Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia

Jennifer and I left our hotel room at 5:20am on Sunday morning, June 10. We were heading to Sunday School, of course. No kidding. We wanted to make sure we could get a seat.  I’m not kidding about that either. We had read that on many Sundays Maranatha Baptist Church has to turn people away.

Imagine heading out for Sunday School while it was still pitch black outside.  We drove 10 miles from our hotel in Americus, Georgia. Following a windy road in rural, southern Georgia, we headed to Plains, Georgia, population 735. At the only stop sign in Plains, we turned right and drove 1/2 mile north.  Just past the The Big Peanut convenience store, we pulled into the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot. It was 5:40am and still dark. Suddenly, I found myself pulling up behind a string of cars in front of me all with their lights still on.

After waiting our turn, a man near the entrance of the parking lot gave us a yellow note card with #110 written in black marker.  At 5:40am we were the 110th car in the parking lot.  Imagine that? There were 109 cars in front of us and, we soon discovered, about 350 people in those 109 cars.

The Sunday School room (the church auditorium and the overflow) holds 500 people. The man who handed me the number #110 wore a white beard and a hat that said, “I dig peanuts.”  He said, “Looks like we are going to turn people away this morning.  We hate to do that. Hope we can fit them all in.”

Okay, here’s why we were in Plains, Georgia, at Maranatha Baptist… Maybe you’ve already got me figure out, especially if you know a little history about the country.

Jennifer and I had come to hear President Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, teach Sunday School in his hometown of Plains, where he has lived since 1981, after spending 4 years in the White House.

Rumor is that Carter will teach just a few more months and many people want to hear him teach before he lays down his Sunday School book.  People are arriving from all over the country, particularly the southeast, to see President and Mrs. Carter and to hear the President teach Sunday School.

(Although, we were told in fairly uncertain terms by church members who attend church regularly at Maranatha Baptist that in fact Carter has not announced his retirement from teaching.  It’s just a crazy rumor running around on the Internet, they said.  Well, I guess we’ll see.  Carter is 93 years old and indefatigable. Gosh, maybe he can go a few more years. Talk about the little engine that could.  The guy is amazing. Can you imagine teaching a Sunday School class with 500 people in attendance at age 93?  President Carter stands and lectures for 45 minutes.  He doesn’t have a cane or a walker, and he doesn’t lean on anything. He just stands straight and lectures. His voice is strong. He is well prepared, his mind is sharp and his biblical knowledge is impressive. That is just all pretty doggone impressive to me.)

After you get your number and park your car, you can sleep, walk around and talk to people wandering around the church grounds or walk 200 yards down to the The Big Peanut convenient store and get a cup of coffee. You can’t enter the church until you go through security at 8:30am. There are 2 port-a-potties outside you can use while you wait for, in our case, almost 3 hours before entering the church building. Once we were seated in the building, we sat for another hour before President Carter arrived.

President Carter’s Sunday School class doesn’t start until 10am and the church doesn’t open until 8:30am. That’s when all 500 of us lined up according to our number and waited to go through security handled by the Secret Service.

Jennifer and I didn’t make it into the main auditorium. We were in the overflow, where we watched Carter teach via video feed. It actually was just fine. To make it into the church sanctuary where President Carter teaches, we would have had to be at the church before 5am.  No way was that going to happen.

Carter came back into the overflow at 9:45am before class started and interacted with the 150 or so of us in the overflow. He greeted us and mostly wanted to know where people were from. He thanked us for coming.

The President is teaching a series on how God speaks through the minor and little-known prophets of the Old Testament. He talked a lot about how God can use us, if we make ourselves available to him. “Isn’t that great?” he asked.

In the first 5-10 minutes he made some comments about the world news of the day and then went into his 40 minute lesson.  I am still amazed that a 93-year-old man can stand before 500 people and lecture.  He interacted with the class, asking questions and soliciting comments as he went along.

Church followed Sunday School and pictures with President and Mrs. Carter followed church. The church has a new young pastor just out of seminary. He’s in a mid-20s and looks like he’s about 15. Imagine being 25 years old and getting to preach each week to the President.  Pretty heady, I’d say. President Carter is almost 70 years older than his pastor!

As you can see here, Jennifer and I enjoyed getting our picture taken with the Carters following church.

 

Here Jennifer and I are standing alongside Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, on Sunday, June 10, 2018.  At age 93, President Carter is the long-time adult Sunday School teacher, having taught more than 50 years. Jimmy and Rosalynn will celebrate 72 years of marriage in a couple of months.  Talk about being 93 years young!

A story of beauty emerges from a broken life

Author Jack Deere, as he is today, pictured beside his new terrific memoir, just released by Zondervan earlier this year.

Jack Deere’s outstanding memoir Even in our Darkness — A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life is the most transparent memoir I may have ever read from a pastor.  It certainly is in the last 20 years.

I had never heard of Jack Deere before I joined the Vineyard church staff in Urbana in 2004. Once on staff, however, I read another excellent book by Deere, a book now 20 years old. It is called: Surprised by the power of the Spirit.

Let me tell you about Jack Deere.  He was a rising Old Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary in the early 1980s.  Surprised by the Power of the Spirit is Deere’s discussion of the so-called supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, prophecy, words of knowledge) and how they operate.  Deere came to believe those gifts were for today and never ceased with the Apostolic Age, as he had been taught.  The folks at Dallas Theological Seminary where he taught did not believe that.

By the time I joined the Vineyard church staff, I had embraced these gifts and was comfortable with most people who practiced them. I had friends who spoke in tongues but I didn’t. In fact, I tried to speak in tongues a number of times. Well, I guess I actually did speak in tongues, but I was wasn’t very good at it, and it didn’t seem real to me personally. I knew people who spoke in tongues, and I was happy for them.

But not all speak in tongues, of course. Even at the Vineyard church where I served and attended for 15 years, I rarely heard speaking in tongues and only once or twice heard tongues or prophecy in a public worship service.  Still, bless you, if these are your gifts. You have a special gift when communicating with God and others and I encourage you to use it to God’s glory.

I always was curious about the Apostle Paul saying that he was thankful that he spoke in tongues with great frequency — “More than all of you” he told the church at Corinth.  Off and on for a time, I did “practice,” almost always in my car when I was driving — driving alone, of course. It was kind of fun, but it never really blessed me and never felt real to me, although it obviously is to those who have the gift, and practice it.

Even though I was by myself in my car “practicing” speaking in tongues, one time I got a little sheepish and broke out laughing. Oh my…

During my late 20s and 30s I was involved in a church that emphasized intimate worship with God. It was a congregation that did not discourage people who spoke in tongues and prophesied, although I didn’t hear it much and it was not overly encouraged. It just wasn’t mentioned much.

Even though I had been raised in a church tribe (the Christian Church/Church of Christ) that taught those “supernatural” gifts had pretty much ended with the Apostolic age, I grew to understand things differently.  I went to a Bible college that taught those special gifts had ended with the Apostles, or more specifically, the Apostolic age.

At that college for the first time I learned the word cessationist.  By the time I was at this college, though, the Jesus movement was in full swing and I had met a few students at the Bible college that spoke in tongues and believed that God was moving in powerful ways in their lives. They wanted all that God had for them. One night I went to a Bible study in a guy’s basement where several people spoke in tongues. There were some who interpreted those tongues. There was a lot of singing and praying. That was the first time I tried speaking in tongues as I walked back to my apartment in the dark. I got the giggles that night, too.

These fellow Bible college students kept this knowledge on the QT, however, knowing that the expression of those gifts would not be accepted by the faculty and administration.

Although one day in a theology class one of my female classmates told the professor she thought speaking in tongues was for the current age and that she knew people who benefited from this gift (including her, although she didn’t say that in class).  The professor quickly cut her off that day, telling her, and the entire class, that those gifts ended with the Apostolic age.  “No exceptions,” he said, before moving on.

After class I went up to talk with her. She was upset and crying. The professor was not mean per se, but he was firm and it was obvious he was not willing to have a discussion in class about such practices. I never exactly knew why. He seemed scared when he spoke about it, like what would he do if flames of tongues suddenly landed in the classroom and he totally lost control. My friend felt like he shut her down. And well, he had.

We had a long talk later that day, when she told me she spoke in tongues.  I felt honored that she would let me know about this part of her life.  No one had ever told me a story like this before. I trusted this girl. Her experience was fascinating to a kid from a working family in Northwestern Kansas who never had spoken in tongues and had been told that special ability had long ceased. Frankly, I believed my friend more than I trusted my professor’s take on the matter.

Jack Deere in his Surprised by the Power of the Spirit masterfully refutes the cessationist theology.  Years ago two highly regarded conservative scholars — Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms — said Deere’s refutation was the most convincing refutation they ever had read about the special “charismatic” gifts.

Deere’s book is now more than 20 years old, but I still remembering being deeply impressed with Deere’s excellent mind as he challenged the cessationist movement. Ironically, Deere himself was a young, rising professor at the renowned Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) in Dallas, where you could not practice any of these gifts. Well, of course! How could you practice a gift that no long existed?

It was while he was teaching at DTS that Deere met John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Churches and eventually got himself fired at the seminary for becoming Wimber’s friend and for openly believing in the so-called supernatural gifts of the Spirit.

I had lost touch with Deere in the last dozen years or so until I saw his new book advertised a few weeks back.  I read some endorsements by people I really admire and I wanted to get the book, and I am so glad I did.

In his new book, Deere tells the story of his life.  And what a story he tells.  Wowza!  As they say, “You’ll just have to read it for yourself to feel the full impact of the story of Jack Deere.” Believe me, you will not want to put it down.

Jack Deere takes the reader on an incredible ride of beauty through a very broken life, a life that still is being redeemed. Above everything else, through all the ebbs and flows of his life, Deere is incredibly transparent.  He doesn’t hold back.  I read.  I cringed. I cried. I wanted to know more .I said more than once, “I can’t believe he just told us that.” I read the book fast, the entire 280-page book in 2 settings last Saturday. The book is just so incredibly honest.

Deere explores his childhood … both fun and yet so hard.  His own father committed suicide when Deere was just a boy.  The pain in his young life started and it only got worse. Deere struggled with pleasing and understanding his controlling mother, and we get the details. We read about how Deere fell in love with theology and was a rising start at Dallas Theology Seminary, only to be fired because of his new understanding of the gifts of the Spirit and because of his friendship with John Wimber.

We read about how Deere moved from Texas to southern California to become Wimber’s right hand man, only to get crosswise with Wimber a few short years later and part company with him. We read about how Deere went from the Vineyard church movement to become a Presbyterian pastor in rural Montana, where he was struck with tragedy in his own family.

When the Deere family moved back to Texas from Montana, we read about Deere’s wife Leesa and her serious, almost life-ending struggle with alcohol. Read this book and you will see.  It was bad, real bad.  But she survived, somehow.

This is a woman who was a sweet young Texas girl who had met Jack Deere when they both were in Young Life in Texas back in the day.  She loved the Bible, especially reading it. This pretty young girl came to love Jack, and he fell head over heels in love with her.

And yes, she read her husband’s account of her serious drinking problem before this book was released. Yes, you heard it right.  A sweet Young Life girl who back in the day loved to read the Bible growing up, reached a day in her adult, married life, when she started drinking way, way too much and on several occasions nearly drank herself to death.

Life happens, doesn’t it?

In sum, this is a story about transparency, friends.  (I’m pretty sure that if we have the courage to believe it, transparency is our friend, or want to be. But how many of us really believe that deep down? We fear the judgment of others. We fear that others will think less of us if they really know “how bad I really am.”)

At the end of the day, this is not just Jack Deere’s story.  It is my story. It is everyone’s story. It is the story of God making straight blows with very crooked sticks, the only kind of sticks God uses when making his mark in the world.

I work with pastors all the time, counseling pastors every day in my work. Very often I see them as they are, but I rarely have heard, or read, a story with the kind of transparency found in Jack Deere’s well-written new book.

I never have met Jack Deere, but I would like to.  I hope to. I’d like to buy his breakfast and have my coffee cup refilled 3 or 4 times as I listen to him tell me more about his life.  There is something about his honesty in talking about his brokenness that is believable, enviable, and even healing for the soul.

Deep down, I think most people just want to be known, and that’s why I’d highly recommend you get this book and read it.  Friends, you can’t be known if you don’t take a few risks and tell your story. Jack Deere is willing to put his story out there for all to read.  I think reading this new book will change your life for the better and perhaps cause you to say to someone close to you, “I have something I want to tell you about my story. I’ve never told a soul, but I want you to know.”

That will validate Jack’s Deere’s new book. It will be a little humiliating for you, but in the end, it will be good for your soul as you feel the freedom be more honest, more authentic, more real — the real person God wants you to be.

 

Confession killers

Yes, confession is good for the soul!

I heard a man in a church who had really hurt someone try to confess his sin with these words:

“I’m sorry if I’ve done something to upset you.”

That sounds like an apology to get someone off your back. Let me tell you, if you don’t really apologize, it’s only a matter of time until you hurt the person again.

How about this apology: “It wasn’t intentional.”

There’s an apology from a person who may not have intentionally started off trying to hurt you, but he wasn’t making much of an effort not to hurt you either.

Or these words of “confession”: “It wasn’t personal.”  Huh? That’s like saying, “It wasn’t personal to me so you shouldn’t take it personally either, even though I am sure it really hurt you.”

When you own your stuff and truly make an honest confession it involves what author Ken Sande calls the 7 A’s of confession:

  1. Address everyone involved (All those whom you affected)
  2. Avoid if, but, and maybe (Do not try to excuse or diminish the effect of your wrongs)
  3. Admit specifically (Both attitudes and actions)
  4. Acknowledge the hurt (Express sorrow for hurting someone)
  5. Accept the consequences (Such as making restitution)
  6. Alter your behavior (Change your attitudes and actions)
  7. Ask for forgiveness

You might not have to go through all 7 every time you confess a sin, but the point is, the more thoughtful and sincerely you confess, the more likely it is your confession will promote forgiveness and reconciliation.

Lots of us feel like a “Misfit”, especially during the holidays!

Knowing how often I have felt like a misfit, especially during the Christmas holidays, I am happy to recommend Brant Hansen’s new book Blessed are the Misfits.

Now a popular radio host and living in Harrisburg, PA, Hansen is an introvert who grew up as a preacher’s kid here in the Midwest.  He is a University of Illinois graduate and early in his career worked locally for both WDWS 1400AM and WBGL 91.7FM. You can learn more about Hansen and how he now spends his time at his website.

Hansen’s dad went from church to church when Hansen was a boy, frequently moving his family from one small town to the next in Indiana and Illinois, as he tried to find himself.

Hansen expands that story in his new book, centering his thoughts on how, as an introverted, awkward son, he frequently felt like the odd person out. Brant looks back on those days 30 years ago, and writes about what it felt like then, what it feels like now that he is a married father with two adult children and how he tries to make sense of it in his relationship with God.

Hansen is frank, transparent and funny.  Like all families, the family Brant Hansen was raised in definitely did it’s part to put the fun in dysfunction. They may have done more than was required.  You’ll see. Sadly, some of what happened is not pretty.  Brant tells about that, too, but does his best to show the redemptive side, too.

I’ve known Hansen for 20+ years.  He’s smart, funny, quirky and in this new book he’s quite insightful about helping people of faith understand where they fit in when much of the time they feel like a total misfit, even wondering if they are a Christian at all.

Take a Look at the book on Amazon. It just became available a couple of weeks ago. Be sure and check out the chapter descriptions (they are funny and will tell you a lot about the book) and read some of the reviews — already more than 70 great reviews already!

The book would be a great Christmas gift!

The cross is the way of Jesus

Pastor Chuck Carlson ends his ministry in Champaign, IL.

My friend pastor Chuck Carlson said farewell on Sunday (October 15) to the folks at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Champaign.  He served at the Church 11 years, but he was also concluding 43 years of full-time service in the ministry.

Chuck is a wonderful man, a fine pastor, a thoughtful preacher.  Chuck and Betty, his wife, are headed today on the train, going west to their home on Flathead Lake in Montana.

Chuck could surprise and delight me with stories.  Back in the mid-1980s when he was at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, getting doctorate, Chuck would attend the Sunday evening services at the Vineyard Church in Yorba Linda, where John Wimber was the pastor.  Chuck said here he was a Presbyterian minister and yet he found himself attending the services at the mother ship of this new Charismatic church movement called the Vineyard. He smiled as he told me the story, saying the services were “crazy, wild, absolutely wonderful.”

Mostly Chuck is a really good pastor.  He is a good listener. He is compassionate.  He is intelligent.  He is calm.  He always tries his best to build up, not tear down.

As he preached this last Sunday, Chuck reflected on his life in the ministry.  He said we never get it right.  “And yet, we press on, attending to the way of Jesus and the cross. The cross is our constant corrective and our goal.  … The cross is Jesus’ way. He invites us into the crucible of following his ways.  …  In the end, it is no longer we who live but Christ lives in us. We do not ever rely on our human abilities.”

Near the end of his sermon Chuck said he had spent time wondering what it is that he actually accomplished in his more than 4 decades of ministry.  “Maybe the better question is ‘What if it is not about me? Perhaps the better question is: What have I allowed the crucified Christ to do through me?'”

Looking out over the congregation Pastor Chuck said, “Betty and I will carry you in our hearts.  Now you must pick up your cross and do what it is God has called you to do.  The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

And with that, Pastor Chuck closed notebook holding his notes and said, “Amen.”

Well done, Chuck!

A healthy daily practice

Every morning I ask myself a few questions in what attorney and church reconciliation guru Ken Sande calls the S.O.G. Plan.

  • How am I feeling and acting? (practicing my own self-awareness)
  • How are others around me feeling? How am I affecting them? (practicing being other-aware)
  • What is God up to? (practicing being God-aware)

I am convinced that a critical element in letting Jesus being formed in me is daily Recognizing my emotions, Evaluating their source, Anticipating the consequences of following those emotions and then Directing them on a constructive course of action.

Lord, how me to READ myself accurately!”

Soul Work class starts September 19th: Plans/notes/agenda

12 September 2017

Hello class members of “Soul Work – doing the unseen work in a leader’s life!” Welcome aboard…

I am looking forward to being with you and journeying alongside you on Tuesday afternoons this fall. We start Tuesday, September 19 at 1:30pm, meeting at Stone Creek Church, 2502 So. Race Street, Urbana, IL at 1:30pm.

 The older I get the more important I feel it is to give attention to caring for our soul. When I think about the class before us this fall, this question of Jesus stirs in my heart and mind, “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and then lose your soul?”

Christian philosopher and writer Dallas Willard thought to lose the soul was more of a diagnosis than a destination. He said to lose the soul is to lose the healthy center that organizes and guides our lives. So, gaining the whole world will not help us, if our inside world is collapsing. Exactly!

I have been praying for the 15 who are signed up for the class. I wanted to write a few notes (essentially, the syllabus) today, telling you about the class that begins September 19.

After talking with some who are signed up for the class, I know most of us are committed to peeling back more layers of your soul and asking, “Who is that inside of me anyway?” and “What is that God wants from me?” “What is it that God has knit together in my mother’s womb?”

The class will be fun and painful and stretching as we explore those questions. Mostly I am just so glad you have chosen to jump on board.  You have made a good decision!

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TimeTuesday September 19 through Tuesday October 24. 1:30-3:30pm for 6 consecutive weeks.

Location: Stone Creek Church, 2502 S. Race Street, Urbana, IL.  (Enter through the double doors on the East wing).

—–

The thrust of the entire 6-week class will center on exploring Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction, both crucial aspects when caring for the soul.

For years I have pondered and practiced spiritual disciplines that have helped me see more clearly what it means to have “Christ formed in me,” (a great 4-word description of Spiritual Formation) as the Apostle Paul says in Galatians. This past summer I got to spent 7 weeks in Phoenix, AZ, studying both Christian Formation and Spiritual Direction at Phoenix Seminary. It was a great change of pace for me, and fun.

For me, the biggest blessing, and the most interesting part of the class, was listening to other people tell their stories – how they desire to more deeply explore their soul, despite their many false starts, what happens when they feel they truly connect with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and why is it that I can feel totally connected with God one day and so far from him the next?

I listened to their stories; they listened to mine. What an honor to hear some of another person’s spiritual journey. Many times, I found myself saying to the other class members this summer at Phoenix Seminary, “I feel so honored to have heard more of your story.  Thank you so much for being transparent, for being candid, and for sharing so openly.  I will hold it in my heart.”

This summer’s experience reinforced what I have now come to believe through hundreds of appointments with pastors and leaders in the last few years: Every person has a beautiful and important story – unique in all the world really.  A central part of every person’s spiritual formation is discovering, embracing and telling that story. Because deep down, every person wants to be known and to know others.

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The class, then, has 2 objectives:

1.    To get a firmer handle on cultivating our relationship with God.

2.    To ask ourselves and each other, “What is God doing in our lives?”

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 ** There are no required books for the class per se, although as we go along I will introduce you to lots of books that you might want to read.  There are scores and scores of excellent books and web sites available, addressing spiritual formation and direction. I will suggest readings, prayers and web sites as we go. At the end of each class, I will give you something to think about for the next week.

** Mostly I want you to commit to coming to class for the whole 6 weeks. (You have a lot to offer the rest of us! Each person’s story is so crucial as together we consider what it means to be formed in Christ!) Try to arrive by 1:20pm so we can start at 1:30pm.  I will dismiss us by 3:30pm.

** There is a little “homework” before class begins September 19. Take 10 or 15 minutes between now and next Tuesday, September 19, and think about what is it that draws you to the class.  That is, when you think about title: “Soul Work – Doing the Unseen work in a leader’s life,” what is it that you find compelling and interesting?  I’d like to know what that is.

—–

Generally, the class will be divided into 2 sections:

1:30-2:20  Each week starts with a Scripture reading and time of reflection; I will then lead a short discussion of the day’s topic.

2:20-2:30  10-min. break.

2:30-3:10  Listening and reflecting

(Each week we will divide into groups of 3. I will give you the specifics when we meet the first week.  One person will share while the others listen and respond… After meeting with pastors and leaders for many years, I am convinced this is one of the best ways for a person to hear God more deeply and the best way for those hearing to practice deep, genuine listening. A great spiritual director largely is a person practicing deep listening – listening to the one speaking, listening to your own thoughts and listening to the Holy Spirit. You will get to practice both speaking about an issue important to you and listening to others share what is one their mind!)

3:10-3:25 Q & A, and thoughts about the next week.

—–

Topics 

Week #1 – Introduction, What is the soul?; How do we care for the soul anyway?; Discussion: Who is responsible for doing our soul work? Group Listening; Q & A.

Week #2 – The heart of the soul: Praying the Daily Examen; Praying the creeds & other prayers; Discussion: What order of prayer and liturgy does your church practice? How about you personally? What do you practice during your “quiet times?” What practices and prayer always seem to speak to your heart? What needs to stay the same in your regular times with the Lord? What would you like to change? What practices would you like to explore?; Group Listening; Q & A.

Week #3 – Wisdom & Soul Care: How the 3 dimensions of our relationships — with God, with ourselves & with others — work in concert to penetrate the soul, compelling us to live godly, spirit-filled lives. Discussion: Practicing the full circle of Relational Wisdom (God-awareness, Self-awareness, other-awareness) helps up uncover the layers of the soul, prodding us to ask, “What do I know?” and “What will I do?”; Group Listening; Q & A.

Week #4 – Emotions: The Language of the soul; Discussion: Jesus’ emotional health [Luke 7] came from a well-cared for soul.  How can we tell? How might be true for our own soul care?; Group Listening; Q & A.

Week #5 – Connecting with God through silence, solitude, liturgy, retreating; Discussion: How are we shaped through the practices of Lectio Divina, centering prayer, and our personal and corporate liturgies? How do we practice discernment using these methods? Group Listening; Q & A.

Week #6 – How do we fine-time walking the steps of Jesus in our 21-century world?; Discussion: What does God want each of us to do as we plan, practice and implement soul work into our lives?; Group Listening; Q & A.

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Contact Information:

Don Follis

donfollis@gmail.com

217-766-1719

605 E. Dodson Drive, Urbana, IL 61802

 

What you wish someone had told you when you were younger

Don Follis August 27, 2017 Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette Religion Column

(In my Sunday column, I mention 11 things I wish someone had told me when I was younger. After I read the column, though, I thought of many more, and I thought that I probably was, in fact, told about many of these. But alas, life indeed is the best teacher. Still, I think these 11 are important truths.)

Every day on my summer bike ride, I rode through a Scottsdale, AZ, cemetery next to the condo I rented during my summer study break. One morning just outside the cemetery office 10 concrete burial vaults sat next to the building. That seemed odd, until the next day when 10 white hearses pulled into the graveyard and parked alongside 10 newly dug graves.

Just days before 10 Phoenix family members had gone 60 miles north to Payson, AZ, where they swam in a popular mountain stream, escaping the scorching July Phoenix temperatures. Suddenly monsoon summer rains pelted the area upstream from where this Mexican immigrant family swam and relaxed for the weekend. Without warning, a torrent of water flooded the swimming hole. None in this family escaped. Within a few days all 10 bodies were recovered.

For several days in mid-July this tragedy was the top news story in Arizona. This entire family, including several children younger than age 10, was laid to rest in Paradise Memorial Gardens in Scottsdale, just over a fence and barely 100 yards from my condo.

At 5am the day following the burials, I rode my bike over to the graves. I stood there for several minutes, letting grief sink into my bones. I thought, “I wish when I was 25 someone had given me permission to feel such painful emotion and to grieve so deeply.”  When I was a boy it was clear that big boys don’t cry. But they do, of course. It is extraordinarily healthy to grieve. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus.

A few days later I read a piece by writer Frank Viola who at age 50 pondered what he wished he had been told as a young man. I began my list, adding to wishing I had been encouraged to grieve earlier in my life.

Life goes fast.” Savor every moment. You turn your head and you are getting senior discounts without even asking. I watched some older people dancing this summer and said, “Wow, those old folks can still move.”  When I looked closer I realized that some of them were younger than I am.   One line in the Serenity Prayer encourages “living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time.” You cannot rewind the clock.

Life does not get easier.”  True, you don’t have to go back to junior high, although some people seem to spend their whole lives there.  People will spread rumors about you, practice one-upmanship and act two-faced.  You weather one crisis, only to meet another.

Things are not what they seem.” We don’t know the whole story, not by a long, long shot. I help churches where seasoned Christians struggle with conflict. Every story has many sides. One Old Testament proverb says spouting out before listening to the facts is shameful and foolish (Proverbs 18:13).

The root of most conflict and division is jealousy.” The human ego has an insatiable appetite. Think of the religious jealousy incited with the murders of Abel early in the book of Genesis and Jesus in the Gospels.

Fellow Christians will break your heart.” The people who you love the most will disappoint and hurt you the most. Church history is littered with broken hearts. As Frank Viola writes, “Only a relationship with Jesus will enable you to survive without becoming embittered or destroyed.”

Don’t be so sure.” I remember as a young campus minister in my mid-20s feeling both right and certain.  Now I am quite certain that God has hard-wired the universe to challenge human pride.  Gosh, wouldn’t it have been great if all of life’s problems had hit me when I was a theologically astute 28-year-old?

When you ascribe evil motives to another person’s heart, you reveal what is in your own heart.” Making judgments says more about you than the other person. Come on now, if you really are concerned about someone else, ask them directly.

You will reevaluate your commitments.”  For many followers of Jesus, it includes even their commitment to him. There will be a point when your faith is tested well beyond measure. I know and respect very sincere people who wonder if God exists, if the story about Jesus truly makes sense and if the Bible can be trusted.  Will that happen to you?  I have no idea, but I think you can expect it.  This Scriptures are clear that “those who endure to the end will be saved.”

Your greatest impact on others often is directly proportional to your suffering.” This seems to be God’s way. Sometimes it takes God a long time to clear the pipes so the sludge can get through. God can go to great lengths to break his servants.

Transformation is a slow, arduous process.” God does change people. Frank Viola says, “Conformity to Christ is an essential aspect of God’s ultimate purpose.”  But that takes a long time – years, decades.  It is easy to make the mistake of equating knowledge with experience.  But with the baggage most of us carry, it takes a long time to know that God finally takes our spiritual insights and translates them into knowledge that only is gained through experience.

Now pass this along to some young people you want to succeed. Hug them tightly and say, “You must increase. I’m for you. May the peace of Christ be with you.”

 

 

 

 

Conversation in the desert cemetery brought real clarity

This is just outside the north gate of White tanks cemetery, a Maricopa County-run cemetery, the final resting place of hundreds of indigent souls, most of whom have died in the last 15 years in metro-Phoenix, Arizona.

 

One of hundreds of grave markers (the size of a coffee table coaster)  in barren White Tanks Cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona.

I‘m back in Champaign-Urbana, IL now, safely back from Phoenix, Arizona. Just a few days before Jennifer and I left our Scottsdale, AZ, condo, I met Jeff working in a cemetery on the far southwest side of Phoenix.  If you would like to know how a truly grateful person feels about having been given another chance in life, you will want to read my Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette Sunday  column for today (August 13, 2017). You will see how Jeff truly has come to understand and appreciate his new chance at life!