Sometimes a thought grabs you by the heart. While listening to Vice-President Pence speak at the opening service of what will be week long memorials for George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, it happened to me. Pence repeated what has been a mantra in the Bush home and office for decades; “CAVU.” It is a Naval acronym meaning “Ceiling and visibility unlimited.” Bush had it inscribed on a simple piece of wood and hung it in their home. It has obvious meanings for Naval Aviators, but is more than that. When I think of the difference Jesus makes in a life, it tells it all. There is no height inaccessible to the follower of Jesus and because of His leadership, we can have vision to see what hasn’t arrived yet. That’s faith. This Christmas I’ve added a thought to how Jesus changes everything; “CAVU.” With the birth of Jesus, God has boots on the ground and we can have eyes on the sky. Leaders, lead on.
What if your life were summarized with one phrase?
Years ago I regularly ran through a very old cemetery in Ottawa, Illinois. One day I noticed one particular marker that brought me back later to see what I could learn. The stone simply bore a name and two-word phrase. I contacted the people who supervised the cemetery and no further information was available. All we know is that, probably more than one-hundred years ago, when Bill Barker’s loved ones gathered to remember him they found one two-word phrase important to summarize his life: “Life Saver.”
What would your phrase be?
Remember, this isn’t what Bill Barker said about himself, but what others said about him. That’s the tricky part.
There are a lot of words that could go on my stone if it were chosen today. While some I’d like to think would make me smile, there are far to many that wouldn’t. The truth is, I can be impatient, anxious, selfish, and occasionally even rude. Ouch. They wouldn’t actually put that on a stone, right? I’d like to choose better phrases.
As I have thought about this over the years I’ve come to a conclusion. For a long time I chose words, noble words, and made them a target of my life. While there’s nothing wrong with attempting to live up to high standards, I often felt like I was missing the mark. Endeavoring to be something or someone you’re actually not is a heavy load to bear and may create a description of your life you don’t want. In addition, this kind of process can leave you constantly wondering what others are thinking which creates a whole new level of anxiety and trying to hard. Still, thinking about how your life will ultimately be defined is a worthy subject.
So, I have a new plan.
I’d like for God to do a work in me that will allow Him to choose the phrase. Yup, I’m giving the pen to Him. I’m no longer trying to be something or someone, but instead I am trying to become the person God intended me to become when he knit me together. After all, He knows me, right? Inside and out, He knows me. Strengths and weaknesses, victories and failures, ugly and not so ugly, He knows me.
He knows me, and according to the Bible, He loves me. I want to listen, learn, and allow Him to lead me and form me. This process is every bit as intentional, but a whole lot more peaceful.
If these thoughts find you afraid to consider what might be written if your stone were chosen today, relax and take a deep breath. It’ isn’t. Your life is not over. Let God write the ending. He loves you. He really does. He knows you inside and out, strong and weak, victor and failure, beautiful and ugly, He knows it all, and He loves you. Instead of weighing the positives and negatives and reaching a decision about the relationship God feels comfortable having with you based upon the outcome, He just loves you. Today, right now, ask Him to take over the phrase writing process in your life! Give Him the outcomes by giving Him yourself right now.
Focus on becoming who He designed and destined you to become, and let a life lived for Him create the description of you others will remember. He’s a really good writer!
Be at peace with that.
Much of what you are about to read is quoted from Mark Batterson’s book, “Chase the Lion.” This is the most impactful book I've read in quite a while. I hope this story inspires you to read it. Thank you, Mr. Batterson!
In his book, “Chase the Lion,” Mark Batterson tells the story of the picture above. The man touching home plate is Jackie Robinson. The man holding the bat is George Shuba. The date is April 18, 1946. The first African American to play baseball is competing in his first game and has just hit his first home run. The response from the crowd is varied, and so is the response from players on both sides. It was a tough time. Here’s how Batterson describes it.
An Associated Press photographer captured that decisive moment. It was one small handshake, one giant leap for racial equity in professional sports.
George 'Shotgun' Shuba went on to play seven seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was on the 1955 World Series championship team.
In his celebrated baseball book, The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn said Shuba’s swing was “as natural as a smile.” Shuba laughed at Kahn’s description. During an interview with Kahn, Shuba walked over to a filing cabinet and pulled out a chart marked with lots of Xs. During the off-season, Shuba would swing a weighted bat six hundred times a day. And that was after working his off-season job all day! Every night he’d take sixty swings and then mark an X on his chart.
After ten Xs, he’d give himself permission to go to bed. Shuba practiced that daily ritual for fifteen years!
“You call that natural?” Shuba asked Kahn. “I swung a 44-ounce bat 600 times a 4,200 times a week, 47,200 swings every winter.”
In my humble opinion, no one is a natural. Sure, some people are more naturally gifted than others. But unless that giftedness is coupled with a complementary work ethic, it’ll only result in wasted potential. You can’t just pray as if it depends solely on God; you also have to work as if it depends on you. It’s your work ethic plus your prayer ethic that will inch you closer to your dream. And it happens one practice, one day at a time. (Batterson, Mark. Chase the Lion: If Your Dream Doesn't Scare You, It's Too Small (pp. 65-66). The Crown Publishing Group.
There you have it. If you want to know who changes the world, it's the man/women with the bat. But not just on game day. Relentlessly throughout the week, when no one else is swinging the bat, trying to get better, determined to improve their own God-given skills, the George Shuba's of the world are working.
A few questions.
1. Am I relentlessly focused on improving the God-given gifts I have? 2. Do I work more on changing the environment and the people around me than I do on changing myself? 3. What am I doing "every day" to get better? 4. When is the last time I wore out a practice tool?
The final question is my favorite. What's the "bat" in your business? Figure it out, make some "x's" and start swinging!
One of my favorite television shows growing up was, “The Gong Show.” For thirty-minutes once a week Chuck Barris would host amateur contestants performing in front of three judges who only had to listen as long as they wanted. If the performance was not to their liking, they reached for the mallet and struck a huge gong on stage. When the gong sounded, the performance was over. (By the way, if you haven't ever experienced the talents of "Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine," or "Larry and His Magic Trombone," Google it on Youtube... and you're welcome.)
The Apostle Paul teaches what I refer to as “The Gong Principle” in a letter he wrote to people he loved. There is no more lived-out Biblical principle in the world than this one. Whether in business or at a family meal, whether the words are eloquently delivered from a podium or quietly whispered into someone’s ear, “The Gong Principle” applies. Get it right and your words are heard, even if they are not always initially accepted. Get it wrong and you may as well take a seat.
Here it is: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
The most powerful attention getter and communication pathway in the world is love; the most formidable dead end in communication is the lack of it.
Ears may comprehend the sound of your message, but the heart will not open if you don’t love who your talking to, or what you're talking about. If people identify your love, your words may take root. If not, they reach for the gong.
People can tell when you love what you’re speaking about. Civil rights were more than a speech topic to Dr. King, and Winston Churchill’s “Never Give In” address isn’t remembered for it’s literary depth.
People can tell when you love whom your speaking about. Fallen soldiers were far more than a talking point for President Lincoln at Gettysburg that day. There is no sweeter sound than hearing a spouse talk with respect and love about their mate.
People can tell when you love whom you’re speaking to, especially if you’re talking to them. It’s true: the eyes communicate long before the words arrive. The platform, built by actions before the moment of words, is love or it doesn’t exist.
Don’t be deceived. This is not a speech problem. It’s a heart problem. The heart can be filled with a lot of different emotions: fear, pride, jealousy, hate, shame, bitterness, anxiety, or regret to name a few. Any of the above may contaminate the message we seek to deliver even to those we love. (Luke 6:45)
As a husband, father, son, brother, and leader, I wish I’d never been gonged, but I have been. Far too often my opinions overrode my love and my message was deleted on arrival.
The ultimate example and source of love is Jesus so I’m leaning in closer these days asking God to renew my heart and fill it with His unconditional, un-ignorable, irresistible, pure, powerful, new every morning, love.
Shakespeare was right; “All the world’s a stage.” You and I are just players. The story is God's story, the act is our lives, but it’s not about us. We have been assigned a part to play in the lives of others. We have lines to deliver. We may be on their stage a long time or short time. Our lines may be many or few, delivered to a large audience or a small child, but they are important to the person whose stage we’re on.
I want to get my lines right.
Philip Yancey concludes his book “Church, Why Bother?” with a thought worth its weight in gold for those laboring in the local church. For those with their shoulders to the wheel, engaged in the fight, this is fuel! (An apology to the Milpitas High School orchestra. I'm sure things have improved greatly since the Rev. Palmer uttered the quote.)
C.S. Lewis wrote that God “seems to do nothing of Himself which he can delegate His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.” There is no greater illustration of that principle than the church of Jesus Christ, to which God has delegated the task of embodying God’s Presence in the world. All of our efforts are examples of God’s delegation.
Every parent knows something of the risk of delegation, with all it’s joys and heartache. The child taking her very first steps holds on, then lets go, then falls, then struggles to her feet for another attempt. No one has discovered another way to learn to walk.
Yes, the church fails in its mission and makes serious blunders precisely because the church comprises human beings who will always fall short of the glory of God. That is the risk God took. Anyone who enters the church expecting perfection does not understand the nature of that risk or the nature of humanity. Just as every romantic eventually learns that marriage is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work, every Christian must learn that Church is only a beginning.
The composer Igor Stravinsky once wrote a new piece that contained a difficult violin passage. After several weeks of rehearsal the solo violinist came to Stravinsky and said that he could not play it. He had given it his best effort but found the passage too difficult, even unplayable. Stravinsky replied, "I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it." Perhaps something similar is what God had in mind with the church.
I remember hearing a similar illustration from Earl Palmer, a pastor who was defending the church against critics who dismissed it for its hypocrisy, its failures, its inability to measure up to the New Testament’s high standards. Palmer, a Californian at the time, deliberately chose a community known for its unsophistication.
“When the Milpitas High School orchestra attempts Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the result is appalling,” said Palmer. "I wouldn't be surprised if the performance made old Ludwig roll over in his grave despite his deafness. You might ask, 'Why bother?' Why inflict on those kids the terrible burden of trying to render what the immortal Beethoven had in mind? Not even the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra can attain that perfection."
“My answer is this: The Milpitas High School orchestra will give some people in that audience their only encounter with Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony. Far from perfection, it is nevertheless the only way they will hear Beethoven’s message.”
I remind myself of Earl Palmer’s analogy whenever I start squirming in a church service. Although we may never achieve what the composer had in mind, there is no other way for those sounds to be heard on earth.
Philip Yancey, Church, Why Bother, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998) pages 99-100.
Most of the churches I’ve led had “First Church” in their name. All were over 80 years in age when I arrived, so the word First had long ago ceased to have any missional meaning. Originally, the name represented the fact that the congregation was the first of its kind in the relevant city, but time and the fact that the Second church had not arrived made the name a bit confusing.
Conversations would often come up about whether we should change the name.
“After all, Pastor," someone would say, “it has been 80 years since we were First, isn’t it time to choose a name that people can identify with?”
As the churches grew and new people came to faith, the distance between the original name and what was happening in the local church seemed to widen. Nevertheless, I’ve never officially led a process to change the name of a church.
Please don’t think I think it would have been wrong. I just never did it. I will admit, the name of churches being planted around us did make more strategic sense and were far more understandable by outsiders. In addition, having First in the name made it tougher to get on a T-shirt or a sign, so a change could certainly be argued for communication's sake. Shortly after I left my previous assignment, the leaders changed the name and it was a great move. The church has since continued to grow and pioneer new things and it’s wonderful. I love it!
At my current assignment, Chicago First Church of the Nazarene, the name thing has come up a few times. Leaders questioned whether keeping First in the title made sense. “What’s First got to do with anything?” was a question I heard more than once. For a few, it was even a question of pride. "What does the Bible say, Pastor, about those who want to be first?" The discussion made some folks wonder if we'd built an anti-Biblical theme into our title.
I was also confronted with the fact that our name is “Chicago First” when we’ve been located in Lemont, Illinois for over 40 years. This one was easier to address. While I recognized the incongruence, our commitment to multiply in Chicago from Lemont made the word “Chicago” okay in my book. It's a reminder of where our story began, and where we needed to return to in ministry, if we are to not abandon our post. Having First in our name didn't appear to be strategic or relevant, but all of that changed this last week.
Our movement held it’s General Assembly and I had the chance to hear a panel discussion of church planters and leaders on the issue of reaching lost people. My friend Kevin Jack (he’s awesome by the way) was a member of the panel and said something that exploded in my heart.
He said, “Instead of trying to be somebody’s next church, why don’t we give ourselves to being someone’s first church.” And it hit me.
Instead of trying to be somebody’s NEXT church, why don’t we give ourselves to becoming somebody’s FIRST church.
There it was. I have never had a statement so articulate what my wife and I and the four congregations we’ve worked with were trying to accomplish than that one.
Our goal is to see the people who haven’t had a first church yet, have one. Our prayer is to create an environment so Spirit filled, unconditionally loving, missional-minded, and on fire for Jesus, that those who come never get over it.
The growing majority of our population who make up the “nones” or “dones” in our culture, (who have NEVER experienced the Body of Christ or whose experiences have caused them to be done with the Body of Christ), are the people God has called us to reach and why we exist. By the way, the number of “nones” in our culture is at an all time high. How did this happen in a country where we have had so much freedom and so many resources to accomplish our mission? I would suggest one of the issues is we began to attempt to become someone’s next instead of someone’s first church. I don’t think we meant to, we just did and have had a hard time stopping.
The questions you will ask trying to welcome outsiders are different than those if you’re attempting to attract insiders. The Gospel stays the same, but everything else is on the table. How you reach them is different. They are in different places than insiders. They have different questions and priorities than insiders. They speak a different language, listen to different music, and have different opinions than insiders. They may vote differently. Grew up hearing different stories. Have a vastly different view of the church, the Bible, the clergy, Christians, and as a result…Jesus.
Church outsiders have never taken the steps church insiders took, before they even remember taking them. Things we’ve never questioned; they will wrestle with.
Not everyone will enjoy a church designed to be someone’s first church. I’ve led four of them and “enjoy” is not always a good description of what it felt like. Occasionally when people left the church because they wanted to go to a place that played the music they liked, preached sermons they liked, and had events they liked, I wanted to go with them. After all, a church for Brian will have more blues music and much longer sermons. Really long sermons. But, making Brian comfortable is not the mission of the church. The church doesn't belong to Brian. Brian belongs to the church. In each of our assignments, we’ve seen lost people found by Jesus and God’s people slaughter the fatted calf in celebration.
I listened just last night to a new Christian pray publicly for the first time. She thanked God for her friend who had taught her to pray by praying in front of her in a Life Group. We are Maria's first church and Allie is her first Christian friend. How cool is that?
Mission work is hard work. That’s why Jesus told us we would have a cross in the game, but it’s worth it!
So at Chicago First Church of the Nazarene, we're most likely keeping the name for a while. Our T-shirts will be less interesting, but our core values just found a new trumpet.
Here’s to all you out there, whatever your church name is, that are committed to becoming someone’s first church. May God bless and encourage you! Keep the faith! Finish the race! Fight the fight! It’s worth it.
"Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ." (Ephesians 2:11-13)
As a young man, Bill Wangler landed a job with the railroad. For a depression era kid, that was a big deal. It promised a good living and security. A short time later he met my mother and when they married on Christmas Day, 1945, they celebrated the love they'd found and looked forward to building a home and raising a family.
Tucked in his first Bible which now sits on my bookcase is a yellowed letter. It is a letter of recommendation written on June 16, 1955 by my father’s foreman on the Wabash Railroad. The text of the letter is simple and so is the reason it was written. My father had wrestled with working on Sundays. His faith was firmly in God and his life was built around the work of God on earth, the church. His foreman worked with him as long as he could, but eventually my Dad believed he had to choose between the job he loved and Jesus. He chose Jesus.
I don’t believe it was a legalistic approach to the Sabbath as much as it was a passion to be part of the church that drove my father. It was a huge step of faith. He never again would earn the kind of money he might have earned if he had stayed with the railroad, but his Sundays weren’t for sale. God provided. We never went without. The house got built, the family raised, and my father distinguished himself in a career of customer service. But it’s not my father’s Monday through Friday career I want to talk about; it’s those Sundays.
Sundays were extremely predictable around the Wangler house. Early, Mom would prepare a roast or chicken while my Dad peeled potatoes. Then, while Mom continued preparing, Dad would engage in the most difficult ministry of the day: getting the kids out of bed. Eventually we would leave for church and Sunday was on.
Mom and Dad were always serving. They taught, they cleaned, they cared for, they picked up and dropped off. Mom was missionary president and Dad served on the church board. In addition, he directed and drove a bus ministry for kids. When the services began, Mom and Dad took their place in an “amen” pew, 4th row, on the center aisle, organ side. No pastor ever had stronger encouragers and supporters than Bill and Hilda Wangler.
After Sunday dinner, while the kids played and the adults went down for a nap, Dad would drive to the county jail and hold church services. By 4:30 he was back home and preparing to load the family into the car for Sunday night.
Sunday nights after church were my favorite time. My parents would host other couples or the pastor or visiting evangelist at our home. The dining room table would be buzzing with conversation and laughter. Never did I hear my parents talk negatively about the church. Eventually, inevitably, the conversation would get serious, the Bible would come out, and tears would be shed as people poured their hearts out at the altar that was the dining room table of Bill and Hilda Wangler. As a child there was something warm about those times. I didn’t want them to end and they often didn’t until late into the night.
By my calculations, from the writing of the letter of recommendation on June 16, 1955 until the Monday my father died on February 9, 2009, there were 2,732 Sundays. On a vast majority of those save a few for vacations or illness, my parent’s Sundays were invested in the work of God through the local church.
They took their faith seriously and I and my brother and sisters were recipients of that faith. They loved people, each other, and our family. Dad was respected in the work place and our neighborhood. Mom was a natural leader. They were students, both of them reading voraciously. They were deeply loved by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All in all not a bad return on the investment of Sundays.
So, in my Dad’s memory and as an honor to my mom, here’s to all the weekend warriors that commit to carrying on the mission of the local church.
You prepare the environments. You shake the hands. You listen to the hurts. You teach the children. You park the cars. You unlock the doors. You turn on the lights. You set up chairs and then take them back down. You lock the doors when it’s over. You listen to the stories. You open your homes. You show up early. You leave late. You reschedule and prioritize around mission. You take bullets of criticism for pastors. You invite your friends and neighbors. You give your money. You use your talents. You sing. You play an instrument. You run a soundboard. You take out the trash. You make the coffee. You fold bulletins. You host a small group. You teach the Bible studies. You receive, count, and then deposit the offering. You update the database. You load the message onto the website. You make sure the baptistery is filled and, God willing, the heater is on. You take the Gospel to nursing homes and jails. You welcome guests. You help regular attenders. You fill communion trays. You pray in anticipation and show up in expectation that God is going to change someone’s life the way he changed yours. And he still does.
There is a great documentary on Queen Elizabeth entitled, “The Queen At 90.” A portion of the show followed preparations for a banquet welcoming the Heads of State from several different countries to London. The preparation was incredible. Among other things, all doors were to be opened for guests from the outside in.
There were a couple sentences in the documentary that spoke to me. I’m paraphrasing, but the essence is accurate.
“With everything prepared intentionally over a period of months, and with the royal welcome provided, the message a guest received was understandable in any language: “The Queen welcomes you. The Queen is glad you’re here.”
Regardless of language barriers, the welcome was understandable. Regardless of preconceived ideas about royalty, the warmth was obvious. Regardless of the understanding of what the Queen was all about, her graciousness was understood.
Fearful expectations melted away in the glow of such graceful hospitality.
The Body of Christ was organized for the purpose of welcoming people home. We open doors from the outside in both physically and spiritually.
Our language, our gatherings, our approaches, our culture must open doors from the outside in, or they will not open at all.
Jesus didn’t call us to follow Him by yelling to us from heaven. He moved onto our block and knocked on our door.
“God made Him to be sin who knew no sin…”
He opened the door from the outside in.
We don’t stand in our imaginary spiritual bubble (and it is an imaginary one) and welcome people to Jesus. We win them by wading into the world and welcoming them home. We open doors from the outside in.
In a very real, practical way, our greeting teams should never stand inside and watch guests come. We should, we must go out and greet them. It's a little thing that reminds us of an important principle and sends a valuable message:
"We've been expecting you. The table is ready. The King is glad you're here."
The look in our eyes should communicate in any language.
The smile on our faces should cross any cultural barrier.
The warmth of our greeting should melt away fearful expectations.
"The King is glad you're here."
Here's to all the greeting teams out there who arrive at church early and stay late to make sure the heart of God is felt before it's talked about. Keep serving! You're where you are by Divine appointment and you're doing more than you can ever realize!
"So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him." (Luke 15:20)
It was late February. It was still cold and there was slushy, dirty, snow everywhere. The wind was blowing and I was standing at a gas pump filling up the tank. As I put the cap back on and turned to go inside to pay, the wind blew a dirty piece of paper up against my leg. I kicked a little and it blew away. A few moments later I returned back across the lot headed for my car. Again the wind blew the same dirty piece of paper against my leg. This time I reached down, wadded it up and put it in my pocket. A couple of days later, I remembered it. Reaching into my coat, I pulled out the wide lined yellow elementary school writing paper we all used as kids.
What was written on the page changed my life and established a trajectory for our ministry that is still true to this day. There is a picture below of the paper which hangs in my office. Here's what it says:
My Christmas wish is for my father to walk in the back door. Please try to accomplish this Christmas wish. If you can't accomplish this wish then that is fine because I know you have T-O-N-S of kids to attend to!
Standing in my office that day in Fithian, Illinois, I promised God I would spend the rest of my life looking for Carrie Annie, her father, and all of the people in the world they represent. Those for whom the only hope feels like Santa Claus. Those children who are growing up wishing their fathers, mothers, or anyone who cares, would walk in the back door. Those adults who have regrets they can't go back and change, who would love to re-enter the lives of the people they've hurt, but have no idea how to get there. Those wounded, hurting, lost people who believe the way things are is the only way they can be. People for whom Christ died and about whom the church should be focused.
There is no price too high to pay, no sacrifice too great to give, no change too difficult to navigate, no board meeting too long to process, no disappointment too tough to face, no budget too costly to raise, no criticism too harsh to endure, no sacred cow too sacred to slaughter, and no burden too heavy to bear in order for us to accomplish our mission. There's no treacherous pathway we should fear to go down. There's no place we should fail to look. There's no new idea we shouldn't prayerfully consider. There's no obstacle or hardened personality we shouldn't confront. Fear cannot be our master. There's no comfort zone we shouldn't blow up, no mediocrity we should tolerate, no pity-party we should accept an invitation to, and no low level thinking we should embrace. There's no time too early to show up, no preparation too much to ask, and no schedule too important not to be adjusted.
May our goals be God-sized goals. May our efforts be bathed in God-sized prayers. May our actions be worthy of those who claim to be followers of the ONE who carried a cross and called for us to do the same.
Standing on the promises of the One who cannot fail, committed to delivering HIS message to the world around us, we must not fail.
In a season when it is so easy to focus on insiders, may God help us to focus where He focuses, lost and hurting people.
So, if you're out there, Carrie Annie, I'm still looking!
Peace and Merry Christmas!