You Were There

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This summer we are working through Gene Getz’s encouraging book BUILDING UP ONE ANOTHER. This week our study is about honoring one another. One of the points he makes is that we sometimes fail to honor the ones who helped us along in our lives at crucial moments. I do not know if I have failed to say ‘thank you’ across the years, but maybe it’s been a while. And while I can’t name every person of influence in my life, I can thank a few. So that’s what this post is about.

While I can’t name every person of influence in my life, I can thank a few.

It’s not hard to make the list. It is hard to limit the list in some way, though. So I’m just presenting a few examples. Some of the people who helped me are no longer with us. Some I’m just not in contact with. Without much of a father figure in my life, I think these men filled more than the role of advisors and mentors … they were fathers in the faith to me.

Cecil May, Jr. was the new President of MBC not long after I arrived. While I won’t name every teacher (and I did love them all and was well influenced by them), Brother May’s influence is highly impactful in my life and my ministry even today. His commitment to study, his attention to the details of the text, and his spirit of civility are all well known. Once when I lived in the Mississippi Delta, I was struggling with a teaching of the Bible I couldn’t quite get. He drove from Kosciusko and met me in Greenwood to spend a few hours with me to talk about it. I don’t know that I ever felt more important or more encouraged. I worked for him for a few years and I never saw him lose his temper, heard him say a curse word, or witnessed him be unkind to anyone (even some who were being very unkind to him). And as a bonus, among my closest friends are his children. Thank you, Cecil.

Names are running through my mind now … many more than I can share.

Eddie Lewis was the preacher for the, then, Highway 8 Church of Christ in Cleveland, Mississippi. I had just graduated from college and was about as green as I could get (even if I didn’t know it!). I had so much to learn from Eddie and he was such a willing mentor. What an excellent example he was and is. He was a disciplined and diligent worker for the church. He was excellent at visiting the members, evangelism, counseling … and such an encourager. Eddie’s wife, Judy, was also an encouraging presence not only in the church but in my life. Eddie eventually presided at my marriage to the beautiful and delightful Maggy. As I look back over the years, I have thought many times about what a wonderful role model he was for me. I wish I was more like him in so many ways. Judy is with the Lord now, and it is no surprise that Eddie found a partner who is just as enthused about Kingdom work as he. God bless you, Eddie and Madolyn! And Eddie… thank you.

Some People Have Influence Over Many Years.

John Pigg has had a lasting influence in my life over the years. He was the preacher at Kosciusko, when I went to college at age 17. He invited me to be on staff at his session of Sardis Lake Christian Camp, which became a part of my life for a decade of summer sessions and retreats. When I was the Youth and Campus Minister in Cleveland, Mississippi, John was preaching in both Greenwood and, later, Greenville. While he was at South Main Church of Christ in Greenville he invited me down to have lunch with him. There was a lady in his congregation whose brother was an elder in a coastal Mississippi town. They were looking for a preacher and John knew that I was feeling the need to embrace the ministry for which I had been trained. So, it was because of John that I met elder Robert Lingle and ultimately moved to Pascagoula to work with the Central Church of Christ. Robert was a huge influence in my life and I still quote his wisdom today! I stayed there for sixteen formative years. John Pigg is non-stop, on-mission, and always ready with a word of encouragement. He is a relentless gospel preacher and he taught me so much. Thank you, John.

It’s almost embarrassing the names I’m passing by … each one so important in the development of who I am today.

Cecil, Eddie, and John were like steady rocks upon which I leaned across the first decades of ministry. They all know one another, but they are each as different as can be. That’s another blessing to note as well. I didn’t have to become like any of them, to receive the benefits of wisdom and example of all of them. Through the influence of these men (and many others), God has been tending to my path all along. I didn’t really know it at the time.

So I hope two things are happening. I hope I’m still leaning and learning on those who have greater wisdom, strength, insight, and influence. And I hope that along the way I have passed along some of those things to others. I appreciate the insight of Gene Getz and his encouragement to honor one another above yourself by saying thank you. You were there when I needed you.

“The facts are that all of us have gotten where we are with the help of others.” – Gene Getz

The Unintentional Prodigal

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The story of the Prodigal was always about someone else. I wonder if many haven’t become an unintentional prodigal and it happened so gradually that they do not even know it.

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the best known stories of the Bible. It doesn’t seem like a tale of gradual decline, but we are not given the details of the time between the young man’s request of his inheritance and waking up starving in a hog pen. It doesn’t take much imagination when we read that “squandered his wealth in wild living.” But as he took each step toward the hog pen, he ignored everything he knew and proceeded to waste it all. That’s what ‘prodigal’ means; wasteful.

I know the pandemic was (is) rough on us all.

I know the pandemic was (is) rough on us all. Truthfully, I expect that it will be a few years before we fully realize what happened to us during this traumatic experience – I mean really understand the impact it has had on our psyche. One area of loss has been in the spiritual connection to God.

While some used it as a time to reconnect with God, I think there are some people who let their spiritual life slide and now can’t figure out why they’ve lost interest. Focused on the news, numbers, reports of spreading illness, grieving the losses of friends and family, income and savings depletion all have taken their toll. The one place where we found security, family, hope, faith either didn’t exist for a while or had such restrictions it didn’t seem the same. So, many just stayed home.

And there they still are. I know, some remain very connected to the church even though they do not yet attend in person. Good! But some have just slipped away. And in small increments the fire is going out. I doubt they consider themselves prodigals – but if we waste every opportunity to grow closer to God and His Family, what else can it be called?

Envision the Father’s welcoming arms!

This is not to wag a finger of judgment. What can redirect the prodigal towards home? Envision the Father’s welcoming arms! I don’t know what you might expect when you re-enter the life of the church, but there will be some representatives of the King ready to welcome you with joy and smiles. Re-engage the basics of Scripture Reading and Prayer. Connect up with active believers and join in with them to serve others. One thing is always true about prodigals, the One who counts the most is ready to welcome the loudest.

I remain prayerful and concerned for those who, during a time of upheaval, stayed away from the church and decided that was ok.

Thirteen

There are no new pictures, no new experiences to share, and no new life developments to tell you about. At the marker of thirteen years without John Robert there are no new observations. We’ve lived through several cycles of holidays, birthdays, and this anniversary of loss. At least so far, we have survived the most devastating loss a parent can imagine. We have associated with other bereaved parents and been coached, encouraged, and helped on this journey. So what is there to share thirteen years later?

Maybe there’s something good about the lack of new reflections to express. When our dreams for his life were snatched from us in one stunning moment, we couldn’t imagine ourselves coping thirteen years later. As we sifted through all the emotions over and over again, it did not appear possible to ever feel kind of normal again. After years of reading, writing, teaching, and speaking about grief, I have come across few really new and helpful gems of knowledge. Not that I know everything about grief- far from it. Grief is so personal and individual that you never know all there is to know. It’s just that somewhere on the timeline you realize you don’t think about your grief any longer. It is no longer the center of your attention. But grief?

It is still there.

If thirteen years of grief has taught me anything, it is that on the day that I pass from this earth I will have my grief with me. The only way I can be rid of my grief is to stop loving John Robert. That, I cannot do.

In order to carry John Robert in our hearts forever, we must also carry the sorrow of loss. It no longer controls us. The dark presence of grief has diminished and is mostly a subtext of our lives, not the main feature that it was for a while. We don’t fall apart every day. We can tell funny stories and share happy memories without a waterfall of tears. We can look at his pictures and smile. We reflect on the promise of heaven and being reunited with him. We hurt less but we do not love him less. So if you see us smile, it is genuine. But grief?

It is still there.

So if I have any new reflection about grief at this marker in time, it is that in spite of the fact that grief remains a presence in our hearts, it is not in control. Most of the time. It is our plan to stand at his grave tomorrow and reflect. We will place flowers and see family. We will wonder aloud … what would a 31 year old John Robert be doing? We will agree that he would be making us smile. We will laugh, enjoy a meal, visit with Maggy’s sisters that we haven’t seen in a year, and John Robert will be in the middle of our thoughts during all of it.

Yes, grief is still there.

Grief is not necessarily a friend, but it is a reminder of the depth of love we still feel for the one who is no longer with us. In that sense, love never dies. So, it may be true that grief is still there. But we have this inward reminder:

Love is still there also.

Out here, hope remains.

Previous Post: Ten Years…What I’ve Learned.

Church Roulette

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I already know that you might be uncomfortable with just the idea, the image of church and roulette in the same title. I get it. I also hope you will take a moment to think through this with me.

In my last post I wrote about how everyone is just trying to figure out how to land the plane, and church leaders are no different. I know that churches are figuring out how to respond as we emerge from the pandemic. And this is being done without a playbook. No church leader has experience with this re-emergence process. In a sense, any move forward is a gamble. The outcome is uncertain because no one knows exactly the right next step.

We are living in a new world.

Many leaders and thinkers are writing about the post-covid life and post-covid church – and I’m not sure we are post-covid (certainly not on a global scale). Gaining inertia when there has been nothing for over a year has proven to be a huge challenge. There are as many attitudes as there are individuals. How do you pull people together when they are as splintered as ever? The church is presented in Scripture as a unifying presence, but finding unity in a divided world is going to take a Divine miracle. We are living in a new world. We have never had to start from scratch and we never had to start with the roadblocks of covid leftovers in our thinking.

We need to pray for our church leaders. No matter how much thought and wisdom go into our path forward, the truth is we do not know where this is going to land. Spin the wheel, try to win. Create a new program. Try a new approach. Revamp a class we used to have. Give people options or do not give people options. Meet more often. Meet less often. Maintain social distancing. Forget social distancing. Are online-only attenders really attending? You can land in the red slot or the black slot – and there’s not a lot of control over the situation.

Leaders have a lot to lose.

  • Loss of clarity, as they attempt to provide a common path forward for diverse members.
  • Loss of members, as people choose to go and worship someplace else or just remain online.
  • Loss of sleep, as they worry about and pray for those who are choosing not to worship any longer.
  • Loss of revenue in the church that could force difficult choices (some churches have even closed their doors).
  • Loss of focus on shepherding, opting instead for easier less confrontational busy work.
  • Loss of respect from those who mis-interpret the leader’s actions as political or appeasement. It’s hard when the members of the church make the leader’s work harder – there’s a verse telling us what God thinks about that.
  • Loss of insight as they try to lead people who are suspicious of others, on both sides of every issue.
  • Loss of spiritual energy if prayer is neglected during this trying time.

This is brand new territory for all of us. None of us have recovered from a pandemic before! There’s nothing easy about it.

Much of what we do at this point is consider the alternatives, pray, and then take a chance. Turn the wheel, throw the ball, and see where it lands. And I do not think anyone is comfortable with this. While there are losses and potential losses, there are also wins.

  • Leaders win when they decide to keep on trying and never give up.
  • Leaders win when they connect with individual members and express care and concern.
  • Leaders win when their prayers are for the healing of the churches / church.
  • Leaders win when their practices are not dictated by politics nor by politically charged members.
  • Leaders win when they are willing to think out of the box and risk something that may fail.
  • Leaders win when they care more about restoring fallen people than restoring previous programs.
  • Leaders win when they keep pushing forward when it would be easy to just let things go on as they are.
  • Leaders win when they support and encourage one another.
  • Leaders win when God gets the glory, Jesus is the key example, and the Holy Spirit is the chief source of guidance.

The idea of Church Roulette simply recognizes that as we move forward we do not always know what to expect. We are not always sure about what to do next. We find ourselves open to trying some new approaches and taking some new chances. Sometimes it will turn out well, and sometimes not. But we keep moving forward anyway – not taking foolish chances, but willing to risk everything to minister to the saved and reach the lost.

What chances are we taking to move forward? What risks are we making to reach out? How willing are we to trust God with the ending and just move forward? It’s stretching our faith and that’s a good thing.

How To Land The Plane

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Depending on who you talk to (or who you believe), the pandemic is coming to a close … at some point in the not too distant future. Vaccinations will proliferate and so many people have antibodies from having COVID-19 that there will not be many more places for the virus to go.

Of course, I speak as a non-medical layman, but we’ve all become pandemic experts, haven’t we? I can’t speak for everyone, but I do think we are coming around the corner. Many of the experts I listen to said all along that it would be well into this year when we could breathe easy again and that seems to be coming to pass.

Something I’ve noticed about me, and some others as well, is that we have spent over a year doing our best to navigate all of the mandates and rules of the pandemic. We have decided which ones we are going to observe and which ones we are going to reject. Now that it’s time to feel a little more free, we’re not sure we can do that.

I liken that experience to landing the plane. It’s more complicated than it might seem. There are several different practical and emotional things going on at once here. We spent a year being diligent (many of us). We followed the mandates and advice of the highest level of agencies and scientists in our country. We kept up with soaring numbers of increases in deaths, hospitalizations, cases, and how many ICU beds were available in our state. Most heartbreaking of all we kept up with the people we knew who were suffering in ICU or worse, who died. I think often about my neighbor who I last saw in person after Hurricane Laura helping to rake up leaves and limbs in my yard. That was August. Then came COVID-19, and by November she was with the Lord. When it is just a remote list of numbers it is easy to dismiss. When it is close to home, you can’t forget.

But we’re not under restrictions forever. We have to land the plane. That might be done in stages, keeping an eye on all the instruments. Even though there is a lot of information, the descent has started. Stay aware, but also continue on the path forward…downward. It’s not sudden, nor is it without thoughtfulness. For us in North East Louisiana, all relevant numbers are downtrending. Vaccinations are increasing. For those of us who have been careful, attentive to our practices, and trying not to be carriers of the invisible enemy, we are starting to breathe a little easier. When the plane comes to a stop, we do need to get off. I think for a lot of people, landing the plane is going to be a challenge. You’ll get there, friends. Hope remains.

Other Posts and Observations About Our Experience with Covid-19

Covid Undermines Relationships

Covid ReWrote My Job Description

Another Casualty of Covid

One Year With Covid

Covid: Why We Cannot Give Up

We Won’t Know For a While

Coping With Pandemic Losses