Weary of Drama?

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My granddaughter and I were playing in the basement. Her games and mine are vastly different. Chloe plays games that model life, so she likes playing life. I like playing fiction. In her games, we do stuff she watches adults actually do like go to the store, clean the house, play a board game, etc. In my games we fight dragons and bad guys. Don’t judge me, I’m a guy. And I’m old.

On this day Chloe wanted to play store. I was the cashier. She had a play shopping cart and browsed the toys in the basement before making her purchases. Then she came to my counter. I pretended to scan the items and accept her credit card for payment. She got in her plastic car and drove fifteen feet away where she lived. Afterward I said, “Now what do you want to play?” She said, “Let’s play store again.”

I was bored.

Me: “Okay, but this time, let’s add something.”

Chloe: “Like what?”

Me: “Like, let’s have a robber come in the store…”

Chloe: “No!” (She interrupted.) “No robbers.”

Me: “Okay, then let me add some potential purchases to your shopping list.”

Chloe: “Like what?”

Me: “Well, like these guns or these handcuffs.” (Lifting plastic toys left over from a violent era gone-by.)

Chloe: “Nope. No guns or handcuffs, Papa.” (Firm and with a bit of attitude.)

Me: “But Chloe, something exciting needs to happen!”

Chloe: “No Papa, we’re shopping. That’s exciting enough.”

(And with that she pretended to continue shopping our basement. A few moments later…)

Chloe: “Oh, look, some Play-Doh. That will be exciting.”

Me: “Whatever.”

(She came to check-out.)

Me: “Did you find everything okay?”

Chloe: “Yes, thank you.”

Me: “Would you like to buy some guns or handcuffs in case bad guys try to carjack you?”

Chloe: (Smiling and rolling her eyes.) “No Papa, we’re in your basement. No one is going to carjack me. I don’t even know what that is.” (Handing me her pretend payment card.)

Me: (Frowning and sighing) “Hmmmmmmmmm…”

Chloe: “What’s wrong?”

Me: “I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see some ID.”

Chloe: “What’s ID?”

Me: “ID stands for ‘identification.’ Like a Driver’s License.”

Chloe: “I don’t have one.”

Me: “Well then, I guess you’ll have to pay cash.”

Chloe: “I don’t have any cash.”

Me: “Sorry missy, no cash, no groceries.” (Pure satisfaction. Shaking my head and removing her items from the counter.)

Chloe: “Wait a minute.” (She ran over to her little desk and began to scribble on paper with a crayon and then returned proudly laying the papers in front of me.)

Me: “What’s this?”

Chloe: (With pride.) “It’s cash.”

Me: (Standing and holding the paper up to the light.) “Wait a minute!” (Pulling my plastic squirt gun from behind my back.) “Freeze, lady, you’re under arrest. Put your hands behind your back.”

Chloe: (Rolling her eyes again. Note: I get that a lot!!!) “What for?”

Me: (Snapping the plastic handcuffs in place) “Forgery, Ma’am. It’s a felony.”

Chloe: (Matter of factly, as I lead her off to jail with her hands behind her back.) “I am never shopping in this store again.”

Boy, do I love my granddaughter. #goodruleforlifechloe #andalittlechildshallleadthem

Moral of the Story: If people are looking for drama they will dig until they find it or create their own. It might be time to shop in a new store.

Life without Mom?

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On February 21, 2018, a moment I dreaded since I was old enough to dread and had any idea how the world worked, arrived. My mother died.

Hilda Imogene Wangler was ninety-one years old. Even though this photograph was taken 16 years before I was born, this is how I remember mom. The prettiest Mom in the neighborhood, and always beside Dad. He passed in 2009.

I was pondering on New Year’s Eve what it means to enter 2019 without Mom.

Like a rock she held things down in a storm. She was a foundation of faith her children built their lives on, and her husband knew he could depend upon. In difficult times we always knew there was a place to go, a listening ear, and a human being on the planet who loved us deeply and unconditionally. I for one, tested the unconditional part, and the ice never cracked.

Even as her body weakened her mind remained sharp. She endured what might have been her greatest tests of faith in the final years, but never wavered in Whose or who she was. She gave thanks before every meal including her final one. There is a hole in the Wangler family.

Strangely though, as I mulled the issue of continuing life without her, I realized something I’ve been wrestling with: I wasn’t.

She’s gone. Then again she isn’t.

I hear her voice at every crossroad and feel her love at every question. There is a calm that comes when fear falls I cannot explain. I can see her listening eyes when I think about a problem. I can hear her praying voice when I pause in my own prayers. She’s definitely present even though she isn’t.

In these moments, she is not coming to me as a spirit or a ghost. Not once. Doesn’t happen. She doesn’t appear to me as a butterfly floating near at just the right moment or a rainbow appearing in the sky on rainy days. It’s much more real than that.

I don’t pray to her for she cannot answer and she does not intercede for me before the Father. Jesus does that. I don’t pray for her, she’s crossed the finish line and doesn’t need my prayers.

And yet, she comes and I am strangely comforted. This New Year’s Eve, I wondered where this comfort comes from, and I think I know.

It comes from the place of a million memories, countless conversations, and boundless love. The seeds she planted over 57 years have sprouted. I am amazed.

“And by faith Able still speaks even though dead.”

(Hebrews11:4)

There you go. Now I know what that verse means.

Someday, when my physical voice is silent and my kids come to life’s thresholds without me, I want them to hear my voice, but I’m concerned about what they will hear?

Will they hear cynicism? Will they hear criticism? Will they hear my opinions about how wrong the world is? Will they hear me whine about the times life didn’t go my way? Will they remember listening eyes or condescending glares? Will they hear, “I told you so,” or “I love you so?” Will they hear a voice that directs them to the Father? Will they hear a voice of gratitude and humility, or pride and arrogance? What will they hear? Don’t get me wrong, I hear my Mother’s voice of correction and pause also, but I remember it as it was, full of grace and love. What will my children and grandchildren hear?

The truth is they will hear then what I say most now.

So, I’m asking God to help me do some serious planting in 2019. I think I need to pull up weeds and plant faith. My prayer is someday, hopefully a long time from now, one of my children will stand at a crossroad of faith or threshold of trial and hear my voice. In that moment, hopefully, by God’s grace, they will say to themselves, “That’s Dad’s faith talking.”

Though she is physically absent from this world, I do not enter 2019 without my Mother.

Hilda Wangler planted well. God give me grace to do the same.

Peace.

It Was "Daddy-Daughter Day."

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According to the Netflix documentary, “Walt,” it was a Saturday.

Saturday was “Daddy-Daughter Day” in the Disney household.  Walt Disney drew solid borders protecting the most important relationships in his life, his family.

On this particular morning Walt sat on a park bench relaxing, eating peanuts and watching his kids ride a merry-go-round. As he marveled at the joy of his children and peace he was experiencing, an idea knocked on his door.  He dreamt a theme park designed with the excellence of the Disney brand and the scope of Disney imagination. The result was Disneyland.

Often, the greatest ideas come that way. When not focusing on work, a dream drops by. While watching and connecting with your children, a vision comes into view. It’s why so many great ideas and speeches find their first light of day on a napkin or scrap of paper.

Early in leadership, I tended to withdraw when facing a difficult season. I searched for answers in the data, or in my own experiences, or in the experiences of others. I worried, fretted, and looked over my children to the horizon where I believed the solution would appear. The result was often a failure of imagination. Children have a way of keeping that from happening if we’re present in simple moments.

As I look back, I have learned more from and through time spent with my children, and now grandchildren than anywhere else.

Today, if you’re up against it. Today, if the haze is blurring your vision and doubt is crowding your spirit, get away. Carve out time. Sit on a bench, maybe even eat some peanuts, look at and be with your children. Enjoy. Breathe. Linger. Relax. Really watch them. Inhale the moment if for no other reason than you’ll need it someday, and they need it now.

Do not, please do not, go there looking for ideas. Don’t press. Go there being. If nothing comes, who cares? You’ve just experienced life the way the Creator designed it, but I promise you… if you keep going there…the dreams will drop by.

CAVU

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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.

Bill Barker And Me

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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.

The Man With The Bat

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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!

Peace. 

The Gong Principle

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.

Peace

The Sound of Trying

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.) 

Enjoy!

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.

What's a First Church?

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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.

Wait? What?

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) 

Peace!