Monday, September 11, 2017

Nine-Eleven and the Search for Meaningfulness

At 8:45 am, I was approaching the denomination’s district headquarters while listening to talk radio WJR.  Having moved to Northern Michigan a couple years earlier, I enjoyed hearing the familiar voice of Paul W. Smith.  News, weather, public interest…. And then breaking news.  The World Trade center was on fire.  An airplane flew into it.  I pulled into the parking lot, trotted into the office suite occupied by the Assemblies of God Michigan District, and told my friend, Hugh, to turn on the television.  The office staff scrambled to find a television and set it up in the break room.  I caught just a few minutes of the coverage on NBC news before joining the meeting for which I drove two-and-a-half hours to attend.  The meeting went on as scheduled.  I knew something culture-changing had happened to my country.  I didn’t realize how that moment would change me.

The district superintendent joined our meeting an hour later to thank us for our involvement in directing children’s camps the previous summer.  I had applied, but didn’t make the final cut, to be the next manager of the denomination’s camp.  As the superintendent spoke to us about the new manager, he mentioned when he hired him.  It was a month before he posted the job.  The superintendent seemed so shaken by what was happening in New York that he forgot to cover a lie.  He forgot that I had applied for the job and had interviewed for it.  I had been told that I was in the top three finalists. I was never in the mix at all.  A national tragedy exposed the leader of my district denomination as a liar, or at the least a manipulator.

In context of what happened that day, being used as a pawn hardly holds any importance.  That day forced me to confront the significance of my own life.  I would return home early from the meeting.  I drove past gas lines.  I noticed the absence of contrails in the sky.  I took phone calls from my secretary to arrange a prayer meeting that evening.  I thought about how I was going to put the events in context for my congregation and community.  My role was to provide assurance that God is in control and that all will be well.

But, I know that all isn’t well.  I love my country but I realize that we are self-centered, lazy, and addicted to God-knows-what.  Our enemies hate us because we represent the kind of wealthy living that allows us to self-indulge without consequence.  

I knew my role as a pastor, too.  I was the symbolic head of a local subculture that shuns the evils of the world and creates an environment of well-being.  We sing.  We pray.  We hear encouragement about our future as believers.  But, for the most part, we live our lives as we please.  My job isn’t to motivate people to radical action.  My job is to lead people to still waters.

I hated my job.  How can we just live our lives as if nothing is wrong?  I became dissatisfied with my calling.  In the next few years, I became disenchanted with organized religion.  I became disenchanted with the life I had built.  I would try to change everything.

Sixteen years later, my life is unrecognizable.  Rescuing people from poverty is what I do.  I teach character as well as content.  I worked as a first responder.  I became a soldier.  I took on a new career in athletics.  I traveled overseas to meet Muslim peoples and to understand them.  

Meaningfulness.  Nine-eleven shook me awake so that life had to be meaningful if not urgently so.  Americans live as if someone out there or perhaps “up there” will always take care of us.  Either God or government will take care of us.  But, God doesn’t play favorites.  With the Lord, character counts.  If life is to be meaningful for me, it must be about character improvement.  Mine and those around me.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Pentecostal Service (Part One)

A visitor unfamiliar with pentecostal tradition may feel at first frightened by the sounds competing for dominance in the dog-fight known as pentecostal worship.  Since the 1990s however, traditional pentecostal music has been replaced by semi-skilled musicians attempting to emulate the popular contemporary music heard on the radio.  However, the modern experience isn’t nearly as interesting as the way music was performed in the old days.  In the old days, the rule was “if you got it, play it.”

A pianist and an organist anchored the music at the little pentecostal church I attended as a youth.  The piano player was “boom-chinking” the hymns with alternating treble and bass hands while the organist provided a wall of chorded sound.  The bass pedals allowed the organist to move the songs along with his feet.

Pentecostal congregational worship involves the entire congregation.  In my church, Looey brought his accordion and played it.  He provided an additional wall of chorded sound along with the melody line.  His unique rhythmic style contrasted with that of the keyboardist’s, but it seemed to work.

The congregants were encouraged to sing loudly.  Pentecostal worship demands a joyful noise even if it isn’t otherwise musical.  Some congregants would bring tambourines.  The tambourine players were often unskilled in keeping a steady rhythm and resulted in a “joyful” noise similar to the jingling of a team of horses at Christmas. At various times, a trombone player or a trumpet player would also join in.  

In a traditional Pentecostal church, the entire congregation serves as a choir.  That is why pastoral students were at one time required to take a semester of choir conducting.  The pastor would take his place behind the pulpit and wave his arms as if conducting the choir.  Admittedly, many of those who became pastors were not also musicians and therefore the arm movements didn’t actually set a tempo or keep everyone on the beat.  It was, however, a customary expectation of the pastor to at least attempt to keep everyone on the right beat.

The music possessed a blessed raucousness of a couple fast tempoed songs followed by two slow songs followed by the “wait.”  The wait happens when the chord pattern of the last song is quietly repeated while the congregation “waits” for the Holy Spirit to speak.  A thick spirit of anticipation fills the room while the “spirit-baptized” saints softly chatter in tongues.  When someone finally speaks out a message in tongues, another “wait” occurs until someone gives the interpretation of what was said.

Once the utterances have occurred, the congregation is ready to move on.  They have praised the Lord.  They have waited on the Lord.  The Lord has spoken.

Then we take the offering.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why I Enjoy Photography

I don’t know how to draw.  If I could, I would draw people and moments so I could share my moment with others.  But, I can’t because I lack the skill.  I do, however, own a camera and a subscription to Photoshop Lightroom.  I can compose a scene and then I can adjust the result to create an image similar to how I interpreted the scene.  It is as if I can share with others what I saw in my mind’s eye.  Photography gives me the power to make people see and feel what I saw and felt.

With photography, I can make people realize they are beautiful.  An unskilled photographer adds ten pounds to whoever they photograph.  But, I have the power to make people look past acne and yellow teeth.  I can make them see facial character.  I can make them see the beauty in how the body curves.  I have seen people who regard themselves as unattractive awaken to their own attractiveness.  When that happens, I fill with joy.

With photography, I can make you take a closer look at something often ignored.  I can create an image of a wildflower and make you look at it with the same intensity and distance I saw it.  You don’t have to lean in to see it, I did it for you.  There is a universe in the grass upon which you walk, and I can show it to you.  There is a colorful explosion in the universe people hardly notice.  But I do, and I will show you it’s wonderful array of color.

With photography, I can tell a story.  I can draw your attention to the lonely child hiding behind the tree at summer camp.  I can show you the fear of a child trying to learn to swim.  I can point your mind toward a youth softball player’s face so you can see the intensity and joy of athleticism.  I can invite you to feel compassion for an abandoned kitten.

Photography allows me to affect how people see the world.  An image posted on my Facebook page causes my friends to feel something even for an instant.  It is my gift to the world around me.  It is my instrument of imparting faith.  It is my way of forcing people to feel.  But, if I could draw, I would probably do that instead.

On Why I Have Kept to Myself

For six years, I have stayed as far as I could from church ministry without entirely disappearing from congregational life completely.  I remained hidden in the background because I did not want to continually deal with the professional failure that caused me to be dismissed from the Assemblies of God fellowship.  Although the pastor knew the circumstances of my dismissal, I chose not to speak of it with people in the congregation.  I wanted to quietly put the ministry behind me.  Six months ago, the pastor of our church retired.  Not able to identify someone who could take his spot, some attention turned my way after I filled in for the adult Sunday School class a month ago.  Now, feelings of joy, apprehension, and fear have become a distraction as I am once again forced to deal with past failures and rejection.  I thought I had put this behind me, but apparently I have not.


Twelve years ago, I humiliated myself in an emotional affair with my assistant.  The shame crippled me for several years.  The Assemblies of God agreed to a restoration program involving a two year suspension with counseling.  I considered leaving the ministry then as it seemed to me that I had committed an unforgivable sin in the eyes of the church.  However, four years after the affair, I accepted the pastorate in Newberry, MI.


I had asked the district secretary treasurer if I should bother returning to the pulpit.  He told me that if I did the right thing, no one would think less of me.  He is a good man who loves the Lord.  However, he was wrong.


On a cold October Friday, a female friend from the congregation and I spent the day replenishing her family’s bear bait.  At one point, I mentioned curiosity about why the congregation’s enthusiasm for finding a pastor dissipated immediately after voting us in.  I wondered what I did wrong.


“You did nothing wrong.”  She said.  “We were without a pastor for six months.  You were willing to come.  However, the search committee was divided because the superintendent said you had been involved in sexual immorality and advised us not to call you.”


Feelings of shame and rage filled me.  I had asked the wrong person if I should stay out of the pulpit.  The superintendent and the secretary-treasurer did not share the same opinion about me.  


My friend had been on the search committee, so I asked her why they recommended us to the congregation.


“We were divided.  The men on the committee admitted to having affairs themselves.  Half thought you would be good because you would know better than to have a relationship with a woman, you would be very careful.”


“I am sitting on a beach with you, right now.  So much for that.” I retorted.  The superintendent never shared his opinion of me with me.  The search committee never asked me about what happened four years earlier.  Had I known, I would not have gone to Newberry.  Worse, I felt like I was in a trap.


She continued.  “We were tired of the search.  So, the ones who didn’t want an adulterer let the others who did want you have their way.”


“I’m the one they felt they had to choose because no one else would come.” I said with obvious resignation.


“Sorry.”


“You didn’t vote for me, either.”


“Again, sorry.  I felt nothing from the Spirit.”  She answered.  


I thought, “Well, there is one of the three votes against me.”


My brain swirled as it sorted out the ramifications of what I had just been told.  I was the pastor they chose but didn’t want.  I was the pastor the superintendent didn’t want.  That explained the lukewarm response of the congregation.  I asked a board member if her account was correct.  He said it was.


By this time, she was already one of my closest friends.  Generally pastors don’t maintain friendships within the congregation, either male or female.  This prevents jealousies from those who want to be close to the pastor and, by extension, to God.  It also prevents the appearance of one person having undue influence over the management of the church.  It also causes the pastor to be aloof to the congregation members.  And, in small towns, causes him and his family to experience intense loneliness.


Eventually, our friendship would lead to my resignation and dismissal from the Assemblies of God.  I considered protecting my career and reputation, but it didn’t seem right to me.  Having been deceived by both denomination and congregation, I was emotionally disinvested.  Professionally, I put my heart and soul into pastoring the church and reaching the community.  Personally, I regarded friendships and activities a matter of personal preference and therefore a private matter.


Rumors, fueled mostly by the board members who originally opposed me, swirled.  Barb was hurt.  I decided to resign but at the urging of my presbyter, I decided to stay and work things out with the congregation.  However, time causes rumors to morph and a winter hike on a UP lakeshore turns into a tryst on a private beach in August.


I resigned the church.  The friendship ended.  The superintendent filed vague charges against me that I chose not to fight.  I was dismissed from the fellowship without a specific charge being made against me.  Although I was never told, the superintendent told the denomination that I had been sexualy immoral.  I still haven’t been told directly, except that “there is no second restoration for your offense.”  


As a full-time minister, I went to the small towns and small churches where few would go.  I earned small salaries and lived in parsonages.  For two years, my family had health insurance.  We scrimped and saved believing in the cause of Christ and thrilled to be following him where few would go.


As a dismissed minister, I built careers in education and in athletics that allowed me both to minister salvation to the poor and disenfranchised as well as take financial care of my family.  My children have expressed gratitude for not being in the ministry at a critical time in their youth.  I have been content with what God has given me and have rested secure in knowing that the “pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night” seems to have permanently rested for me where I am at.


So, the idea presented to me of possibly going back into the ministry jolts me out of my restful state.  Frankly, it has been hard for me to fully engage in my current career as I sort out my feelings.  Grass Lake Assembly of God has been my refuge and my fellowship over the years.  I could leave and come back.  My feelings for the congregation are warm.  My thoughts are full of hope for the congregation.  I would joke with the former pastor about the “sucker” who would have to follow him.  Am I that sucker?


It would take an act of God to move the Assemblies of God to regard me favorably.  It would take an act of God to soften my heart toward the denomination that I loved but who rejected me.  It would take an act of God for a congregation, including my own church, to think it was a good idea for me to be the pastor.


So, the odds are stacked heavily against this ever happening.  So, why have feelings of fear and apprehension kept me awake at night?  Because God exerts sovereignty when people, especially religious people, tell him no.  He shows his strength when those he has chosen are weak.  And, I am fine with that unless it involves me.  That thought keeps me awake at night.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

On Praying About a Return to the Clergy

On Praying About a Return to the Clergy

In a spiritual and emotional sense, a bucket of cold water poured on me when I was asked to pray about candidating for the pastorate of the church I attend.  Over the past six years, I had mostly forgotten about the wounds inflicted and the failures committed from fifteen years as a member of the Assemblies of God clergy class.  Resting in the knowledge of my permanent dismissal from the Assemblies of God, I moved on with my life knowing I was safe from the calling to the ministry.  Then, members of the search committee approached me to “pray about seeking a return of your license” several weeks after the previous pastor retired.

I approached the idea of a restoration of credentials with the district secretary of the Assemblies of God, Michigan District.  However, was told that no such restoration was possible and to move on permanently as a good member of my church.  I was unaware that I had been dismissed for committing sexual immorality.  I suppose that should enrage me, but after twenty plus years as a member of the Assemblies of God, this does not surprise me.  

God is not a member of the Assemblies of God.  That is why a rejection letter by the Assemblies of God doesn’t put to rest the notion of a return to the pastoral ministry.  When God gifts someone with the talent and ability to pastor a church, he doesn’t change his mind.  Even if they fail multiple times, he doesn’t change his mind.  God put me in this fellowship, but this fellowship doesn’t make the decision as to whom may serve as clergy, they only have authority to recognize whom God has chosen.  And, for that knowledge they rely on the local church.  That recognition came for me almost thirty years ago and may be reconfirmed now.

I did not realize at the time that denominational office holders would permanently bar me from the ministry.  At that time, I decided that I would not put myself forward as a church pastor again.  Instead, a church would recognize it and issue the call based not on a resume and a list of references, but on knowing me and the gifting God has given me.  I assumed that would likely mean I was done in the Assemblies of God.

I considered leaving the Assemblies of God, too.  But, God put me here.  I admire the history and the mission of the Assemblies of God.  The pioneers of the movement courageously and sacrificially went throughout this country preaching salvation, healing, and and the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the power of a martyr.  I want to be part of that movement.  I would return to the ministry to be part of that movement.  I want my church to be part of that movement.  I pray that the fellowship would again be part of that movement.

I haven’t slept much since being asked to pray about a return to the ministry.  If I am not to return to the ministry as a pastor, I need to hear that from God.  If I am to return, I need to hear that, too.  It will be hard for me to go through my daily life until I hear definitively from the Lord.
Tue 8/017, 2:13 PM
One can have an affair without having sex, to be sure. You did the right thing in Newberry and I hope you will be blessed because of it. I hold you in the highest esteem in part because of it. I am not worthy of your faith in me. But, I am grate

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Saved from being Saved

I despise unsaved Christians.  Before you judge me for saying this, you should know that I am aware of my inability to examine a person’s heart. And yes, I am confessing a hard heart toward people who adopt Christian morality without having a transformation to Godly character.  God has had to change my heart regarding such people.  Any unsaved person, regardless of what sins entrap them, face an eternity apart from God.  This moves the heart of God as well as those who share his heart through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, since my heart has hardened for such people, my prayer has been for God to change my heart so that I can pray for them.  And, in so doing, I may pray for myself as well because I was one of them and don’t want to go back to being one.

I pray for an awareness of sinfulness.  Unsaved Christians have an awareness of sins, but not sinfulness.  By this, I mean they are aware of things that are labeled sins such as drinking, smoking, gluttony, etc.  In fact, the goal of their spirituality is to eliminate sins as they become aware of them.  Think of being in a tennis match against the devil.  He lobs a temptation at you, and your job is to swat it away.  The problem is that Jesus never said the goal of sanctification is to avoid committing sins.  Sanctification is about being useful to God.  For me, it took personal failure to make me aware of my sinfulness.  Frankly, I can’t think of any other way to discover it.  I don’t pray for people to fail, but if that is what it takes…

I pray for an awareness of uselessness.  Busyness does not mean usefulness.  Churches fill with people who are busy but not engaged in the process of salvation.  Typically, church growth means people left a church to attend another one.  I pastored churches that increased in attendance because of transfer growth.  But, was I involved in the process of salvation?  Not in a way that seemed meaningful to me.  The lost remained lost.  I was busy, but not productive in my faith.

I pray for new life in Christ.  I have discovered the richness of being a follower of Christ in the world.  I am not God’s gift to the world.  The world has become God’s gift to me.  That is, I have learned to listen and learn from people I would otherwise not associate with.  I have seen “sinners” commit extraordinary acts of compassion.  I have also been given the privilege of serving “sinners” to help them escape poverty and discover new life.  I consider myself blessed because of God’s grace in the midst of my failure.

When the rich young ruler approached Jesus with the question, “I have kept myself from sin, what do I do next?” Jesus answered, “Give up your wealth and follow me.”  The rich young ruler couldn’t do it.  That is the predicament of the unsaved Christian.  We behave well.  We commit ourselves to the church.  However, we don’t have it in us to risk our comfort level to follow Christ.  I know because I have been there.  My contempt for the unsaved Christian reveals my own lack of sanctification.  I pray for God’s forgiveness and for a new heart toward those who are culturally Christian but functionally pagan.  But for God’s grace, there go I.

Friday, July 28, 2017

About me…

I am the oldest son of three children born to the local high school band director in Manistique, Michigan.  Raised in the Catholic church, I was allowed to choose my own church to attend after my parents became born again Christians.  I accepted the invitation of friends to attend the local Assemblies of God church.  That summer, I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit at youth camp and began to dream of a life serving the Lord as an Assemblies of God pastor.

My parents, having become caught up in the prosperity movement of the 1970’s, quit their jobs to pursue lives working with a televangelist.  The pursuit didn’t work out well, resulting in lives of poverty for the family until my parents eventually divorced.  Before I finished college, my mother became terminally ill and I became responsible for raising my youngest brother and for adopting my twelve year old cousin.

I worked as a hotel night auditor during the week and as a radio station disc jockey on the weekends to support myself and the kids. As a family, we were an active part of Hastings Assembly of God where I taught Sunday School and coached Bible Quiz teams.

In February of 1994 I met Barbara Thomas at a Junior Bible Quiz tournament where she served as a tournament coordinator and I was coaching my daughter’s team.  Following the tournament, we started dating and eventually married.  Both Barbara and I planned to devote our lives to working for the Lord. Although she never considered being a pastor’s wife before meeting me, she agreed that was the path the Lord had for us.

Barbara and I married in 1995 and settled in Grass Lake.  I joined Barb’s home church and became active in the choir and in coaching Bible Quiz teams.  Eventually, we would serve as youth leaders and then I would serve as youth/associate pastor after becoming an Assemblies of God certified minister.

From 1998-2011, Barbara and I have raised two sons, and pastored three churches. I have also served on the national Junior Bible Quiz board, coordinated both Junior and Teen Bible Quiz teams for the Michigan District, directed and helped establish Elijah’s camp for training children to minister to children, and served as the summer staff and aquatics director for the FaHoLo Camp and Conference center.

In 2011, I began a career as a sports official that eventually led me to officiate contests in the NCAA division II as well as high school.  I am the crew chief of a high school football officiating crew, the local softball umpire trainer, and the mentor for officials still in high school.  

I also began to substitute teach in 2011.  Beginning in the 2015 school year, I took a position as a math teacher at a local alternative school.  The next year I accepted the position of principal where I continue to serve.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

We Need Younger Officials, But Do We Want Them?

We Need Younger Officials, But Do We Want Them?

Assignors and athletic directors know the statistic well, the average age of a sports official is nearly sixty and, if nothing changes, there will be a shortage of officials for the growing number of people participating.  However, there are those who are happy with the current situation and don’t want to see a movement toward recruiting young new officials.  What we have is an acknowledged need for new officials for the good of the sport with a lack of desire to take action now.

Shortages empower officials.  They can accept only the highest paying assignments.  They can’t be compelled to attend meetings or take tests because they know they will still be used.  They don’t need to stay in shape, practice, or stay current on the rules.  They will work and they know it.  I’ve worked high school games with officials who had only a basic knowledge of the game and seldom moved into position to make a call.  Yet, they will still work because we need warm bodies.

Shortages empower assignors.  Coaches and athletic directors may complain about the quality of officiating to the assignor.  The assignor only needs to shrug his shoulders and say, “I told you we are short of officials and that I need you to recruit people in your communities.”  There is no point in firing the assignor because all assignors use the same pool of officials.

Shortages empower coaches.  Every level of sport from 8u softball to collegiate baseball want experienced and knowledgeable officials.  The lack of new officials increases the likelihood of getting an experienced official at a little league game.  I once showed up to a 14u softball game thinking it was a high level travel team contest only to discover it was community rec league and it was being officiated by two collegiate umpires.  The coaches insisted that they needed the highest quality.

Newer officials require training and nurturing.  They make mistakes.  They put pressure on officials to remain fit and competent.  They remove excuses.  They bring down the per game fees.  There is a shortage of officials, but it may be a welcome problem.