Rained Out

It’s a first in 55+ years of living. We canceled Sunday morning services. For rain. As one who helped make that decision, it wasn’t easy. There are so many thoughts that go into a decision like this for leadership.

Right now, as I write this, the wind is blowing, it’s wet, but the rain and bad weather has held off. Some will say “you made the wrong call. We would be fine.”

In leadership, you gather the best information that you can find and then you decide the course of action. Last night the weather forecasters were proclaiming strong storms in the area this morning. The decision makers got up early this morning and began checking the status. As we were making decisions, warning sirens began to sound and we were alerted to the threat of large hail in our path. The weatherman said “if you are a pastor, as you pass out the bulletins for the morning you need to let everyone know of your emergency plans in place.” Hmmm. Never heard that before.

While we have careful and clear emergency plans in place, you never want to use them. While you have communicated what needs to happen, you hope that you never have to stand up and ask your people to move to bathrooms and interior rooms because a major threat is bearing is down on your location.

Better safe than sorry, so they say.

Leaders weigh all the odds. They think of what ifs and make decisions based on possibilities. Sometimes that’s a hard call. Sometimes they get push back.

But sometimes you get rained out. Sometimes threats present themselves and it’s the leader’s job to keep all safe.

Today was just one of those days.

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A Post Christmas Production Smile

I’m reading through the posts on Facebook tonight and watching the videos and looking at the pictures from my friends and their Christmas productions at their church. It makes me smile.
I smile because I know the work that goes into each one. I know the challenges of working through every little detail, lights, staging, getting music ready for instrumentalists, the hours of rehearsals with choirs, the discussions with seamstresses and the repeated costume fittings. I know of music that sounds crazy at the beginning and the anxious hearts of so many singers wondering if they’ll ever get all the notes and learn the music.
I smile because I know the hearts of my friends. Hearts that know that the production isn’t the end. It’s not about all the right notes and perfect vowels. It’s not about every nuance being in the right place and note perfection with your instrumentalists. This is all important and we all work hard to get there, but it’s not the end result. After all, most of the people we work with are not professional musicians. 
The end is worship. There is a reason why we call it music ministry. Ministry happens in each rehearsal when we stand up in front of this loved group of people and lead them in making music about a relationship with our Creator. Ministry happens when we stop for a moment when we really don’t have one right then, and say a quick prayer for a friend hurting. Ministry happens day in and day out in preparation for what happens on Sunday mornings and sometimes in special events like a Christmas production. 
I smile because I know when I look at those pictures, ministry is taking place. The love of Christ is being expressed, a love that urges each one of us on through the challenges that come our way each day.
I smile also because I am one of them. My choir stood and sang tonight and I loved every minute of it. We offered our best and it was received. People came and listened and responded. We were very grateful, but that wasn’t the only reason we worked so hard to get here. We gave our gift to the Christ child in the manger, that child who is now a king seated at the right hand of the Father. And it was a good gift.
I smile because I felt God smile.
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Thanks for the birthday greetings!

I had a birthday this past week. I got some cards in the mail and a few great ones handed to me from my co-workers, friends and family. All in all, there were about 15 cards that I received. Not bad for my age. Then there were the ones on Facebook. All 292 of them.

I don’t share that number to brag. I was overwhelmed by that number. It represented a lot of greetings and a lot of comments. I was reminded once more of the power of Facebook. For the most part, those greetings consisted simply of “happy birthday.” Some wrote a note, some another couple of words. All in all, though, I knew that I was remembered and people had thought about me on my day.

292. That’s just crazy. Since I was working most of the day, it was late in the evening when I finally had the chance to sit down and read through them. I read the wishes and the comments. More importantly, however, was that I looked at the pictures and the names of each one of those 292. Each time I saw the name, I remembered how I knew them. There is much said about Facebook friends these days, how those are superficial friendships, not really true and meaningful. I was reminded on Monday that for 292, that wasn’t true.

Those 292 wishes represented more than 40 years of friendships and relationships. Spanning the time from high school into college, into grad school and throughout life and ministry, it reflected how far reaching life can be. That number included friends all over the state of Texas, Illinois where I grew up, the east coast, family on the west coast, and yes, even friends from around the world. Those included relationships with people in places like England, Germany, Ukraine and Casablanca, Morocco.

My heart was full. It continued to be filled to overflowing as I read and remembered each name and how I knew them. What a great reminder of the fullness of life. If you were one of those that were included in any of the posts or a card, phone call, or direct face to face wish, I say thank you. You made my day very special. I am honored by your friendship and am grateful for your presence in my life.

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A Special Happy Birthday!

Today is Robert Redford’s birthday. Mr. Redford happens to turn 80 today. He is an actor, director, producer, businessman, environmentalist and philanthropist. A mere Google search will bring up many pictures of Mr. Redford through the years. Time hasn’t been the most friendly to him at this point in his life. We wish him a happy birthday, nonetheless, and hope he has a great day. As famous as he might be, though, he’s not the one to receive my special birthday wish.

Mrs. Tillie Burgin also turns 80 today. Miss Tillie, as she is affectionately called, has made more of an impact on people throughout her life than I believe Mr. Redford would dream of. Miss Tillie leads Mission Arlington/Mission Metroplex in the DFW area of Texas. An incredible woman, her influence knows no boundaries.

Miss. Tillie was the Director of Human Resources for Arlington ISD when I began my seminary career in Ft. Worth in the mid 1980’s. I was looking for a job and she gave me one on a Sunday night after church. I wasn’t expecting it nor was I sure it was right for me. I signed the contract the next morning because you simply didn’t turn down Tillie Burgin. This was the start of a 40 year relationship with this remarkable woman.

It was just one year later that she resigned her post in Human Resources and began a small ministry to the underprivileged, the under-resourced, and generally anyone else who needed help, in the community of Arlington. You see, she had taken the job at Arlington ISD after returning from eleven years on the mission field in South Korea. Her heart, however, was always with helping and serving people.

After 30 years, she still leads an amazing network of ministries out of a continually growing office that never is big enough. She has received awards by presidents, awards by the governors, awards by community leaders. Lining the walls in her office, however, are the faces of children whom she has loved and encouraged and helped. She was the go-to person if someone was in trouble. She was the phone call for intervention when the Arlington police needed help with community violence. She was the person to talk to if you needed advice and encouragement and direction.

Today is her 80th birthday. She was in the office before 4:00 AM and will not go home until sometime after 8:00 PM tonight. That’s her schedule 7 days a week. Her power and strength comes from the Lord, her direction comes from the Bible, her quiet gentleness comes through the Holy Spirit that continues to work through her. Her office staff quit telling her to go home and get some rest years ago. They just try and keep up with her daily schedule.

If you met her, you would think she probably was in her late 60’s, early 70’s. The light that she exudes simply comes from her relationship with her heavenly Father. Over the years, tens of thousands have been helped by this incredible woman. I still am humbled as I remember the times she changed the course of my life.

Today is your special day, Miss Tillie. Happy birthday, my dear friend! Enjoy it. And may God continue to give you strength as you change the world in His name.

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Thoughts on Ministerial Transitions

We live in a mobile society. People move. They change jobs and positions. Job researchers reported in 2010 that the average worker will make seven career changes in their lifetime. That doesn’t even take into consideration how many times they will work in the same “career” in different places. Our work takes us to different places and changes often.

It is no different in the field of ministry. Ministers move and change churches. If you’re lucky, some might have longevity in a particular clergy position. When I began in ministry, however, the average length of tenure in a local church was 18 months. Thankfully, and gratefully, I have outlasted that average several times over. Nevertheless, change happens.

Each denomination has their own way of making those transitions. Some clergy are assigned and are moved depending on a hierarchy of leadership. Others get to make their own decisions and work directly with a particular church to move to another congregation. For Baptists, the process also can be different depending on the church and it’s governing principles and guidelines.

In that particular process, the selection  and transition of calling a minister will always involve two congregations. One will lose a leader, the other will gain one. Within each congregation there will be those who will be excited and those that will be saddened by the process. Yes, you read that sentence right, in both congregations at the same time. Remember, we’re talking Baptists.

It is the way of it. It’s the process. There are great things about the process, and, well, there are things that just stink about the process. As a minister, there is always excitement about a new location. It’s a new challenge, a new opportunity, a new possibility for growth and learning. Since we live in a mobile and transitional society, a church will need new leadership at times, so the search would begin and there’s always excitement about someone new to lead the charge ahead.

For the church losing their leader, there will always be a range of feelings. For some, there will be deep sadness and even despair at losing someone that is loved and respected, who has led them for a period of time. This is always amplified if the particular person is charismatic and well-loved. Sadly, there will also be a few that will be excited about the departure. It’s human nature.

The calling of a church leader, in the denomination I serve, is a process that is often times long and emotionally exhausting. Interviews, conversations, forms to fill out and questions to answer are all part of the process. All this while knowing that the process could be halted at any moment. The small group of people that are conducting the search are watching, listening, praying, and seeking to find the best they can to fit a profile that has been determined. It truly is not unlike a secular search, with a few exceptions. While this process is taking place, the church where the minister is currently serving normally has no idea this is taking place. There are all sorts of challenges in telling anyone while this is happening, the main reason being the emotional toll being carried on the shoulders of the minister during the process itself.

At that particular time when the final decision has been made by the new congregation and minister, a time is set up for them to come and be presented to the new church. For my denomination, this process is called “in view of a call.” It is taken from the Biblical model that ministers of the Gospel are set aside and “called” into ministry, that God is in the process and there is a divine calling upon their lives. The difficult part is that the current congregation often never knows this is happening. When the vote has been taken by the new congregation and the call has been accepted by the new leader, they will go back to their former church, tell the leadership and congregation, formerly resign, and begin to make preparations for moving. It is always an emotionally charged and exhausting process. More often than not, the former congregation now feels betrayed, lost and rejected. They experience the same feelings often felt during times of grief and loss. These would be anger, grief, sadness, acceptance, moving on.

For the pastor leader, more often than not, telling the former congregation is a difficult challenge. Some choose to tell the congregation before they leave, preparing them for what’s to come. Others choose not to tell anything, for remember, the process is never complete until it’s finished. Something could happen and it could be halted or stopped at any point, even at the very end. For that reason alone, many ministers choose to remain silent until it’s a fully completed process.

In years gone by, it was much easier to choose silence and keep under the radar. In these days of social media and technology, this is no longer the case. Nothing can be kept secret, especially if it deals with the public. And churches are very public entities.

One thing remains constant through this whole process. God’s divine calling and mission upon a local congregation. My particular congregation is 142 years old. No, none of us are that old, we just happen to be along for the journey at this particular time. God set apart a group of people years ago to begin a ministry in this particular place. Through generations, this mission continues to be carried out. At this given point in time, we have a body of believers that make up this congregation and we are carrying out this mission that was set in place long ago. I fully expect this to continue for generations to come. I fervently pray that it will continue long after I’m gone. It is by the faithfulness of those who are here that this will be fulfilled.

Until then, we look for God’s divine hand and blessing to be upon us. Amen.

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Why is Rest so difficult?

I’m a doer. I do things for my wife, my children, other people, my work and office. There’s always something to do. If you’re a doer, it’s difficult to turn off the doer switch. It’s just not that easy.

Some people seem to have an easy time to stop, sit down and relax. Watch TV, they say. Chill out on the couch, they say. But to a doer, they see that the dishes need to be done, that plant that’s been sitting on the back porch for a couple of months now needs to be transplanted and watered. They see the stack of mail on the counter that needs attention. And when the dog comes and looks at you with those big eyes, you just know what that means, right? Yep, it’s off to get the leash and take her for walk. That’s what doers do. They do stuff.

The Bible has words about this. When God created the heavens and the earth, when he created for 6 days straight, he stepped back and said it was good. And then he rested on the 7th day. There have been several books recently written about the Sabbath. Rest, they say, is important. Giving space, they say, is required. You can’t just keep going. You have to take a break at some point.

Why is it, then, that resting is so difficult? True rest, true stoppage, true ceasing to take care of business and simply pause.

Besides, it’s not that we’re accomplishing so much anyway. In the land of technology, we fritter away our time on our smartphones, our tablets and our computers. We watch TV with more channels than we need, certainly more than we can watch. Oh wait, did you miss it? That’s OK, just DVR it! You can watch it at the end of night, after the late show, while you’re tapping away on your tablet and catching up with the latest news on Facebook.

I find that when I do stop, when I do cease for a little while, my body tends to want to move, to sway back and forth, to create movement. If I’m still for very long, I simply fall asleep.

Maybe that’s the answer. Sleep. Rest.

This post was written more than a year ago and I didn’t publish it. Not sure why not, but here it is. 

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…Like an Ever-Rolling Stream

I have spent the last four days in a cabin just feet above a rolling stream in the mountains of Colorado. The water is white capped as it rolls over the rocks that protrude up from the river bed. There is a roar that never stops. It’s not too loud, but it is not a babbling brook either. It has continued to incessantly roll, supplied by waters from further up the mountain. 

The first several nights we slept with the windows closed, still hearing the roar of the river. We closed the windows mainly because of the roar of the river. The last several nights the windows have been opened and we’ve grown accustomed to the sound. It has struck me, however, that the sound of the rolling river has never stopped, never slowed, never gotten quiet and smooth. Since this sound has been somewhat foreign to me as I have never lived in a place like this, I have been aware every moment of this ever rolling stream. 

Being at a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, time affords reflection and stillness of the mind. Time allows for creative moments of reading and writing, thinking and introspection. In the midst of these moments, the river has always called out, always made it’s close proximity known. It hasn’t been intrusive, only present at all times. 

In the midst of these moments, I was drawn to Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Our world is in the deep throes of crying for justice, crying out for social reform and cultural awareness. We hear it from every newscast and from every blog dealing with political and cultural issues of our day. We are overwhelmed with the cries of injustice and for fairness in dealing with race and gender, politics and personal choice. Dr. Martin Luther King used this scripture as he cried for racial justice in the early 1960’s. But this scripture is more than just a battle cry for social reform. It is a cry for the kingdom of God to expand on this earth. It is a cry from Almighty God himself as he describes the Day of the Lord through his prophet Amos. 

This cry is for personal righteousness, for the holiness of God and of his people. In the day of Amos, sacrifices and worship had no impact on God because the hearts of the people were not changed. Personal transformation had not happened, only an outward sense of obedience and ritual. They believed they could perform their rituals without a change in their hearts. 

Things have not changed much since the day of Amos. We hear a lot these days about change, change that is coming, change that is promised from all sorts of avenues. But for true change to come to our land, to our world, it will not be mandated by government regulation, a new election, a change in leadership, nor the defeat of a particular religious body. It will only come through the personal transformation of people through the power of Jesus Christ. When true transformation happens, change will occur simply because we will be changed from the inside out. 

As that happens, justice will not be something to just talk about, but it will be acted upon in our lives, our communities, our cities and our nation. Righteousness will flow like this never-failing stream that runs beside me. And it will be loud. It will make its presence known, rolling over the jagged rocks and making them smooth, filling up the crevices that have been empty. It will be a force that cannot be stopped, for it will be flowing from the throne of God himself. 

I pray for that day to come soon. 

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