Staying the Course #49

I was shocked when, after only 18 months in Presbytery, I, a Yankee, was voted to be one of the two ministers from Nashville Presbytery to serve as a delegate to the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, US. How did this happen? From a human perspective, my guess is that it was because every pastor and many church members throughout Presbytery knew my name.

I had worked with others to plan and lead two very well attended, “successful” retreats for the Presbytery’s high school students. When young people come home excited about their great retreat in a beautiful Tennessee state park pastors and parents are grateful. One of these retreats was at Easter time, and the young people returned to their homes telling how they had re-enacted the crucifixion, and how they were moved to tears as they realized what Jesus Christ had done for them….Parents and Pastors literally thank the Lord. Someone is getting to the hearts of “our kids.”

Those who attended Presbytery knew I was theologically conservative, but refused to be involved in church politics. It was quickly known that I was willing to listen to others, give my perspective and to vote according to what I believed was right. Pastors and layman alike respect this, even when your thinking is different than theirs.

Three months later I accepted the call for me to become the Associate Pastor of Christ Church of Oak Brook, IL. With the decision finalized, I notified the Executive Secretary that I would be moving outside of the bounds of Nashville Presbytery and requested he notify Presbytery and the elected alternate delegate to the meeting of the General Assembly. I also asked if he would seek permission for me to “labor outside of the boundaries of Presbytery”. This request could easily be denied as CCOB is an independent church with a “congregational” form of government.

When several “conservative” members of Presbytery heard what I had done I was “visited” and told that I really should go to the meeting – conservatives in the church were counting on my vote. In my heart I knew I had done what was right – this was why Presbyteries elect an alternate delegate.

At their next meeting, Presbytery granted my request and I was able to keep my ordination status within the PCUS, and was able to continue putting church matched retirement money into the Presbyterian Minister’s Annuity Fund.

Three years later we moved from Illinois to Texas where I became the Director of Sky Ranch – a ministry that was building a new camp/conference facility in East Texas. When we had moved, I called the Chairman of the Ministerial Credentials Committee of Presbytery, a Dallas pastor, and introduced myself as the new Director of Sky Ranch. I said I would like to become a member of Dallas Presbytery. He invited me to his office and in the course of the conversation he asked me if Young Life would be renting the Sky Ranch facility for weekend retreats. I confirmed that this was true.

He then bluntly told me that, as long as he was Chairman of the Ministerial Credentials Committee, I would never be able to become a member of Dallas Presbytery. I was stunned! He went on to say that Young Life had taken “his” church’s best high school students for their program. I knew first hand that this was something Young Life worked hard not to do. Because of this pastor’s experiences or thoughts, the Dallas Presbytery door was shut!

I had few alternatives. I wrote a letter to Nashville Presbytery requesting permission to continue “to labor outside of the bounds of Presbytery”. I was on shaky ground as I had only served in Nashville Presbytery for 20 months, and had not been back in 3 years. Again they granted my request – my name still rang true to them.

Our family joined Highland Park Presbyterian Church where the man I served under after I graduated was pastor. This church affiliation enabled me to have credibility with those in the “main-line denominations” and those in the independent Bible churches. I had credibility without spending hours in Presbytery meetings. My hours went to building Sky Ranch.

When we live In Partnership With God, we must do what we believe to be right before Him. God knows our hearts….and though people may not like what we say, most also know our hearts, and respect our courage.

God’s Surprises #48

Within our first year in Murfreesboro the “Stones River Presbyterian Co-operative District” was up and running – 8 churches were working together to develop a strong ministry for each church and the Presbyterian Student Fellowship of Middle Tennessee State University. The large, old former funeral home had become “the morgue” and home to my office, to the Christian Education (CE) supplies gathered and organized from and for the eight churches, to a large conference table (25 + people), a coffee house, a ceramics lab, two small meeting rooms – and the third floor “pool hall”. It had been an intense year – and it seemed like there was finally time to breath.

And then came the invitation. Clayton Bell, the minister I had worked under when I first graduated from seminary, had recently become senior minister of the 4,000 member Highland Park Presbyterian Church just north of Dallas, Texas. “Would I consider coming to the HPPC to head up their Christian Education program?” Harry Hassel, Sr. pastor of the largest church in the SRPCD said we had his blessing to go…but he hoped we wouldn’t! Sally Jo and I had enjoyed working with and learned much from Clayton, and his wife, Peggy. I do not remember that Sally Jo and I put much energy into the decision. Our answer: No. I have remembered the truth:” every invitation is not a call from God.”

A few months later we were contacted by Christ Church of Oak Brook, IL, an interdenominational church located just West of Chicago. We were asked to come up to the church to meet with the church leaders, learn about the church’s program, and see the facility. We went…at least we would have a few days with our families – both of our parents and three siblings lived within 30 minutes of the church. The people were wonderful and their vision for the church was clear. The program was solid and the facility was, for us, mind blowing. Soon after the church began, the developer of the village of Oak Brook had given the church many acres located at the key intersection, less than a mile from a major highway. Soon after the property was given, the people of the church dug deep into their pockets and the present sanctuary was built – it seated 1200 people. The building was unique and incredibly beautiful – the new congregation wanted to make a statement to the community…and they did! Within ten years about 1000 people were attending weekly. In five months the new CE building with a large fellowship hall would be ready for use. I was asked to become associate pastor, with particular responsibility for Christian Education and the “groups” within the church.

How could we say yes? We had been in Murfreesboro less than two years. It was only now becoming “home” to us. The ministries of the Stones River Presbyterian District were going well. There were outstanding young people in the PSF. Recently I had been voted by Presbytery to become one of their delegates to the General Assembly. Many ministers never get this opportunity. (How this happened, I still do not understand.)

What were our real motives in making the move to become part of the CCOB ministry? The opportunity to live near family? Working with some truly great people? The challenge of developing ministries within a large church? Enjoying the excellent music program and great pipe organ? My office, and my secretary’s office, would not be too shabby!

One question in my mind was “Why was it so easy to say no to HPPC in TX…and difficult to say no to Christ Church of Oak Brook”. We really wanted, almost needed, hand writing on the wall. For us, it did not seem difficult to say and mean: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6. The huge challenge was….Lord, which path?!!!!!! The handwriting never came! I do not know how long we talked, prayed, and thought about the decision. We had trusted and knew we could not lean on our own understanding. The Lord knew our hearts. Ultimately the only guidance that we should move was the still, small voice of God’s Holy Spirit. After the decision, God’s gave us his peace. When we had finally decided we should move to Illinois, I remember that emotionally and physically I just shut down.

The opportunities God gives to us, the work He has prepared for us have often been surprises. Our challenge is to remember that the opportunities and the work remain His. We are His servants. Repeatedly God has taken our lives in new directions: a city church in AL, a small country church in CT, an education/student ministry in TN, a large suburban church in IL – and eventually into 30 years of directing camps in TX and NY. Living in Partnership With God has been for us, a wild ride! The challenge for each of us is obedience, not what we think will be the outcome.

Rest! #47

I have just returned from 10 days in Vieques, a small, scruffy island off Puerto Rico. Sally Jo stayed on for another 9 days with Barb, a mutual friend. Over a period of nine years we have been on the island at least 18 weeks. During these years we have taken many other trips, in and outside the US, yet, almost every year we return to Vieques.

Why? Because we can enjoy without thinking very much! Almost no stress. We know the roads, stores, beaches, and the basic “rules” of the place. We have a daily pattern: before breakfast we drive ten minutes to Sun beach, arriving about 8:00 AM. The sun is warm, the breeze is light, and the waves gently roll onto the wide, clean beach. We leave our “shoes” in the car and walk from one end of the beach to the other at a pretty fast clip – then return walking with small waves washing over our feet. 45 minutes. We may see two or three people. It is beautiful, no question. But why walk this same beach at the same time of day perhaps 100 times? It is beautiful. Nothing surprising. Very relaxing.

In the evening Sally Jo and I may sit in canvas chairs on the deck of the casita – no bugs, screens, neighbors, utilities, almost no noise. Just us, a few fluffy clouds, bright stars and a slice of the moon. Often we say little – why talk? We are able to talk all day. We sit together, feeling thankful to God, who is also present. We rest and regroup – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I realize I have not been very good at “resting”. It seems there is always something more I feel I should do..

I find it is easy to give God the credit for creation, the bible, my salvation. I say God is eternal, unchangeable, and all knowing, powerful, wise, loving, etc. I look at my life and it is easy to see that God prepares work for me to do – and prepares me for the work He has for me to do. This being true, why does God give me so much to do – and tell me to rest? The problem must not be in what God expects of me…but in my perception of what God expects of me. If I am too busy to rest, which God tells me I must do (creation – rested 7th day, 10 commandments), something in my life must be out of whack! My time must be going to what God considers “non-essentials”. This could mean that I change my lifestyle – or my job. It could mean that I volunteer less…and refuse to be talked into things I should not spend time on.

Sally Jo and I have always given 10% or more of our income to the Lord for His work. To do this has required our family to do without many things. With the 10% we could buy our children nicer clothes, or buy a better car, or perhaps take “grander” vacations. There is always something we can spend money on. But we have said 10 % is God’s….period!

I have come to realize that just as we set apart money for God, I must set time apart for rest – in obedience to God. And the time for rest must be a top priority – according to the God who made me, loves me, has plans for me, etc.

I read Hebrews 4: on the casita deck and in the first eleven verses the word “rest” is included 10 times. Rest seems to be a package – like the different kinds of rest are really one “rest”. Is it possible to rest physically…and not be resting in other areas? Perhaps not. I can be sitting still…and have a thought that causes my pulse and blood pressure to go up. Medical research speaks to the undeniable relationship between our mind and our body. I am not resting if I am lying in a hammock in the warm sun…trying to solve a work or relationship problem, or feeling angry, or worried about… I will not buy the idea that rest is just a change from what we normally do

The 10 commandments tell us “six days you shall labor…the seventh…you shall not do any work…the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” God has made the day holy…He does not tell us to make it holy, but God does clearly say…to rest on this holy day.

If I take this seriously, I should not be writing the In Partnership With God mostly on Sunday afternoon and evening. As much as I enjoy doing this, it is work! If I do not have this Sunday block in which to write…I am sure I can write at a different time in the week – which means something of lesser value will need to go. I should say “this I will do!” Ouch.