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My Ministry Began with Two Words

My ministry began with two words, “Ted’s dead.”

I was a young college student and had just started my first church staff position. My title was “Youth Minister,” but to that point there had been very little ministry taking place. It was more like a part-time job. I was getting to the know the students and learning how to handle a budget, lead Bible studies, and play some games. I was handling my job, but what I was doing could not really be called “ministry.”

I do not remember how I heard about Ted’s accident. It happened over a decade before cell phones or email were available, and close to two decades before I personally had access to that kind of technology. Somehow, in between classes, I got word that one of “my kids” had been in a motorcycle accident. Assuming he was in a hospital somewhere, I quickly drove to the church. I found the pastor in the church office and asked, “How’s Ted?” I asked that question over 35 years ago, and I can still see the pastor’s face and hear him say those two words, “Ted’s dead.” I did not see that coming. I was naïve, immature, and completely out of my league. I had no idea what to do next.

When it was time for our youth group to meet, I did not pretend to know what to say. I just let the students talk. Ted was a popular senior and most of the kids in my group went to his high school. It was easy for them to talk about him and to share their grief with one another. I just monitored the meeting and let them take care of one another. I learned a lot that night and in the days that followed. My part-time job became a ministry and I never again thought of what I do as just a way to make a living. Over these many years I have received similar news countless times. It has rarely been as abrupt and shocking as “Ted’s dead,” but the news of loss and grief is never easy to hear.

Despite the good-natured jokes about pastors only working one hour a week, I think most people know that ministry involves much more than preaching. I suspect, however, that very few people recognize the emotional toll that real ministry takes on pastors. Week after week we receive those calls that someone in our church family or community has died. We just barely get through the valley of the shadow of death when we must enter it again and walk through it with people who are hurting.

Over time we learn to adjust to the grief and deal with the pain. We may even convince ourselves that we have finally “gotten used to it,” but the truth is we never really get used to it. By definition, grief hurts and it drains us. Our calling and our compassion will not let us go through the motions of ministry and avoid being affected by loss. We carry the pain, deal with the guilt, and wrestle with our emotions like everyone else. We just go through it more often than most people, so we are more familiar with it.

Ministry happens within a context of real-life issues that remind us of our need for God and for one another. Ministry is about relationships. It is not having all the answers or “getting used to” the painful experiences in life. Ministry is about being real enough to share life in meaningful ways.

The call to ministry is not a one-time event. The calls keep coming because people keep suffering. The phone never stops ringing, and the Lord never stops providing.

The Old Barn and the New Baby

When I was a kid, my family had an ornate, wooden table that sat in the living room. For most of the year it held a marble chess set and was usually ignored. For a few weeks each year, however, it was transformed into a place of honor. When it was time to decorate the house for Christmas, the chess set was removed and replaced with our nativity scene which sat on top of a royal blue satin tablecloth. Like most nativity scenes, ours included a couple of barn animals, a shepherd with sheep, three wisemen, an angel, and of course, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. Many of my childhood memories have faded over the years, but I think I remember that we used to take turns setting it up. I am the youngest of four siblings and each year one of us got the honor of placing the little figurines in and around the old, rugged barn. 

When it was my turn to set up the nativity scene, I always wanted to find a creative way to arrange the characters. I thought I was using my imagination and making it look better than the boring way the others would do it. I even remember trying to use my Play-Doh to attach the angel to the roof of the barn, but that never worked very well.

Thinking back now I realize that no matter how we arranged the pieces, the scene would always look pretty much the same. Jesus was laid in the manger, which was obviously in the center of the barn. After that, it didn’t matter where we put the other figurines, because they were all turned so they could “see” Baby Jesus. The shepherd was making his way to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes that the angel had told him about. The wise men all carried their gifts to the Christ child as they followed the star. Mary and Joseph were each on one knee as they tilted their heads and looked lovingly at their baby boy, while the angel stood close by watching guard and singing praises. Even the barn animals were laying quietly in the hay and looking intently at their Creator. 

The old nativity scene wound up looking pretty much the same year after year, regardless of who set it up, because it always focused on the same center point. Jesus was at the center of the scene. All attention was on Him. The Light of the World was shining in the darkness and all of creation paused to welcome Him. May that still be our experience today. In the midst of parties, shopping, family gatherings, traveling, putting up lights, watching our favorites movies, etc. etc., let us not forget the Baby at the center of it all. Jesus was not born so that we could have a holiday. We have a holiday because Jesus was born. We celebrate Christmas as a way of rearranging our lives as necessary to make sure He is at the center. We rejoice this time of year because Christ has come, God’s promise has been fulfilled, and we can find life and light in Him. 

It was just an old set of figurines and an awkwardly shaped barn. It was little more than a toy; but it told a story. The story of the Baby born in a barn is just the beginning. The manger mystery leads to the hillsides of teaching and the streets of miracles. Those streets lead us to the hill called Calvary. The hill directs us to the empty tomb, then the mountaintop, and eventually a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Like the figurines in the nativity scene, let’s keep our eyes on Him, and not let anything distract us from the One in center stage. More than anything else, we need to see Him, to hear Him call, and follow Him home.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.” Isaiah 9:6

Four Steps You Can’t Leave Out When Conducting an Event

There are a few steps that often get overlooked when conducting an event in a church or ministry. Many of the tasks involved with planning and promoting are well-known and are easy to remember, but be sure you don’t leave these four out.

1. Pray it Through

“Praying it through” is not just asking God to bless your event. Get specific. Talk to God about the details. Ask for His guidance in decisions. Share your ideas and your concerns. Pray through the entire plan and involve God in the whole process.

2. Walk it Through

One of the most neglected steps is also one of the most important ones. Too often, we schedule events and only think about the “big picture.” The only way to successfully lead others through a meaningful event is to focus on the details and know what you want the participants to experience. Therefore, once you make your plans, walk through the experience for yourself. If possible, actually walk into the venue. If that’s not possible, visualize it. Think of yourself as a participant. Picture yourself entering the room, going through each part of the event, and leaving when it’s over. Concentrate on the transitions. As a participant, how will you know what to do, where to go, etc.? What supplies will you need? What decorations, lighting, and audio would enhance your experience? Walk through the event before the event occurs, or you will stumble through it along with your participants.

3. Talk it Through

Once you have experienced the event in your imagination, you are ready to share the vision with the people who are going to help you run the event. Talk about it in great detail so each person understands what role they are to play, when they are to do their part, and how their work will enhance the overall experience of the participants.

4. See it Through

Participate fully in the event. You want to model participation and share the experience with the people who are attending. Then, even make their exit meaningful. You can do that by giving them “next steps” so they know how to apply what they have learned, or you can give them a small gift, or have people thank them on their way out. Once everyone has left, make sure someone cleans up and puts the venue back in order. Then, as soon as you can, invest some time in evaluating your event and debriefing with the people who helped you run it. Solidify any plans or assignments for follow up. In other words, see your event all the way through. It is not over just because the people leave. There is still work to be done until even after the lights have been turned off.

Obviously, these are not the only steps to conducting a successful event, but they are important steps that are often left out. Make sure you include them the next time you prepare for an event.

Fog It!

A few years ago I was going through one of the worst times of my life. My blood pressure was up and my stress was out of control. The turning point of my recovery occurred when I made a new friend. Ben was wise and compassionate. He had been through difficult times before and he had helped many others get through difficult times as well.

When I needed to talk, Ben was there. Sometimes he even arrived unannounced to encourage me or give me a break. It was during one of those healing conversations that I told him about my exhaustion and the pain I felt from all the verbal assaults I was having to endure. I noticed that grin beginning to form behind his bushy beard. It was his signature grin that meant, “I can’t wait to see your reaction to the advice I’m about to give you.” As I prepared myself for the profound wisdom that was certainly on its way, I was surprised that he only said two words, “Fog it!”

His response snapped me out of my self-pity and ignited my curiosity. I asked what he meant and his explanation gave me a new, life-changing perspective. “If you are stiff and rigid like a pane of glass, you will shatter when people throw rocks at you. But if you are like fog, the rocks people throw just go right on through and fall to the ground without effecting you. Fog it!”

Several times over the next few weeks I would get upset or defensive and he would remind me, “Fog it!” Soon I was able to remind myself. Years later, people still say or do hurtful things from time to time, and Ben is no longer here to talk me through it. But I often think of him, take a deep breath, and “fog it.”

In a world full of glass, where people are constantly getting shattered and trying to shatter those around them, fog it! That does not mean that we no longer take a stand for truth and justice. It simply means that when attacked on a personal level, we have some say in how much damage that attack causes. In most cases, we can decide to let a personal attack sail on by without allowing it to break us into pieces. When someone is intentionally hurtful, unfair, or rude we get to decide how much their words will impact us. If the other person’s goal is to hurt me and I let myself break to pieces, they have been successful so they win. If, however, I choose not to let their words effect me, they fail and I win!

I have found great freedom and tremendous strength in that lesson from Ben so I wanted to share it with you. Friend, there are times when we need to just “Fog it!”

When someone is intentionally hurtful, unfair, or rude we get to decide how much their words will impact us.

A Preacher’s Prayer

Lord, speak to me during preparation, and speak through me during proclamation.

May this message be Your Word to Your people for Your glory.

Amen.

Check the Bushes!

When I was kid, some of the neighbors would play “War” with my older brothers and me. It was basically “Hide and Seek.” We would hide and sneak around and then “shoot” the other guys with our imaginary weapons. The goal was to be the last man standing.

After playing the game a few times, I noticed a trend. Every game seemed to end the same way. All of the guys would end up arguing over who shot whom first. It was an important part of the game, because if David shot Richard first, then Richard could not have shot the neighbor kid. You can imagine how long (and how heated) those discussions might get.

Once I realized that they always argued at the end of the game, my little 6 year old brain went to work. Since I was the youngest, I was often overlooked which would work to my advantage this time. I found the perfect hiding place in the bushes. Then I just waited. Sure enough, after everyone had “shot” at everyone else, they began their normal routine of arguing and claiming victory. They forgot all about the little kid in the bushes. Once they were actively involved in the finger pointing and chest pounding, I jumped from my hiding place with my trusty sub-machine gun and wiped them all out.

Did that really happen? I honestly think so. However, I would have been pretty young and I only have a foggy memory of the event. It is possible that I’m actually remembering a dream or a story from my early childhood. Regardless of the veracity of my story, it has served me well through the years as a reminder to not let my guard down and get distracted by squabbles and quarrels.

We have an enemy who often uses a similar strategy to the one I used as a kid. He will cleverly hide himself so we don’t think about him. Then he will turn us against each other and watch with glee as we call each other names, malign one another, belittle and accuse one another. I imagine he has to hold back his own giggles as he lurks between the leaves trying not to laugh out loud at our vicious attacks on one another. Brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends all yelling and screaming and trying to prove they are “right” must please him beyond measure. When we puff out our chests and declare to others that they are the losers, he just stands by in the bushes enjoying the fruit of his labor.

And then, when our attention is on one another and we are not even thinking about the dangers around us, he attacks. We are easy prey because we have not been paying attention. Peter warned us about that. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (NIV) Notice who our enemy is. Our enemy is not the person who looks, votes, talks, or thinks differently than we do. We have a common enemy, and one of his primary objectives is to get us fighting one another so we forget about him. If he can get us focused on beating each other, we will forget to check the bushes. When we have worn each other out and we are weakened by our own anger and pride, he is ready to pounce. It is then that friendships end, families are torn apart, churches are split, and we all suffer.

Beloved, we don’t have to agree on everything. As a matter of fact, we will never agree on everything. But we surely can’t turn on each other and lower our common defenses to give the enemy entrance into our lives and relationships. Let’s take care of one another, love one another, and serve one another. Let’s have each other’s backs instead of being at each other’s throats. And as we face the world together, let’s stay strong and not make the enemy’s job any easier!

Meat, Masks, and Motivations

I can’t help but think there are some principles in Paul’s teachings about meat that some of us might be able to apply to our decisions about masks and social distancing.

In Paul’s day people in the church were debating about whether or not they should eat meat, because some of the meat might have come from sacrifices to idols. Paul told the Romans and the Corinthians that if they made those decisions based on what they wanted for themselves, theywere making a mistake. Instead, they should make decisions about eating meat based on what was best for others. “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” (Rom. 14:15a)

Paul explained that meat was not really the issue. People who ate meat were not better or worse than those who didn’t eat it. “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” (1 Cor. 8:8) However, he did stress that people could exercise their freedom in a way that was sensitive to those who were more concerned about meat. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Cor. 8:9)

Paul was basically telling the meat-eaters that while they had the freedom to eat meat, there might be good reasons for them to sacrifice for others and not do what they wanted to do. He encouraged his brothers and sisters in Christ to stay focused on what was really important, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17) He taught that the strength of the community was worth the effort. “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Rom. 14:19)

We Can’t See It All

I live in McLennan County. If I leave my house and travel north, I go to Hill County. If I leave my house and travel west, I go to Hill County. If I leave my house travel east, I go to Hill County. I know, that does not make sense. How can I leave McLennan County in any one of three different directions and wind up in Hill County?

It all becomes clear when you see a map. I live in the northern most corner of McLennan County. That corner is bordered on both sides by Hill County.

When you look at it on a map, it is obvious. It all becomes clear when seen from above. Life is confusing at times because we see it from the street level and we miss the big picture that can only come into view from a higher perspective. That is particularly true when we are hurting. When we look at our world through tear-filled eyes all we can see is the suffering and pain around us. At times it seems there is no way out of our troubles.

We sometimes feel like a person caught in a maze. Every turn takes us to another barrier or obstacle. If we could only float for a few minutes above the maze, we could see the layout and find the best route to our exit. God gave man some helpful and even amazing abilities. Floating, however, is not one of them. Since we cannot soar above the maze we can only see it from our current perspective within it. We have to depend on the One who sees it all from above. Some of my pastor friends are fond of referring to God as the One who “makes a way where there is no way.” When we are stuck in the maze, He can lead us through and get us out. When we can’t see the big picture, we can follow the One who sees it all.

Once when I was very young, my father was standing in a group of people talking. It seemed like they had been talking for a long time and I began to get tired. Being so young, I was very small compared to the adults who towered above me . Unless I looked up, all I could see was their shins. I recognized the dark slacks that my dad wore and I reached out and wrapped my arms around his leg. Immediately the group separated and the conversation turned to laughter. As you have already guessed, my father was not the only man who wore dark slacks and I had hugged the wrong person. My intent was sincere and my actions were appropriate, but I went the wrong direction because I could not see the situation from above. My view was limited by perspective. Our view of life is always limited by our personal perspective. We who are bound by time and space are wise when we acknowledge the inherent limitations of our own perspective and trust that there is more to our circumstances than we can currently see.

My daughter has no problem finding her way wherever she needs to go, but I doubt she has ever depended on a map to plan her route. In these days of GPS and navigation systems, maps are obsolete. All we have to do now is speak to our cars or cell phones and tell them where we want to go. We are then presented with step by step instructions that ensure we arrive at our intended destination. We may never know what direction we are traveling or what route we are taking. We need only obey the next instruction. In a similar way, God rarely shows us a map. We almost never get to see the big picture of our lives. Instead, we must trust Him with each step, much like Abram who left his home and followed God “not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8 ESV).”

Hard times make our journey difficult. Pain and suffering can make it feel like we are walking in circles or stopped at a dead end. Don’t give up! You can’t see the way things are laid out for you because you don’t see it all from above. Your street-level perspective is limited. Trust the One who knows where you have been and where you are going next. Let the Good Shepherd lead you all the way through the valley. The valley is not your final destination. It is merely part of your journey. God sees the whole map from above and He knows how to lead you through.

If we could see life from a higher perspective, we might better understand Paul’s words, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV).” From our current perspective, troubles do not seem “light” or “momentary,” but from eternity’s perspective they are light because with His help we can endure them and they are momentary because they will not last forever. From the lofty viewpoint of higher ground we could see that joy will come in the morning and our current struggles do not define our final destination.

I Won’t

imageI hope that some day when people disagree, we will be able to sit down and have sincere conversations in which we learn from one another. By listening to each other we will be able to catch a glimpse of the other’s point of view, to see things from a different perspective. Until that day comes, I want you to know there are a few things I won’t do. 

If you and I see the world differently, I won’t hate you.
If your interests differ from mine, I won’t look down on you.
If your vote cancels mine every time, I won’t attack your character.
If you have friends who don’t like me, I won’t hold that against you.
If you look or talk differently than I do, I won’t think that makes me better than you.
If you attack me I will defend myself, but I won’t intentionally hurt you in retaliation.
If you attend a church with different traditions than mine I won’t assume you’re wrong.
If you are a fellow Christian I won’t use your politics as a reason to question your faith.

As much as I want to be perfect, I won’t do that either, but I’ll do what I can to make things better until that day we can sit down and learn from one another.

Three Steps

They are just three wooden steps.

When you see them, that’s probably all you see — three pretty steps that lead to a platform. When I see them, I see memories and milestones. I see new beginnings and final farewells. When I see those steps I see my life, my family, my home. Those steps at First Baptist Church of Waco tell my story.

When I was eight years old, my father died and at his funeral they placed his casket at the foot of those steps. During the funeral I saw one of the ladies in the church smile at me. That smile has stayed in my memory all these years. In that smile she said, “You are going to be OK and this church family is going to be here for you.” She was right. I wound up being OK and they were there for me.

Less than a year later, it was at those steps that I publicly professed my faith in Jesus Christ. I shook the pastor’s hand while the church who had loved me into that moment sang “The Savior is Waiting.” Not long after that I was baptized just a few feet from the top of those steps.

Growing up I sang, played instruments, did puppet shows, read scripture, prayed, and played all around those steps. Those steps were holy ground where God formed my faith and transformed my life.

In a hallowed position at the top of those stairs there stands a pulpit. While I was growing up that pulpit contained a plaque which was strategically placed so the preacher could clearly see it. I guess most people didn’t even know it was there, but in my memory it still sits there reminding the preacher of the glorious task to which he has been called. Each time the preacher entered the pulpit he would be charged with the words of John 12:21, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” To this day when I see those steps I hear the voices of my childhood pastors echoing in my mind and heart.

It was at those steps that I responded to God’s call into ministry, and it was there that I preached my first sermon. It was at those steps that I was licensed to the ministry.

During my Baylor days I participated in the college choir and we stood around those steps when we sang. In that choir I met the love of my life who eventually became my wife.

Many years later my mother died and we said “goodbye” to her at the foot of those steps as she lay in the same spot my father had lain 45 years earlier. Once again the church family ministered to us and reminded us that they were there for us and we would be OK.

In January of this year I stood at the foot of those steps with my daughter and gave her hand in marriage. I then climbed those steps and performed her wedding. As I pronounced the happy couple “man and wife” I fought back tears of joy. Later I realized that part of the emotion of that day was due to the fact that I got to share those steps with her. For the rest of her life those steps will mark a major milestone in her life as they mark so many milestones for me.

I’ve been at those steps many times. Sad times and joyful times alike have found me there. I have come to that sacred place to celebrate and to mourn, to learn and to teach, to proclaim and to hear. I have worshipped and wept, laughed and loved, called on God and been called by Him at those steps. I have stood there with overwhelming gratitude and I have knelt there in desperate humility.

They are just three wooden steps. When you see them, that’s probably all you see — three pretty steps that lead to a platform. When I see them I see my life, my family, my home.

Those steps tell my story.