Category Archives: Ministry

The Greatest Christmas Gift

Leaving church on Sunday morning with a new outlook on life was not a common experience for Walter. He normally ended the hour of worship with a growling stomach and acute anxiety that he had missed the opening kickoff. But, today was different. Something the preacher said captured his attention.

He didn’t mind going to church, even though he would not classify himself as a steadfast believer. Walter had no doubts about the existence of God, and he rarely disagreed with anything spoken from the pulpit; he just had other interests. He enjoyed church because he loved sitting next to Sally. She was the love of his life, the apple of his eye, and every other cliché you can think of. More often than not, they would even hold hands for a good portion of the hour.

The amazing thing of Walter’s strong affection for Sally is that they were not young teenagers in love. Walter and Sally had been married for forty-two years. Yet, he was just as anxious to sit at her side as he had been when they first met as college freshmen. The years had brought them closer. In fact, since Walter retired six months ago, they spent most of their time together, and he had never been happier.Christmas-Gift

It was the first Sunday of Advent, a time that Walter always enjoyed. He loved everything about Christmas, especially the gifts. For Walter, giving a present was a process, including shopping, wrapping, hiding, and opening. His greatest joy every Christmas morning was to watch expressions as family and friends opened the gift he meticulously picked for them. For Walter, the first Sunday of Advent was the signal that Christmas was almost here.

The sermon by Rev. Wilson was about the gift of God that we celebrate at Christmas. He pounded home the notion that God’s gift was the greatest ever. He defined that gift as loving those who are unlovable. Rev. Wilson was not known for his oratory skills, but whenever he worked at it, he could be as convincing as any car salesman pushing an extended warranty.

Whatever he said on Sunday, he certainly captured Walter’s attention. In spite of the fact that Walter had been attending church for decades and that he had heard hundreds of Christmas sermons, something about the words of Rev. Wilson captured his interest. Like a child entering a toy store, Walter’s mind was racing with possibilities.

He decided that Christmas was about loving the unlovable. This was revolutionary to Walter. He had spent his whole life giving to those he loved. He could not remember ever giving a present to someone who was unlovable. He had never even given it a moment’s thought.

Walter and Sally put on their coats as they walked toward the church foyer. Leaving church was always tedious for Walter because Sally liked to stop and visit with too many people. She was accustomed to Walter tugging on her sleeve like a bored child. On this Sunday, Walter walked off and left Sally. He was in a hurry to speak to Rev. Wilson.

Waiting his turn in line with the complimenters and complainers, Walter finally reached the preacher. Walter stretched out with both arms and grabbed the Reverend’s hand.

“Pastor, you really spoke to me today,” he blurted out as he shook the minister’s hand like a rag doll.

“Thank you, Walter,” said Rev. Wilson in a tentative voice, “I was just trying to say what God laid on my heart.” He was somewhat stunned because he did not remember his words ever having an impact on Walter before.

Almost before Rev. Wilson finished his sentence, Walter said, “Pastor, I’ve got an idea about Christmas. You convinced me that Christmas is about loving the unlovable. That’s what I am going to do!”

Not sure what Walter had in mind, Rev. Wilson said, “That’s good to hear Walter. It’s always good to know that someone is listening when I preach.”

“Pastor, this is my plan. I’m going to find the most unlovable person in town, and I’m going to love them. That will be my Christmas present to them.”

You could still hear some skepticism, or perhaps it was simply reservation in Rev. Wilson’s voice, “That’s great Walter. I’ll be glad to help. Just let me know what I can do.”

Walter didn’t hear the last few words because he had already turned to look for Sally. She was finishing her conversation as Walter seized her arm and escorted her out the front door toward the parking lot.

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Broken: The Life and Times of Erik Daniels

Every person is broken in some way. Most of us get repaired along the way and become functioning contributors to the world. Others are severely broken, and despite the best efforts of family and friends, never are entirely repaired. Erik is the only person I have ever known who was completely broken and never had anyone care enough to help him put his life back together.

I met Erik when he asked me to write a book for him, a “tell-all” book about his life. He was living in hiding, using a fake identity, and facing a death sentence from people who were out to kill him and the doctor who diagnosed him. The 39 years of his life were filled with tragedies and horrors that would have broken most of us.Broken FC

As he told me his story, so I could write his book for him, he provided vivid details of abuse, violence, murder, drugs, and prison sentences. Beginning with a mother who cared nothing for him, a father who abandoned him, a stepfather who abused him, and a grandfather who molested him he became a hardened criminal as a young teenager. In prison, he was mentored by a leader of a hate group and international drug dealer.

Out of prison, his young adult years were spent with drug trafficking and murder. He arrived at a point in his life where his only goal was survival. He became good at surviving, but along the way, he damaged many others.

Although Erik doesn’t sound like the kind of person you want to befriend, after spending hours listening to his story and re-listening to the recordings, we became friends. We never met in person, I have no idea what he looks like. If he were talking in the next room, I would recognize his voice, but I wouldn’t know his face.

His story was painful for him to tell and painful for me to hear. I have tried to tell it for him so you can understand him like I do. He is not a lovable person. But he is a person who can be and needs to be loved.

“Broken” is Erik’s story, but it is more than that. It is my story. Telling the story meant a lot to him. Hearing the story meant a lot to me. I hope that as you read the story, Erik Daniels will impact your life like he has mine.

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Thoughts and Prayers

There’s a phrase frequently heard in the aftermath of a tragedy, especially after a huge disaster like a massive hurricane, extensive flooding, or a mass shooting. We hear people say their “thoughts and prayers are with the people of…” and fill in the blank identifying those who are suffering. We hear it from television announcers, politicians, and almost everyone making any type of public remarks. It might be one of the dumbest things a person can say.

What exactly does it mean? I understand the “prayers” part. I’m all for praying for people in the midst of a storm. Personally, I have always been encouraged when people tell me that they are praying for me. I take them at their word. I’m a firm believer in prayer, and I try to remember to pray for those I know who are suffering. It is a good thing to tell people they are in our prayers.

However, what possible good does it do for someone to say to a suffering individual that my “thoughts” are with you? Huh? Ok, so what? Am I supposed to find comfort that in the midst of my suffering you are at least thinking about me?

Sometimes if a friend tells me he is going to a baseball game, I might say, “I’ll be thinking about you.” What I really mean is that I’m envious and wish I was going and I want him to know how fortunate he is to be at the game. He’s not going to have a better experience at a baseball game because I was thinking about him. I might even ask him where he’s sitting so I can catch a glimpse of him on television, but again, that’s not going to benefit him in any way.

If my house washed away in a flood or was blown away by a tornado, your thoughts are not very helpful. If a friend or family member was killed by a sniper, knowing that you are thinking about me does not provide a great deal of comfort. For some reason, we take great pride in telling suffering people they are in our thoughts and prayers.

I have an idea where this came from. Many people who don’t pray or believe that prayer makes any difference are not going to say, “I’m praying for you.” Why would they? But, they want to communicate something, so they offer nothing—their thoughts. For many people, thoughts are equally as effective as prayer. Now it has become the accepted response. The phrase allows everyone to say something and feel like they are contributing. “My thoughts and prayers are with you (even though I don’t believe either one is helpful).” So, those who believe in prayer and those who don’t believe in prayer can feel better about themselves.

I’m somewhat perplexed when anyone uses the phrase, but it is especially disconcerting when it is used by someone who has the ability to do more than offer “thoughts and prayers.” For example, to hear a politician send out “thoughts and prayers” to families of the victims of the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas is not the least bit helpful when they have it in their power to do so much more. How about working to pass some laws or devise some better circumstances where this type of thing doesn’t happen again?

Or, the President telling the people of Puerto Rico that his “thoughts and prayers” are with them and then does very little to alleviate the actual suffering. I think if I were in Puerto Rico I would suggest he keep his thoughts to himself and send some real help.

Or, what about the NRA member who sends “thoughts and prayers” to those suffering in Las Vegas and then sends his membership dues to the NRA?

If you believe in prayer, when there are people in need, get on your knees in prayer. If you don’t believe in prayer, get off your butt and do something else that is helpful. Write a check, grab a carload of supplies and go help, lobby your Senator or Representative to do something. I hate to tell you this, but your thoughts are not really helpful to anyone if that is all they are—thoughts.

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When My Fist Meets Your Chin

I had a friend in High School named Rocco Bomareto. I’m not kidding, that was his real name. He was Italian, like many others in my high school, but I don’t think his family belonged to the Mafia even though it would have been a great name for a local mob boss. Rocco and I shared a locker for a couple of years, and we were an unlikely couple. I was a skinny kid in a wheelchair, and he was the state heavyweight champion wrestler for two years.

We had a new kid show up one year at school. You remember how it is with new kids—they have to make their way, so they often do strange things. This kid came in as a tough guy, wanting everyone to know he was not to be messed with. It only took a few days for us to realize the new kid needed to be put in his place, so Rocco took it upon himself to do so.

Rocco climbed on top of a covered walkway between two buildings. Three or four boys on the ground took the news kid’s motorcycle and lifted it up to Rocco who reached down with one arm and pulled it up to the roof. There it sat for the rest of the day. I don’t know how he got it down; we all went home after school.punch

Looking back now I can say that Rocco was wrong in putting the motorcycle on the roof. It was not a very caring thing to do, although it was kinda funny at the time. At the same time, the new kid should not have been surprised that something like this happened. After all, if you attend a school with the state heavyweight champion wrestler named Rocco, it is probably a terrible mistake to try and be the tough guy.

When I was in school, they taught us about the interconnectedness between freedom and responsibility. It was drilled into us that we could not continue to enjoy freedom if we were unwilling to accept responsibility. It seems that most of us understood that and we continued to enjoy the freedom of being an American.

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Why Are You Giving Money to Your Church?

It is probably safe to say that money is the most thought about subject. We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about how to get money, what to do with the money we have, how to survive without money, and myriads of other questions. Money is not only the “root of all evil,” but also it is one of the factors that control our lives. If money guides much of our lives as individuals, then it is equally correct to say that money guides much of the life of our churches.

I’ve never done a survey, but I suspect the biggest complaint people have about the church centers around the issue of money. You’ve heard people say, “All that church wants is my money.” We frequently hear stories about church leaders abusing money given by members and living extravagant lifestyles.

I have an extensive background in studying and teaching biblical stewardship. Even though my views on the subject changed over the years, the importance of the relationship between the church and money is something I still strive to understand.church and money

The ability of a church to raise funds is strictly dependent upon the intended use of the money. For example, in the matter of capital-fund raising, everyone in the business knows it is easier to raise money for a new sanctuary than for a classroom building. The most challenging capital fund project for raising money is debt elimination. It seems that paying off debt doesn’t excite church folks nearly as much as getting a new worship center.

When it comes to raising money for other needs, missions tops the list. Inspiring people to give to share the Gospel, especially in the far corners of the world, is not that difficult. Another good fund-raising project is children. When I was a pastor if we had children who needed money to attend camp all we had to do was make an announcement, and the money would be quickly provided.

Once again I will pose the question of what your church would look like if you took money out of the equation. In other words, if your church had no money, zero income, what would happen?

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The Unholy Use of Money

An entirely unsurprising announcement came out this week that a mega church in the Dallas area has decided to escrow their mission money. I’m not going to identify the church, but if you type these four words into Google it will pop up quickly – Dallas, church, escrow, money. The reason cited by the pastor is that he felt disrespected. That’s correct, a leader for the Southern Baptist Convention said something he didn’t agree with, so he has instructed his church to hang onto the one million dollars that would have probably been given this year.

At first thought, it sounds like a reasonable decision. After all, why should we support someone who disrespects us, or give to an organization that doesn’t share our values and opinions?unholy-money

What causes me concern is the use of the word “escrow.” The dictionary definition is “a bond, deed, or other document kept in the custody of a third party, taking effect only when a specified condition has been fulfilled.” What this church is doing by escrowing money they had originally intended to give to the Southern Baptist Convention is to allow someone else to hold the money until the issue has been resolved. (I seriously doubt if the money actually goes anywhere other than the church’s bank account.)

In this case, it appears the use of the term “escrow” suggests a threat—if you don’t change we are going to punish you by withholding our money. This money, a significant amount, is being used as a financial club to get their way.

I don’t have any problem if this church decides the Southern Baptist Convention does not represent your values and beliefs and then simply stops the support. Quit giving—plain and simple. However, once they use the term “escrow,” it suggests the money will still be there whenever the Southern Baptist Convention sees things your way.

Don’t try to force a mission agency to do things your way. Go find someone else you can support. Find someone who shares your values and is already doing the things you desire.

The concept of escrowing money intended for the Southern Baptist Convention has been a favorite among churches for decades as they have sought to gain and control power. The big irony for me is pastors get extremely upset whenever church members do the same thing to them. Have a significant contributor to the church walk up to the pastor after a Sunday sermon and say, “Pastor, I didn’t appreciate what you said this morning. I’m not going to give another offering until you apologize.” We would learn quickly if that pastor believed what he preached.

Using money to manipulate people is not right. Money is a tool to help others, to provide for the needs of others. It is not to be a source of power and control. That is exactly why money is so dangerous.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24)

It is next to impossible for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven. It makes me wonder if the same can be said about a rich church.

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Celebrity Preachers

Perhaps you heard about the young pastor recently who preached a twenty-four hour sermon. This was not a case of the Holy Spirit falling upon the preacher and inspiring him to keep at it. It was a planned event. He actually designed and advertised the sermon as a means of promoting his new book. By all accounts, he has been a successful pastor, starting and growing a rather large congregation. He had just finished writing the book and felt like the message would “change lives.” Speaking as a writer who has published a few books myself, I agree that if you do not have something important to say that needs to be heard, don’t bother writing a book. To be honest, when I heard about this twenty-four hour sermon, my first thought was that I am glad I have lived long enough that people have forgotten all the dumb stuff I did in my twenty’s. Hopefully this young man will live long enough as well.

The underlying issue of this whole business is preachers performing some kind of stunt in order to attract attention and draw a crowd. It raises the question of celebrity preachers. The basic definition of celebrity is quite simple. A celebrity is someone who is widely known. We have raised the idea of being a celebrity to new heights. There are magazines, websites, and television programs that exist for the sole purpose of revealing insights about celebrities. preacher

It is a viscous cycle–do something that get’s noticed, appear in a magazine or newspaper, other magazines notice, people follow you around, do something else, everyone notices, get on more magazine covers, do something stupid, one last burst of notoriety, loose all your friends. The amazing thing is that so many folks are striving to be celebrities it is almost like a chosen profession for some – What do you want to be when you grow up? A celebrity!

I do not have a problem with celebrity preachers. The issue that concerns me is preachers who strive to be celebrities without realizing the cost. I think it is safe to say that Billy Graham was a celebrity preacher. He is very well-known all around the world. However, he became famous by preaching. His celebrity was a by-product of his work. I don’t know him personally, but I never felt like he sought out the celebrity status, although he certainly knew how to utilize it. There have been many celebrity preachers throughout history – Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield. It might even be correct to say that Jesus was a celebrity preacher in his day.  Continue reading

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