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February 2011 entries

My Least Favorite Subject

One of the most uncomfortable things I have to talk about as a pastor is money. I rarely get to talk about its abundance. Actually, I've never gotten to talk about its abundance. My subject is always scarcity. Once again its my responsibility to share with my congregation that we are suffering financially. As a pastor I want to talk about hope, love, grace and heaven. My favorite subjects, not necessarily in that order. Instead my hand is forced to talk about giving. You see the church doesn't sell a product. If we had any product to sell we would most likely give it away. That's what we do everyday. We give food, advice, prayer and sometimes money away for free. No strings attached. That's what God called us to do. We try to be faithful with the mission He has given us. The supply side of the supply/demand curve, since we don't have anything to sale, is God's people and their faithful giving. That's where things are breaking down.

We have approximately 900 families who make up our nearly 2700 members. Any guess as to how many of those families contribute to the ministry of the church; barely 55%. There are 400 families, more or less, out of the 900 who contribute nothing at all to the church. I've been challenged on that because people will say that alot of people give cash through the offering plate and there is no way to track that. That's true, but the amount of cash in the offering plate is so small compared to the offering as a whole, it is negligible. If those 400 families are giving through the offering plate then their amount is probably about $1.25 per week. To make matters worse about 50 of those families that were giving 2 years ago have not given this year or are giving much less. I'm told that amounts to about $315K a year. I don't know who these people are. I'm sure some have hit on difficult financial days. For those people the chucrh is here to help and pray with during these hard times.I have never looked at names, just numbers. So in 2011 we are projected to recieve about the same tithes and offerings  as 2007. That's with over 1,000 new members in that same time frame.

It's clear that this can't keep going for long. I have always taught that people will give one time to a crisis, occassionally to a need, but consistently to a vision. As the senior pastor I can only assume I'm not casting the vision clear enough. I have learned in my own life that you cannot out give God. Unfortunatley, I have not been able to get that truth across to about 45% of the church God has called me to lead.

So there it is. I've talked about giving. I will bring these same facts to the church on Sunday. Pray with me that people are obedient to the Lord.        

Grace from a Pastor's Perspective

I don't know how many funerals you have chosen to attend. I guess the only one you have no choice but to attend is your own. I'm praying for the rapture so I don't have to go to that one either. But as a pastor, I am committed to attend, even preside over, more funerals per year than I want to number. I don't do as many as in the past. As the pastor of a large church I only do those I am personally asked to do. Many of our other ministers do more than me, because they have had the opportunity to walk down some difficult roads with the family and can really speak to them better than I can. But recently I was asked to do a funeral and was able to fulfill the request. I'm glad I did, because God taught me something in the process. Maybe He can speak to you through this experience too.

I had just led the casket up the aisle and in front of the chapel. As I waited for everyone to be seated, I noticed someone sitting in the sound booth just across the room from me. If you are not a pastor you probably have never seen a funeral from my perspective. I don't sit facing the front of the chapel as does the rest of those in attendance. Since I will be speaking to the congregation, I sit and stand at the head of the deceased and face the rear of the room. From my perspective not only can I see the faces of those in the room, but I can also look across to the other side at the activity no one else can see. Behind a glass sits a sound tech with CD player, musical instruments and microphones at the ready to assist in the musical portion of the service. They have to be able to see into the chapel so they can take their cues from the pastor who sits directly across from them. So we are able to see each other while the congregation can see only me.

On this occasion there were to be three songs in total. Two were from CD's and one was going to be sung by a relative of the deceased behind the glass. When it was time for him to sing I saw him take his place behind the microphone and pull the words to song out of his jacket pocket. In the past I have heard everything from beautiful voices of angels coming from that room to sounds that only a mother could love. So I am hoping for the best and prepared for the worst. When the track began I was pleasantly surprised as to how much the person sounded like the original artist. This isn't going to be so bad I thought to myself. I continued to be impressed until I noticed something. I could see behind the glass that the person singing was often looking down at the words he had taken out of his pocket. When he did he looked totally away from the microphone. Yet the sound continued to be clear and steady. I also began to notice that the movements of his mouth were not in tune with the melody. Sometimes he continued to sing when their were no words to the song. About a third of the way through the song I came to understand why the song sounded so much like the original was. They were playing the original track with the original artist while they had the mic for the man behind the glass turned off.  

I soon noticed from my vantage point, if I listened closely enough, I could actually hear the man sing. It was not good. I am being kind in my assessment. Painful would be a more accurate description of the sounds coming from that hidden room. The sound tech was the only person having to bear the full force of what was being released in his isolated world. I never saw the tech. I don't know whether he had his fingers in his ears or perhaps had the track way up loud in his earphones, but I'm sure he was doing something to mask the pain. During the song, which seemed to me to be longer than I had ever noticed, I began to see a truth played out before me. There was a beautiful picture of grace being played out  beyond the casket and in a little room where no one but me could see. The sound tech had saved the congregation the uncomfortable minutes of having to listen to a voice that would embarrass the one singing and make an already sad situation worse. He had masked the ugly sound of what was emanating from that room with the beautiful voice of an artist in a studio. It dawned on me this is how Christ treats me. In myself I am a mess. I am totally out of tune with His melody. Where beauty should be there is ugliness. Where virtue and righteousness should exist there is sin and selfishness. If I were not His child I would not be fit for the family of God. But thanks to His grace and kindness He has chosen to cover me and hide me in His blood. When I try to speak for Him he turns down the microphone of my weakness and turns up the volume of His Spirit. So that when I walk out to preach each Sunday people don't run while covering their ears. They often sit and lean forward in their chairs to hear what is coming next. If they could only see it from my perspective. What I hear coming from the speakers is not the sour wranglings of a man who struggles to hear God, but the beautiful voice of an artist in a studio. It is God who arranges the words and delivers the message through the voice of the Spirit who dwells within me.                

Treasure in Piles of Trash

There's this great show that comes on Mondays at 9. It's called "American Pickers." Maybe some of you have heard of it. I find the interaction between the two fellows who travel the back roads of America looking for rusty oil signs and old lunch boxes fascinating. Sometimes the people know they are coming and sometimes they "freestyle." They just drive up and down back roads looking for a home that holds promise. It might surprise you the homes they choose and the criteria they use. If the yard has been mowed recently, if the house is in good repair, or if there are no piles of junk in the yard then they aren't interested. They really look for treasure in what most of us would consider trash.

As you might imagine a lot of these people are rather eccentric in their behavior. Many of them are sort of social misfits. They would rather spend time surrounded by rusty moped frames than their neighbors. A few of them are even hostile. But many of these people hiding behind "NO TRESPASSING" and "KEEP OUT" signs are really kind and gentle souls. Most likely they are just misunderstood by the "normal" world around them. By putting up the signs they avoid uncomfortable confrontations with people who fail to see the world in the same skewed way they do. That's where the two pickers excel. They are normally well adjusted, if not a little crude, but they know how to communicate with those who would most often rather be left alone. They brag on the person's stuff. They talk to them of their mutual appreciation for what others consider junk.They add worth and value, not only to their collections, but to the people themselves. In doing so these potential hermits share their life stories with the two pickers. With the camera rolling they tell how they collected movie posters with their spouse who has just passed away or how they rode a particular motorcycle after returning from the war. We get a glimpse into lives that normally never see the light of day. These two pickers could teach us who love and follow Christ a lot about how to communicate with our fellow man.

Too often we as believers tend to avoid people that aren't like us. We enjoy our holy huddle on Sunday. We don't like to be uncomfortable by "entertaining strangers unaware." The "KEEP OUT" signs people hang on the exterior of their lives gives us reason enough not to invade that person's space with our faith. What we fail to realize is that often behind those menacing signs are kind and gentle people who are afraid you will judge them for the way they view life. Maybe great hurt or tragedy has made them feel uncomfortable around people like us who seem to have it all together. If only they knew. But if we would ever be willing to approach them, they may just be waiting for someone to assign value to their life. What I have found is many are actually people of faith. Often their faith runs much deeper than my own. I have even found a few to have a wealth of wisdom learned through years of solitude. Others are desperately lost. They believe no one cares. Some have been deeply hurt by religion or religious people. They need to meet someone who has real faith and not just a judgmental index finger locked and loaded and pointing at them.

I encourage you to travel some backroads yourself. Maybe it's time we did some "frestyling" when it comes to meeting people. We may just find some treasure in piles of trash. I know that's where God found me!          



The Treasure of a Close Friend

This morning I was blessed to be invited into a conversation between two long time friends. I was attending a pastor's breakfast at a local eatery. It's not required I go, but last time they invited me to speak. It was the first time in a long time that I had gone. I know what it's like to criticized for only showing up if you are asked to be center stage. I have made that complaint about others enough so that I didn't want it to be said of me. So I showed up and took my seat. I didn't know who I was sitting across from. I recognized the face, but I didn't know his name. That was true of most of the people in the room. They are mostly older pastors. Many of them are retired. The others are young pastors half my age. They lead small, mostly new, churches. I don't know their names either, but I always like to hear their fresh ideas and catch their enthusiasm.

Shortly after I sat down a familiar face entered the room. I did know this man's name. He is a retired pastor who is also a member of Dallas Bay. He sat down next to me and extended his hand. We talked for a moment before the fellow sitting across from us began to interject comments into our conversation. It became obvious that these two men knew each other well. I put the pieces of the puzzle together as I listened to them gently throw verbal jabs at one another. Years ago this was a ministry team. My church member was the pastor and his friend across the table was his worship leader. I heard about how they  first met during a revival. They had been friends ever since. That was the early seventies. I heard about seminary days. The worship leader was in seminary before I was born, yet his face lit up as he talked about the old days. They talked about how one was 1 year and 1 day younger than the other. How they have celebrated their birthdays together for years. They discussed hymns they wish they would have sung and others they wish they had not. The song leader talked about how he got one tune stuck in his head that talked about God's sweet peace, but whenever he sang it all he could think about was God's sweet peas. 

All along I felt privileged to be able to share in these men's conversation. They were truly friends and shared a long and powerful history. They even discussed what role one would play in the other's funeral if the other passed away before them. What a treasure these guys have. Years of memories and laughs. Stories of God's grace and deliverance. Mistakes, mayhem, and great movements of the Holy Spirit they were privileged to see. Today we have hundreds of Facebook friends, people who follow us on Twitter or those we follow, email contacts and groups we can join without ever leaving our keyboard. None of these, however, will ever replace the kind of conversation I was allowed to experience this morning.

"A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity."  Proverbs 17:17