met Jesus

My first inclination, when I sat down to record my salvation experience, was to say I was raised in a Christian home. But that would not be the best description of the home in which I grew up.

My mother was a wonderful Christian woman who saw to it that my brothers, sister, and I were in church and Sunday school from the time I can remember. However, even though my father was a believer and had even pastored a few years before I was born and while I was a very small child, to say he was inconsistent in his Christian walk would be an understatement. He had a temper and was very volatile; you never knew what was going to set him off. There would be months and sometimes years that he didn’t set foot in a church. If you were present when something went wrong, you could hear words come out of his mouth that certainly was not consistent with what we were being taught was the Christian response. Sometimes that anger would result in the mistreatment of animals on our farm and as a child, I found that very disturbing.

I said all that to set the stage for describing the night I invited Jesus into my heart. It was in the fall after my 13th birthday and my 4-H square dance team had been asked to dance some exhibition dances at a neighboring community political gathering. We went and danced, the candidates spoke a few words and then there was a dance for everyone. The music was good, and the cookies and punch were refreshing. It was a wonderful fun evening with friends and neighbors, and I remember thinking that I could dance all night and not get tired.

When it was time to go my ride dropped me off at home and the minute, I opened the door I knew it was “one of those times.” I slipped into the nearest chair that was at the big square dining room table where we ate, did homework, and did everything else that has to be done on a flat surface. My father was in one of his tirades blaming my mother for everything that was wrong in his life. I looked at her as she sat in her chair with her head bowed and tears running down her cheeks and knew she was praying. Hurting and praying. Her Bible was lying on the bookshelf within my reach, and I pulled it onto the table and opened it I don’t know what I read but I just knew I needed to know the Jesus she knew that could get her through times like this.

She never spoke badly of my father; she would sometimes explain to us that we had no idea what went on when he was a child growing up or how he was treated as a child. She didn’t condone his actions but would try to help us understand why he was the way he was.

That night I asked Jesus to forgive my anger toward him and to give me the strength He gave her to get through these difficult times and He came into my heart that night. I remember a peace coming over me and feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Over the years since that night, I have had a number of my own difficult times, maybe not verbal abuse, but difficult situations that were unique to my life. I have, through Him, been able to get to the other side of those difficult times. He is leading me to trust

Him with all aspects of my life and He has been ever present with me since that night 59 years ago.

Always remember this…

When you are a believer all experiences, good and bad, come past your Heavenly Father to you. He knows about them; allows them to be a part of your life experience. Learn from them; be open to what God wants to teach you through them.

“We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor], all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.” Romans 8:28 (The Amplified Bible)

Earlene Johnston Chambers, age 13

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Chapter Three of an Unnamed Novel

They slowed and turned onto a dirt road that ran beside a small creek heading north. The boy could see the edge of the world lighten and mountains and mesas silhouetted in the east.

Up ahead, headlamps from half a dozen trucks glared at the herd of docile creatures like metallic wolves waiting for one to panic and break from the safety of the herd so they could chase it down and bring order to the world. But the cattle only milled—heads hung low—and waited for the rising day.

The old man pulled the truck up alongside the others.

“Get them horses out like I told you,” the old man said as he pulled on the emergency brake and switched off the ignition.

The boy unloaded the horses and tied their reins to the tailgate of the trailer. He could hear the old man cussing and laughing with the other cowboys over by the loading shoot and he felt lonely. He leaned against his horse and breathed in the musky smell. He closed his eyes and felt a shiver up his back. The horse leaned into him and the boy felt some comfort.

The morning mist hung on the creek bottom. Red- winged blackbirds flitted from the fence to the willow branch beside the slow-running creek. The old man conferred with the owner and finalized plans for lunch.

“You boys gather round,” he called.

Bowlegged men pushed off from leaning on horse trailers and trucks and dragged their boots towards the old man. Some spit as they gathered, others cupped their smokes in their hand as if trying to hide the glowing, but from whom is anyone’s guess.

The old man took the pipe out of his mouth with his right hand, hooked his left thumb in his belt, planted his right foot forward, and stood before them as a confident leader of men. He had led cattle drives many times. He didn’t have to say it. The set of his jaw spoke volumes.

“I’ll take point. You boys from the Davis outfit decide amongst yourselves which side of the herd you’ll flank.” Then he looked at the boy and said, “The rest of you kids will work drag.”

Thus, the hierarchy was established, sealed with the clearing of the throat, a spit of tobacco, and a scuff of a boot.

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Chapter Two of an Unnamed Novel

The boy got up and reached for the tin dishpan hanging on the wall and set it on the stove.  He poured some water into it from the galvanized bucket on a short shelf next to the door, and then returned to his plate.

The only sound was ceramic scrape of a fork on plate as he finished his breakfast. The old man went out into the pre-dawn morning, the screen door slamming behind him. He called the horses out of the dark as if they were to appear in the corral before him. After he put feed sacks on the horses, he started the 1959 pickup and let it idle.

“Bring the Coleman,” he hollered to the boy who was drying off his plate and stacking it on the shelf. The boy stepped on to the porch and tossed out the dishwater. He returned the dishpan to its nail, pulled on his jean jacket, and grabbed the lantern from a hook in the middle of the room.

“Go get the tack,’ said the old man, “and let’s load it up in the back of the truck.”

The boy ducked to enter the low-ceilinged saddle house, drug out the old man’s saddle. Resting it on his right thigh, he walked stiff-legged over to the truck as if limping with some unimagined wound. He tossed the saddle in the back of the blue truck and went back for his.

The old man took the feed sacks off of the horses and called for the bridles.

“Let’s get these horses loaded in the trailer,” he said.

The old man unbuckled the bridle midway up the jaw line strap and carefully wrapped it around his horse’s neck. Taking care to avoid the ears of the animal, he offered the bit to the big bay gelding and the horse nibbled at it with his lips and then received the bit into his mouth. The old man pulled the leather strap up behind the ears and re-buckled the bridle, patted the horse on the neck and led him to the back of the trailer.

The horses loaded, the old man’s favorite horse named Curtis and a dapple-gray jug-headed horse named Johnny Reb, they started down the mountain towards the holding pins at San Antonio Mountain. The large, free-standing dome-shaped mountain in northern New Mexico rises in relative isolation above sagebrush flats about nine miles south of the Colorado border. There they would join other cowboys, a hodge-podge group of hands, some working for the day—others in from the owner’s ranch in the four corners area. Fifteen hundred head of steers had been trucked in and pinned up waiting to be driven up the road to the ranch where they would fatten up on the rich high mountain grass for the next three months.

The rough road tossed the pickup truck back and forth as gears downshifted and the engine whined. The old man and the boy didn’t talk for five miles. The boy’s eyes were heavy but he dared not sleep. That would be lazy. That would be a sin. So, he looked out the window, feigning interest in the passing shadows, but secretly let his eyes close to find their own nestled comfort.

The old man took the pipe out of his mouth and cleared his throat.

“Now, when we get down to those pens I want you to unload the horses and make sure they get some water. I am going to go look up Dick Davis and round up the boys to line out how we are going to get the cattle up the mountain on this drive,” he said.

“What will I do on the cattle drive?” the boy asked.

“Drag. You’ll be in the back of the herd.”

“Why?”

“It’s where you belong.”

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CRT and Flannelgraphs

Elton Trueblood once said something like, “Baptist are as old Abraham. We have evidence of that when Abraham said to his nephew, “Lot, you go your way and I’ll go mine.” That reminds me of the TV and magazine ads of the 1960s by Tareyton cigarettes picturing a smoker with a black eye touting, “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!”

Baptist are known for quarreling and fighting. We are also known for being against social ills. In my first pastorate there hung a “Church Covenant” on the wall of our church in the auditorium that said in black and white lettering that we were against dancing, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling.

Baptist don’t have winsome reputation in this world except among Baptist. Jesus had a reputation. The Pharisees had a reputation. Jesus’ reputation was that he loved the marginalized, powerless, and outcasts. The Pharisees were known for what they were against.

Yesterday I went to a denominational meeting in my home state and there were five resolutions put before the messengers of our state denomination. Three of the five were glorified “thank yous” for various acts of service by leadership in the last year. Two were resolutions that were against something.  One was against women having the title of and any function of pastor in the local church. The other was against Critical Race Theory (CRT).

(I tried to amend the resolution but it failed and it wasn’t even close. My amendment was not in favor or against CRT. It was simply being FOR racial reconciliation.)

Thank yous (internal to our tribe) and what we are against (threats to our tribe). Why do we even do this anymore? Resolutions should be banned in all Baptist meetings. They set us up to be critical and divisive rather than loving and winsome to the very people we want to reach. Get rid of them, I say.

Why can’t we be a group of people who are FOR something? We are FOR the Gospel. We are FOR the dignity of all humanity for they are image bearers. We are FOR people of color because they matter to God. And if they matter to God, they should matter to us.

I am FOR women in the ministry, because they are gifted and called.  And there is enough ambiguity in the Biblical text for different interpretations about this matter. Reputable scholars have valid and differing opinions about women in the ministry. I am for women pastors, but the church I adore, and pastor is not ready for that shift, and I’ll not lead her to do so. Good people can disagree agreeably.

My 84-year-old father told me that he remembered a time when a famous missionary to China, Bertha Smith, was asked to speak at a chapel service at Southwestern Theological Seminary. She had a flannel graph brought out and set on the stage beside her. Then she said, “Gentlemen, I am not supposed to speak to men unless you are boys.” Then she quoted verse in Matthew 18:33 that said, And (Jesus) said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. So, listen to me today as a boy, because I have something to say to you.”

Dad said she gave an altar call at the end of her “lesson” calling for repentance of sin and commitment to prayer. The altar was filled with broken and kneeling preachers.

Interestingly, the best speakers at our meeting yesterday were an African American man who was outside our tribe who spoke about racism. And close behind him was a fifth-grade schoolteacher who gave her endorsement of a new executive for our denomination. And yet the overwhelming passage of the two resolutions condemning CRT and women in ministry was like I was watching a train wreck and no matter what I tried, it couldn’t stop it.

I’ve said for years that children are wonderful at receiving information but terrible at interpreting information. They often can’t interpret dad’s surely mood as him having terrible day at the office, they interpret it as something is wrong with them—I must have done something to disappoint dad.

The conservative landscape in the church of my youth leaves us vulnerable to being misunderstood by people we are trying to reach with the Gospel of grace. I long for a time when we can unequivocally support women in ministry and open mindedly study why people of color are still being discriminated against in our culture, and stand with them in every way possible because they are the beautiful beloved of God.

I ache for us to follow Jesus in his love for those who feel overlooked or unwelcomed at the table of grace. For if the Gospel is not good news for everybody, it is not good news for anybody.

To quote the great theologian Michel Scott to my fellow Southern Baptists, “Why are you the way that you are? I hate so much about the things that you choose to be.” – Michael Scott to Toby Flenderson, (The Office 2.22)

I want to follow Jesus so closely that the dust from His sandals is all over my life.

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Chapter One of an Unnamed Novel

It is midnight, 1969. 

The air is blue.

The mountain is blue in its silhouette

against the open galaxies.

Long before the earth stirred, the old man in the cabin banged the cast iron stove to life. He sat in his chair, pulled out the tobacco from his shirt pocket and filled his pipe, fingering the fillings and pressing them deep into the bowl. He struck a match, pulled the pipe to his pursed lips, and sucked in the fire. Shaking out the flame, he held the match mindlessly in his hand as he stared at the ticking stove.

The stove heated up and soon the coffee pot spit black liquid beads that sizzled all around the hot surface. The old man leaned forward and pushed himself out of his chair, unfolding like a rusted hinge. He poured himself a cup of coffee and went to the window, his pipe in one hand, and slurped as he stared outside.

After a few gulps, he shouted to the other room where a boy lay cocooned under three layers of wool blankets, “Better get in here and make out your breakfast.”

He opened the door to the icebox, and pulling out the bacon, eggs, and a can of biscuits setting them on the table.

“Come on, now.” he said with a gravel voice.

A kerosene lantern flickered on the table beside the bed as the blankets moved. A thatch of blond hair was first to poke out and two bright blue eyes focused on the ceiling. Frosted breath floated over his lips, then disappeared.

He slowly spilled out of bed and pulled on the denim jeans, stiff from weeks of unwashed wear. Taking care to avoid the Mill Brothers Coffee can the old man used as a slop jar, he pushed his feet into his boots and stepped into the warmth of the outer room.

“Boy, you’d sleep your life away if it were up to you.”

The boy rubbed the sleep from his eyes and saw the clock on the table— 3:30 AM.

He then creaked open the door and stepped out on the porch, where cold, New Mexico air took a slap at him. Shuttering, he took three steps off the porch and peed through the rail fence. The stars hung suspended on black velvet overhead, a heavy stomp and snuffle came from the dim outline of a horse only a few feet away. A shiver jolted through his back as he finished.  He zipped himself up and stepped back into the smoky warmth of the two-room cabin and the smell of fresh coffee and the sizzling promise of breakfast. But the promise wasn’t for him.

The boy made his own breakfast, as he did every morning, drank coffee, black, as he did every morning and studied the old man through the sheer curtains of smoke. The old man just sat there puffing and staring at the stove.

Without as much as throwing a glance the boy’s way, the old man said, “Quick as you get your dishes washed, let’s feed those horses and get ‘em loaded. We need to get down the mountain.”

“Yes, sir.”

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The Gospel of the Good Finish

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. 1 Thessalonians 5:18

“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” – G.K. Chesterton

Many who have given up on our faith will point to the problem of pain and suffering in the world. Of man’s inhumanity to man. Of hurricanes and tornados and other natural disasters killing people. They will ask, “How do we account for the problem of evil and suffering in the world?”

Most of us have had a screen door on our homes at one time or another in our lives. Screen doors are designed to let a breeze in and keep pesky insects out. You know what it is like to stand at a screen door and look outside and watch children playing in your front yard, a breeze moves the leaves on a tree, and we watch the clouds in the sky go floating by.

But imagine your eyes focusing, not on the playing children and the blooming flowers in your flowerbed, but on the holes in the screen. If you stare at the holes, I promise you won’t see the flowers. Too much time watching cable news, listening to talk radio, or hanging around people who confirm your biases can be the equivalent of fixating on the holes in the screen door.

Wendell Berry reminds us, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

There is the problem of evil. It’s a very real problem. But there is also the problem of good.

What do you do with the feeling in your soul when you stand, with your feet in the water, at the ocean’s edge? What do you do with that feeling when you hold in your arms your first child or, better yet, your very first grandchild and listen to their little squeals?

What do we do with the feeling we have well up in our hearts when we listen to Charlotte Church singing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu, or stand before a Van Goh, or finish reading a poem by William Stafford?

If you are struggling with faith, my suggestion is for you to puzzle over why you feel gratitude for the transcendent beauty you see in the world.

I also think it is a good idea to develop the discipline of gratitude. Gratitude for followers of Jesus is a discipline. Because, if you’re like me, the assumption is that gratitude is a mood. But it is hard to command an emotion. If you doubt that, next time your spouse gets up set, tell them to “calm down.” No one in the history of saying “calm down” has ever calmed down because someone told them to calm down.

Parents have a question that they ask their children. All parents do this. After someone gives their child a gift or does them a favor, the parent will say to the child, “what do you say?” How is a kid supposed to respond?

“Thank You.”

If you want to see the joy-factor increase in your life I suggest you practice noticing the beauty and the good in this world.

Poet Mary Oliver puts it this way,

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

I am a firm believer that how we live every day of our life will greatly determine how we die. Jonathan Greene wrote a book called, “Famous Last Words.” And the whole book just consists of the last words of hundreds and hundreds of people before they died.

My favorite is a quote from a guy in the Civil War, General Sedgewick. He was in battle. His last words were,

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

The two authors who have had the greatest impact on my life have both died in recent years. I quote them all the time in my sermons and in conversations. I am very interested in how each of these men ended their life here on this good earth. What were their last words? I’ve included and adapted two pieces written by two authors who knew the men very well.

First, from Bill Gaultiere. You can read his entire tribute to Dallas by clicking https://www.soulshepherding.org/personal-reflections-from-dallas-willards-funeral/

Dallas’ last days were painful. But even as he laid on his bed suffering, he held Jesus’ hand in the Kingdom of the Heavens. With characteristic gentleness and kindness, he kept saying, “Thank you.” To doctors, nurses, visitors, and God. “Thank you… Thank you… Thank you… Thank you…”

The nurses were drawn to his positive attitude in suffering and how appreciative of them he was. They heard him and his visitors reciting Scriptures, singing hymns, talking about a God of love, and praying. The way that Dallas was dying drew the people around him to Jesus Christ and our God of love. This is the way of Jesus on the cross and it’s the way of his followers. How we respond to suffering is often our very best witness for Christ.

One of the nurses looked up Dallas Willard on the Internet and realized not only that he was famous but that there were some people who were saying mean things about him. She said, “I don’t get it. Why would religious people hate this good man who says that God loves everyone?”

God showed his love to Dallas in the hospital. For instance, Dallas’ had a remarkable experience of God. He said, “I taught on the Great Cloud of Witnesses and now I’m experiencing it. I am in heaven’s hallway and there is a large community coming for me. They are the most loving persons I’ve ever been around.”

Finally, at the very end, his last words were once again, “Thank you.” He didn’t even name anyone but I’m sure he was looking into the shining face of Jesus as he was walking all the way through the hallway into heaven.

Second, from Winn Collier’s authorized biography of Eugene Peterson A Burning in My Bones.

The final couple of days [of Eugene’s life], he said thank you over and over again. When anyone fixed his pillow or helped him with a drink: “Thank you.” Often, he’d simply mumble under his breath, “Thank you.” And this was gratitude infused with joy. One afternoon, [his children] Eric, Elizabeth, Leif, and Amy were all sitting next to him, lined up on one side of his bed. Eugene opened his eyes, and it took him a moment to gain focus and recognize who was there. Then his eyes went bright, and he broke out in that wide smile. “Wow! he exclaimed.

Those final hours, Elizabeth sat with him, holding his hand, and singing hymns. Sensing the end was near, she called for Eric. Then, the moment—last breaths, new tears, the stepping out into a broader place, a call from a deep, familiar voice, a call to him from a farther shore than we can see. It was time.

Last words, then barely discernible but sounding like thank you.

Then, unhurried and gentle, Eugene died.

Oh, to be loved by God. To be given the most precious gift, His Son, Jesus Christ, who died on a cross for me.

What do you say?

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My Mother Has Cancer

My mother has terminal cancer. I was able to spend twenty-four hours with her recently. They were great moments. I will cherish them the rest of my life, because we don’t know how fast the cancer is spreading and how effective the treatment will be. I am praying for many more moments, but we just don’t know.

After giving me the rundown on the cancer in her body, she and my brother told us about the four tumors in her brain. I asked her how it is impacting her cognition, and while my brother was telling us that she gets confused sometimes and repeats herself, my mother was looking at the floor and then started drumming her fingers across her lips and blowing raspberries. (The universal and pejorative sign when I was growing up for someone who had completely lost their marbles)

My brother said, “If it’s not one thing, its your mother.”

We all laughed.

Lessons I Learned from Visiting My Mother

There is no tomorrow, only today.

If you think there is always tomorrow, you are fooling yourself. You can’t guarantee your own next breath, much less anyone else’s. You have today. That is all you have. You have something to say? Say it. You have something to do? Do it. You have someplace to go? Go. You have a song to sing? Sing it. You have a nail to hammer? Nail it. Don’t wait.

The person sitting in front of you at any given moment deserves your undivided attention.

It’s about them, not you. I’ve sat with countless people whose frame of reference was all about them. What they were doing. What God was doing through them and what was happening in their world. But when you are with another image bearer, you are sitting with someone of immense value to the God who created them. To not be interested in the person sitting in front of you is an afront to the God who impressed them with his image.

Being able to look someone who is dying in the eye and talk about death is part of what it means to be fully alive.

I was compelled to tell my mother exactly what I thought of her spiritual life. It was a firm and affirming conversation. I didn’t lie to her. I didn’t tell her things to cheer her up. I told her the truth as I saw it. She has lived a spiritual life. And from the chair I am sitting in, she has lived a wonderful Jesus-dependent life. Her faith isn’t moralistic, even though it is moral. Her faith isn’t driven by church attendance, even though she rarely missed church. Her faith isn’t about theology and the Bible, even though she is well-versed in both. Her faith is strong because she knows down deep in her soul the Man from Galilee. And I was able to tell her that. I was able to ask her about her soul and tell her that her faith is very evident as she approaches death. While it was an unusual conversation, it was not a painful conversation.

All of this brings me to a few quotes that came to mind as I have reflected on my time with my mother:

One from the theologian Tim McGraw: Live like you were dying.

I am learning that as someone I love goes through the process of coming to terms with their death, I must live my life as if everyone were dying. Because in a very real sense they are. The difference between them, me, and my mom is that my mom knows her death is near. The rest of us think ours is somewhere else on the calendar. So, say what you are going to say; do what you are going to do. Do it like someone is dying—because they and you are. Last time I checked the death rate is still hovering around 100%.

Another from author Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Every moment is holy. Every moment counts. Every moment is part of eternity. Living in the present moment is so important to someone who can see the finish line of this life. You can’t change the past no matter the regrets. You have no assurance of the future, so stop piddling your life away playing solitaire or binge-watching Seinfeld.

And finally, Jesus reminds us: Give us this day our daily bread.

Jesus didn’t say, “Give us this week our weekly bread” or “Give us this month our monthly bread.” He said sustenance for our body and soul comes to us daily—just like mana from the Old Testament. When the children of Israel would try to hoard that “wonder bread” that fell out of the sky every morning like dew on the ground, it would spoil. The same is true when we try to hoard the seconds, minutes, and hours of our life as if we could spend them tomorrow on something valuable. No. We have today. That’s it. Can’t hoard time.

It’s not morbid to talk about death to a believer in Jesus who is dying. When you talk about death, it makes the moment burst forth with life. As I said, my mom sometimes repeated herself because of the cancer in her brain. One of the things she said several times in our visit was, “Going through this is hard, but I am going to be alright because I am not alone. I have Jesus.”

I hope you have my Mom’s Jesus.

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God’s Slow Work

Definition of arrogant: exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner (Merriam-Webster)

Years ago, I was flying to Nashville for a trustee meeting of Lifeway Christian Resources. When I fly from one city to another, I usually put on headphones, screw up my thick brow over my deep-set eyes—a look that might give Mike Tyson pause—and sit in such a way as to dare anyone to occupy the middle seat next to me.

I secured my earbuds, pulled out my book, fixed my scowl and got as comfortable as my six feet four-inch-tall wide body can get in my window seat. The flight attendant announced that this was going to be a full flight. Knowing someone was surely going to sit next to me, I did not loosen my stink eye one bit. I use it to mark territory on a plane. An older gentleman with a shock of snow-white hair, sloping shoulders, and thick glasses sat in the aisle seat.

People kept flowing by towards the back of the plane. My middle seat remained open. My stink-eye was working.

Just as I was about to relax my brow, a middle-aged, sandy-haired, lady came down the aisle with a huge, braided tote slung over one shoulder and jewel-encrusted reading glasses hanging on for dear life at the end of her nose.

“Excuse me!” she said to the older man in the aisle seat as she sidled past him and sat down in my carefully guarded middle seat.

After she put her seat belt on and got situated, she promptly ignored my warning signs of scowl, headphones, open book, and started talking to me. I had to take my headphones off to hear her. I exchanged clipped pleasantries with her, then she turned to speak to the older man. I sensed an opportunity to re-load my headphones and my stink eye.

Just open up your book, turn the music up, never look at her and she will leave you alone, I thought. 

It worked for about 30 minutes until she tapped me on the arm and asked me a question. “What book are you reading?” I held the spine up so that she could see that it read Crucial Conversations

“What’s it about?” she asked.

I gave her a clipped and terse synopsis of the book.

I began to read again while she pulled out the reading material she had brought on board. It was a copy of the latest supermarket tabloid with headlines like “Hillary Clinton gives birth to Alien Baby” and other bizarre story titles. She spread the paper wide, leaned her arm against mine, taking my arm rest. Our arms were touching. I had to move even further away. The more I moved away from her the more she spread out.

Twenty minutes later she folded her paper up and went to the restroom. I closed my book and rested my head in my hands, elbows on my knees and sighed. I was so weary of this person, and it was only an hour into my two- and half-hour flight.

She came back and saw me with my head down and as soon as she was seated and re-belted, she began to rub my shoulders.

“You must be very tense,” she said. 

What do you do at this point? I let her violate my shoulders for what I assumed was the appropriate time for these things and turned and smiled and said thanks. I opened up my book again, not reading—just staring at the page.

About this time the man in the aisle seat pulled a very worn Bible out of his briefcase and began to read. This caught her eye, and she began to ask questions about God. The older man smiled and answered every one of her questions with grace.

As I sat there seething and pouting at this woman who had dared to interrupt my travel preferences and routine, I overheard the older man share his faith with this woman in the most winsome, natural and attractive way. She shared some of her pain and struggles and he gently asked her if he could pray for her. He took her hand and pressed it between both of his aged-spotted hands and prayed sweet and low with her.

I remember thinking, “You want so badly to be like Jesus, but when God brings someone who needs grace in the worst way, you treat them as if they were an annoyance. You have a long way to go.”

Author John Ortberg has a reflective question he often asked himself, “Is the life you are inviting others to live the life you are living yourself?”

That was a painful question for me back then. I would much prefer to invite others to live the life they should live if they followed my advice. The success of my giftedness was eroding my character. I was leaning on my giftedness and neglecting the development of my soul.

You know, we don’t have much to say about our own giftedness. But our character is the one thing that we can cooperate with Jesus and see some incremental improvement. Its available to everyone. But we don’t live in a culture that makes us want it.

The thing about Christ-like character formation is it’s not very fast, not very glamorous, and it won’t really get you very much at all—except life with God, except the healing of our broken, hungry, wounded, hurting, tired heart, and the satisfaction of our souls—things that giftedness can never achieve.  

It will also give you the quiet confidence to sit with an open Bible on your lap and explain the Gospel to an annoying woman on an airplane at 35,000 feet.

I’d like to believe, after all these years later, if given another opportunity, my eyes would be soft and inviting to anyone open to hearing about the God who can change the most arrogant of hearts.

So, if you find yourself on an airplane and you see a very large man in your section—sit right down and we will enjoy our time together.

However, mind that middle seat.

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