RACHAEL RAY, CHARLES STANLEY, AND ST. THOMAS–CHRISTMAS 2018

Like many families, the Duncans’ holiday routines and traditions are borderline sacred. Mother’s Day is for celebrating Mildred with flowers, cards, and a family meal. Father’s Day, with the exception of the flowers, is no different and allows us to honor Leroy. We gather for ham rolls on Easter, and we grill burgers on July 4th. Christmas Eve is for exchanging gifts, and New Year’s Day is for black eyed peas. This year, however, the gifts remain wrapped and the black eyed peas are still in the package, as I write from Mom’s bedside at St. Thomas Hospital. She was admitted the Friday before Christmas and the new year finds her still recovering. As it turns out, Mom got a pacemaker for Christmas and extended care for an intestinal obstruction. Christmas 2018 has been, well, different.

Mom

The enemy tries to convince me that different is bad. The Holy Spirit inspires me to believe otherwise. It’s hard to feel sorry for my family when other families would love to spend just one more Christmas with a lost loved one, inside a hospital or anywhere else. It’s difficult to gripe and moan about spending the holidays in a hospital room while service men and women spend months and even years separated from loved ones. The enemy tempts me to turn this holiday season into a Hee Haw skit . . . “Gloom, despair, and agony on me; deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck we’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me.” But what the enemy intends for harm, the Lord intends for good. The devil reveals a distorted perspective intended to steal Christmas, kill my family’s joy, and destroy our hope. But the devil is a liar.

God provides, through the lens of faith, a much clearer perspective. Mom’s sickness has brought unexpected blessings. Christmas 2018 has enabled my sisters and me to spend countless hours one-on-one with Mom. Together, we have enjoyed deep conversations. We have watched The Price is Right, Rachael Ray, and Charles Stanley sermons. Mom has kept us laughing with her quick wit and too many one liners to remember. Once when I asked her how she was doing, she said, “I’m stretched out on this bed like a new dollar.” After kitchen staff brought in her clear liquid breakfast, she excitedly proclaimed, “That’s too much for an elephant to eat!” Still the funniest comment came while we were watching The Young and the Restless, the “story” Mom has watched for more than 40 years. “There’s that Victoria,” she said. “She’s got about three men on the hook, and I don’t know which one she’s going to pick!” We shared a long laugh after that one.

There have been good days and bad days this Christmas season, but all days have offered blessings that would have been overlooked if we had chosen the enemy’s doom and gloom perspective. As believers, we have an alternative. Believers are not commanded to give thanks FOR all things, but we are commanded to give thanks IN all things. That perspective enables us to give thanks for several specific things in the midst of this particular challenge: days upon days of precious time with Mom; a revived prayer life; and the beautiful blessing of seeing Mom love on and minister to the staff who have provided her care. Her hospital door is a revolving one, with visits from nurses and techs who aren’t even assigned to her that particular day. Mom is a 78 year-old rock star at St. Thomas because nobody has a clearer perspective than her. She oozes the love of Christ.

Finally, my family has been reminded of a few important truths through Mom’s hospital stay. We have been reminded that traditions are less important than those with whom they are shared. We have been reminded that nothing is more precious than time spent with loved ones. Most importantly, we have been reminded that we don’t have to believe the enemy’s lies. The Duncans would, of course, choose Mom’s health over the hidden blessings of a hospital stay. But if the former is not possible, the latter should at least be recognized, if not cherished. What the enemy intends for harm, the Lord intends for good. No, we aren’t thankful for Mom’s sickness, but we have chosen to give thanks through it, as the Good Lord commands. And He is ever faithful.

THE DAY NASHVILLE BECAME A HOCKEY TOWN

Predators LogoLast night something strange happened. I watched a regular season hockey game on TV in its entirety. To make sure I experienced the totality of the event, I watched the pre-game, the post-game, and the intermission reports. Stranger still, this was a Thursday night when I could have been—normally would have been—watching the Philadelphia Eagles at the Carolina Panthers. That’s right, I chose to watch grown men on ice skates (okay, the Stars vs. the Predators) instead of an NFL game between two teams that were leading their respective divisions. I chose the NHL over the NFL last night, and it was absolutely magnificent. Surely this is a sign of the Apocalypse.

I was angry the day the Predators showed up in Nashville. As a basketball junkie in a city with a shiny new arena, I was admittedly still bitter that Nashville had been unsuccessful in bringing the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to Music City in 1996. “Great,” I thought, “here come the ice skating Europeans, Russians, and Canadians.” It wasn’t any kind of cultural prejudice—it’s just not easy to cheer for dudes whose names are impossible to pronounce playing a sport I had never played. Understand that I didn’t hate hockey. I supported it…sort of.

The EA Sports NHL game was my second favorite to play on my SEGA, behind only Madden NFL. That made me a hockey supporter, right? Municipal AuditoriumHeck, I even went to hockey games. In the early to mid 90s, my wife and I would cheer on Nashville’s minor league hockey team, the Knights, in person at the UFMA (Unidentified Flying Municipal Auditorium). Fresh out of college and newly married with no kids, these were double date nights with dear friends—friends who also went to church with a UFMA usher. Don’t judge me. Sure we got in free, but I paid for every single bag of deep-fried mini-donuts I bought from the concession guy, and I ate thousands of those things. Think round, bite-sized funnel cakes. Whatever I didn’t eat, I generally wore home. Clearly, I was a hockey concession supporter at the very least.

Fast-forward a few years. The Predators first home game was October 10, 1998 in the Gaylord Entertainment Center, affectionately referred to by locals as the GEC. Although I attended some games at the GEC the first few years, I generally did so imagining—wishing even—I was going to an NBA game instead. How could we waste that beautiful arena? The Hockey 101 segments on the jumbotron in those days were thoroughly embarrassing. Thanks to my SEGA, I knew every hockey rule there was to know, but apparently most Nashvillians did not. Looking back, I suppose I was a hockey snob if not a hockey fan.

The hype was definitely palpable that first year, but October 10, 1998 was not the day Nashville became a hockey town. How could it be? The Houston Oilers had relocated to Nashville and were playing at Vanderbilt, just a few blocks away from the GEC. AdelphiaWorse for the Predators, Adelphia Coliseum, a 69,000 seat football stadium, was being built just across the Cumberland River from the GEC. Thanks to a Music City Miracle and a Super Bowl run in 2000, Tennessee’s new NFL team, the Titans, had captivated the collective interest of what was already a dyed-in-the-wool football town. Nashville was absolutely rabid over the Titans. So rabid in fact, the city threw a Super Bowl LOSER parade…and more than 20,000 people attended…in 33 degree weather. A teacher at the time, I had students skip school to attend the parade. I excused their absences.

If never the most popular team in town, the Predators most definitely have always enjoyed a cult-like following throughout the team’s existence in Nashville. Home sellouts were never really uncommon, and Predators sweaters were regularly spotted around town. The NHL had carved out a nice little niche in Music City, but the team played second fiddle to the Titans. Nobody disputed that. The new millennium provided some special days in Predators history, to be sure. Much more nostalgic than anything else, none of the following events represent the day Nashville became a hockey town. All of these milestones happened while Music City was preoccupied with its beloved Titans. Until the day it wasn’t.

  • October 7, 2000 – Predators win season opener against the Penguins in Tokyo, Japan
  • December 6, 2001 – Predators record 100th franchise win against the Senators
  • April 7, 2004 – Predators play first playoff game, a 3-1 loss against the Red Wings
  • April 11, 2004 – Predators log first playoff victory, a 2-1 win against the Red Wings
  • July 19, 2007 – Predators fans rally to keep team in Nashville after owner, Craig Leipold, flirts with multiple buyers (7,500 fans attend, not counting George Plaster)
  • April 24, 2011 – Predators record first playoff series win, beating the Ducks in six games
  • April 20, 2012 – Predators win first round series for second consecutive year, beating the Red Wings in five games
  • April 20, 2017 – Predators record first playoff series sweep against Blackhawks
  • May 7, 2017 – Predators win a second-round playoff series for first time ever, defeating the Blues in six games.
  • May 22, 2017 – Predators become Western Conference Champions for the first time, defeating the Ducks in six games
  • May 29, 2017 – Predators play in first Stanley Cup Finals game, losing 5-3 to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins
  • June 3, 2017 – Predators notch first Stanley Cup Finals win, beating the Penguins 5-1 at home.

Loyal Predators fans remember most, if not all, of these milestones. Many likely remember where they were when the team accomplished these things. But a dedicated subculture hardly a hockey town makes. The great irony in this story is that Nashville became a hockey town on a 90-degree day when the Predators were playing a meaningless preseason game in Columbus, Ohio some 377 miles away from Music City. In fact, the day Nashville became a hockey town had nothing to do with hockey at all. On a hot Sunday, September 24, 2017, the Tennessee Titans refused to take the field for the National Anthem before their home game against the Seattle Seahawks. While 53 misguided players and an entire coaching staff holed up in the locker room in the bowels of Nissan Stadium, Nashville’s sports culture changed forever.

Preds Pick LogoMusic City is now a hockey town, and a mediocre Titans team (whose last playoff win came in 2003 with Steve McNair at QB) should consider itself fortunate and humbly pick up the second fiddle. The funny thing about the ice-skating Europeans, Russians, and Canadians is that they all stand for our National Anthem, likely recognizing the uniqueness of their American opportunity and possibly even remembering real oppression in some of their home countries.

On September 24, 2017, while a group of under-achieving, overpaid football-players-turned-social-activists chose to disrespect America, grown men on ice skates whose names we can’t pronounce stole the collective heart of Music City. Like it or not, Nashville is now a hockey town. And that is the real Music City Miracle.

THE HONORABLE JOHN WILLIAMS

John Williams was a military veteran. That wasn’t the most interesting thing about him, though, because John Williams was also homeless. I met him on a cold January night many years ago when I picked him up from downtown Nashville. He was short in stature and had a head full of silver hair. He had only two other things with him that night, as I remember: a trash bag containing everything he owned and a nasty cough. It was the kind of cough that makes people wonder if something is medically wrong. Still, I drove away unconcerned with Mr. Williams in my back seat. My Sunday School class sponsored Room in the Inn twice each winter. John certainly wasn’t the only homeless man we had encountered with a wicked cough. He would, however, become the most memorable.

Room in the Inn is a ministry partnership between the organization that bears its name and local churches scattered throughout the Greater Nashville area. The ministry itself indirectly provides a multitude of resources for Nashville’s homeless population, including food, shelter, and job training. The only thing directly provided by Room in the Inn is Christ’s love—the only provision actually needed. John Williams was one of eight homeless men assigned to Long Hollow Baptist that Friday night—one of eight men entrusted to the overnight care of the Jon Duncan/Wayne Smith Small Group. If Room in the Inn leadership had recognized the dysfunction that was the “Jon Wayne Gang” they likely would have offered services to us on the spot. We affectionately referred to the class as the Land of Misfit Toys. Class members were in their 30s, 40s, or 50s and had children of all ages. The only thing some of us had in common was Jesus. But that common denominator meant that we enjoyed being together, and we enjoyed spending a Friday night serving those the world had forgotten.

I don’t remember very many details of that night prior to 12:30 a.m. I’m sure we had a delicious dinner with our guests, like always. Salad, pasta, and vegetable casseroles were the usual, and the men always loved the food. Sometimes we served dinner to the homeless on china with actual silverware. One or more of our guests would usually remark that it was way better than the pizza they had eaten the night before at a church whose name they had forgotten in a suburb they couldn’t remember. Coffee was a necessity. We typically had no scripture reading, no praise songs, and no formal invitation. The only prayer was usually a blessing over the food. In fact, the only thing we directly provided was Christ’s love—the only provision actually needed. One or two of the fellows were usually big talkers, but the remainder were either quite introverted or embarrassed by their need, content to go to bed immediately after eating. As I recall, John Williams finished dinner and went directly to the mattress he had claimed immediately upon his arrival. He was asleep on the vestibule floor by 9:00, not to be heard from again for three-and-a-half hours.

Wayne and I were settling into our makeshift beds in the church lobby, light green leather benches that looked far more comfortable than they actually were. We didn’t complain. Nothing like first-world suffering for Jesus, right? The lights were out, the crowd long gone since dinner cleanup had concluded. Several class members would return the following morning for breakfast duties and to tidy up after our guests. We had already played “the last word”—a ridiculous game in which Wayne and I deliberately tried to out-weird each other by saying the most random word before falling asleep. The last word was probably biscuit, nectar, or something similarly stupid, funny only to weirdos like us.

Although I don’t remember the last word of the night, I will never forget the next word we heard—INNKEEPER!! The voice sounded like someone who wanted to shout but didn’t have the lung capacity to do so. INNKEEPER!! We weren’t dreaming. One of our homeless guests, John Williams, attempted to call for help a few more times while Wayne and I just looked at each other, trying to determine who fit the description of innkeeper. Nothing like this had ever happened when we hosted the homeless before. It was supposed to be a tidy little package deal—pick up homeless men, feed them dinner, provide a shower and a bed, feed them breakfast, and drop them off in Nashville the next morning. In fact, I remember sharing with our class after we hosted a previous time that it all “just seems too easy.” Normally, the morning drivers just dropped off the men back at the ministry on Drexel Street and returned immediately to our comfortable, suburban lives in time for ball games, naps, or family time. My point was that being the hands and feet of Christ didn’t just happen in scheduled, twelve-hour increments, like hosting the homeless. “It just seems too easy” turned out to be prophetic words. The Lord has a sense of humor.

INNKEEPER!! We both incoherently concluded that Mr. Williams needed our help, so we staggered to our feet, still unsure of who wore that official title. When we got to Mr. Williams, he was struggling to breathe and told us that he was having chest pains. This dude needed a doctor, not an innkeeper, and certainly not two public school teachers. We called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived quickly, did some preliminary diagnosis work, and wheeled John Williams out on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance. I followed in my car, leaving Wayne-the-Innkeeper in charge of the remaining seven men. Selfishly, it seemed like the easier job. The paramedics were taking care of Mr. Williams, and Wayne was taking care of the other guys. I had very little responsibility. I’m pretty good at very little responsibility.

At the ER, I watched just outside an observation room as a SWAT team of physicians and nurses swarmed the old man hooking up machines and asking questions. This was bad. The pace of the work became more frantic, and the door to the room was suddenly closed. This was worse. Unsure of what to do next, I found the waiting room and sat there for what seemed like an eternity. What was my next move? Who did I need to call? At some point, a doctor emerged and asked, “Is the family of John Williams here?” I was the only person in the waiting room. Bracing myself for the unthinkable, I muttered something like, “I’m just the innkeeper.” I managed to explain that John was a homeless man whom I had met only seven hours earlier. I told the doctor that he was part of a larger group my church was hosting overnight. The doctor said that Mr. Williams had suffered a serious heart attack but was now stable and would hopefully recover. “Now what?” I mumbled. The doctor said John had to be admitted to the hospital, but that wasn’t really what I meant. I’m not sure why, but I asked if I could see the old man, and the doctor led me to the room.

Mr. Williams was partially reclining in the bed and wearing no shirt. He had wires connected to his chest and an oxygen tube inserted into his nose. He was sweating profusely, his silver hair drenched, and still struggling to breathe. I guess this is what “stable” looks like, I thought. As I asked questions he was either unable or unwilling to answer, I wiped his brow with some tissues I found in the room, admittedly angry that a loved one was not available to do so. God had never asked me to be so personally involved in the life of a stranger…until the night He did. There literally was nobody else to help this man. As I headed back to the church later that morning, it occurred to me that innkeeper sounded much better than caretaker. Caretaker had a permanent ring to it.

Room in the Inn had no record of relatives for John Williams, so the Jon Wayne Gang became his de facto family during his hospital stay. Several class members visited him a few times during his recovery. We learned that he had served in the military and bounced around from city to city after his enlistment was over. He had worked mostly in food services but had never managed to scrape out much more than a minimal existence. There was no wife, no kids. I asked him if he knew Jesus, and he assured me that he had at some point in the past. “I have backslid,” he told me ashamedly. I assured him that I didn’t know any believers who had not backslid at some point in their walk. He seemed relieved to hear that and assured me that he had, in fact, professed faith in Christ at some point in his past. Mortality has a way of making men open to these kinds of conversations. I gave him a Bible only to learn that he was borderline illiterate. When he asked me to read it to him, I asked him what he wanted to hear about. He couldn’t decide, so I gave him the first three choices that popped into my head: Christ’s birth, His death and resurrection, or the early church. “I want to hear about the early church,” he said. “I already know about that other stuff.” I chuckled and began reading from the book of Acts, while he listened intently.

Over the next few days, John’s health improved. I brought him a portable CD player along with CDs of our pastor’s sermon series, Written in Red. He needed a brief tutorial on how to operate the CD player. Finally something I felt adequate to do. It never really occurred to me that the old man, now a heart patient, would soon be released and would resume his life on the streets of Nashville or some other city. Needless to say, I was completely unprepared when the hospital called with discharge orders. I was even less prepared for the list of medications that Mr. Williams now needed.

I remember it was absolutely frigid the day I picked John up from the hospital. My car heater was cranking full blast, as I drove this homeless veteran and his unfilled prescriptions to what felt like his funeral. “How can I just drop this guy off like nothing has happened?” I wondered. In a state of concealed panic, I called a relatively new class member, Kevin Eidson, who had helped us serve John and the other homeless men a couple of weeks earlier. Didn’t I remember Kevin mentioning that he was a pharmacist or something similar? My phone call interrupted Kevin’s lunch with his wife, but he graciously agreed to meet me immediately, and I drove directly to the restaurant. I showed him the stack of prescriptions, and they were miraculously filled free of charge within an hour. This pharmacist who had only recently started attending our small group turned out to be the Executive Director of the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy. God is so awesome.

Our class collected enough money to rent a room for Mr. Williams at the Hendersonville InTown Suites, where he stayed for several weeks and ate food lovingly supplied by class members. Several of us visited him regularly, but never for very long. He seemed to enjoy having control of his very own heater and kept the room like a sauna while he lounged in shorts and a t-shirt in early February. During Mr. Williams’ recovery, Jeff Morris–our church’s Room in the Inn coordinator–worked tirelessly to piece together a work history. John was entitled to military retirement, along with Social Security benefits. Apparently Mr. Williams had never stayed in one place long enough for anyone to help him. In fairness, maybe he didn’t want to be helped. Heart attacks aren’t always bad things, I guess. What the enemy intends for harm, the Lord intends for good. God showed off again with Social Security payments that began in record time, not to mention retroactive benefits that had accrued for several years and were paid in lump sum. Jeff had also managed to find a permanent home for Mr. Williams at Christian Towers, a retirement community in Gallatin, Tennessee. We could all envision John walking down to the town square daily for coffee with new friends and food that he could now afford on his own. He seemed excited, too.

On the day Jeff Morris arrived to take Mr. Williams to his new home, the happy story abruptly ended. Instead of finding John packed and ready to go, Jeff found him collapsed on the shower floor of his rented room. A brain aneurism killed John Williams before he could even begin his new life. The day he was supposed to move into his new home in Gallatin turned out to be the day he moved into his permanent home with Jesus. I don’t think he minded.

On this Memorial Day, I remember a veteran who was forgotten by the very country he served. John Williams defended his country honorably and then proceeded to live for decades with the dishonor of homelessness. I find comfort in the fact that for a few short weeks at the end of his life, John experienced the love of Christ exhibited by a group of unsuspecting Christians who thought we were just feeding eight homeless dudes some pasta and giving them a place to sleep on a cold winter night. The dishonored Mr. John Williams was ironically buried with full military honors and laid to rest at the Middle Tennessee State Veteran’s Cemetery in Pegram, Tennessee. No relatives could be found to attend the funeral. Mr. Williams is survived by two clueless innkeepers and a small group of believers who smothered him with Christ’s love, if only for a few weeks. We are all looking forward to seeing him again someday.

VIRTUAL FENCE ROWS AND IMAGINARY TREE LINES

My fifteen-year-old daughter recently experienced her first plane ride. She flew from Nashville to Anaheim with a brief layover in Las Vegas. Those few hours of travel time were less anxious for her mom and me than they otherwise would have been, had she been flying alone. She and around thirty classmates, many of whom I have known for years, made the trip with trustworthy adult chaperones. No big deal. Still, there was that minor uneasiness any mom or dad would feel sending their child 36,000 feet above without direct parental supervision.

After boarding, she sent us a text to let us know that she had gotten a window seat, evenBean Text though she boarded as part of the “B” group. Her excitement reminded me of my first flight many, many years ago and my surprise to find that Earth looks much different from above. I remember being shocked at the efficiency with which mankind had managed to subdivide God’s creation. Geometry took on a new meaning for me that day, as I peered out the small window to see squares, rectangles, and circles in various shades of green. In fact, the blues of the water seemed to be the only creation unmodified by property owners and surveyors. But even some of the blues were manmade shapes. God supplied the water, true, but humans still managed to figure out how to shape the reservoirs in many cases. Isn’t it interesting how the created insist upon helping the Creator?

I wonder if God gets a chuckle at our attempts to partition our lives into convenient little categories. The sectioned and quarantined landscapes that surprised me during my first flight are symbolic of my attempts to manage my dual citizenship – – being in this world, not of this world. How many of us treat our Heavenly Father like a neighbor, establishing property lines and building privacy fences? Even as believers, we work deliberately and strategically to partition our lives into spiritual zones – – a little Jesus here, but not there; a tidy tree line separating our Sundays from the other days; a neat little fence row to separate secular me from spiritual me. We convince ourselves that entertainment, particularly music and movies, requires spiritual subdivision. Many of us, if only for a brief season, have attempted to check God at the door to our workplaces and schools. Or we might have semi-consciously declared, “I’ll be right back, Lord,” as we disappeared through the gate to a less-than-Christlike event or crowd. And what about the online acreage of our lives? How many of us have attempted to post a “DO NOT ENTER” sign at the entrance of the virtual “Back 40” we call the internet. As if we can contain the Omnipresent. Isn’t it interesting how the created insist upon helping the Creator?

Green Geometry

I would imagine that God is indeed disappointed at believers’ feeble attempts to compartmentalize our lives. He created us for companionship, so it is undoubtedly hurtful when we claim Him as our Father but occasionally insist on distancing ourselves from Him, like a middle schooler who asks to be dropped off as far away from school as possible. When God looks at our lives from 36 gazillion feet, does He see our virtual fence rows and imaginary tree lines, or does He see uninterrupted green pastures of faith hemmed in by only His still waters?

Be the God of my entire life, Lord. Remove the fence rows and tree lines. It’s all yours, anyway. “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart. Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best Thought, by day or by night. Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my Light.”

OFFERING PLATE AFFLUENCE

It’s Sunday morning, and I am at home writing instead of worshiping at church. Worse, my family is here with me. I don’t feel like much of a spiritual leader right now, and that burdens me tremendously. It’s a responsibility, a Biblical mandate, which I take very seriously. Church is what we do. Not because it makes God love us more or because it’s the road to Heaven. It’s just what we do. On a “good” Sunday, we go to worship our Savior. On a “bad” Sunday, we go because it’s a habit. I hope God honors both. He tells us His Word does not return void.

The problem is my Spirit is unsettled. My wife is watching Andy Stanley in the living room, and my kids, both of whom have grown up in our church, are still in bed. Our justification? My daughter got home from a drama workshop last night at around 1:15 a.m. We let her sleep in this morning. The rest of us stayed home because getting my daughter to her small group has become our motivation for going to church. She loves her small group. She is growing in her faith with a core group of friends during a formative time in her life. Her spiritual vitality currently takes priority over the spiritual stalemate in which the other three family members (all adults) currently find ourselves. Spiritual leadership is burdensome and sometimes involves opportunity costs.

Giving has become a serious stumbling block for me. It hasn’t always been this way, though. My wife and I have tithed since we got married. She brought the practice into the marriage, and I admittedly lost the argument against it. I’m so grateful I did. Tithing is an act of obedience for us. More than that, though, it is an act of worship. Giving should feel good. My much, much better half prefers to give by faith and let God do the rest, understanding that she isn’t giving to a church; she is giving to the Almighty. Because of my cynical nature (I thoroughly hate that about myself), I take a much more pragmatic approach. I believe that stewardship of God’s resources requires me to ask questions. I think stewardship requires clarity, in other words. Clarity is becoming increasingly difficult to get in our churches, however. Clarity now requires scheduled meetings.

  • How is the church specifically spending tithes and offerings?
  • Who is benefitting from God’s resources, filtered through His congregation?
  • Is church staffing fiscally lean?
  • Are church staff members enjoying affluent lifestyles underwritten by offerings of less fortunate church members?
  • Does a single mom’s offering help provide church leaders with a higher standard of living than her own child enjoys?
  • Have glossy ministry plans replaced the financial transparency once provided by traditional church budgets?
  • When did internal “Resource Teams” comprised of church employees replace traditional finance committees comprised of laity?
  • Am I the only one who thinks a healthy church should redistribute wealth outside its walls, not within them?

Maybe I have simply evolved into the old church contrarian. I hope not. Ministry costs money, and I understand that we can’t put a price tag on salvation. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the only one who paid for my salvation. I am not redeemed by corruptible things. If an affluent minister leads a nonbeliever to Jesus, is that person any less saved because of the minister’s affluence? Of course not. So, wouldn’t the matter be a personal one between the minister and God? I suppose it depends on whether I am enabling that affluence through my tithes and offerings. Wouldn’t I potentially be complicit in the sin of greed if I knowingly give to a church or a religion that fails to hold ministers financially accountable? The Western Church has historically been a shining city on a hill for a dark and fallen world. Is our Light dimming because we have ignored the fog of greed? I blame no one more than I blame myself. I am personally guilty of greed, too. But silence is something I can be guilty of no longer.

The remainder of this blog will likely win me no friends. In fact, what I am now compelled to question publicly is far more likely to cost me friends. The Holy Spirit compels me nonetheless, so I have reluctantly decided to post this blog. God controls the timing and circulation of the message. Observations that follow collectively comprise the source of my unsettled Spirit. It should also be noted that I have approached various leaders at different churches with these concerns on several occasions over the last year. Emails have been exchanged, and face-to-face meetings have occurred. I have sought counsel from trusted mentors, and I have prayed for discernment. Answers provided by humans, though polite and conciliatory, have proven inadequate to settle my Spirit. Discernment alone has led me to start this conversation. I genuinely wish it wasn’t necessary to do so. Readers who know me personally should not necessarily assume that the observations shared reflect issues within my home church exclusively. The context is much broader than that. What follow are questions about the Western Church in general, not allegations about a particular congregation.

I wonder if Jesus is honored when prominent pastors own lucrative, non-profit ministries, some of which are underwritten through the tithes and offerings of local churches. “Non-profit” should not be misinterpreted to mean “non-salary-paying.” More importantly, would Jesus leave the tables upright if he walked into our churches in 2017? I wonder what He would think if He visited church websites and clicked on hyperlinks to Amazon where pastors’ books are sold, some for profit. Selling things for church participation is nothing new, and Jesus was pretty clear about His thoughts regarding the matter.

In Matthew 21:13, when people need animal sacrifices to participate in worship, Jesus reprimands the merchants selling animals in the Temple: “My house will be called a house of prayers, but you are making it a den of robbers.” In John 2:13-16, Jesus overturns the moneychangers’ tables and drives the animals out of the Temple with a whip, telling the merchants, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” To summarize these two scriptures, business people were engaged in an acceptable practice at an unacceptable location, the Gentile Courts (an outer part of the Temple). Jesus passionately condemned the practice because of the place it occurred.

In modern times, when people need Bible supplements to participate in church-wide initiatives, Jesus remains silent unless someone has the courage to speak out against the practice. It seems like a compelling similarity: Ancient Jews were encouraged to buy animals in order to participate in church; some contemporary Protestants are now encouraged to buy supplemental resources in order to participate in church. I wonder if our gathering places have become marketplaces. I wonder if amazon.com has become our modern day Gentile Courts. The only way the two scenarios could be more similar is if the Jewish priests had been the ones selling the animals in the Temple. They were not. The practice would have been unconscionable. Not today. Entrepreneurial pastors are seemingly everywhere.

It is no accident that Jesus talks more about money than Heaven and Hell combined. It is no mistake that 16 of the 38 New Testament parables focus on money or possessions. Estimates are that 10 percent of Gospel verses directly or indirectly address money. Somewhere around 500 Bible verses are devoted to prayer; another 500 verses focus on faith. But money is the basis of some 2,000 Bible verses. Jesus understands the temptation of greed. So did Martin Luther. Money is referenced 13 times in his 95 Theses, the document that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

Christian entrepreneurs are no less Christian because they sell things, and pastors are no less Godly, in my estimation, if they sell Bible supplements. In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:17, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.” We can infer, then, that profiting from God’s word is not necessarily sinful.  If it were, Paul would have likely condemned the practice in no uncertain terms. I see Biblical evidence of entrepreneurial believers, and I see Biblical evidence of vocational ministers. What I don’t see, however, is Biblical evidence of entrepreneurial ministers. The Western Church has seemingly built a different model. The practice is rampant. It is not, unfortunately, the only trendy, questionable practice in modern Protestant churches.

What about the evolution of the church budget into vague, glossy ministry plans? Church members still need to know that church leadership is intent upon being good stewards of God’s resources. It shouldn’t require a private meeting to learn that approximately 50 cents of every church dollar is earmarked for personnel. A $20 million church budget, in other words, pushes less than $10 million toward the heart stirring images–disaster relief, missionaries, and orphans–projected in our sanctuaries on Sundays. What we don’t see projected are pastors’ swimming pools, boats, and gated communities, none of which are necessarily sinful. But these are also reasons we give–veiled reasons. We need to be assured that greed has not crept into our beloved churches. Godly stewardship compels us to know if the offering plate has become a source of affluence.

The problem is church members can’t find these assurances based on the current trend of “ministry-based budgeting” with hidden personnel costs. We need financial transparency. I am neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian, but the only consolation I find in this capitalistic, Western Church model is the assurance God gives us in Isaiah 55:11: “…my word that goes out from my mouth…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire.” No, God’s Word does not return void. And that’s why not even our collective greed can damage His purposes. But it sure can leave the Spirit unsettled.

My prayer is that the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth aren’t allowed to creep in and choke out the Word, making us unfruitful. That’s my prayer for everyone, church leaders and laypeople just like me. God continues to do miraculous work through His church in spite of our imperfections. Imagine what He would allow us to see if we were willing to break free from the shackles of greed.

SHOCKS OF FAITH

My brother-in-law has driven Cadillacs for as long as I can remember. No words I could put together would describe the Cadillac experience for those who have never ridden in one. As a teenager, bumps and potholes that shook my insides while driving my 1982 S-10 would seemingly disappear in his Sedan DeVille. Sometimes when I rode in that Cadillac with him, I found myself wondering if familiarly rough roads had been repaved. There was that much difference.

Not much has changed over the years, at least regarding transportation. My brother-in-law still drives Cadillacs, and I still drive a small pickup truck, a 1993 Toyota, with 155,050 miles on it. At least that’s what the odometer read when it stopped working at some point many years ago. The rides are equally as different as they were in the late 1980s. What has changed over the years, however, is my faith. The Cadillac/pickup truck analogy is the best one I can use to describe the difference in the faith of my teenage years and that of my middle-aged years.

As youth became young adulthood, I continued to believe that God smoothed the path of the Christian. Through Divine Intervention, I believed blessings were essentially a resurfacing job on the Road of Life. Saying my prayers and reading my Bible, I believed, were reasons enough for Him to keep my pathways free of bumps and obstacles. My reasoning established a perception that Christians traveled a much smoother Road of Life. Imagine how shocked I was to learn otherwise. Personal experiences and those of much more mature Christians around me forced me to rethink my faith. Reading my Bible and praying were not enough; my road was pretty bumpy at times, and I watched as men and women of deep faith received diagnoses, buried loved ones, and lost businesses. My solution? Praying specifically for God to remove problems had to be the only answer. And so I did—for my family and for my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Over the years, those kinds of prayers seemingly went unanswered more often than not. “Removal prayers” sometimes still do. I continue to pray for smooth sailing and no obstacles. “Lord, go before me and…” is the habitual line. “Order my steps, Lord, and protect me from…” is another favorite. But why would God remove the very challenges he uses to mold me? Why would He direct me around a crisis that deepens my faith? Why would he take away friends’ problems that detour them closer to Him? Did he ever remove the thorn from Paul’s side?

Reality is evidence that believers and non-believers travel the same roads, literally and figuratively. Crises and challenges are not reserved for pagans. The only difference is in our spiritual suspension. Isaiah tells us that the Upright One makes the way of the righteous smooth (Chapter 26, Verse 7), but “way” should not be mistaken for the road or the path. The smooth ride of the Cadillac was never a result of road condition. The secret was in the shocks. Lord, equip me with shocks of faith and struts of trust. Road hazards are everywhere.

 

WHEN DISRESPECT AFFIRMS LIBERTY

Much has recently been made of NFL players protesting social injustice during the National Anthem. Every talking head on TV seems to have an opinion, and I love listening to and considering their positions. But few things kill credibility quicker than name calling or hatred. If insults are necessary to add validity to our message, we don’t have much of a message, I’m afraid. The most compelling argument becomes impossible to see when shrouded in an impenetrable fog of contempt. What a shame. Colin Kaepernick sat, and the world hurled insults. Even my two Twitter followers were subjected to an angry, knee-jerk reaction to Kaepernick’s disrespect. Hopefully, we have all calmed down a bit, including me.

On a much, much smaller scale (but on a much more personal level), I encountered a similar situation in a Beech High School classroom several years ago. Like every public school in Tennessee, we started each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence. Year after year, everybody respected both practices (or at least faked respect because they didn’t have the courage to do otherwise). Until one day when not everybody did.

It was the beginning of a new semester, and I had never met the young man in my class–my personal Colin Kaepernick–who chose to remain seated that cold January morning when the voice of Coach Joines echoed through the Beech hallways: “Please stand for the Pledge.” Like little soldiers, every other student in Room V5 stood, placed a hand over the heart, and began that day like any other day of their school existence–“I pledge allegiance to the flag….” A few students noticed “Colin” sitting during the pledge. The look on their faces led me to believe that they were prepared to offer the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the kid had a rough morning. Perhaps he was tired. Maybe something else was wrong. High school kids are much better people than society would have us believe.

Most of my juniors and seniors seemed to respect whatever message Colin was trying to send, if only for the first two or three days he remained seated. Sensing a learning opportunity, I decided to play the role of spectator and nothing more. About the fourth day Colin remained seated, another young man got an idea and decided to assert his First Amendment rights. The Pledge started as usual that day, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” Then things got interesting. “…and to the Republic for which it STANDS!!!” I don’t recall making it to the “one nation under God” part that day, but I do remember how quiet the room became when everyone realized what had happened. Somebody had found the courage to address what he considered to be disrespect of our flag. From this teenage patriot’s perspective, shouting “STANDS!!” seemed like a reasonable way to express his opinion about Colin’s refusal to, well, STAND.

Like any good teacher, my reaction hinged on what happened next. Absolutely nothing happened next. Neither angry words nor mean looks were exchanged, so I got busy doing what I did, teaching Accounting. At least we could all agree on the importance of debits and credits, right? Crisis averted. I must admit, however, I was secretly looking forward to what would happen the next day. Would Colin remain seated? Would The Patriot again yell STAND!!?

My entire class expressed their thoughts the next morning by yelling STANDS!, and Colin remained seated, more defiant than ever. I decided to give students one more day to resolve the conflict without my involvement. As I saw it, both sides were civil (at least by teenage standards) in their approach to the disagreement, so why not give everybody the opportunity to express themselves? To Colin’s credit, he remained resolute. To this day, I admire that about him. I completely disagreed with what I still consider to be his lack of respect for our nation and those who have fought to protect it, but the idealistic part of me LOVED the freedom he had to sit. So, that’s how I approached the matter when I finally stepped into the conflict. The initial benefit-of-the-doubt looks had turned into looks of, “Mr. Duncan, why don’t you make this disrespectful kid stand?” Kids don’t understand that forced allegiance is no allegiance at all.

After declining my offer to explain the rationale behind his protest, Colin’s popularity rating hit an all time low. He was quickly becoming a rebel without a cause among his classmates, and he was rebelling against a practice most of them believed to be sacred. Some of them were approaching livid. I felt compelled to bail this kid out, so I said what was on my heart. “Colin,” I began, “The irony in your actions is that by sitting during the Pledge, you are actually affirming everything that flag represents.” He gave me a confused look.  I rephrased, “The flag you are protesting represents the very nation that gives you your right to protest.” Click. He got it. I could see it on his face. The class collectively exhaled, relieved that I had at least addressed the behavior.

Colin willingly stood for the pledge in my class the next day and every day after that. Isn’t it interesting that a chorus of loud and angry disagreement did nothing to change Colin’s mind about our flag and our country? The louder his classmates yelled, the more anchored to that chair he became. In their defense, my students honestly believed that a corporate rebuke was the only solution to the disrespect they had observed. They attempted to right what they were convinced was wrong. I applaud them for their efforts. I also applaud Colin for having the courage to buck conventional wisdom. I don’t agree with the method he chose to protest whatever he was unable to verbalize that day. But I absolutely respect his right to do so. At least in theory, our freedoms of speech and expression are not dependent upon the popularity of our message. Asserting my First Amendment rights requires me to defend Colin’s.

Should the real Colin Kaepernick continue to sit, anger won’t make him stand. Even if it would, forced allegiance is no allegiance at all. The actions of Kaepernick and others like him affirm the very freedom my flag affords them. Thanks to this season of home-grown disrespect toward America, the world is now regularly reminded how truly unique our awesome country remains, with or without the gratitude of its own citizens. Here is what I find so cool–It is absolutely impossible for a U.S. citizen to disrespect the American flag without unwittingly affirming the greatness of America. I believe these recent protests by athletes are disrespectful and misguided, but I will defend the protestors’ rights to express themselves. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether or not my support is reciprocated when I hold an unpopular view…and choose to express it publicly.

HURRICANE JESUS

What if a downpour could wash away our hatred?

What if some rain would scrub away our rage?

But showers won’t clean these streets that lay red,

While this monsoon of contempt confines us to this cage.

 

We drown in animosity, a thick and ugly sludge.

Could we choose to replace that with Love?

Could we be quick to listen and much slower to judge?

Could we let God heal the bitterness from above?

 

What if winds of change blew in the right direction,

Instead of watches and warnings all around?

Father, we desperately need your protection.

Holy Spirit, reclaim this stormy ground.

 

Flood us, Lord, with compassion for our brother;

May grace and mercy puddle on our land.

Give us patience and empathy for one another.

Provide us the courage to take a stand.

 

It’s the Summer of 2016,

Nothing and nobody can seem to please us.

Race relations, like weather, turn mean;

Come quickly, Hurricane Jesus.

CONTROLLING GUNS WHILE SUPPORTING ABORTION

Americans are self-proclaimed experts when it comes to solving our own problems. “God helps those who help themselves” is a common misconception shared by many people, including countless well-meaning believers. That doesn’t make the statement accurate, however. If that statement were true, I would have been able to get a running start toward salvation. I couldn’t. If it were true, I might have met my Savior halfway. I didn’t. God helped me when I was literally incapable of helping myself. Completely lost in my transgressions, I was helplessly and hopelessly desperate. The truth is that God helps those who are completely incapable of helping themselves. And that is precisely where we find ourselves as a nation. We are clearly incapable of helping ourselves, yet we remain adamant in our collective refusal to admit our helplessness.

Sit-in

Solving our own problems took on a new meaning this week when members of Congress organized a sit-in. What a novel, if misplaced, solution. Hunger strikes and sit-ins work if your name is Gandhi, Mandela, King, or Parks, and only then if the cause is worthwhile. Strangely, none of those icons is pictured above. The educated adults pictured here sat on the floor of the House, like children who didn’t get their way. Social icons protest against the actions of oppressors. Irrelevant progressives protest against inanimate objects like guns. Gun control is a hotly debated topic once again. The intensity of that discussion spikes after any mass shooting, and we all know what tragically happened in Orlando recently. Strike while the iron is hot, I suppose. Nonetheless, I wonder how many of us consider the hypocrisy necessary to sit down in opposition to guns and then stand up in support of abortion.

The gun control sit-in is possibly the greatest example of organized hypocrisy I have ever encountered. Most of these same legislators hypocritically support the abortion industry. In fact, some of these elected officials work tirelessly to mandate that our “killing clinics” are lethally efficient. Are the methods of execution or the age of the victims really the determining factors in our appetite for murder? Homicide has never known the levels of efficiency that legalized abortion espouses. Guns, by comparison, are woefully ineffective murder weapons based on units sold vs. units used to commit homicide. Yes, all of the “sitters” pictured are Democrats. But most Republican leaders sat recently, as well…on their hands when Congress voted to fund Planned Parenthood last December through the $1.6 trillion omnibus bill. Make no mistake; abortion rights exist because of non-partisan efforts, in spite of the rhetoric of the right. By God’s standards, sins of commission are no worse than sins of omission.

Consider this. If an abortion clinic is unsuccessful in killing a child, legislators are fit to be tied. Ironically, however, the overwhelming majority of guns are completely unsuccessful in taking lives, but these same elected officials rage against the firearms industry in the wake of every mass shooting. America legislatively promotes the successful murder of more than 700,000 children in the United States each year, and we demand that our methods are efficient. Then we scream from the mountaintops when a madman takes the lives of 49 people with an assault rifle in a nightclub. Where is the screaming for the innocent unborn? Who is sitting-in for them?

Remember being absolutely appalled when 20 precious children were killed at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012? Would we have been equally horrified if these murders happened in a dark and secluded room? Absolutely. What about a dark and secluded womb? Nah. What changed in the seven years between the womb and the first grade classroom that made death by gun more appalling than death by surgical instrument? Changing the context a bit, if the mother of Orlando shooting victim, Cory Connell, had paid the gunman to execute her son at Pulse in 2016, would the loss of life be acceptable? Why, then, would it have been acceptable for Cory’s mother to pay a doctor to execute her son at Planned Parenthood in 1994? Should the type of murder weapon chosen or the age of the victim determine the sanctity of life lost?

MVA Syringe       Sig MCX

Using my tax dollars, Congress currently funds the lethal weapon on the left (an MVA abortion syringe) and then fights desperately to outlaw the (rarely) lethal weapon on the right (a SIG MCX rifle). Only one of the two weapons pictured is used exclusively for homicide, though. The weapon on the left is used specifically to kill millions through premeditated acts performed by medical professionals; the weapon on the right is used to kill hundreds in premeditated acts performed by deranged individuals.  Aren’t legislators fighting the wrong battle? Why aren’t we talking about syringe control? If guns were available through a community organization called Planned Citizenship, would Congress fund them? It seems to work for Planned Parenthood.

We have clearly lost our way as a country. We are starving for moral and spiritual leadership. How long will we continue to deny the inverse correlation between moral rebellion and diminished levels of providential protection? Turning away from God has consequences, and thumbing our noses at the Almighty leads to costly lessons. Here’s the problem—Americans continue to willingly pay those costs. Apparently our mistakes aren’t expensive enough…yet.

Lord, we Americans are incapable of helping ourselves, much less our nation. Even our methods of self-help have now become comical in their tragedy. In our 240-year history, we have never been more desperate for you as a nation. When will you find us participating in the only meaningful sit-in…the one where we are found on our knees in a posture of repentance? Lord, save America because we clearly can’t save ourselves, and forgive us for placing our trust in fallen leaders. You always have been and always will be our only hope.

A HORSE NAMED BRILLIANCE

Once upon a time, a boy named Billy was gifted a horse named Brilliance on the day he was born. His family sacrificed greatly to give him the gift because they believed that someday Brilliance would take him somewhere beautiful, a place perhaps they were never able to go themselves. As Billy grew, so did Brilliance, and before long, the boy was big enough to tend to the horse by himself. Brilliance was fed, watered, and exercised. The horse received the best training imaginable, provided by Billy himself, who devoured books on the subject and eagerly and effectively applied the strategies he learned. Brilliance quickly became the best-nurtured and healthiest horse around. Billy rode her to school every day, always eager to learn, and Brilliance never failed Billy through elementary, middle, and high school.

When Billy began searching for his independence, as boys tend to do, he regularly saddled Brilliance and took her for runs beyond the fence, beyond the farm, and even beyond the town where he was raised, a place called Common Sense. These adventures were exhilarating, as the boy quickly learned the true power of Brilliance. Over the years and always together, they visited an outpost called Judgment, a township named Discernment, and a city named Wisdom. Billy marveled that these trips only made Brilliance stronger and more impressive than ever. The boy was keenly aware that the thrill of these rides was partially attributable to the fact that his parents were unaware of his adventures. Like most parents, though, Billy’s mom and dad were well aware of his experiences and had even visited some of the same places themselves. In the end, though, they always returned to Common Sense, a place populated by people who had experienced Judgment, Discernment, and Wisdom on horses far less impressive than Brilliance.

After high school, Billy informed his family that he would be riding Brilliance to a place none of them had visited before. It was a place he had only read about in books, a metropolis known simply as Enlightenment. With their blessings, he made preparations for his trip and set out before sunrise one morning. Brilliance trotted past Judgment, cantered past Discernment, and was at full gallop by the time he flew through Wisdom. As the skyline of Enlightenment became visible on the horizon, Billy changed his mind and decided to see just how far Brilliance would take him. The original destination, Enlightenment, passed by in a fantastic blur, as the horse remarkably managed to pick up even more speed.

Billy held on for his life as Brilliance took him farther than he ever wanted to go. The horse ran until she could no longer run and collapsed at the base of a giant sign that read, “Welcome to Lunacy.” With no horse and no way home, Billy became a resident of Lunacy. He built an ignorantly blissful life for himself there, interacting with other Lunatics and even marrying a local girl. Together with his neighbors, Billy made enlightened, yet illogical, decisions and formulated asinine opinions, which regularly baffled his parents and his friends back home in Common Sense, not to mention the permanent residents of Judgment, Discernment, and Wisdom. For poor Billy, Common Sense was long gone, and he had nothing but his own Brilliance to blame.

The moral of the story is quite simple. If you find you have been blessed with Brilliance, count yourself fortunate, but don’t ride her too far. Lunacy is only a stone’s throw beyond Enlightenment, and there are talks of annexation. Common Sense, Judgment, Discernment, and Wisdom are all better places to settle, in spite of what the Lunatics the Enlightened would have you believe.

Congratulations on your high-school graduation, Eli.  Mom and I are beyond proud of you, and we can’t wait to see what God has planned for you next.  “Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”  -Proverbs 4:7

I love you…Dad.