Sunday, February 27, 2011


A few months ago I heard an NPR book reviewer gushing over a book called Unbroken. When it showed up as Time Magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, I downloaded it and began reading. And couldn’t stop. Author Laura Hillenbrand (who wrote the best-seller Seabiscuit) has a terse, matter-of-fact style that is disarming. She spent seven years meticulously researching her subject. After I stayed up all night to finish it, toward the end of the account it took a turn that totally caught me by surprise, taking my breath away with a “Whoa! I didn’t see that coming…” response from me.

It’s a harrowing story of an Italian immigrant named Louis Zamperini, a young hellion growing up in the 1930’s in Torrance, California, who is eventually distracted from troublemaking by his older brother who connected him with the high school track team. Zamperini ran in the Olympic games of 1936 in Berlin. Adolf Hitler requested to meet him and shook his hand.

When World War II broke out, he joined the U.S. Army Air Force. In 1943 his plane went down in the Pacific and survived forty-seven days in a raft circled with sharks until he was picked up by the Japanese. He languished in a prisoner of war camp until the end of the war. In prison, a particularly cruel guard beat him regularly. After his release, he returned to the States and became a raging alcoholic suffering recurring nightmares of his inhumane POW years, emotionally destroying his wife Cynthia. After finding him shaking their squalling newborn, she left him, taking their daughter with her. Louis went on bender after bender, cycling out of control.

As I was reading this part of the book, I could empathize with his private hell and was fearing a sad, dark ending.

SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading here if you don’t want to know how the story ends.

Really. I mean it this time. Stop.

Let’s continue. It didn’t seem fair to me that someone should somehow survive years of horrific warfare and torture only to self-destruct at home. But most of us know that life isn’t always fair as we define "fair". Circumstances, our dysfunctional choices and fallen humanity sure mix a bad cosmic cocktail. Like a train wreck you can’t turn away from, Unbroken was forcing me to turn each page; I understood it to be a secular book about a man’s dark wartime experience, so I wasn’t holding out much hope for pleasant closure.

But in desperation, his harried wife attended the now-famous (in evangelical circles) eight-week long Billy Graham Los Angeles tent revival in 1949, the one that stratospherically launched Graham’s ministry because of William Randolph Hearst’s national coverage of it in his newspapers and magazines. In that setting, Cynthia surrendered her heart to Jesus and begged Louis to join him. After finally relenting and attending with her, he found himself fascinated with Graham’s retelling of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But when Graham talked about being lost and the claims of salvation, Louis angrily walked out during the invitation. Yet he couldn’t shake it.

Author Hillenbrand describes Graham after weeks of preaching seven days a week and being at the tent from five a.m. to late at night “counseling troubled souls” every day:

“Graham’s weight was dropping, and dark semicircles shadowed his eyes. At times he felt that if he stopped moving, his legs would buckle, so he took to pacing his pulpit to keep himself from keeling over. Once, someone brought a baby to him, and he asked whose child she was. He’d been away from home for so long that he didn’t recognize his own daughter. He longed to end the campaign, but the success of it made him sure that Providence had other wishes.”

Louis returned on another evening. Inexplicably, this time he broke and wept and walked to the front. That night he poured his alcohol down the sink and felt clean for the first time. And oddly, the nightmares stopped. He never looked back. Eventually he forgave all his torturers, even meeting many of them later in Japan.

But I just didn’t see it coming.

As a side note: Louis Zamperini is still living to this day. And still devotedly serving Jesus.

I certainly wasn’t expecting…that. Especially with the phenomenal response it was getting from marketplace book reviewers all over the country. It reminded me that everyone loves a story of redemption, even if faith is included in the story. It is the ultimate “and-they-lived-happily-ever-after” ending, where justice and mercy somehow meet and a life is transformed. I was so moved by the story that after I got past the sheer shock of Louis Zamperini committing his life to Christ in a secular New York Times bestseller, I cried. For joy, for him, for how God somehow redeems the seemingly worst-case scenarios. If there had been a soundtrack, I would have been a puddle of mush.

And then it made me think about art and literature. How did this author tell a story that was received so well and not relegated to the Christian subculture?—a story that includes a page-and-a-half of Graham’s L.A. sermon? In music-world, what makes a group like Mumford and Sons so appealing to the marketplace (Marcus Mumford is the son of John and Eleanor Mumford, leaders of the Vineyard UK movement) and allows them a primetime spot on the Grammys?

But even more puzzling is why I was so surprised. Was it because I was not expecting anything like a "classic salvation story" in that genre? I suppose so. But I want more surprises like that in my own life, my own circles. I want to see the redemptive work of Jesus and the wooing of the Spirit to happen with the people I least expect. And I never want to get so jaded and thick-skinned that I miss those opportunities. And no one—no matter how horrible their background, how hurt and damaged they are, how addicted and in pain they might be, or how much havoc they’ve created for others—are beyond the reach of God’s amazing love and transformative power.

Does it take a secular book for me to really get that?

Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. (Isaiah 59:1)


Friday, February 18, 2011

pastoral confessions (number thirty-seven in a series…)

I started this flying back from speaking in Houston and then got bogged down with, uh, life. I think it’s time for some pastoral confessions. But I’m going to get to it through the side door of the confessional. Enter the booth with me.

Sometimes I think: I can’t believe I get to do this. By this, I mean be a pastor. Most weekends I get to stand up in front of thousands of people talk about how great Jesus is and why He deserves our unreserved allegiance. I mean, I’m just an ex-drummer from Kentucky. It rarely seizes to amazes me. Honestly.

And I’m not Pollyanna-ish. I don’t always see it that optimistically and it’s not always wonderful all of the time. One survey claims that over seventeen-hundred pastors leave the ministry every month. Ouch. But let’s get real: when I read Paul’s resume in 2 Corinthians 11, I’m reminded that it’s been a long time since I was beaten with rods or left adrift in a heaving ocean overnight (uh, like never). There is very little in America that causes radical discomfort for the Christian leader or, for that matter, the average believer.

But what I do wrestle with are two things. I talked about this at our last all-staff meeting. Once a month we gather the whole staff of over one-hundred people for a little envisioning, some cross-team information sharing, celebrate staff anniversaries, and a few updates. But I had been wrestling with a few of these thoughts.

During the Q&A time at a leadership training session in Florida a few weeks ago, someone asked me, “What do you think leaders should guard against or need to really watch out for?”

The obvious big ones are, of course, sex and money. It’s why we have stringent policies in place at the Vineyard. We’ve all seen too many people crash and burn. I don’t have any meetings with women where there are just two of us, not even in a crowded public place. And I do zero counseling with the opposite sex for a couple of reasons: I’m not a professional counselor and therefore pretty lame at it and second, I need to make sure nothing even suggests a psychosexual connection. As an aside, I think one-on-one counseling is a black hole for pastors; many of us pastors suffer from a messianic-complex and think we can fix anything.

We don’t allow two opposite gender staff members to be in a car, even if it’s just a ride to another building on our campus. Overly cautious? Not in my book. There are all sorts of moral and legal ramifications to be considered, and more importantly, we won’t risk a rumor of impropriety to be leveraged against the Kingdom. You just don’t mess around with that.

And, of course, pastors should never touch the money. Ever. A couple of weekends ago in the last celebration I auctioned off a joke Packers/Steelers t-shirt for the Healing Center. Someone yelled out “$100” and walked from the back row to the stage counting bills from his wallet. I laughed and said, “Stick it in one of the offering boxes. Don’t give it to me!” and threw him the t-shirt. Pastors should stay away from every penny and have their salaries set by boards not made up of their families. We have an independent audit done every year to ensure integrity. Paul covers it nicely in Ephesians: But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. (Ephesians 5:3). I’m not even allowed in the counting room.

But when I think about long-term ministry—that is, ministry over the long haul—there are two other danger zones that I think are more subtle and equally damaging: burnout and entitlement. There’s a burnout that comes from overwork and no margins. The danger with a margin-less lifestyle is when a crisis hits, there’s no emotional energy to deal with it.

But honestly, what I’ve observed pastors burning out over is often the monotony and, dare I say it, boredom of routine. The reality is that so much of our job is the same thing over and over. Big deal, you say—every job has monotonous routines. But I think most people going into ministry have an idealized view of it and most of us got into ministry because we wanted to see lives transformed, to make some kind of difference in our world. But instead, by year eight, it’s…

…setting up the same chairs for the same meetings every week.
…another weekend celebration to plan for—another worship set, another “life-changing” message, another cue-sheet for lighting, another weekend of volunteers not showing up…and knowing that it never ends.
…filing reports that have to be filed every week.
…entering data every week on the same spreadsheet.
…another parishioner upset about something (pick a number…).
…another meeting followed by another meeting followed by another meeting.
…or even in the messy world of people in terms of pastoral care or prayer, it’s another funeral and another wedding and another marriage blowing up and another person with impossibly screwed up finances…or whatever. It never seems to end. There are different faces, but the problems are basically the same and they’re endless. It’s not like being a carpenter and building something and seeing it finished; it seems you’re never done in the “people business”.

The reality is that any job has routine built into it, whether you’re a factory worker or a CEO. But the difference with ministry might be this: people entering it have very different expectations.

And here’s the dark side: because of routine, I think it’s easy for a slow drift toward entitlement…as in “I deserve this _______ (fill in the blank) because…”. Frankly, I think it’s where I see numbers of lead pastors slip into. And I think it’s dangerous.

You can almost hear a bit of this in Peter’s response to Jesus after Jesus totally blows their minds about money…
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

(The inference here is that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, according to Deuteronomy 28. So when Jesus said it was difficult for a rich man to step into the kingdom, this would have been as shocking as someone saying today, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a Spirit-filled evangelical to enter the kingdom…”. No wonder the disciples responded in amazement.)

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”

(I wonder if Peter wanted to make sure that he was entitled to something because of his sacrifice, as in, “Jesus, that rich guy couldn’t cut it. But look what we’ve done. And you are looking, right?”)

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:23–31)

Jesus responds with a reality check: in the New Community, you’ll have lots of “family” and lots of “places” that can take you in…and one other thing you can count on: persecution. This wasn’t a prosperity promise in the literal sense that we’ll each own hundreds of homes any more than we’ll all have hundreds of mothers in this “present age”. It’s life in the New Community that creates this new kind of prosperity. There’s a certain sense of: be careful what you consider ‘entitlement’…and He’s particularly speaking to those in “the ministry”.

One more thing regarding routine and entitlement. I go through dry seasons where it just seems I have this eight-foot wall with razor wire on top between God and me. But here’s what I’ve discovered.

There’s a whole lot to be said for simple faithfulness, for just putting one foot in front of the other. When I’m not sure I even feel like getting out of bed, it’s time to remind myself: this is not about me. It’s not about how I feel. It’s not about me getting recognition from God or anyone. It’s about faithfulness. It’s about perseverance. It’s about Jesus saying to His disciples during a tough point, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” If one has to endure, that implies there must be long, tough, dry times.

Maybe it’s even about us saying to Him at the end, “Uh, Jesus, when did we see you in prison? When did we see you hungry and we fed You? When did we see you naked and we clothed You?”—inferring that there are huge times in our lives when we have no “awareness” of God and we’re just bumbling along doing what we think is something we should be doing for Jesus and meeting Him without knowing it. And apparently, that’s okay. It’s not always goosebumps. We’ve got to get over that.

Here’s a favorite verse of mine that I quote regularly (which must say something about my state-of-mind!): Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

So for all of us, not just pastors and leaders, remember: When you’re in your worst seasonal spiritual drought, simply put one foot in front of the other and don't look back. In my thirty-seven years of following Jesus, the rainy season eventually comes.