Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Letter To Old Friends

First, I'll never think the same about church the rest of my life because of the influence you had on me. I suppose there is a way to read that humorously. I mean in it all sincerity. You four men personalized integrity, character, patience, hope, love and friendship, indeed, the Spirit of Jesus, in ways that few pastors ever experience. I was blessed to know and will always be blessed to count you as friends in the journey.

You challenged my theology and were, at the same time, willing to listen to my hair-brained ideas about God and church. You challenged me, more by example than by words, to reach for a level of excellence that rarely inspires most people in my profession. Cliff Temple was always an interesting blend of outworn carpets and dreams of excellence in the same place. Not many places you find both of those co-existing.

I had a great meeting this afternoon with the Chair of our Church Council. Over and over again I found myself referring to lessons I learned at Cliff Temple as touchstones for the new conversation we're having here. I find myself extremely disinterested in issues of governance - which is a very good thing - because these folks are very protective of their concept of a "lay-led" church. What they want and what I don't want seem to be a very good fit right now. For example: our church's process for selecting people to leadership positions is very fluid, if not loose, right now. A new man (a very good man) was added to the business committee and I found about it after the fact. That kind of thing. I'm just not worried about that anymore. Maybe I should be - I just don't have any heart for it anymore and these people know that and seem very happy about it.

Nancy and I miss our old house - which we still need to sell. Sam desperately misses his great big back yard. We miss our friends and being just around the corner from people. We love our new home, very much. You've heard me talk about the deer a lot. We're surprised at how attached we've become to them and how important it is to feed them. There are wooded hills in our window and we're anticipating a wonderful Spring of bluebonnets. I have to tell you that, honestly, I don't miss looking out my office window that fronted the back alley of Jefferson. I still can't believe God has blessed us with this opportunity - an incredible mix of what we believe in about church and our love for nature and animals at the same time. What more could I ask?

I'm learning to forgive - and to let go. I was very surprised to discover that a great deal of the forgiving I had to do was waiting on me until I got here. The two or three months we had in Dallas after I resigned were not nearly as difficult as the two or three months after I got here. I know it began to worry Nancy a great deal that I seemed stuck. And, I was. I didn't know why and, honestly, I don't know why now. Maybe someday I'll understand it all - you know, better, by and by. All I do know is that about two weeks ago I began to awaken to a new day in my life.

My latest blog, "Worth It," was my effort to express that. Those things I talk about in that blog are not just good memories. They are touchstones. They are mile markers along the road that remind me that the best things we do are often the things that, at the time, don't register as that significant. They are also places I go to touch in my heart that remind me that, when you love people as much as I always will many of the CT folks that let me into their lives, they are always with you - no matter where the road leads.

I've learned to accept the fact that, with some people at CT, I really blew it - more in little things along the way than in any one big thing. There were those who, for their own petty reasons, needed to hurt someone and I was convenient. I also made some huge leadership mistakes. I can see them now so clearly that I shudder to think how blind I could have been to them at the time.

I'm learning not to beat myself up so much - to learn from my mistakes - and to find some way of at least wanting to bless those who hurt me. Jesus' words on the night of the last supper haunt me when I'm unforgiving: "On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread and broke it . . .." I'm not to the point that I want to give those who sought my destruction a plaque at a banquet. But, I'm making progress. And, I've decided that, in this life, we can't ask for much more than progress - especially if it's in the right direction.

My prayer now is that someday I will love myself as much as Nancy loves me, which is the closest I think I'll ever come to knowing the love of Jesus in this life. She is, indeed, the presence of Christ to me. I'm not there yet, either. But, like the deer who come from hundreds of yards away when we put out the corn in the dusk of the day, I've sniffed the good thing in the wind and have turned my face that direction.

I listen to good music (secular and Christian, if there is actually a difference). I try to find a way of meeting someone new each week. I listen especially for those who seem to have lost their way. I'm making a place for myself at the Boerne Grill, where the older men meet for coffee every Thursday morning (go figure!). I thrill when I hear a nine-year-old boy say, "I like Grace Fellowship because I don't feel dumb when I talk there."

I try to say good and biblical words on Sunday. I try to stay true to the only Jesus I know. We had 58 a week ago Sunday - a record high. That means a lot and, at the same time, doesn't mean what it used to - if you know what I mean.

If that's even a small part of my contribution to the Kingdom - then, well, Thanks Be to God!

Thank you - for all you will always mean to me.

I love you all very much.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Worth It

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been having an email exchange with a good friend. He and I re-established a college-era relationship over the past ten years. He stood by Nancy and me during some very difficult times. In an effort to be understanding and compassionate, he made the comment that only I could know whether the total experience of my last pastorate was worth the painful departure that brought it to an end. Though it’s a much larger conversation than this space allows and with some editorial changes to protect the privacy of the unnamed, this is what I said in response.

It was worth it. It was worth it for the little four-year-old Hispanic boy who sat in Santa's lap in our fellowship hall one Saturday morning ten years ago and, when asked by Santa, "What do you want for Christmas?" he responded, "Love." Santa asked, "Who from?" The little boy said, "Anyone." Then, he disappeared, unnamed into the crowd, leaving us to forever wonder what came of his wish.

It was worth it to have Nancy plop a little diapered orphan in my lap in Riga, Latvia, the first orphan I ever held, and hear her say (because she saw my anxiety), "Get with the program, Schmucker!" It was worth it for that little girl to wet on my left forearm and find out that a little pee never killed anyone. It was it worth to hear ten-year-old Olga, taking my face tightly between her two tender little palms, and say while laughing, in her native Latvian, “I love you!” It was worth it for Inars and Rinalds, Liva and Madara and all the orphans we met (and whose faces appear to me every single day in deep places in my soul) and the incredible, truly Christian, servants of God who minister to them when we aren't there.

It was worth it to see 75 kids come to our building every day and get After School care and tutoring.

It was worth it to know an elderly patriot, who fought on Iwo Jima in 1945 and who finally laid his undeserved guilt down about that in my office just before he died five years ago.

It was worth it to stand in that pulpit and hear some of the best music I ever heard in my life and then feel the incredible challenge of preaching.

It was worth it to be there to walk with dozens of other people whose marriages ended in divorce and to be able to hold their hand and pray with them when human words just weren't adequate.

It was worth it to go the VA Hospital every single day the last two weeks of an old man's life. He was a member at Cliff Temple. No one knew him, though. His wife had Alzheimer’s and since they’d joined the church five years before in absentia, they’d never been able to attend. It seems that I was the only one who would hold his hand. It was worth it to hear this man who had always believed tell of how he was scared of dying, and to be able to know that something I said seemed to comfort him, and encourage him that it was OK to go ahead and let go. That when he let go on this side, Jesus would be there to catch him on the other side.

It was worth it to be there that day in my office when a very successful and very bright forty-something dad discovered that believing and doubting are one in the same. Worth it to hear him say to me that, if I could have doubts about God and still be a pastor, then he could be a believer. Worth it to then baptize him and his ten-year-old son together in the same baptistery soon after.

It was worth it to meet, know and walk with scores of others who will always rate as some of the finest human beings and Christians I've ever known in my life. To have them hold me accountable to my own preaching and then also walk together with me when our faith got stretched to the breaking point, only to discover that's what happens when your faith is growing, not dying.

It was worth it to be close enough to your office to have lunch with you and establish a friendship that will last a lifetime.

It was worth it to discover, on what was nearly my death bed, what it means to have friends, friends who will never, ever abandon you. Worth it to hear Nancy say to me through the fog, "You're going to be OK."

It was worth it. And, that's also why it will always hurt at least a little. If it didn't hurt, it didn't mean anything. That it hurts reminds me how important it was. In time, I'll remember the things that made it worth it more than the things that hurt. I truly do believe that.