Monday, March 30, 2015

Conquering Our Own Everests

"It is not the mountains we must conquer, but ourselves." Sir Edmund Hillary

"The kingdom of heaven is within you." Luke 17:21

In 1953, the highest mountain in the world had not yet been summited.  The year before, several climbers from a Swiss expedition attempted the summit of Everest, but were forced to turn back because of bad weather and exhaustion.  When Hillary was offered the chance to climb the mountain the next year (only one expedition a year was allowed back then, from the Nepalese side), he initially declined, but friends talked him into remaining on the team.  The expedition set up base camp in March of 1953, and as we all now know, on May 28 (a date I won't forget since it is my birthday), at 11:30AM Edmund Hillary and his climbing assistant Tenzing Norgay reached the highest point on the face of the earth.  They began the morning with snow and wind howling in every direction.  Hillary's boots had frozen solid outside the tent.  He spent two hours warming them before climbing to the top.  Hillary's first words to a long time friend, George Lowe, on returning were, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off."  

Of course the climb was a remarkable engineering, organizational and physical achievement.  What I have been struck by, as I have read a bit about that first summit of Everest was that it was an even larger personal and psychological achievement.  To be the first person ever to do something in the history of human-kind is a huge barrier in and of itself.  There were countless moments that the expedition almost decided that the climb was too hard, that the effort was too great, that the strain was too difficult.  When you think about it, you only summit a 29,028 mountain one way - one step at a time.

I have been thinking about the fact that all people must climb a kind of spiritual Everest in their lives.  We all have different mountains to climb, but all of us must embark on our own expeditions of the soul.  Our own personal summits have different forms and take different trajectories.  As a pastor of 15 years, I have noticed that there are at least four different kinds of personal Everests that people face:

Personal Insecurities
The great former pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller, once said that we are, all of us, hands down our own worst enemies.  Even before we throw out a big idea for others to decide upon, most of us come up with more reasons that anyone else why that thing cannot be accomplished.  Hillary himself, had deep insecurities about climbing Everest.  When he reached the summit, finally, he refused to have his picture taken there, possibly out of a sense of not coming to grips with what had just taken place.  

Personal Sins
The apostle Paul introduces one of his most important letters, 1 Timothy, with the firm sentence, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15).  If Paul was the worst of sinners, I have often thought about myself, I certainly am beneath Paul.  The personal sins that comprise our own Everests are different for everyone: jealousy, anger, lust, drink/drugs, malicious talk, slander, corruption, greed.  These mountains must be summited step by step through the course of our lives, with the grace of God.

Courage To Strike Out
Hillary's chosen avocation was actually far from mountaineering, but surprisingly - beekeeping.  Though climbing tall mountains were always Hillary's grand dream for his life, his initial instincts were to live in his home in New Zealand and make honey.  Hillary says that his life journey began with a deep personal commitment to climbing Everest, which was must harder in it's own way, than actually climbing Everest.  The mountain had to climbed in Hillary's mind before it could be summited in actuality.  The same is true for all of our personal Everests. 

Perseverance to Continue
For two consecutive stays, Hillary and his team simply stayed in their tents on the South Col at 27,900 feet.  The summit loomed over their heads like a great trophy on the horizon, but something inside of each of them prevented them from actually setting out and climbing it.  Perseverance was the inner strength to keep going.  Perseverance told Hillary on the morning of May 28, 1953 - and now forward, now or never!

What are your own Personal Everests?  What are the mountain challenges that you face as you climb your own summit?  God is with and I on our journeys.

This is Holy Week.  Next Sunday is Easter!

Jesus' own journey, Jesus' own Everest, took him from a Palm Sunday parade to the cross on a Friday afternoon, 1,982 years ago this year.  We are so grateful that Jesus conquered this summit for each of us.

All For Now,

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Smell of the Sheep

Pope Francis, it would seem, can do no wrong.  This morning, as CNN is covering the latest wave of young successful professionals signing up for involvement with ISIS, they are also featuring a recent possible real life miracle by Pope Francis.  According to recent reports, while visiting the city of Naples recently, and after being given a vial of dried blood to kiss, which came from a long lost Saint (St. Gennaro - who was martyred in the 4th century), the blood is purported to have partially liquified.  According to the Catholic Herald, a newspaper which covers such miraculous occurrences, it is the first time the blood has become liquified since a previous papal visit in 1848 (Pope Pius IX).  I must admit a certain level of incredulity about the occurrence or the relevance of this miracle.  But who am I to judge.

However, no one can refute the basic goodness and wisdom of our recent pope.  Of particular interest to me is Pope Francis' heart for reaching people who are far from any kind of involvement or connection to a church.  I love the pope's desire to reach people who are far from a church pew, but not far from the heart of God.  To this end, Francis recently gave a speech in which he called pastors to be more involved in the day to day lives of their communities.  Francis talked about the need for church leaders to, "get their hands more dirty" when it comes to connection with the world.  In his own inimical words;

"Priests should be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep."

The Smell of the Sheep

While I do not know for sure, I believe that Francis' brilliant formulation is actually a derivation of an old Beduin axiom:  "Ye may dress the shepherd in silken robes, but he will still smell of the sheep."

What do sheep smell like?  Well, never having spent much time with sheep, but having had a great uncle who was a shepherd in Scotland, I imagine that the scent of a sheep is an odorous blend of wool, dirt, grass and excrement.  Sheep wool that is wet smells like…well wet wool.  A sheep's breath just stinks to high heaven.  Sheep don't smell good.  And neither, according to Francis, should pastors smell good.  To smell like a sheep, I imagine that a shepherd would have to live right with the sheep.  He/She would have to sleep on the ground with the sheep, carry a sheep that is in trouble, rescue a sheep that is caught in barbed wire.  The bad smells that develop on a sheep must somehow rub-off on a pastor.

The Smell of the Sheep

I know a Youth Pastor who works with kids in downtown Ventura who have dropped out of school.  This pastor finds his congregation not in a building but out in skateboard parks.  Not long ago this pastor told me that he recently conducted a beach baptism where a hundred kids gathered at an ocean park in one of the worse parts of town.  Most of the kids were smoking during the baptism.  My friend smelled of cigarette smoke as he recounted how powerful it was to see this kid give his life to Christ.

The Smell of the Sheep

Many years ago, while I served as a hospital chaplain in New York City, I had the occasion to visit with and pray with many family members of loved ones that had passed away.  As I entered the hospital room, I would always see a cadaver that was covered with a sheet, and the smell of formaldehyde would be heavy in the air.  I would always have my prayer book with me and would read a text from the Bible to a grieving family as laid my hand upon the dead person's head to pray for them ("Blessed are the dead who die in the Spirit, says the Lord, for they shall rest from their labors and their deeds will be remembered.")  My prayer book, to this day smells like formaldehyde.

The Smell of the Sheep

The problem is that many church leaders, pastors, and shepherds (priests) smell of different things than the sheep.  Some pastors smell of the books that they study throughout the day.  Other church leaders smell of the antiseptic ink found on papers in board rooms where they haggle over the financial problems in their church.  Other pastors smell of the clerical robes that they wear.  My own robes are a combination of a velvety, dusty smell of years hanging in my closet.

But the Sheep are what we are supposed to smell like!

All For Now,

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Kon-Tiki Principle

In 1947, two years after the end of the most brutal war the world had ever experienced, the population of most western countries was largely devoid of any inspirational figures or adventurous explorers.  Here in the United States most young families, if they were lucky enough to have the entire family survive the war, were looking for nice suburban homes to hunker down in and pleasant neighborhoods to raise their families within.  The year 1947 was a season of "playing it safe" for most people who lived in modern civilized societies.

One man, however, a zoologist and geographer from Norway had a deeply held notion and theory.  This theory would propel him, and a small band of explorers on one of the most remarkable trans-oceanic voyages in history.  His name was Thor Heyerdal.  While living in the Polynesian islands on a study trip, he developed the radical theory that people in Polynesia (those living on the islands of Tonga, Samoa, Easter, New Zealand, and Hawaii), were actually biological descendants of people groups who were from South America.  While Heyerdal's theory was controversial at the time, and still remains so for some cultural anthropologists, recent DNA research has pointed to the possible link between these two people groups.

To prove Heyerdal's theory, he had to show that it was possible for people from South America to travel, by boat (or raft) all the way from South America to Polynesia.  And so, with a handful of 5 men, he set out on April 28, 1947 from Callao Peru to the Polynesian islands.  None of the men on Heyerdal's crew were experts of sea voyaging or particularly well-versed in early building construction techniques of primitive peoples.  Incredibly, Thor himself did not even know how to swim!  The voyage lasted 101 days, and crossed 4,300 miles of turbulent, shark infested waters.  Floating on a hand-made raft, built with timbers and ropes that ancient peoples of South America would have used, the would-be crew crossed one of the most dangerous and expansive oceans on the face of the earth.  The boat that the men constructed was called "Kon Tiki", named after an ancient Inca God.  Today, explorers and scientists alike hail the voyage as one of the most daring feats of courage and ingenuity in world history.

But why am I writing about this voyage in my blog post this morning?

Because of this.  Once the crew launched themselves on this epic voyage, there was really nothing for them to do but sit on their raft and float to their hoped-for destination.  After the advent of this "big idea", Heyerdal's only real skill was to keep his men from arguing with one another while onboard, and to hope to heaven that he was right.  In short, it was 101 days of lying on a raft and floating to a hoped-for destination.  There was nothing really for Heyerdal and his men to do, after setting out, except sit and enjoy the ride.  And so, I have come up with a leadership principle based on this famous voyage.  It's called:

The Kon Tiki-Principle

A lot of leaders think that in order to do great things, they have to be highly anxious and driven in the midst of their goals.  Many leaders feel that they must be scrupulously involved in the thousands of details of a vision, and entirely "hands-on" in their day to day oversight.  The business executive who is up at 5:00AM to check his/her Blackberry, before heading out for a 17 hour day of handing out orders and edicts, is seen as more involved than the executive who hires competent employees and allows them to do the best they can (think Warren Buffet).  The pastor who lays awake at night to think about more and more programs for a church to be involved in seems more adept than the pastor who calmly navigates his/her church through the challenges that face the modern church.  The frenetic coach who is constantly yelling at his players on the basketball court is sometimes viewed as more "in-touch" than the coach who sits on the bench and watches.  But none of these are examples of;

The Kon Tiki-Principle

The Kon Tiki-Principle is simply the notion that a great leader only needs two qualities.  First he/she needs a big, bold, out of the box idea.  The idea must be one that is unique and that perhaps nobody before has ever thought of or attempted.  The idea is often totally radical and unaccepted by those who pride themselves on conventional wisdom.  The second thing that a great leader needs is patience and faith that the course that they have chosen is the right one.  Again, nobody around the leader may quite understand the guiding vision or the dream involved in the task at hand.  This patience and faith does not have to be fraught with tension, anger, anxiety, restless activity or aggressive course correction.  The great leader, after having embarked on a great voyage sometimes just needs to sit, and as the saying goes, "enjoy the ride."

In short, the

Kon Tiki-Principle

is two fold:

1.  Have a big idea
2.  Trust that God, having given us the idea, will get us there!

Lastly, the Christ follower doesn't just have faith in the whims of the ocean currents to carry him/her to the desired destination.  We believe in a God who is directing the rafts of our lives (however primitive or ill-constructed) to the places that we feel God is calling us to go.

All For Now,


Monday, March 9, 2015

The Greatest Preacher Has Died

Like you, I have heard more than a few sermons in my life.  I grew up listening to my father and grandfather preach.  Their oratorical renderings with a heavy emphasis on the Sovereignty of God, were implanted deeply in my soul.  At camps and retreats I had the chance to hear countless dignitaries and luminaries in the preaching world (Louis and Colleen Evans, John Maxwell, Earl Palmer, John Guest, Billy Graham, Lloyd Ogilvie, to name a few).  Through college I attended many different churches, and heard many different kinds of preachers from chapels that flanked the Minnesota Liberal Arts Institution that I attended (John Piper, Don Misel, Bill Hybels, John Ortberg, Mark Labberton, Craig Barnes, and Erwin McManus).  All of these are great preachers.  However, this past week, the world lost the greatest preacher of his time.

The Greatest Preacher Has Died

Fred Craddock, at the age of 86 years old, died last week from complications related to Parkinson's disease.  Fred invented a new style of preaching, and has therefore been called a genius by many.  To give you a quick lesson in preaching, most pastors speak in what is known as a "deductive style" of speaking.  This means that they begin with a basic thesis, "God is good" (for example), and then they develop a message around that main theme, with illustrations and Biblical proofs to give veracity to this basic premise.  The basic form of this is a thesis, a Bible lesson, and three points.  Craddock did it differently.  Craddock spoke from what is known as an inductive style of speaking.  The thesis wouldn't come until the end of the message.  The beginning was filled with a wandering set of illustrations that sometimes led the listener to wonder where, exactly, this message was going.  But by the end of the talk, the whole room were led, rather than commandeered to a central theme and point.  A good way of thinking of a deductive versus an inductive style is a triangle right side up, versus a triangle upside down.

A great example of the message style was one of his most famous, "Have You Heard John Preach?"  The message basically lifts Jesus up as a sort of afterthought to the Savior's cousin - John the Baptist.  Craddock, and I am explaining this sermon from memory, fifteen years since I encountered it, which goes to show you that it made a distinct impression on me (most people can't remember a sermon five minutes after it is preached:-), began by talking about the book of Mark, and how Mark basically focusses on John the Baptist as the main leader of his time, and then Jesus came along and emulated his older cousin.  What is interesting is that while on it's face, it would seem that this is a kind of heresy, Craddock showed that there is some Biblical truth to the notion.  For example, "In the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Chrsit, the Son of God….And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:1-4).  It goes on and on and on about John, and then says, "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John" (Mark 1:9).  The end of the sermon went something like this; "If you want to hear the living truth of God in your life, you have to meet Jesus.  But if you want to meet Jesus you have to walk through the desert first, and there you will find John."  Brilliant!

Another wonderful illustration that Craddock gave once was in a message he gave on evangelism for a conference.  The previous speaker to Craddock gave, I am told, a long-winded talk that went on for over an hour with intricate power points and detailed diagrams of how to do evangelism.  Then, Craddock got up to speak.  People had no interest in hearing another talk.  They wanted to just go home.  Craddock gave a quick illustration that summed up his entire approach to evangelism.  Craddock talked about a stray cat that he found recently that had been injured. He and his wife took the cat in and nurtured it back to health.  Not long after the cat recovered, a friend came to Craddock and said, "That is a very expensive and fine cat."  Craddock ended with the words, "Was that the same cat?"  Priceless!

Once when I was preaching for a large audience at Purdue University in Indiana, I had the chance to meet (and speak right before, gulp), Tony Campollo.  I asked Tony who his preaching influences were.  He said, "Hands down, Fred Craddock."  Last summer I took a preaching class from another modern day preaching legend, Will Willimon.  I asked Will who his preaching influences were.  He said, "Fred Craddock, to name one of many."  This morning I called and asked Willimon to comment on Craddock's death.  Willimon said, "Fred really taught me to preach.  I never had a class with him, but his books changed the way I thought about the sermon and helped free me to present the gospel in my own voice, stories and all."

What is also remarkable about Fred Craddock is that for many years he pastored not a megachurch in a big city, but a rural congregation - the Cherry Log Christian Church in Blue Ridge, Georgia.  Cherry Log Church is where Craddock's funeral will be held today at 2:00PM.

The Greatest Preacher Has Died

All For Now,

Monday, March 2, 2015

Famous Last Words

For a long time I have been fascinated with the notion of a person's last words before they die.  The last utterances that a human being offers before they head into the next life seem like they should be such a poignant moment.  The last groans, the last mumblings, the last thoughts seem like they should encapsulate all that a person ever lived for, and are about to die for.  And whole books have, of course, been written on the subject of;

Famous Last Words

Here are some of my favorites:

In 1977, after a night of sleeplessness and a deep restlessness, Elvis is purported to have said,; "I'm going to the bathroom to read."  The rest is, of course, history.  Many think the end for Elvis involved a fist full of barbiturates and another fist full of Twinkies.

The Italian artist Raphael is said to have uttered one single word upon his death; "Happy…"

Frank Sinatra, the pent-ultimate example of holding onto the very end in every aspect of his life said, "I'm losing it."

And my personal favorite.  Nostradamus, the 16th century so-called prophet and seer of future events said, "Tomorrow at sunrise, I shall no longer be here."  At least he was right about one thing.

Of course, most of the last words that people mutter, during moments of half-delusion and in the middle of life and death are apocryphal.  They are made up.  Having sat at the bedside of several people who have died, as a hospital Chaplain in New York City, I can say that the end of our life is much less romantic than we would like to imagine it to be.  Sometimes there are great violent spasms at the end of a person's life.  Other times there is a low, slow raspy wheeze which finally comes to an end.  Even the most poetic and romantic people who have ever lived are really not in control of themselves at the moment of death.  Words, or "Famous Last Words" are the least of a person's concerns.

My enamorment with famous last words is also why Jesus' last words have long been perplexing to me.  Actually, we don't precisely know what Jesus' last words were.  There are four Gospel accounts of Jesus' last utterances from the cross, and three of them are different.

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus' last words were; "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani," which Matthew tells us means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matt. 27:45) (Mark 15:34).  This last set of thoughts from Jesus are an echo of the book of Psalms, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning" (Psalm 22:1).  Jesus quoted Psalms extensively throughout his ministry, and so these last words are in line with Jesus' character.

Matthew and Mark, however, offer further intrigue by saying that the people around Jesus thought he was summoning the prophet Elijah.  They thought Jesus' last words were, "Elijah, Elijah.." (Matt. 27:47).

The Gospel of Luke has a different version of Jesus' last words.  Luke, a doctor by tradition, and one who is generally accredited with an abiding sense of precision about all facts (you never want to visit a doctor who is imprecise - "you may have cancer, sir, or, on the other hand, you may not"), says that Jesus last words were; "Father into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).  This version of Jesus' last words connotes the deep connection between God the Son and God the Father.

Finally, the Gospel of John has the simplest version of Jesus last syllables.  John says that Jesus' last words were just three words; "It is finished" (John 19:30).  John's version is perhaps the most deeply theological.  It begs the question, "what does Jesus mean by 'It'?  Does He mean all that came before Jesus' death?  Does Jesus mean all that He has stood for?  Is it simply a final bookend to the greatest life that ever lived?  We don't know for sure.  Probably 'It' is all of the above.  And much more!

Of course, skeptics of Christianity view the discrepancies between the different Gospel accounts as being proof that they are not true.  Christ followers point to the opposite conclusion.  The fact that each Gospel account is different points to their veracity.  Only a romantic version of a person's life would include some magisterial pronouncement upon a person's death that everyone hears in the same way.

Also, there was no official medical diagnosis of Jesus' death on the cross (though of course he did die).  No doctor was up on a ladder checking Jesus' pulse to determine the exact moment of death.  it is possible that those observing Jesus' death were not exactly sure what his last words were.  In half-consciousness and half-life Jesus might have continually uttered words, and perhaps he repeated them again and again.

What is deeply meaningful to me is the humanness of Jesus at the point of his death.  We believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully God.  Jesus' full humanity would mean that like all of us, our last words are generally a non-coherent string of mumblings as our souls prepare to die.  And yet, Jesus was and is also God, and so there is a high level of intentionality about everything Jesus said.  None of us will ever know the weight that Jesus felt while upon the cross for all of our sins.

Which version of Jesus' last words do you most like?  They are all true!  Jesus said all the words that all of the Gospels recount.  They were all His last words

The important thing for Christ followers of course, is not only that Jesus did die, but that He came back to life again, and still lives, and still speaks into each of our hearts, if we will only listen to Him.

All For Now,