Before I started out the door for vacation last summer, I quickly looked around for some reading material.  If I was going to be spending long hours on the beach (getting ridiculously sunburned), I was going to need something to occupy myself.  And since I had failed to take a trip to the library the day before, I was pretty much at the mercy of what happened to be lying around the house.  The book that I grabbed was one that a friend of my wife’s had given her, but I was desperate – and fortunate.

The book was called Anonymous, and the gist of the book centered on the idea that while Jesus spent 33 years or so on this planet, about thirty of those years happened behind the scenes where no one was watching.  The author, Alicia Britt Chole, called these the hidden years, and speculated on how those years impacted Jesus.  While I don’t know that I agreed with all of the theology presented, I was captured by the idea that hidden years are often exactly what God has in mind for us.  In our world we measure significance by achievement, but God measures it in an entirely different way.  When we face the times in life when we feel forgotten, abandoned, stuck or discarded, God will step up to make those days worthwhile.

At first I didn’t underline some of the good things the author said – after all this was my wife’s friend’s book.  But then I just went ahead because there were too many significant points to let them pass (my apologies, Sharyl).  I’ll share one of them here, but then I would recommend that you get the book – especially if you feel like you have been asked to step behind the curtain in life.

“What does [being hidden like Jesus] build in us?  What grows in that underestimated gap between God’s calling and others’ perceptions, between our true capabilities and our current realities?  Most of us struggle if our dreams are delayed one year, let alone twenty.  We find God’s pauses perplexing.  They seem to be a waste of our potential.  When those pauses extend beyond what we can comprehend or explain (say, for instance, three days), we often spiral into self-doubt or second-guessing.

“But in anonymous seasons we must hold tightly to the truth that no doubt strengthened Jesus through his hidden years: Father God is neither care-less nor cause-less with how he spends our lives.  When he calls a soul simultaneously to greatness and obscurity, the fruit – if we wait for it – can change the world.”

I could have picked several other quotes that were just as good or better – but this one still provides some great food for thought.  You are not forgotten by God.  You have not been sent off to the corner to wait.  You have been chosen by him to be hidden and anonymous so that he can do something big in you!


Mourning with those who mourn

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  Romans 12:15

Tomorrow I will be conducting another funeral.  That seems to come with the territory when you are a hospice chaplain.  And no doubt there will be tears shed at the service.  There should be.  God created us with emotions and the ability to grieve.  I believe that is one of His gifts to us.

But have you ever stood beside someone who was grieving and didn’t quite know what to say our do?  These are just a few suggestions that I would pass on from my experiences in the past few months.

1.  You don’t need to say anything; you just need to be there.

2.  Don’t tell them that time will heal and that they will feel better down the road.  While that is probably true, a person who is grieving really isn’t concerned about 6 months from now.  He’s just trying to make it through today.  This is not the time to find the proverbial silver lining.  This is the time to agree with them that sometimes life stinks.

3.  Encourage them to talk.  Most people need to express themselves – and no, they really aren’t complaining.  They’re just trying to verbally work through the angst that they are feeling.  And they may say the same things day after day.  Just listen.  And then listen again.

4.  Check back with them in a month.  At first family and friends surround people with lots of support, but then they return to their routine and forget about the person who is still grieving.  Refuse to lose track of them.  (In hospice we follow up with families for another 13 months.)

5.  Give the person time.  Grieving is not a quick process for most.  It’s a lot of “3 steps forward; 2 steps back” type of progress.  And when you are working with a grieving person you might want to let them know that relapses are normal and not to get frustrated.

6.  Be a part of their “new normal.”  Their lives will never, ever be the same again.  They might be better; maybe not.  They will certainly be different.  I call it their “new normal.”  At first they may not let you be a part, but patiently hang in there.  They may need you.

7.  Realize that grieving is the result of a loss.  In hospice that loss is generally a death, but people can grieve other things as well – the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of an opportunity, the loss of a dream, the loss of an ability.  People who experience extreme loss of any type will likely grieve.  Don’t let them grieve alone.

8.  Pray for them – and tell them that you are.  But don’t say it unless you really are.  The words “I have been praying for you” mean more than most people realize.

9.  If a person has lost a loved one, encourage them to talk about that loved one.  Maybe they have pictures they can show you.  Maybe they have some favorite memories that they can relate.  Help them keep the memories alive.  Maybe you have a memory yourself that you can share.

10.  Don’t worry if you don’t get it all right.  Just communicate that you care.  And then communicate it again.

What about the change?

Change is at the same time one of the most welcome and unwelcome parts of life.  We love change because of the variety it brings.  We hate change because it upsets our familiar routines.  We love change because it offers us a better way to do things.  We hate change because just when we learn how to do something we find ourselves having to learn a new way.  But all in all, change is good.

Organizations thrive on change. While the status quo may feel comfortable, the truth is that the world is changing, and if the organization is going to be relevant, it will have to change as well.

From my vantage point there are three types of change.

1.  Core change.  This involves changes at the bottom level.  They may be changes that affect systems or values or identity, but these changes will redirect the course of the organization, program or project.

2.  Cosmetic change.  This involves change on the surface level.  And often these are good changes as they make something better without requiring too much risk or investment.  These are small adjustments that while they may not change the DNA do change the way that people feel about things.

3.  Unnecessary change.  This involves changing things simply for the sake of changing things.  Nothing is broken, but for some reason someone feels the need to fix it.

Core changes are the hardest to make.  They require providing ample time for people to sort through their thinking and feelings on a matter.  Communication becomes vital as people must be convinced of the vision before they will embrace taking an action that will create a “new normal” for them.  The process is delicate and the stakes are high – but these changes also have the most potential for high impact.  If you want to make a core change you had better do your homework AND get the bulk of the people on board.

Cosmetic changes are much easier to make.  In any situation some simple improvements can usually be found and implemented. And these provide both good feelings and a sense of momentum.  Things feel new and fresh.  People are energized and excited.  This is a great place to build some positive buzz.

Unnecessary changes typically look like cosmetic changes – but they have the opposite effect.  They don’t excite people; rather they tend to annoy people as the change feels more like an inconvenience than a good idea.  When people don’t feel like something is amiss they’re usually not particularly pumped about fixing it.  Unnecessary changes on a core level can be devastating.

The challenge of leadership is to know what kind of change you are talking about.  If it is core change, proceed with care.  If it is cosmetic change, get after it – but just make sure that you haven’t miscalculated.  If the followers see the change as unnecessary, it’s going to cost the leader.

Loving God in my Martha sort of way

I never really understood why Mary was the hero and Martha was the heel.  Martha was doing her best to provide a good meal for Jesus, and to me that seems good.   Mary, on the other hand, didn’t seem to realize that if someone didn’t do something about dinner, there were going to be a lot of hungry guys standing around.

So Martha was the one making things happen, and Mary was the one getting the props.  And that really doesn’t seem right to me.  I know the point –  it’s more important to spend time with Jesus than it is to be busy serving Him.  I’ve heard that said many, many times.  But I still wrestle with this story.

Maybe it’s because I am more of the Martha type.  I like to express love through acts of service.  Want to show Jesus you love Him?  Do something nice for Him.  Teach a Sunday school class.  Lead a small group.  Go on a missions trip.  Volunteer for the spring cleaning day at church.  That’s my way.

But maybe Jesus wants me to love Him in a different way.  Maybe He wants me to just focus on Him instead of all the things that I want to do for Him.  Maybe He just wants me to get to know Him.  Maybe He wants me to slow down a little bit and listen.  Maybe He wants me to realize that our relationship really isn’t based on performance.  Maybe He just wants me to make my heart available to Him.

For the past several months I haven’t been able to serve in the same ways that I’m used to, and I have been frustrated – and I have wondered if maybe I have let God down a little bit.  But that’s the Martha in me.  That’s me loving God in a Martha sort of way.  And maybe He’s wanting me to love Him in a Mary sort of way.  That seems to be good enough for God – I’m thinking it needs to be good enough for me.

Building the perfect church

The words in the title are a little out of order.  It should read “The perfect church building.”  I’ve given up on the idea of building a perfect church – at least on this side of heaven.  So today I want to build the perfect church building.

When I was a kid in elementary school I went to a church that had a perfect building… for playing hide-and-seek.  It had been built in several stages through the mid-1900’s and was filled with what seemed like unlimited nooks and crannies and hallways and little classrooms big enough to hold a maximum of about 8 of those miniature sized chairs.  And while our parents met on Wednesday nights to learn how to teach the Sunday school lesson, we ran wild in our hide-and-seek labyrinth.

But then my Dad became pastor of a different church – and whoever designed that building had evidently never been a kid.  Except the new church had a gym.  And as a teenager having a gym was actually a bigger deal.

Eventually that church built two new buildings in a new location, and as an adult I was somewhat involved in the planning of those two projects.  By that time I was concerned that the building be functional, practical, and able to be used in a multitude of ways.

Today my church doesn’t have a building.  Sometimes we meet at the community college.  Some weeks we meet at the local cinema.   But not having a building isn’t all bad.  It’s a great reminder that the church isn’t really a place but a people.  And those people can meet together anywhere.

But not having a building has made me think about what kind of building I would build if I were building a church today.  And this is what I have come up with.

1.  It should have an auditorium with a flat stage and a nice big screen behind it.  The floor should be flat, too.  And I like the idea of removable chairs vs. pews so that the room can be used in multiple ways.

2.  It should also have a couple of smaller auditoriums – one dedicated to kids, and another dedicated to teens.

3.  It should have a cafe/coffee shop with lots of tables and couches and fireplaces.

4.  It should have a bookstore.  And possibly a study area.

5.  It should have an indoor playground (I’m still thinking about being a kid at church).

6.  It should have a gym.  With wood floors.

7.  Mabye it should have an exercise room and a weight room, and maybe even some raquetball courts.  How about a rock climbing wall?  And how about a game room with ping pong tables, air hockey and couple of big screens for gaming systems?

8.  It needs to have classrooms, too – because education is very important. But I would hope that they could be flexible and have the ability to be configured in many ways.

9.  Finally, it should have an office for me – right in the middle of it all.

I know, I know.  This doesn’t sound like much of a church building.  It sounds more like a community center.  And that’s exactly my thinking.  Remember – it’s really not about a building but about people.  But how cool would it be if the church were the favorite place for people in the community to go hang out?!  Could it be the place where relationships are built, and where those relationships result in people coming to Christ?  That’s my idea.

(10.  I’m still debating a water slide that dumps into the baptismal pool.)

Knowing the difference

“God, help me to know the difference between success and blessing.”

A friend of mine gave me a copy of the book Leadership Prayers by Richard Kriegbaum for Christmas.  It’s a compact little book with roughly thirty prayers that the author prayed while in a leadership role as a college president.  And each prayer touches on a different topic of leadership.  His prayer for God’s blessing really stuck out.

Success and blessing are not the same thing. Sometimes God blesses, and His blessing may bring success, but success is not the big deal.  But we think it is.  That’s why we work so hard at it.  We read all the right books, attend all the right seminars, network with all the right people, follow all the right trends – because we want to be successful.  We want to be able to produce our list of accomplishments and achievements.

Reminds me of a guy in the Bible by the name of Jacob.  By most standards he was successful.  He secured his future while he was still young (though he had to swipe what rightfully belonged to his brother to do so).  He had a beautiful wife (and one that wasn’t so beautiful, but maybe she had a good personality?).  He was an astute business man.  He had a knack for building a flock of sheep.  He had twelve sons.  He had some prestige.  He had possessions.   He had success.

But then one night He met an angel – and a wrestling match ensued.  When the fight was over Jacob was no longer focused on success.  Instead, he was hanging on to the angel and begging for a blessing.

Why are we so content to build our lives around our potential, our efforts, our talents?  They might even be good.  But are they as good as God’s blessing?

I’m thinking I would rather be blessed than successful.  And I know I need to be.  I want to do all I can to lead a successful family life, but what I really want is God’s blessing on my wife and kids.  I want to do all I can to have an impact in ministry, but what I really want is God’s blessing on His church.  I want to cultivate meaningful relationships, but what I really want is God’s blessing on me and the people in life I call friends.  I want to work hard and do my best with the gifts God has given me, but what I really want is God to bless my life.

Successes – they lead to pride, false security, and empty praise – because they are all about what I can do.

Blessings – they lead to humility, gratitude, and satisfaction – because they are all about what God has done.

“God, help us to know the difference between success and blessing – and help us to crave the blessing.”

My latest thoughts on church

I think about church a lot – and these are the some of the thoughts I have been thinking lately, though not all of them are original with me.

1.  The church is not a place, but a people.  You really can’t go to church, you can only be the church.

2. Church buildings have a tendency to cause people to forget what being the church is all about.  They offer comfort, convenience, and complacency.  We plop ourselves down in the pew (or chair), enjoy the music, and listen to the lecture – and think that we are all that  spiritually.  And we forget about that “gates of hell” thing.

3.  We like to call it our church.  Or Pastor Mel’s church.  Or my grandmother’s church.  But it’s not – it’s God church.  And if we could just remember that, we might not be so concerned that everything go “our” way.

4.  The church needs to get up off its property.  If the best things that happen in a church only happen in the church building on Sunday, I have to wonder if anything really big is happening.

5.  I grew up in a church where we always had invitation so that people could respond.  (My “favorite” invitations were those ones when visiting evangelists would toss this out, “If no one comes on this stanza [the 423rd of the night], then we’ll close this service.  And then someone who couldn’t hold it any longer would slip out to use the restroom and the evangelist would see her – and stanza 424 would start.)  There may be times for invitations, but I think small groups are a better place for me to respond.  I have to interact externally on the message.  I can share what God did in my heart.  And then I have several people to encourage me as I move forward.

6.  Small groups also allow for impromptu discipleship.  Curriculum-based classes have their place, but aren’t always very applicable to life.  Small groups let you deal with the issue of the moment.  Think about this – Jesus taught in the synagogue, but we have little record of what He taught.  But then He also taught along the way – and that’s the teaching that stuck with the  disciples – and made it into the Gospels.

7.  I love the word engaging.  I think “church”  (I don’t like how I’m using this word) should engage people.  And there are lots of ways to do that – some of them elaborate and funky, some of them simple and straight forward.  There are also lots of ways NOT to do this – and some of these ways we’ve really perfected as the church.

8.  I recently heard Geoff Surratt say that ministry programs should come with expiration dates.  I like that.  Too often programs outlive their usefulness.  And too often we assume that programs will accomplish things for us so that we don’t have to mess with them (like life-on-life evangelism).

9.  I like the idea of multi-sites churches.  They stretch geographic boundaries so that people living far away can be near.  They allow  churches to invest in more ministry rather than more facility.  They get new churches started with enough critical mass and programming staff to help them be viable from the start.  They provide great support and accountability.

10.  I don’t like the idea of multi-site churches.  They assume that every community needs the exact same thing as the original church.  They relegate some ministry to the “super people” while others who are capable aren’t utilized or developed.  They are about the “mother ship” being reproductive, but the satellite church cannot.  In my mind, there must be some version or hybrid of “multi-site”/”church plant” that would work the best.

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