LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM A LIVING LEGEND

Sonlight, the college vocal group I traveled with from 1981-83, was lost in New York City after dark. The passenger van was vibrating so badly that it felt like it might come apart. We stopped, and I crawled underneath to check the driveshaft, but without a flashlight, I could not see anything. I got back in the van, and one of the other guys figured out we were in Harlem and needed to make a few more turns to reach the expressway and head north to our hotel. We rounded a corner and saw a man lying in the street, suffering from a gunshot. No police cars yet. “We gotta get out of here!” we said. One more turn and we were on the expressway. Less than a mile later, the driveshaft let go with a loud BANG, and we were stranded.

That event sticks in my mind not only because of the location and time but mostly for the way our leader, First Baptist Church of Atlanta Worship Ministry Director, John V. Glover, handled the situation. Without losing his cool, he loaded all 12 kids into the equipment van and gave directions to the hotel. Then he began whistling as he stuck out his thumb. He’s whistling! I thought. He is not shouting, or cussing, or blaming anyone. He’s whistling. The fact that he did not seem worried helped the rest of us not to. Then a big two-tone Cadillac coupe pulled over, and a huge guy with a gray beard offered him a ride. I thought, “That’s it. The Mafia’s got Johnny, and we are never going to get out of here.”

My friend, Johnny, produced and directed the Atlanta Passion Play that ran for 35 years and played to over one million patrons. He has led choral groups for 60 years, produced and conducted more musicals than I can count, and mentored hundreds of young men and women into life and ministry. Via Facebook, his family helped us celebrate his 80th birthday this week with memories and gratitude for all he meant to us. He did it with legendary energy and positivity, but the leadership principles he taught us will be most valuable to you. Former FBCA Orchestra Director John Gage summed them up.

– It is more important to develop your spiritual life than it is to build your vocational/ministry life.

– Excellence is always critical and worth the time and effort.

– Collaboration is better than trying to do it all yourself.

– Trust those you hire, but help them develop as well, and they will become a valuable asset to your ministry.

– Give guidance but get out of the way and let your employees take responsibility for their areas of expertise.

– Pray first.

– Be creative but not at the expense of comprehension.

– Love your staff and let them know you love them by investing time in them.

– Family is more important than work.

– Always allow your boss to make the final decision after stating your case.

Johnny’s impact on me is immeasurable. I learned to trust God in impossible situations when he showed up the next day after spending all night in a truck stop getting our van fixed.  I courted my wife of 36 years backstage in the Civic Center during the Passion Play, and three years later, he performed the ceremony. I received the confirmation of my call to ministry in response to a challenge he gave Sonlight on the way home from a Jamaica trip. I memorized Romans 6 on that same trip because he challenged us to do it, and I still teach young men facing temptation to do it today. I learned to speak to churches on those Sonlight trips and what to do when the accompaniment tape breaks. And I participated as he took a few professional musicians and hundreds of average singers and molded us into a powerful community of praise. The list could go on, but most of all, Johnny became one of three key men God put in my life as mentors in those days to replace the father I lost when I was fifteen. I will never stop being grateful for him. So, Happy Birthday, Johnny! And here’s to another 80!

IS GOD ALWAYS ANGRY?

IS GOD ALWAYS ANGRY?

Is God angry with us all the time, or is he something we never expected?

“When the person from whom I have the right to expect nothing gives me everything.” That’s Michael Card’s working definition of the Hebrew word no one knows how to translate: HesedAnd here’s the bottom line: If you don’t know hesed, you don’t know God.

Pronounced with a hard h, hesed is the missing link in most people’s understanding of the God revealed in the Old Testament. Every bit as powerful as “holy” or “righteous” or “just,” we often miss hesed because several English words are usually required to translate it. Thus, the title of Card’s book: INEXPRESSIBLE: Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness (IVP Books, 2018).

Lovingkindness, a word coined by Miles Coverdale in his 1535 translation of the scriptures and borrowed by the translators of the King James Version, comes close. But it also, as Card explains, reveals the “linguistic gravity” of hesed, its tendency to draw other words into its orbit and the necessity of using them to understand it.

Truth, mercy/compassion, covenant, justice, faithfulness, goodness, favor, righteousness are the eight words most commonly surrounding hesed and filling out its meaning. But perhaps most important is that hesed is how God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Then the LORD passed in front of him and proclaimed:

Yahweh–Yahweh, is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in hesed (covenant-loving-kindness) and truth, maintaining hesed (covenant-loving-kindness) to a thousand generations, forgiving wrongdoing, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ wrongdoing on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7 HSCB.

Hesed became a refrain, a foundation for songs and prayers down the long centuries of the Old Testament; the reason that, despite their sin and disobedience, the Israelites could boldly ask for what they knew they did not deserve.

He revealed his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel. The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in (hesed) lovingkindness. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever.  He has not dealt with us as our sins deserve or repaid us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Ps. 103:7-12.

What makes the God of the Old Testament unlike any other god, is that, despite Israel’s rebellion, God keeps covenant through sheer kindness. Card traces that kindness through the Old Testament with Moses, David, the Psalms, the prophets, and that ultimate expression of human hesed, Hosea. Then, though the actual Hebrew word does not appear in the New Testament, he anchors it in the life and teaching of Jesus who was full of grace–the New Testament’s closest parallel to hesed– and truth.

“It’s difficult for us to imagine how a being who is infinite in power submerses that power in kindness,” writes Card. “But a deep realization of this aspect of God’s hesed is as revolutionary for us today as it was for Israel … It dismantles that nagging imagery of the angry God of the Old Testament. That perception simply has no place in a biblical understanding of who God is.” God does get angry with us, but anger is not what defines him. It builds slowly and recedes rapidly because he is rich in hesed.

INEXPRESSIBLE is easy to read. The chapters are brief, the stories are captivating, and for those who want to go deep, the footnotes and resource material are easy to use. If you are hungry to know more of God’s love, you need to know hesed.

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

YOU ONLY SAW HER HANDS

Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter, October 3, 1930 – November 14, 2019

“I’m a good ole boy and my Momma loves me, but she can’t understand why they keep showin’ my hands and not my face on TV.”

Waylon Jennings was so well known on the Country Music scene that by the time he played Good Ole Boy for the 1979 redneck sitcom, The Dukes of Hazard, everyone who heard the verse knew who was singing it. Waylon’s face never appeared, only his jeans, cowboy shirt and leather vest framing his fingers picking his signature white and black Fender Telecaster. It was an inside joke. But we understood. Waylon was already famous as an “outlaw” country singer. We didn’t need to see his face. We could recognize the sound of his guitar and that coal mine deep baritone anywhere.

About the same time that Waylon and the Duke Brothers were hitting their stride the hands of another musician of a totally different stripe began appearing regularly on television. In Touch, the television ministry of Dr. Charles Stanley began airing nationwide in the early eighties. In those days part of the signature opening sequence for the program was a shot of a pair of skilled hands caressing the ivory white keys of a black grand piano. The viewer never saw the musician’s face and very few people ever knew her name but those of us who were members of First Baptist Church of Atlanta back then didn’t need to. We recognized the hands and knew the signature sound of one of the most talented and dedicated servants to ever play a hymn. We used to sing her that verse of Waylon’s song during rehearsals just to kid her.

Her name is Alice Marie “Bee” Wolter. For twenty-two years she caressed the keys for countless rehearsals, worship services, weddings, funerals, church theatrical productions and traveling choirs as part of the ministry of First Baptist Church of Atlanta. That’s when I met her and more importantly, met her daughter who became my wife. But that doesn’t even make up half of her time in service to the King at the keyboard.

Bee began playing for the church when she was ten years old. She went on to major in organ music at Ohio State University. The week after my wife was born, she was back at the keys with the baby in nursery. She was pianist every summer for about 40 years at Camp Barakel in northern Michigan. And, as of 2016, when she played for her last church in Kennesaw, GA, she had been at her post in some church or ministry, almost every Sunday and many nights in between, for seventy-five years.

The Apostle Paul wrote the Colossians, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”[1]

Watching her practice, even well up into her 70’s when she probably could have winged and gotten by, one knew that Bee took that to heart. She said she always heard the words in her head when she played, worshiping with the congregation as she gave them the tune and followed without fail the conductor’s tempo. Those of us she accompanied loved to sing when she played because she always made us look good.

So, if you ever get discouraged and wonder if anyone will ever appreciate your work for the Kingdom of God, take a little lesson from my mother-in-law Bee who went home to be with the Lord last week. Very few people on earth will ever know her name. And no one will see her face on TV. But she is enjoying her inheritance in the presence of her King.

[1] Col. 3:23-24

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

CORN-HOLE VICTORIES AND PARTYING WITH GOD

Thunk! “YES!” I fist pumped. Thunk! “Just one more!” I said to my partner, did my wind up, and tossed. Thunk! “We won! We won!” I shouted, threw my hands up and did a victory dance. It was a classic come from behind victory. I could hear Jim Nance intoning, “It was a cornhole tournament unlike any other.”

Everybody at the church picnic turned and looked at their nutty pastor and smiled.

Hey, don’t laugh. At my age, sporting victories are few and far between. I celebrate them whenever I get the chance. In fact, I celebrate—a word with roots deep in worship of God—any time I can think of an excuse to do so, and so should you.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Joy is what heaven is about. It is the driving energy of life. Without it we wither. Partying with God is essential to a happy life.

Have you considered how much joy there is in the Bible? The New Testament begins with it and is filled with it. Do a concordance search on “joy” or “rejoicing” and you’ll be amazed. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus said, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Children do joy automatically.

G. K. Chesterton explained, “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”[1]

God has an immense capacity for simple joy that we have lost and need to regain. The ability to party with God, the spiritual discipline of celebration, is a crucial step in reclaiming our joy. It is crucial because joyless Christians help no one.

Put yourself in the position of someone looking for answers in life. You’re looking around at the people you know, the people you see in the hair salon, the other moms at the baseball field. You’re watching them because you know they go to a church that says there is more to this life. Yet you don’t see any joy. You see crabbiness. You see selfishness. You see someone who can find the fly in every ice cream cone of life. Are you going to be interested in her spirituality?

Somebody out there in the spiritual world wants you to find all the faults in others and all the sadness you can swallow, but it isn’t Jesus Christ. Francis de Sales wrote, “The evil one is pleased with sadness and melancholy because he himself is sad and melancholy and will be so for all eternity. Hence he desires that everyone should be like himself.”[2] Misery loves company.

Joy is an absolute necessity for healthy spiritual life. Without it we shrivel and become vulnerable, more vulnerable to temptation than ever. Fulfillment, contentment, and dare I say it, pleasure, are essential elements for a strong soul. When we fail to find these good things God wants us to have, and then celebrate the goodness, sin seems better than what He has to offer. Temptation’s power is multiplied in an unhappy soul.

So, I urge you, learn the spiritual discipline of celebration. Learn to take each good thing out of each good day, even the corn-hole victories of life, and revel in the goodness of God.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, quoted by John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p. 61

[2] Francis de Sales. Quoted by Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted. P. 64.

 

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DEPTH

In an interview one morning with Shankar Vedantam, Steve Innskeep of NPR’s Morning Edition, offered a fascinating peak behind the façade of American religiosity. Innskeep reported the findings of a study that surveyed our actual church attendance versus our professed church attendance. The bottom line: 79% of Americans report themselves as associated with an organized faith group. Nearly half, 45%, of all Americans report that they attend weekly religious services versus only 20% of Europeans. But the actual attendance is about equal: 20 % of Christian Europeans attend religious services each week versus 24% of Americans. Why the discrepancy? According to Vedantam, Americans want to see themselves, and want to be seen, as the kind of people that attend church. But when the clock strikes nine on Sunday morning we’d rather stay in our PJ’s watching Meet the Press than slip on our shoes and shuffle off to Sunday School.

It’s like when the dentist asks if you’ve been flossing. Everyone wants to be seen as someone who flosses. But our teeth tell a different tale. [1]

In the same way, Americans want very much to be spiritually deep people. We want the power that comes from a real, intimate, experience of the living God. But we either don’t know how or else we are confused and disillusioned by what we see in the professing Christians around us. The Church, it seems, looks little different from the world. And in some cases, it looks worse. Our spirituality, measured by positive transformation into healthy, happy, and honorable people, is one thousand miles wide and one inch deep.

Pastor and author John Ortberg summarized our angst well in an interview with Dallas Willard, “I went through this long era of intense dissatisfaction and confusion about spiritual life… It’s the cry of the heart,” he said, “God! I don’t know what to do. I know I need you. I know I want you. But I don’t know what to do. Then I picked up this book (referring to Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines) and opened to the preface and read, “authentic transformation really is possible if we are willing to do one thing and that is to rearrange our lives around the things that Jesus practiced in order to receive life and power from the Father.”

Church attendance isn’t always a good measure of spiritual depth. But that is only one of the spiritual disciplines, and one of the most passive. We can no more expect to experience the transforming power of life in the Spirit via one hour a week of sermonic spiritual dentistry, than we can expect to become professional baseball players by watching the World Series. We have to get in the game. If we want to experience the presence and power of God in our lives, we must put into practice the habits and attitudes that Jesus modeled, the Scripture encourages, and that serious believers have practiced for centuries. (See for example 2nd Peter 1:3-9; Colossians 3:1-4; etc.)

These habits, known as the spiritual disciplines, include: confession, devotion, Bible study, celebration, sabbath, serving, stewardship of time and energy, solitude, self-denial, secrecy, listening, and the many forms of prayer.

Perhaps that is what many of us are saying when we fib to the surveyors about our religious lives: We really want to know God. We just don’t know how.

Want to know more? Three sermons on listening to God from the series The Spiritual Disciplines, are on fccsobo.org. Click the “podcast” tab and then click “Topical Sermons.”

For further reading: The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg (John calls this “Dallas for Dummies.”); The Transforming Friendship, by James Houston; Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, by Gordon MacDonald; Finding God on the A Train, by Rick Hamlin; Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. You may view the seven minute interview with Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, along with at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wj5UaLzIiDA.

 

[1] See NPR.org /  Religion / What We Say About Our Religion, And What We Do

Shankar Vedantam and Steve Inskeep

 

 

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

WHOM GOD SEEKS: The Missing Key to Meeting God

I will never forget Promise Keepers (PK) ’96. I was in the Georgia Dome with ten or twelve men from my church, fifty yard line, on the mezzanine level. The Saturday evening worship session was in full swing; sixty-thousand men in full-throated song. In those days, PK would end with founder, Coach McCartney, calling all the pastors down front to be affirmed and prayed over by the whole stadium.  I had participated in this before, in Colorado in ’94 and it was electric.  We felt like soldiers on parade being consecrated for battle; deeply moving.

But we were an hour or two away from that; just worshiping with full abandon for twenty or thirty minutes, pausing for prayer, and singing again. All of my attention was focused on Jesus, giving him praise and glory, as if I could see him, riding high, seated on his throne up high in the middle of the Dome.

Suddenly, I could see him, not with physical eyes, but spiritual sight. As surely as I saw the men in the stadium I knew Jesus was standing before me, speaking to me.

I cannot tell you what this was about, but in that moment my Master Jesus spoke five simple words that comforted, healed, and touched me in such a deep and powerful way that my knees buckled and I sat down utterly stunned, weeping with gratitude. It was as if I had been walking around with a sword deep in my soul and in one motion he removed the sword and healed the wound. What I did not understand at the time, but would later on, was that those words were also preparation for a battle on the horizon.

I share that story because many who seek a deeper experience of God ask, “How can I have an encounter with God? I hear about, and read about, people experiencing his presence and hearing his voice, but that has never happened to me, and I want to know God that way.”

By sharing my story I am not intending to portray God as a spiritual vending machine. We do not put in a certain coin and push a certain button and get God in a bottle. Further, following God’s guidance in our day-to-day, learning to discern his will and the nudges of the Holy Spirit, is as much a matter of using our heads as we engage with him through Scripture as it is anything overtly mystical. Many sermons and books are available on the subject.

Still, one thing stands out that is often missing in such sermons and books: the place of pure, uncomplicated, intensive worship; complete abandon of one’s inhibitions to the adoration of God. Moses’ most powerful encounter with God came when, in the middle of his regular prayer time he said, “Show me your glory.” Jesus explained that the kind of person God seeks is the kind that “worships in spirit and in truth,” nothing held back, no agenda other than complete adoration of and abandon to God for whom and what he is.

Looking back on PK ’96 nothing else the rest of the night mattered. When it came time for pastors to go forward and be affirmed my friends would not let up.  They insisted I go.  I did not have the heart to tell them that they could have torn the building down around me and it would not have mattered. I had been in the presence of God.

Two cautions for those who’ve read this far: Worship with abandon is always the right thing to do, but these moments, these encounters, are the exception, not the rule. That pattern is clear enough in Scripture as is the second warning: often, as it was with me, they are precursors to difficult times, moments of gracious preparation by a loving Lord before the battle begins.

Still, if meeting with God is your highest aim learn to praise, honor, and adore him, in the quiet of your room or with a congregation, with no other agenda than his glory. That is the kind of worshiper God seeks, and what he seeks, he finds.