Decline

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8

When we left Minnesota last Friday, the air was cold and the ground was snow covered. But here in Ohio, it’s spring. The air is much warmer. Many flowers are in full bloom. The lawn service mowed dad’s grass yesterday; it was quite shaggy.

The scene is different in room 7 at the hospice house. It’s not spring here. Quite the opposite. Mom has declined like flowers fade and grass withers. Her breathing has become labored again. Her mouth is dry. Mom has faintly nodded an occasional response to our questions, but she is declining. She is aware for only a few seconds at a time. This morning the doctor said today could be her day, but we think she could linger a while longer. Our anticipation that she might rally is gone. She is in God’s hands.

There have been no more conversations like the ones we had with mom on Saturday. But we still have had some mutual interaction. Saturday Cara held up baby James, who squealed in delight at his great-grandma. Mom squealed back a nearly identical sound at a much deeper pitch. It was a great moment. And a fleeting one. Yesterday Cara held him up for her again. Mom did not squeal this time. But she smiled in recognition and appreciation. It was enough.

Once again, we wait. But we’re not waiting for death. We’re waiting on God.

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Retreat

“In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2.

This morning mom is weaker. There was some recognition and a big smile for little James, the great-grandson she met for the first time yesterday.

Mom agreed to Scripure and prayer, but she fell asleep during my explanation of John 14:1-7. I’m used to people dozing during my sermons, but they usually wake up after the prayer. Mom is still sleeping and didn’t wake up when our oldest son Nathan arrived.

This looks like a retreat to follow yesterday’s rally. We hope – and expect – that she will awaken to interact with Nathan.

There are 11 people in the room now. Once again, for now, we wait.

Rally

”As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

My mom is in a race to heaven. Her first words to me today were “I’m ready.” I replied, as always, that it isn’t our call. Our times are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15).

Yesterday mom was barely responsive. She spoke hardly a word all day. Today she has rallied. Maybe our arrival helped. After I read a Psalm to her, she started to recite Joshua 24:15.

A short while later, she began to rally even more. “What if this takes a long time? What if I have to go to a nursing home?” She asked.

“You’re welcome to rally,” I told her. “Then we’ll get more time with you.”

Time is uncertain, yet determined, this side of eternity. It’s not fate. Nor is it chance. The future is determined by the providence of God, who exists in eternity beyond time. God is both transcendent and imminent. He is outside of creation (“wholly other”) and relationally intimate. As we stare at eternity, it is God’s imminence, his presence, which is most precious. Our task is to trust him.

For my mom and this moment, that means it’s rally time.

The Last Enemy, Reprise

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

This week my mother was admitted into a hospice house. Mom is very weak, but alert and aware of her surroundings. She can’t even roll over. Breathing is hard for her. She has to do it intentionally, which is uncomfortable and tiring. She told me and others she is ready to go and be with Jesus. She’s not speaking in a metaphor or feigning false hope. Faith is natural to mom. She knows whom she has believed.

Mom has been slowing declining for some time now. My two sisters spent much of last year taking care of our parents in Ohio. That’s been a huge commitment because they normally live with their husbands (and pets) in North Carolina and Wyoming. But the past year has not been normal. Our brother died last May after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Our parents have needed increasing care. So my sisters stepped up and helped. They have carried all my share of care, for which I’m grateful. Sometimes I joke with them and ask if they’re still married. Fortunately, they both are blessed with flexible and faithful husbands.

Much of last year was a stalemate as dad resisted moving to assisted living and the required stairs in their split-level house became more problematic. I have often joked with mom, saying “What were you thinking?” about the split-level house they designed and built in 1964. She always laughed and said it was just right for the family. It was. It’s still home to me.

They were still searching out other solutions in February when mom became ill and had to be hospitalized. Since then she has never been able to regain her strength. The last time I talked with her at home was Easter Sunday. That week she was hospitalized for what may be the last time. This week as my older sister was driving from the hospital to the hospice house for the transfer, I naively asked if mom was with her. I deserved the sarcastic answer she delivered on the phone, saying, “Right! Mom’s bed is in the back of my car.”

It turns out mom may bypass both assisted living and the nursing home. It’s unlikely she’ll go home to dad. She may be graduated to heaven from the bed in which she now lies with discomfort. She is not at death’s door, but her sojourn’s end is likely not far away on the horizon.

When I asked mom this week if she is afraid, she immediately said, “No.” Then she hesitated and added, “But I’m not sure of the process.” That, of course, is the great mystery of life. We walk the valley of the shadow of death only once. Nobody returns to explain what lies on the other side of death.

Except for one. Jesus came back from the grave and has told us what lies beyond. He’s been there and can describe it to us. Death is not oblivion. It leads to a place Jesus has prepared for us. Because he lives, we too shall live. Mom and I talked about that on Easter Sunday.

I have told people hundreds of times that the other side is far better than this side. I still believe that. I said it to mom again this week. Heaven is not just a “where;” it’s also a “who.” Jesus referred to his death as “leaving the world and going back to the Father” (John 16:28). Heaven is about a relationship with a God who is intimately knowable.

Mom already knows God. Sometime soon, she’ll get to know him face to face. That’s far better. What a privilege!

Postscript: Shortly after posting this entry, I received word that mom’s death might be sooner than I had anticipated. That’s not a reason to panic. It’s a reminder that our times are in God’s hand, as King David eloquently penned in Psalm 31:15. When we are in God’s hand, all is well. Mom told me on Tuesday she is looking forward to heaven. It was well stated. Heaven is worth anticipating.

Another Standing Ovation

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

It has happened again. Another round of applause for a pastor whose public ministry has ended in turmoil.

Three months ago Andy Savage stood before the congregation of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and confessed to a “sexual incident” which had occurred two decades earlier. He wasn’t unveiling a secret, as the informed circle of confidants had been diverse and influential. But the incident hadn’t been a matter of public information until that moment. In response to Savage’s story, the congregation rose and delivered a standing ovation of support.

Leadership guru Ed Stetzer wrote that the applause was heard around the world because it was wrong. A snowball was rolling and a month later Savage resigned his position with no new accusations of misconduct and no new details about the old one except for insight about the way it was mishandled, which did not bring healing and closure to the victim.

A cultural tidal wave continues to sweep across the ecclesiastical landscape. Two days ago Bill Hybels stood before Willow Creek Church near Chicago and resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Unlike Andy Savage, Bill Hybels vehemently denied charges of sexual misconduct, labeling some of them false and others misleading. Once again the congregation rose and gave their beleaguered pastor a standing ovation. Probably someone will condemn the standing ovation as wrong. I don’t know if it was wrong. I wasn’t there. But it was another ovation that will be heard around the world.

No doubt Hybels’ accusers are irked. One of them wrote that she wasn’t looking for a resignation. She merely wanted an acknowledgement of the truth and proper accountability. The truth may never become public information. Nearly all concerned parties were part of the inner circle of leadership. Bloggers are taking sides. Detractors are gloating. It looks really ugly.

The accusers’ roles in leadership lend them credibility. They speak about fearing Hybels’ dominant personality. I can hardly imagine the dynamics of leadership at that level. The size of the church I serve is less than one tenth of one percent of Willow Creek. I’ve encountered numerous conflicts where accusations seemed utterly absurd to me. But the people making accusations really believed them. Even in a tiny church, signals can get crossed, motives misinterpreted, and facts distorted.

Many years ago in another place I was accused of being pure evil, thick headed, and a numskull. That was merely the preamble to a list of accusations a church worker presented to me. Her story was so different from mine I could hardly believe we were talking about the same events. Yet there we were. Without a doubt I knew her story was wildly distorted and twisted by rage. But she believed it. So did the board members she told it to. They never consulted me. Fortunately, the accusations were nothing sexual or unlawful. But in the end, I resigned my position. So I speak from a little experience in this kind of “he-said, she-said” conflict. Maybe that’s why all this sad news has hooked my attention. It’s a #MeToo moment.

I know just a little about the deception of power. I can dominate a conversation and sometimes a decision in a small church. A revered founding pastor of a megachurch has exponentially more power. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bill Hybels was not fully aware or dismissive of the massive force of intimidation his associates endured. It can be knee-knocking when you get cross-ways with the guy who holds your career in his hands. My experience with these kinds of conflicts (on a much smaller scale) is that the truth often is somewhere in the middle.

In my own horror story, I can look back and see how I had made mistakes along the way. I had no idea of the hidden drama or my role in it while it was unfolding. But afterwards the firestorm hit me with a vengeance. Though I was “innocent” of the accusations, I was not guiltless. I had made naive mistakes which allowed accusations to take shape in the mind of another person. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bill Hybels is guilty of much less than his accusers believe, yet much more than he realized or acknowledged. There are other possibilities, too. Our depravity is deep enough that an articulate, conscientious, spiritually-aware man who professes innocence could be covering up subtle sin. The accusers could be completely right. On the other hand, our depravity also is broad enough that the accusers could be confused about what actually took place. The charges may be false or the result of a misunderstanding, exactly as Hybels says. Moral fog is thick in the context of conflict. It’s hard to see what’s really happening.

Mistrust and anger distort truth. Every leader knows his actions and words will be misunderstood and interpreted in the worst possible way by people who are suspicious and mistrusting. Not only does it happen. It’s unavoidable. Jesus is a prime example. He was constantly accused of doing things he didn’t do, such as casting out demons by the power of the devil.

Hybel’s resignation won’t end the conflict. Trust has been broken. The church is likely to go silent and handle the conflict as an internal affair. I hope they sort it all out. But I don’t have to know about it. We don’t need to sling any more mud in public.

One final thought: I have felt intimidation in the presence of my district superintendent, especially when I was a young pastor and new in ministry. I struggled with how to relate to an authority figure. We were both men. How much more complex would it have been if gender had been a factor in the power equation? At Willow Creek, where women are placed in all positions of governance, leaders must deal with the opposite sex in positions of power. Bill Hybels was the ultimate authority figure. Is it possible the unpleasant sexual dynamics at Willow Creek were an unintended consequence of egalitarianism?

Money, Sex and Power

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42

Twice in the past month someone has asked if I could provide a biblical defense for a stand-your-ground law, which allows people to use force in order to protect and defend themselves when they are threatened by another person. Apparently Minnesota does not have such a law, although many other states do in one form or another. I had never really thought about it before.

To make it more personal for me, the questioner asked what I would do if someone broke into our home and attacked Carol. To be honest, that’s not a scenario I’ve ever seriously prepared to face. Well, maybe I did 35 years ago when we lived near downtown Dallas. Finally I replied that I would call the police and rely on their help. But in reality, I probably would do more than that.

There was one occasion when I did feel threatened in my home in the middle of the night, but I didn’t phone the police. Instead I called one of the members of our church. Carol was away visiting family at the time. I was home alone. The person I phoned came to my defense and brought along three allies. We diffused the situation with a team effort.

Even with that history, the question took me unprepared. My mental search for appropriate Scripture came up empty. A few days later when he asked the same question a second time, I still had no answer. Finally we landed in Matthew 5:38-42, a sermon in which Jesus instructed his followers not to resist an evil person.

“You’re not going to like this,” I commented as we turned in our Bibles to the passage. What followed was a remarkable moment of clarity and insight into Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. We had a great discussion. I felt like God had spoken to us. At least we had a beginning point, even if that paragraph wasn’t everything God had to say about self-defense. A way forward seemed clear.

Then the moment passed. I realized that nothing had changed in us. We had an answer from Scripture to address stand-your ground. Or at least we had a key part to an answer, but we didn’t embrace it. We didn’t commit to it. We didn’t even puzzle over it; it had seemed clear enough. I think we basically ignored Jesus words. It clearly wasn’t what any of us in the conversation wanted to hear.

Sometimes God says things in Scripture we don’t want to hear. Matthew 5:38-42 is one of those passages. 1 John 2:15-17 is another one. It fits into three categories – money, sex and power. We struggle with all three of them. The stand-your-ground question is about the use or abuse of power. But it’s not alone. We also wrestle with how to relate to money and how to address our sexuality.

We’re going to talk about money, sex and power at New Life Church for the next several weeks. In the process, we may hear God say some things we don’t want to hear. Some of the passages we’ll study aren’t on our list of favorites. But we’ll listen for God’s voice anyway.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. 1 John 2:15-17

Our Need for Grace

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)

Grace has been on my mind all month. This year March Madness has been much more than basketball. Infidelity and abuse scandals have been snowballing ever since Harvey Weinstein was exposed last October. This month the lives of even more politicians, media celebrities, and ministry leaders have imploded as new accusations are unleashed. Sadly, many of the dark revelations have turned out to be true. Lives are being shattered like glass bowling pins.

Perhaps more devastating is that some accusations may not even be true. It has never been easier to falsely accuse a public figure than it is right now. A falsely accused person has to decide whether to fight back. A long time ago my seminary professors taught that noble ministry leaders should ignore lies told about them. We were counseled to take the high road, remain silent and leave our reputation to God. But with the advent of social media, it’s getting much more complicated than it used to be.  It’s pure madness. In some cases we may never be able to sort out the facts.

Not all the mud slinging is about sexual indiscretion. Some of it is about theological tolerance and hiring decisions which critics can label sinful or evil. Anyone with a blog can smear a leader with whom they disagree. If you’re articulate and savvy, you can gain a following and manipulate a church or a school in the name of a godly rebuke. Followers will applaud you for revealing “the truth” without ever hearing a rebuttal from the accused, who typically won’t respond at all. The dirt flies, but it’s all one-sided. You can even twist a person’s name to ridicule people. (Ever heard of “Obamanation”used for “abomination”?)

Is a church or an organization not headed in the direction you want? Are leaders ignoring your attempts to correct their course? In the old days you had few options except to part ways. But now you can call them out. You can blow a whistle. You can drag private leadership and personnel matters into public. Social media has changed everything. It’s a form of March Madness, but it’s not limited to March.

Leadership disagreements are inevitable. Most high level decisions are complex and debatable. In the early church, Paul and Barnabas experienced a falling out. It involved a young disciple named John Mark who had deserted them on a missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to give him another chance. Paul didn’t. Paul was focused on the task at hand. John Mark wasn’t the best person for the job. Barnabas was focused on the person. John Mark still had untapped potential for the Kingdom. In the end Paul and Barnabas separated. But they parted as friends. God was in the process. They each picked a new partner. Suddenly there were two missionary teams instead of just one. It was a win-win. Paul formed a new missionary partnership with Silas. Barnabas chose to continue his work with John Mark. It worked. Later John Mark wrote the second book in the New Testament. And Paul and Silas became the greatest missionary team in history.

A win-win requires maturity. It requires tolerance. It requires grace. Earlier this month, Jim Denison wrote a blog post about grace. It’s a good four-minute read. The link below is for anyone who, like me, needs grace in a graceless, social-media-frenzy kind of world.

https://www.denisonforum.org/columns/daily-article/description-grace-soul-needs-today/