Monday, February 28, 2011

Plowing Up Morale: The Impact of Unjust Criticism

My good friend and colleague Trey Morgan composed an excellent blog last week entitled: Please Don’t be Mean to Your Minister/Preacher. You can read it at: Here is my response to Trey’s thoughts.

I good friend of mine, who serves in the patrol division for a city police department, received six complaints from the good citizens of that community in a one month period several years ago. I am defining a complaint as a citizen either calling or otherwise contacting that officer’s supervisor due to alleged misconduct. All such matters are taken seriously and are followed up on diligently. Six complaints in a 30 day period sound really bad! But in reality each of those accusations were found to be completely frivolous.

An officer’s name of course is quickly cleared when such is the case, but the damage that is done to that servant’s morale cannot be eradicated so quickly. When you go out there everyday with the intent of protecting and serving, thoughtless disapproval that leads to a conference in the lieutenant’s office is deflating. It is no great surprise then that police officers are hesitant to trust even those that are supposedly law abiding citizens.

As I reflect on this reality, I am reminded once again that the role of a minister and a police officer is very similar. (The officers I serve in my chaplain role generally laugh very hard when I propose such similarity to them.) But nevertheless it is true.

Ministers are all about serving. I think the vast majority of us are willing to serve sacrificially. In some instances, we too find ourselves in a protective mode. And the good folks we serve also feel very free to file complaints both publicly and privately. Some of their grievances are legitimate. In fact, I find constructive criticism to be a painful, but needed tool to sharpen my skills. But irresponsible or trivial objections have the same effect on ministers that they do on police officers. Such complaints obliterate trust and impair morale.

Thoughtless citizens never give such matters consideration before they pick up the phone and complain on an officer. (In many cases, they are mad over a well deserved traffic violation.) Church members can be equally tactless when they are frustrated with their minister. Their source of dissatisfaction is the only thing consuming their thoughts. Impacting morale or trust most likely has not crossed their mind.

I am fully aware that both police officers and ministers have plenty of room for professional improvement. It is unfortunate that all of us are members of that flawed human race. But it seems to me there should be some guidelines for protesting against the behavior of those that comprise these two professions. I am even willing to form a very preliminary listing of ideas! Here goes:

• Make sure that you have your facts straight. Missing or inaccurate facts obviously cause a complaint against a legitimate servant to be considered in a different light.

• Stick to the facts. What happened? How did that officer or minister offend you or otherwise fail to accomplish their assigned task? Criticism that is constructive does not include personal digs, gender biases, or racial prejudices.

Family matters… A minister’s family matters to him or her. You are treading on dangerous ground by bringing family members into the discussion in an unnecessary manner.

• Be especially cautious about foolish generalizations. That police officer is just out to get young drivers! That minister always preaches sermons that ________ (fill in the blank with all kinds of subjective conclusions.) Are those generalizations really based on fact?

Consider morale and trust…Human relationships thrive in an environment of trust and mutual respect. Complaints that are not rooted in facts or that are delivered in an insensitive manner plow up trust. The morale of those that are called to protect and serve is important to everyone including the person delivering the objection.

Or you can just forget this entire list and heed Trey’s advice: Don’t be mean to your preacher! But I have to include the police in that sentence too!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Afternoon at Cook Children's Hospital: Anything But Routine

Visiting families at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth has never become routine for me. And it never will… I have been making pastoral visits there for about 20 years. The building has been updated and the technology in the intensive care units has changed significantly during that time period. But the needs of families with sick babies and young children have remained unchanged.

Once upon a time many years ago I envisioned myself being a chaplain in a children’s hospital. That thought crossed my mind today as I visited with the father of a very sick newborn boy. My heart was immediately wrapped up in his concern for his baby son.  I could not help but think: I am not sure I could do this everyday with dozens of families!

As we chatted in the hallway adjacent to the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit, we both saw Care-Flight personnel transferring another newborn baby in a portable incubator to the NICU unit. The child had been flown in on a helicopter from somewhere…. Cook’s covers a large geographical area. A young father in his early 20’s was in an U.S. Army uniform. I did not see the baby’s mother. It is highly likely that she is still hospitalized somewhere after giving birth.

While the rest of us are going about our Saturday routines there are dozens of families at Cook Children’s Hospital waiting to receive word from a doctor about their sick baby, or dozing in a hospital room chair. There is always a lot of human drama unfolding in any hospital, but children’s hospitals are unique. I have ridden elevators with young children hospitalized to take chemotherapy more than once. That is one of many reasons that visiting a children’s hospital has never become routine…

I am grateful today for nurses and all kinds of other medical specialists that serve sick infants and children. God gave such servants a special compassion gene in their DNA makeup. They are top notch in the field of pediatric care, and equally good in their treatment of anxious parents. I have great respect for the nurses in the emergency room at Cook’s who witness horrific cases of child abuse along with all kinds of other trauma cases. I am truly amazed at the skill of the surgical and intensive care nurses. The complicated technology they use everyday is mind boggling.

My visit at Cook Children’s Hospital today was not routine. It ended up being a strong wake up call. I walked to the parking garage realizing how fortunate I was to rub shoulders with those that have that special compassion gene in their DNA…

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What is Your Purpose at This Stage in Your Life?

The word purpose is being tossed about a lot these days. People are asking: what is my purpose in life? What do I need to be doing? And more specifically what should I be engaged in that this particular stage in life? I have actually been asking myself such questions recently.

I am a part of the "Barely Boomer" generation. I was born in 1962. The official cut-off for the Baby Boomer Generation is generally viewed as being 1964. We were teenagers right in the middle of the short lived disco era. But today younger boomers are a part of what I would call the “Sandwich Generation.” Many of us either have children still at home or we have kids in college. There are few of us have grown kids that have returned home! Each of those scenarios brings its own set of joys and challenges.

Members of this Sandwich Generation are commonly facing the realities of serving aging parents. Those parents more often than not are dealing with serious illness, so we find ourselves sandwiched between two very distinct needs. Our responsibilities toward our family become more complex and stressful overnight. In some cases, parents live hours away or perhaps in another state.

I will not have to face such challenges. My parents have been deceased for a long time now. On March 13th, my father will have been gone 33 years. This October will be the 20 year marker for the loss of my mother. I can focus exclusively on my sweet wife and children. I can excuse myself  from  official membership "Sandwich Generation."  How nice… Too bad it is not true...

My unique situation among my friends partially defines a  new sense of purpose and calling for this stage in life. My purpose is to serve my friends that are caring for their parents. I know what it is like to commute back to the hometown to be present for surgeries. I communicated with doctors on behalf of my mother. (It is a good thing she did not know that. She would have flipped!) I dealt extensively with impersonal insurance companies on her behalf. I provided comic relief for the family when the stress of it all was about to overtake us. And I joined my sisters in making difficult decisions about our mother’s care.

I am not bitter about my circumstances. I should say: not anymore…. I am actually thankful to be at a place in life where I can provide something to my friends that is needed. I count it a blessing to come and stand beside them as they face the hurdles associated with being a part of the "Sandwich Generation". There is no doubt in my mind that this is an opportunity to fulfill my God given purpose.

What is your purpose at this stage in your life? Ponder this idea today: you may find a renewed sense of purpose buried under past experiences that you would rather not think about. The difficult things you have experienced in life may very well be what define part of your contribution to the lives of others. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

He Never Mentioned the Lost Money...

I read a news account today about a man who had his wallet stolen out of his jacket while it was hanging in a hallway of the New York City building he worked in at the time in 1969. Workers tearing an interior wall out of the old structure recently found the long lost billfold after all of these years. Everything was still in it just as he had left it 42 years ago. (The cash of course was gone.) Nothing was mentioned about the lost money…

There was a snapshot of his young, pretty wife that he had taken that year when she was all dressed up for Easter Sunday. And there were pictures of two small children still completely intact in the wallet that had been stowed in a wall for over 4 decades. It was the pictures that the man talked about in his interview with the media. Nothing was mentioned about the lost money…

The tangible reminders of that era in his life caused him to be very emotional. Nothing was mentioned about his wife today, so I could not help but wonder if she is deceased.  Based on the age of the children in the pictures I would surmise that they are in the late 40’s or early 50’s today. The snapshots and the other items he kept in his billfold in 1969 were symbolic of an era that has long passed for that older gentleman. But nothing was mentioned about the lost money…

As I read this account today, I felt a little better. I must confess that I get emotional when I walk down the hallway in our home near two now empty bedrooms where my two older boys once slept. There are collages of photos on the walls of that hallway of three little boys. Now two are adults and one will be soon. At this stage in life, I don’t ever think about the money I did not have during their formative years. It just never crosses my mind. In fact, it is just not important to me. But I treasure that era and the pictures that represent it. My message to young dads with small children today: don’t get caught up in the pursuit of success or the acquisition of stuff. I can promise you 40 years from now that you won’t mention money gained or lost.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Friendships are Messy

When Jan prepares a meal or bakes goodies for noon birthday gatherings for her co-workers, the kitchen remains in a state of order during the entire process. It is disgusting. You can’t even tell that she is working on something. She cleans as she goes. She puts spices up right after using them. Something is wrong with that picture.

When I prepare meal, you know I have been there. There are pots stacked everywhere. There is a dusting of flour on the floor and more than a hint of sugar on the kitchen counter. The container of cinnamon and its lid are likely to get separated before everything is all over. If you walk through the kitchen, you might be taken aback. Or you might just realize that a culinary genius is at work.

My oldest son, Randall, commented during a recent visit home that things look scary when I am in the kitchen, but the final outcome is always good. Randall is known for his brutal honesty. He is not one to white wash the truth in order to spare feelings. I took his observation as a compliment.

I have thought about Randall’s comment a lot since then. I so wish that we could view our relationships with people in the same light. Relationships can be as messy as my kitchen. In most cases, we are doing our best to work toward a mutually fulfilling friendship.

Randall is confident that the final outcome of my cooking will be positive. That is actually not always true… But his positive expectations are good for both of us!  Let’s view the process of our friendships in the same way, even when things are complicated and perhaps unpleasant. The kitchen of life can be hot and messy and chaotic. Don’t give up. The final outcome is more likely to be good if we keep our attitude positive.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Get the RIGHT People on the Bus and No One Will Be Thrown Under the Bus

I am wrestling with a concept I read in a book recently that is focused on management principles. The author states that it is necessary for a struggling corporation to get “the right people on the bus” if the organization is going to thrive. In other words, the right people need to be plugged into roles that fit their talent and expertise. I suspect it is common for corporations to find themselves with employees serving in roles that just don’t fit them. In this line of reasoning, the authors also argue that character is important. Getting the right people on the bus can be further defined then by assembling individuals with good motives and credible behavior.

The “Bus Principle” sounds great in theory. In a corporate setting, managers can hire or terminate individuals with some degree of freedom in order to put an effective team together. How can I apply the bus principle to my role as a minister in a church? There are of course a few humorous images that capture my imagination. (I will not share those!) Can such an idea apply to any organization that is largely dependent on a core of volunteers to accomplish its tasks?

I have two responses to the “Bus Principle” for churches…

• The church should pick up bus riders from all locations and for all reasons.

During my more twisted moments I have an image of assembling a church membership with people that I like. All of the grouches would be eliminated. Whiners are not allowed. Snobs are not permitted to be near the building. We would indeed have all of the right people on the bus, and much good would be accomplished.

Twisted is a good word… The church exists to embrace all people from all walks of life at all times. Grouches need the church. Whiners need a place to grow too. Grace must be extended to the snobs among us. The church should pick up bus riders from all locations for all reasons.

• The church needs the right people riding on the leadership bus.

Here is where the “Bus Principle” as it is articulated in the above mentioned book applies to churches. Larger churches of course have a lot of people on their staff teams. Hiring the right people that are gifted to fulfill their assigned task is obviously imperative. And there is no room for pre-Madonna’s on a church staff. I have known talented ministers who needed a good swift kick. Humility must carry the day. Humble servants are able to serve grouches, snobs, and even the most chronic of whiners.

The same ideal should be held onto for volunteer leaders. My longtime mentor often says: “The most willing volunteer is not always the most qualified person for the job.” His conclusion is correct. Churches need to be thoughtful as they place people in volunteer roles. Getting the right people on the bus applies in this case. Failure to follow such guidance can be damaging to the organization and particularly to individuals that are in need of what that church can offer. Get the right leaders on the bus in a church setting and no one will be thrown under the bus.

I will continue to wrestle with the “Bus Principle.” Churches are very unique groups with their own organizational pathologies. Striking the balance between being grace centered and task driven is an ongoing challenge. When I get it figured out, I suppose I can write a book! In the meantime, I recommend the book entitled: From Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Other Don’t, by Jim Collins.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Millenial Generation: Narcissistic?

I heard a speaker at a conference who made the observation that the present generation of young people is the most narcissistic group of people this nation has ever seen. And then he turned to the Baby Boomers in the crowd and said: And you raised them! As a student of history, I dare to differ with him. Even the group of WWII veterans among us commonly referred to as The Greatest Generation have glaring faults. I suppose the younger ones among us are always an easy target, because they still need a few years to learn life lessons that only experience can provide. If the truth be known, people of all generations have the propensity be selfish. Today’s younger generation may not be as bad as we think. During a recent visit to Wal-Mart such a theory was substantiated.
As I exited the store on near the Garden Center, I saw an elderly gentleman laid out on the sidewalk in a really awkward position. I immediately knew something was wrong. I made my way over to him as quickly as I could with sacks full of Valentine goodies!  Two young men, who must have been 19 or 20 years old, beat me to it. My training immediately kicked in, so I was prepared to ask the man if he was hurting anywhere. I wanted to determine if had broken any bones before we attempted to get him off the ground. His two new young friends once again beat me to it. They had him on his feet before I could blink.

By this time his concerned wife, who had gone to get the car, arrived. I feel certain the poor old guy had given up his driving privileges. We made sure he was safely seated in the front seat before going our separate ways. I thanked the two young Samaritans, and headed toward my own vehicle. It occurred to me that in a few years that could be me spread out on the pavement for every Wal-Mart shopper to gawk at. (It has only been in very recent years that such thoughts have crossed my mind!) But mainly I was just grateful for a couple of strong young men, who probably don’t know how to spell narcissistic. And that is perfectly fine, because their actions showed that they are anything but self-absorbed.

Good Samaritans come in all shapes, sizes, and ages too… I am pretty confident that all three of my boys would have stopped to help an elderly person if they were placed in a similar situation. There are a lot of great young people out there. I just hope that I am a good example for them of what serving others is all about. Monday’s Wal-Mart run turned out to be a time when a member of The Greatest Generation just met some really great guys. And they just happened to members of the Millennial Generation that often gets the label of narcissism…

Friday, February 18, 2011

Public School Teachers Deserve Respect

I am a product of the Wisconsin educational system. I received an excellent elementary education in Racine, Wisconsin. My dad was an executive with the farm equipment division of The Case Corporation, which had its primary headquarters in Racine at that time. (Case-New Holland is now a global farm equipment company.) Quite naturally I have watched the events in the Wisconsin state legislature this week, which have dramatic implications for public educators.

Teachers in Wisconsin have had collective bargaining rights for a long time. A bill introduced in their state legislature would effectively remove that privilege. (Other state employees would be affected in a similar manner as I understand it.) Are teacher unions a good idea? I could probably argue both sides of that issue. What troubles me goes much deeper than the existence of a teacher’s union.

Public school teachers are the backbone of our society. In today’s world, we expect them to be social workers, security keepers, and trained diplomats to handle conflicts with helicopter parents hovering over their little darlings. And somewhere in the process they are required to prepare their students for a world that is far more competitive than ever before. A massive amount of mandated documentation takes them away from the primary task of interacting with students for the purpose of educating.

I have yet to meet a teacher that chose that profession, because they wanted to be on the fast track to imminent wealth. The vast majority of teachers are totally committed to their students. Being an educator is truly a calling. It defies all reason in my estimation to slash a budget by punishing the very people that are helping to hold our crumbling society together.

I have not lived in Wisconsin since 1975. I completed my education in Texas with equally competent professional educators. I have several friends that are teaching in the public school system in Wisconsin. They are teaching English as a second language, economics, and providing special education for students in need of such services. They are highly competent individuals whom I would eagerly entrust my children with. I support my lifelong Wisconsin friends that are called to be teachers. In fact, I am supportive of public educators everywhere. Let’s communicate to our children’s teachers this week that we appreciate and value their sacrificial service.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Most Significant Love Purchase of the Day

I joined dozens of other men yesterday at Walmart purchasing last minute Valentine gifts. I could not help but be amused by the man who was obviously agonizing what to choose among the wide array of candy displayed in the center of the main aisle. I wanted to stop and tell him: she really won’t care which box you choose! Interestingly enough most of the people I saw perusing through the selection of red roses, candy, and stuffed animals were men over 65. I found it inspiring. One of my friends indicated later in the day that her father, who has been married to her mother for 61 years, was among that group of Valentine consumers yesterday. Apparently he went the flower route. As I was on my way out of the store, I encountered a friend of mine making the most significant “love purchase” of the day in my mind.

Greg is 77 years old. When I saw him in Walmart yesterday, he was not purchasing candy or flowers. He came into the store to buy a cane for his wife, who recently underwent surgery stemming from a broken hip. She was dismissed from the hospital and in turn sent to a nursing home facility for rehab purposes. I wish everyone could have had the opportunity I did to observe her husband’s demeanor in Walmart yesterday.

As Greg updated me on his wife’s progress, he acted like a 16 year old buying his girlfriend a gift. Securing a cane was a symbol of his wife’s return home after surgery, and he could not have been more excited. I actually wondered for a minute if I was in the presence of a 16 year old experiencing his first love. I am so thankful that I ran into Greg yesterday. I got to be an eyewitness to the most significant “love purchase” of the day.  May his number increase!  His sweet wife would have been proud of him.  In fact, I think I will read her this story at the nursing home this afternoon.  It might put a different perspective on her very unique gift for Valentine's this year.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Spitting on the Golf Green is Never a Good Idea

Tiger Woods is in trouble again. Apparently he spit on the green after he putted out on one of the holes he was playing in this past weekend’s tournament. After reviewing the video, The European Tour announced today that Tiger would be fined an undisclosed amount for his blatant breach of golf etiquette. I must confess that I gloated over Tiger’s latest public relations blunder. And that is not right.

The problem is that I don’t like Tiger. I didn’t like him before his chronic acts of infidelity came to the surface late in 2009. I have always perceived him to be arrogant and impersonal. My friends that work in the golf industry have confirmed the assumptions I have made about his character. One sports writer that I read this morning pointed out that the “Anti-Tiger” contingent will make a big deal out of this latest infraction. I suppose I would be a member of such a group, but it is still not right.

I admit that I am very inconsistent. If I like someone, I will extend miles of patience to them. They can do something that I find offensive, and I will most likely be inclined to overlook the affront. I am pretty loyal to my friends. But if someone like Tiger gets fined for spitting, I find it a bit amusing. That will never be right.

Last time I checked being fair and just is a characteristic of the wise. One dimension of fairness is to be consistent in the expression of compassion and tolerance. If Phil Mickelson was fined for spitting, I would be raging mad. I would be saying: Give him a verbal warning! There is no need for a fine! (Can you tell that I like Phil?) I am convicted. I realize that I am as inconsistent as Texas weather in February.  Spitting on the golf green at a tournament is never a good idea, but neither is adopting a mindest of favortism . I am going to make a real effort to an adopt an attitude that reflects fairness and justice with everyone.  I do believe that is the right thing to do…

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Worth the Climb....

I have a very good friend (who shall remain anonymous) who does not like the idea of attending a marriage retreat or enrichment seminar with his wife. His philosophy is: “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I must confess that I can have leanings in the same direction, so when some of our younger couples at church started planning a marriage retreat for this Valentine’s weekend, my friend’s thought processes start running through my head. But this year another friend, Trey Morgan, was invited to be the speaker. Trey is just an awesome guy. I had to go. And I am so glad I did…

Trey spoke candidly about a lot of marital issues during his 3 sessions today. His humility and good humor made for a meaningful and fun filled day for the 36 couples that attended. He saved his “sex talk” for the final session of the day. I guess you do what you have to get people to stay for the duration of the retreat.

In his presentation on sexual intimacy, he described the experience of an older gentleman and his wife. The man’s wife asked him if he would like to go upstairs and have sex. His response: I can do one or the other, but not both! Poor guy…. That story inspired me not only to be a better husband, but to get in better physical condition. After all I want to be able to climb stairs for many years to come.

Marriage retreats serve a good purpose. Bringing up issues that pertain to marriage inspire couples with good marriages to have better relationships. And retreats of this nature can also be the catalyst to prompt people in struggling marriages not to give up.  Our marriages are worth the time and attention.

Maybe next go around I can be a better influence on my friend who is hesitant to attend such functions, because I feel certain that he wants to be able to climb stairs for a number of years to come as well. 

A big thanks to Trey Morgan for a great day. Check his blog out at:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Help! I am Surrounded By Imperfect People!

I need a double dose of the “Charlie Principle” today. My friend Charlie Goin lives in Woodward, OK. He is one of those characters that you don’t soon forget if you ever meet him. He is one of the most generous and kind spirited people I have ever known. He is also the worst driver in the state of Oklahoma as well as being a world traveler. Charlie is just a character. He shared something with me about 10 years ago that I have since dubbed “The Charlie Principle.”

Charlie and his sweet wife of over 60 years opened a furniture store in the early 1960’s. I am sure there were times when they struggled, but it is now an imminently successful third generation family business. (The store is beautiful by the way.) But I digress. Here is the “Charlie Principle:” As an employer, you will get the most productivity out of employees if you choose to dwell on their positive attributes instead of their liabilities.” Charlie told me on one occasion that the people available for what he could pay in that business were not always the most educated or ambitious young people that the community had to offer. But he chose to focus on their good qualities. He built their confidence. He chose not to dwell on their liabilities of lack of skills. Consequently he has been fortunate to have some of the same employees for many years. Such a principle has contributed to the overall success of the business. How does such an ideal apply to all areas of life?

Whatever we choose to be involved in it will entail dealing with flawed people. I get really tired of pettiness. I got home from a great trip to Torreon, Mexico. I met church leaders there who are operating on a shoe string. I interacted with couples who have minimal support network for emotional and spiritual fortification. And then I came home to a variety of petty concerns. I thought to myself: I will just go right back to Mexico and stay!! That is a poor solution, because that country is filled the brim with flawed human beings. No matter where we go or what we do it will involve dealing with imperfect people. I need the “Charlie Principle” today. In fact, I think I will take a triple dose.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fleeing our Comfortable Social Islands

I have been in Torreon, Mexico most of this week lecturing for church leaders at an annual seminar. The schedule is pretty intense with short breaks after each presentation. I shared the time with three capable speakers. I am generally given practical ministry topics to address. This year I focused on family concerns for families serving in ministry. The best part of the seminar for me took place after all of the lectures had already been delivered…

Several of the students who speak reasonably good English initiated a conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to their concerns and getting to know to them a little better. Some of the comments in my presentations obviously fired off their personal stories. By the time our interchange was over today, I was on the learning end! I realized some things about myself and about churches that I am associated with.

We have the tendency to focus the differences that exist between us and people of a different culture. There are language barriers and seemingly dramatic lifestyle differences for starters. It hit me hard after my post-seminar discussion that these young leaders share a lot of the same concerns that I have. They are concerned about the world their children will grow up in. They are watching 13 year olds involved in the drug violence in their country. It makes me sad that cultural and racial differences cause people to flee from each other.

I have great respect for churches in my own state that are choosing to remain in neighborhoods that are changing demographically. I have little patience for doing the “white flight” thing. There is something deeply ungodly about that choice in my estimation. If we would stay around, we might actually learn that we have more in common with people that are of a different race or nationality than we might have initially thought.

I am more committed than ever to become proficient in Spanish. I realize being bi-lingual is an important way to build relational bridges. Constructing relational bridges is the only way to discover that we share many of the same concerns. I am very aware that I have been in a different culture this week, but I have grown to appreciate the degree of commonality that exists among people that are very different.

We are living a nation that will continue to become more diverse culturally. I am determined not to flee to the comfort of some white, middle class social island.  That just sounds really boring!  And I don't think it is the right thing to do either.  We can benefit from cross-cultural relationships that in a sense may not be as cross-cultural as we might think!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It Really is a Big Deal!

There is a group of four of us delivering lectures for the next two days on behalf of church leaders serving all over Northern Mexico. Most of the participants traveled via bus to get to this event. The school hosting the seminar provides breakfast and a homemade noon meal. (The food is great!!) This annual two day seminar is one of the rare opportunities for this group of people to have a continuing education experience. Staying in a hotel and enjoying the company of colleagues is not commonplace. Eating an evening meal at a relatively nice restaurant is something they rarely get to do.  The entire experience really is a big deal.  When I contrast this two day serminar with the privileges that I have, it shames me.

Next month I will spend four days in Little Rock lecturing at the regional training seminar hosted by the International Conference of Police Chaplains. During that same time period I will get to be a participant in some advanced critical incident response training specific to chaplains. When we are in Little Rock, we will stay at a nice hotel and enjoy a formal banquet one the evenings when we are there.

In July, I have plans to travel to Chicago to participate in the first of eight retreats over a 3 year period focusing on spiritual formation. It will be an amazing experience. I consider it a real privilege to participate in such a specialized and in-depth continuing education experience. I suppose the bottom line is: I have no reason to complain. I am so fortunate. I have privileges that few professionals in my field get to enjoy. I just hope that the things I am learning can be shared with others. And if I complain….well let’s just hope I am not that foolish.

Fear Destroys Community

One of the things that I have enjoyed most in my travels to a number of cities in Mexico over the years is the bustling atmosphere in the downtown areas that continues well into the evening. The sidewalks are full of people. Street vendors are common. Small specialty stores of all kinds stay open at least until 10:00 p.m. There appears to be a real sense of community among the people. Last night when we arrived via a commercial airline it was very different.

At 9:00 p.m., the streets were deserted. There were no people on the sidewalks. The traffic was minimal. A man near our hotel told us that the citizens decided on a self-imposed curfew. They communicated this choice to each other via Facebook. It is sad to see such a dramatic change in traditional Mexican culture.

The violence generated by warring drug cartels has created an atmosphere of fear among the people. The economy is being impacted negatively. Tourism is affected. The people that once filled the sidewalks at night have retreated to the safety of their homes.

What is the answer? I don’t have one. I have a few suspicions regarding the root cause of the problem. But they are just that… I feel badly for the people down here. The atmosphere has changed the way that we travel and visit here. It could ultimately cause us to cease making trips here completely if a resolution to the problems is not reached.

As I think about the situation here, I am reminded that fear destroys community. That is a principle that applies to a number of life situations. We are afraid of social situations, so we hide. We have been damaged by a relationship, so we cower down. Fear can cause us to retreat to the safety and privacy of our home and become social recluses. What is the answer to such challenges? I say: branch out and refuse to let fear be the controlling factor!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Her Name is April?

Eleven years ago I received a manila envelope with a cordial letter and a vhs tape. The letter was an invitation from Gil Sanchez, who directs Casa De Le Esperanza, a children’s home in the Northern Mexico state of Chihuahua. Somehow Gil became aware that I had led groups of medical professionals to conduct free clinics in several Mexican cities. That prompted the invitation I received in the mail in 2000. The vhs tape was a promotional video telling the story of the children’s home. When I watched the video, I could not contain my excitement. But at that time I had more commitments medical mission commitments than I could handle…

Fast forward the clock 4 years. In 2004, I was hired by a church in Granbury, Texas. It was terribly painful to leave a place where I had grown to love the people more than I can possibly express. Woodward, OK is officially out in the middle of nowhere, but they are some of the finest people I have ever known. But I was ready to get back to familiar territory, and reestablish friendships that in some cases went all the way back to junior high school.

When I was hired in 2004, church leaders in Granbury told me that they had an ongoing partnership with Casa De Le Esperanza in Mexico. I was asked if might be interested in leading a medical mission trip down there. I was reminded of a letter of invitation that I had received 4 years earlier…

Casa takes in children of all ages who have been abandoned and abused. They do an amazing job of serving these precious children. In the most recent newsletter from Casa, director Gil Sanchez tells this about one of their most recent additions to the family at Casa De La Esperanza.
A week after arriving at Casa we learned from a neighbor that her name is April. April was found abandoned and living in indescribable filth. We do not know the whereabouts of any family, having found her alone and abandoned. April appears very shy and introverted, which I think is more a reflection of her mistreatment and abuse than the actual person we will come to know as she learns to put her trust in us. When April was first brought to us, there was no way of telling just how long she was left alone or when she was last bathed, her cloths or diaper changed. The indescribable filth she was found living in was matched only by the stench of her cloths. When first asked her name, he murmured “Guero” which translates “Blonde” in English. Having so little information about April at this point, we can only estimate that she is about 4 years old.

Yesterday I quoted my friend Dan Bouchelle when he makes the following observation about ministry: It’s not enough to feel called if you want to stay in it. You have to love it… Now you know one reason I love it. I get to rub shoulders with the “April’s” of this world. And for some reason I think that can be equated with being in the presence of greatness…

Friday, February 4, 2011

It is Not Enough to Feel Called: You Have to Love It...

In a recent blog post entitled: Things I’ve Learned About the Preaching Life Since I Quit, my friend and esteemed colleague Dan Bouchelle lists 5 things that he has indeed learned since leaving ministry on a church staff six months ago. All of 5 of his insights are excellent, but I am just going to share the first one in this forum.

I am not inclined to whine about my role as a minister (except occasionally on Monday mornings when the adrenalin from the day before crashes.) Dan’s thoughts might help my friends understand me better. Here is the first point on Dan’s list of five: Preaching is really, really hard…

I’ve now had six months in a job that does not have the word preacher, minister, or pastor in the title. It’s been over 7 months since I worked for a church. Since I grew up in a preacher’s family and have served in local church ministry since 1988, this has been a time of great exploration and insight for me. I’ve learned a few things that I suspected but did not know before. They include the following:

Preaching is really really hard. I work hard now--maybe harder than I did before--but it is not as hard on me. The pressure of a preaching ministry is intense and never goes away. You are never off even when you are off. Your life is seamless. Your family, job, church, friends, and every other part of your life are just one interconnected web of sameness. You feel a responsibility for everyone in your church or anyone in your community with a need who calls on you--and they do call. You feel intense pressure to rescue, redeem, care for, and change people you cannot control and who may bail out on you at the drop of a hat. You have a dual relationship to everyone in your life. You are always the preacher as well as whatever else you are to them, and that preacher thing gets in the way. You feel the pressure to prepare messages every week that are entertaining, faithful to the Word, effective, relevant, culturally aware, deep, transformative, and non-controversial. I could go on, but I’m going to start sounding even more like a whiny preacher. But, here is the take home. Pray for your preacher and be thankful anyone is willing to do that job. It’s not enough to feel called if you want to stay in it. You have to love it. –Dan Bouchelle is now the Executive Director of Missions Resource Network.

Why do I love what I do?  There are a myriad of answers to that question. In my next post, I will share one aspect of my role that has been extremely meaningful over the years. It might even be something that we could share in together at some point. Tune into tomorrow for a post entitled: Abandoned but Not Lost…

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tangible Symbols...

Some of my friends laugh when I tell them that I get excited about trips to Lubbock, Texas.  But my classmates and other friends that grew up out there can appreciate my enthusiasm for West Texas.  Yesterday I made a quick run to Lubbock to pick up 40 copies of a hymnal that is printed in Spanish.  Time did not allow for me to visit with longtime friends, but I did manage to grab a bean burrito at Taco Villa for lunch.  (Visits to a Lubbock Taco Villa are imperative and must never be overlooked.)

I am not capable of just picking up a box of hymnals.  I see such adventures as an opportunity to make a new friend.  Yesterday was no exception.  Debora is a very sharp lady, who is fully bi-lingual.  She owns the copyright to the books I purchased called: Cantos Espirtuales.  Publishing Spanish hymnls is just a sideline that she inherited from her father. (He owned a business that entailed both publishing and re-binding books.)   She is actually a seasoned realtor in  the Lubbock community.

We soon discovered that we both graduated from Monterey High School.   And we also learned that we both  lost our fathers at a young age.  I suspect it was that second common bond that led Debora to show me a room that is filled with books that comprised her fathers library.  (She even told me that she normally does not take people into that sacred section of her office complex.) It is a an extensive collection of resources in English and Spanish.   Deobora told me that she feels compelled to do something with all of those books, but finds it hard to let go of materials that have her fathers name and notes inscribed in them.

I can relate.  I have quite an array of toy tractors displayed on my bookshelves in my office.  It is a little amusing to have tractors positioned in front of a collection of theological books.  But those tractors represent a connection to my father and his chosen career.   I was reminded yesterday as Debora shared a  private part of her world that tangible symbols of our deceased loved ones are important to maintain. 

I am sure at some point she will donate a lot of those books to an educational institution where Spanish is the primary language.  But there will be a few treasured pieces that will remain in the real estate office.  Theological books on the shelves in a real estate office seem as out of place as  tractors in a ministers study.  But for those of us who desire to preserve the memory of our loved ones, it makes perfect sense.