Saturday, September 1, 2018

Funeral or Circus?

Jesus told a parable about a rich man and his poor servant Lazarus.  The rich man had all he needed and then some and was stingy with what he’d been given.  His servant Lazarus was barely given bread to eat.  Both men died.  The rich man was in agony (Hades) while Lazarus was in a far better situation (Abraham’s bosom).  It’s an interesting way that Jesus chose to describe these places, but that’s another discussion for another time.  The rich man came to the realization that his situation could not change.  But he begged for Lazarus to return and warn those he cared about not to go to that place.
As I’ve watched clips and read headlines of funerals of two famous people who died in recent days, it’s worth reminding ourselves as to why we have funerals/wakes/memorial services,etc.  We do it to help us grieve the person who is now gone.
If you are among those who will die one day (that’s you and me in case you didn’t know), make your will, settle your affairs as much as possible, have life insurance, record some thoughts on what could possibly be said at your funeral (be as little a burden as possible on your family), but understand that it shouldn’t matter so much as to how it all goes down, who showed up, and who didn’t show up.  By that point, your situation will be greatly improved and you won’t be thinking about this world or you will have greater problems than anything you’ve ever experienced or expected.  Be concerned about where you and others end up, even your greatest adversary or enemy.
If you are a part of someone’s funeral, it’s not an occasion to take shots at anybody.  It’s not about using that occasion to push an agenda.  How is that beneficial?  To my fellow Pastors, when called upon to be a part of such an occasion, remember your calling.  Don’t be part of a circus.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


WIGTAKE was a corny little acronym that I remember from a Missions class I took in seminary.  It stands for "What's It Gonna Take?" to reach people.  Working on church staff for 15 years, I was aware that the way we in the church world typically did evangelism was ineffective.  Apparently, it was effective in some previous era.  While I was mindful of that, being a chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons has helped me become familiar again with the world, its habits, and its desires. 
Here are a few things I have observed:
First, it only takes a few simple things to help a person find pleasure.  It only takes a beer (or 12), a good game on ESPN, something good on the grill, an afternoon on the boat or the beach, or a day with likeminded people doing the simple things together to get away from whatever stress and pressure is going on in other areas of life.  These things aren't much and they are momentary, but people keep going back to them and never seem to tire or get bored of them. 
Second, people who find pleasure in these simple things tend to look happier than many of those I've known in the church-world.  I've been at a school for the past two weeks for some training for my job.  There is a bar on campus.  Last night, I sat in there and watched some of the College World Series on ESPN.  Yes, you read that right.  I went to a bar.  I realize this will cause some of my former church members that I pastored to have a coronary and to possibly pray for my backslidden soul, but I'm not naive in thinking that many of those who sit in the church pew on Sunday haven't spent a Saturday night there either.  I sat there and watched a few games.  I talked to some people and shot some pool.  Many people there knew that I am a chaplain.  They weren't quite sure why I was there, but I didn't hear anyone pass judgment or try to pretend they were there for other reasons.  I mostly observed.  What I observed is that people were having fun.  They were friendly with one another.  Strangers were talking with strangers and becoming friends by the time the night was over. 
I left there before the real knuckleheads showed up and things got crazy.  And I am well aware that many people there woke up this morning wishing they had not stayed there so long last night.  But I'm willing to bet my next paycheck that those same people who woke up with regrets this morning will go right back there tonight. 
Third, I have spent a lot of time and money going to conferences, reading books, and talking to church leaders who are considered cutting-edge and effective in reaching people.  With all due respect to them, I'm highly doubtful that much of what they are doing will reach the people I have been exposed to lately.  A lot of the buzzwords and things we say we have to offer in the church today are just putting lipstick on a pig.  Look on church websites and they say things like "A Place to Belong" or "Get Connected", but I observed people find an easier time "belonging" and "connecting" in the bar last night than I ever observed in any church.  My pastor has noted a few times lately that Willowcreek Church in Illinois (Bill Hybels' church), known for it's cutting-edge outreach and been the model that many young church leaders as myself have tried to strive for, has admitted a major error in a recent self-study.  They have noted that they have been advertising themselves as a place that "meets everyone's needs."  But the truth is that no church can meet everyone's needs; not Bill Hybels, not Rick Warren, not Mark Driscoll, not John Piper, not Rob Bell, not Andy Stanley, not Charles Stanley, not Ed Young, and not even the Apostle Paul himself.  I'm glad that Willowcreek had the humility to admit this mistake and made the profound conclusion that only God can meet a person's needs. 
Conclusion:  I read many blogs of other church leaders every week.  I read some from the older generation of church leaders and some from the younger generation.  I read some from the more conservative to the more moderate.  I recently read one written by an older pastor who claims that we need to get back to preaching the simple gospel message like Billy Graham did and people will come.  Of course, many of my generation say that everything must change because people just don't come to church anymore for revival meetings or to hear someone preach even if he is someone famous.  Their solution is to dangle a carrot in front of someone's face and trick them into church.  I've been guilty of trying this too and I now think that it's an insult to someone's intelligence to try this method.  Just because someone doesn't know God, doesn't mean that they are also stupid and can't see through what you are trying to do.  Getting back to what this older pastor blogged, it's interesting that even Billy Graham wishes that he could do it over again and not have the mass gatherings, but would rather invest his time in mentoring a small group of people. 
So I don't really have any systematic solutions for WIGTAKE.  All I can say is that for each of us who claim to have salvation in Christ, let others know in your own way.  Let them see that your joy has more depth than simple things like steaks on the grill and beer.  Let them see that you are a more genuine friend than the stranger they meet at the bar.  Let's make our gathering places (aka, our church buildings) a place that we enjoy going to and not dread (you know what I'm talking about if you've been part of a church for an extended amount of time).  Let them know they can be themselves around us without judgment.  Let them see us own up to our shortcomings and try to live consistently to our faith.  Don't be afraid to say that we don't have all the answers.  Don't throw a bunch of corny and hokey salvation tracts at them (I'm not a fan of those in case you couldn't tell) or pass them off on your pastor or tell them just to go to church.  Put yourself in their place.  If you didn't know God, how would you want someone to show you that he is real and is what you are looking for?     

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Addendum to The Mob

Read the previous post first before reading this.  I published it, but then realized something else that I wanted to include.
I recall at a church conference a few years ago, the speaker pointed out that Jesus cautioned to be on guard against the wolves.  But the wolf was not the only prominent predator of sheep in the region that Jesus lived.  This speaker stated that the mountain lion was as much a threat to sheep as the wolf.  However, mountain lions hunt solo.  Wolves pack up together to go in for the kill. 
Remember this the next time a mob gathers in your sphere.  The thing about gathering in packs is that once the prey is gone, what else is there to kill?  The wolves will still become hungry and eventually turn on one another.  I've seen this happen too many times among mobs. 
That is all.

The Mob

The Mob
I remember in 4th grade, on the school bus ride home on Halloween, everyone had a load of candy from the Halloween party we had at school.  One kid, who had a reputation for being a pest, accidently sat on some chocolate candy.  All it took was for another kid to notice it.  As you can well imagine, when one kid has chocolate smeared on the seat of his pants and another kid notices, it isn't a quiet occasion.  Kids won't respectfully and quietly point out that the other sat in something and should discreetly hide it until he can change clothes.  No, this kid was called out on it, quickly became the center of attention (in a bad way), and had a reputation for the remainder of the school year for pooping his pants (even though he didn't).  Of course, we all knew he didn't.  But the code was that if you stood in and tried to defend him, then you must have done it too.  I'm not proud to say that I joined the mob on the school bus that day to give this kid a hard time.  It didn't bother me as much then because this kid could be annoying.  Hopefully, this event didn't scar him for life or cause him to become paranoid around chocolate or school buses.  Kids can be mean like that. 
That was 4th grade.  Unfortunately, people don't grow up.  Mobs exist into adulthood and are even more damaging.  Over the fifteen years that I worked on church staff as a Youth Minister and a Pastor, I have witnessed mobs of many shapes and forms.  Early on, I once became involved in a mob.  There was a fellow church staff member that some in the church, including the pastor, wanted to leave.  When I heard about this, I joined in the mob at first because I thought this man was too old and not helping move the church forward.  It didn't take long before this same mob included me in their target too.  Then, in a strange irony, this fellow older staff member turned out to be one of my few friends in that church.  He and I eventually resigned and the pastor followed by resigning a few months later.  And the mob that turned against us ended up not only losing credibility, but also power.  This was during my junior year of college and I got an accelerated education through that experience far greater than most of the courses I was taking at school.  The lesson being that the mob is never good.
In my church experiences following that, I can name three times where I've been the target of a mob.  (There may be other times that I'm not aware.)  I can also name a few other times when I got caught in the middle between a mob and their target.  Those three times when I can recall being the target of a mob, two were because I refused to join the mob, but instead tried to call-off the gang-up on their target.  The other time is because I was in a position that someone else wanted. 
Mobs can occur anywhere at anytime. All it takes is one hot-headed individual to gather a following. It doesn't have to be a majority and the argument doesn't have to be logical.
As one who has had my share of experiences with the mob all I can say from experience is that joining in a gang-up on someone is never a good way to go about anything.  In the mob, people tend to think with emotion.  In the mob, the truth or even seeking the truth becomes irrelevant.  In the mob, nobody wins.  Everyone ends up getting hurt. 
So if you hear of accusations or other negativity about someone gaining steam among a group of people, try to imagine yourself in the place of their target.  If things like that were being said about you, how would you want people to respond?  Would you want to be judged and executed before you had opportunity to respond or would you appreciate being heard with an open-mind?  Even if the "talk" about you were true and you did something wrong, how would you want it handled?  Would you like the opportunity for confession/apologies/repentance (making things right) or would you appreciate it if someone stomped all over you while you were already down?  Suppose also if the talk or accusations against you were about something that is privileged information (as in you could not speak about it)?  Would you want the privacy and confidentiality respected or would you appreciate being called a liar because of your silence on the issue?
If you find yourself as the target of a mob (you will at some point in your life), I hate to break it to you, but there is little you can do.  In fact, the less you do, the better.  In the Gospels, Jesus found opposition just about everywhere he went.  He said little to those trying to hurt him.  The night he was arrested, he refused to speak to the wild charges filed against him.  Follow that example.  Once a hot-head gets going, there is nothing you can say or do to call him or her down.  Responding to the hot-head and his or her mob might become the slippery slope where you end up being just as bad as them.  My only advice is to get out of the way and let God take care of the situation.  This is hard, but start praying for the mob.  What God will do to the mob is far worse than anything you can ever do to them.  That's why it's always best to stay as far away from the mob as you possibly can.  Hurting one of God's creatures is a judgment that nobody can handle.
If anyone has better advice on this, I'm open to hearing it.   

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why New York?

Many people have asked why we chose to move to New York and why I made the move from being a local church pastor to being a chaplain in a federal prison.  Some people have told me that they are still in shock by this move and I am among those who are still in shock.  New York is not a place I would have chosen for myself and my family, but it is the place that God opened the door.  But the decision to minister in a prison was a three-year process.  Actually, it was a process that started much earlier than that.  But it was only three years ago that I realized that God was leading this direction. 
Reason 1--God Called
I was pastoring a church in Big Spring, TX about 4 years ago when a few events culminated.  First, a wind storm (not an unusual event in West Texas) came along that damaged the steeple on the church building.  I called every contractor in town and only one guy would take the job.  All others did not want to make the 60ft. climb just to look at it.  But, this one contractor who took the job turned out to be an ex-convict who spent 11 years incarcerated prisons in Texas and Oklahoma.  A chaplain really worked with this guy and he made a change.  Now, he works with guys in prison and works with them when they are released.  The day he came to look at the steeple, he and I began a conversation about faith and ministry that we continue to this day.  Soon, I started going into the local county jail with him to work with the inmates and served on the Board of Directors of his ministry.  He taught me a lot about the world of those incarcerated. 
Second, around that same time, I took notice of a man and his common-law wife who had moved in across the street from the church.  He came by to use the church office phone on occasion.  They did not have a phone or air conditioning.  One day I noticed they were sitting in their doorway to stay cool.  I felt compelled to come over and talk with them.  I did not know what I was going to talk about, but I went.  I invited him to our Men's Breakfast at the church the next morning.  He showed up.  A few days later, his wife shows up at the church during a lady's WMU meeting, crying uncontrollably and asking to speak with me.  She wanted to tell me that her husband was in jail and asked me to visit him because I was the closest he had to a friend (all I did was invite him to breakfast).  A few days later, his wife was in jail too.  This couple had a lot of baggage.  Soon, I was making regular visits to the county jail to visit both of them.  Little did I know at the time that the wife would die a year later of colon cancer.  Before she died, she wrote me a letter thanking me for coming by.  She said that her faith was a result of the efforts of Brandy and I reaching out to her. 
It's not my intention to pat myself on the back in this blog.  But during the entire time that I was trying to minister to this family, an inconvienent reality hit me.  This family would never come to the church I was pastoring.  They would not come and they would not be received.  They would be repulsed by the other.  Though there were some exceptions, the membership in that church made it clear that they did not want people with the baggage that this family carried.  Unfortunate for them, this family was a good microcosm of what the surrounding community had morphed into.  This church wanted to grow, but they were not if they were not going to love this family.  Not only this, but also they were expressing their opposition to our children's ministry picking up kids from the projects and rough neighborhoods in Big Spring.  I sometimes felt that I was fighting a battle on two fronts; the battle of working with people with the baggage and fighting off the opposition by fellow Christian believers.
It's also not my intention to bash former parishioners in this blog, but I do need to mention one more thing that led to this decision.  That church was embroiled in drama.  It was drama over little nit-picky, insignificant stuff.  But it was made a big deal because some people love drama more than they love Jesus.  Not only did it wear Brandy and me down, but also it helped me realize another inconvenient reality; even if we did reach these baggage-laced families in the church, the church-drama would have run them off. 
It was about that time that I realized that I had no future at that church.  As I was seeking out options about what I could do, I happened upon an ad for prison chaplaincy.  That got me thinking about the possiblity of working one-on-one with people and not having to deal with the church drama.  So I applied to be a chaplain with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Spring 2010.  Brandy and I went to Dallas to meet with the Chaplaincy Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.  We had to receive ecclesiastical endorsement in order to be considered by the Bureau. 
Even though the BGCT approved me for endorsement, some strange coincidences occured regarding paperwork to the Bureau.  For some reason, paperwork kept getting misplaced or lost in the mail.  While we were waiting for that to get straightened out, I received a phone call from the pastor search committee of First Baptist Church, Mathis, TX.  We explored that route and accepted their call to come.
Little did we know how much we needed that experience.  This church was with minimal drama.  They were loving and supportive of us.  We were closer to Brandy's dad when he became sick and passed-away.  We were closer to family when Brandy became pregnant and had Landry.  Also, I was able to complete my doctoral work at Truett Seminary while being at a church that was very supportive of me completing it. 
However, during the time that we were there, Brandy and I would occassionaly discuss that we felt that I would be doing the prison chaplaincy one day.  We needed to do it for our family's sake, which leads to the next major reason.
Reason 2--I Needed to Provide for my Family
Being a church pastor is tough.  You are expected to be a master orator, counselor, capital fund-raiser, marketer, and have to bring in the consumers.  In addition, you better be there to wipe the nose of every congregant who has the sniffles, but better be at your office when someone drives up to the church to see you.  I digress from my cynicism, but there are many impossible and unbiblical expectations placed on the pastor.  It's even tougher on his family.  My wife had to learn that people will bad-mouth me out of pure ignorance.  Furthermore, she had to learn just to keep her mouth shut when someone does this because trying to reason with such a person is like mud-wrestling with a pig (you'll only end up getting dirty and only the pig will enjoy the mud). 
However, having a child changes your perspective on many things.  After Landry was born, I started thinking about the experience I wanted her to have while growing up.  I wanted her to have her daddy.  The pastorate can easily take up 50-60 hours of your week.  The family is the first to be sacrificed.  I don't want this for my child.  Also, I started thinking about what she should have for church experience during her childhood and adolescent years.  I want her to know the Lord.  Pastor's kids can have a tough church experience and crisis of faith by the way they witness church-people treating their family.  I didn't want Landry hearing Ms. So-and-So bad-mouthing her daddy just because she didn't think he was as good a preacher as the previous pastor.  I didn't want her to have to tell her friends that daddy couldn't make it to her basketball game because the deacons called a meeting with him because they don't like him.  I didn't want her to wonder if God is real because this group of fellow Christians forced her daddy and family out of the church.  I know that I cannot protect Landry from knowing every bad detail, but I want her to have the experience of growing up in church out of the spotlight.  She doesn't hear all of the drama and she doesn't have to live in the glass-house with all eyes watching her. 
In addition, I want Landry to have her mom too.  Working for the Bureau of Prisons allows me to earn a salary where Brandy doesn't have to work.  It's important that she be home with Landry during this time.  Also, this job provides benefits for the entire family.  Believe it or not, my insurance with Guidestone (insurance provider of the Southern Baptist Convention) was more of a nuisance than a provider.  Given Brandy's health history, they denied coverage for her.  We appealed and appealed and we kept getting rejected and rejected.  I have plenty to say about this, but now we have insurance for all of us and it is much needed. 
Reason 3--You Just Do It
I applied all over the U.S. when I was trying to get on as a chaplain with the FBOP.  I was hoping for one of the institutions in Texas.  But Ray Brook, New York was the first to call.  Believe me, the prospect of moving to New York scared me.  But the Bureau's policy of giving military veterans first preference meant that I was fortunate enough just to be considered for a position.  Brandy was on board with it from the beginning, the pieces fell in place, so that was confirmation that this was of God.  Since arriving here, I have learned more.  I have learned that my Senior Chaplain is proficient in training new chaplains such as myself.  This institution has few problems compared with other prison institutions.  In addition, some of the other institutions that I have applied to have had numerous problems as of late (or so I've heard through the grapevine).  This is a good place to start out.  I don't know how long God will have us here, but this is where we are to be right now. 
We were happy in Texas.  I enjoyed pastoring FBC Mathis, TX.  But I knew God was calling us here.  I think if I passed up this opportunity/calling, I would be regretting it the rest of my life.  It wasn't easy moving here in the dead of Winter.  It hasn't always been easy living here.  But this is where God has placed us.  You just do it when God says so. 

So those are the reasons that the Stehle's are now in upstate New York.....     

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cast the Stone at Yourself

So Josh Hamilton was caught drinking more than one beer in a Dallas bar this week. That's nothing to make light of. Dealing with addictions is serious business and it's nothing to make light of when a recovering addict trips. There are no excuses for it. No, I cannot even begin to identify what it's like to be Josh Hamilton. He has the pressure of every move he makes being documented and reported. Over the past year, he's dealt with two tough physical injuries and the horror of witnessing the accidental death of a fan/husband/father. I cannot even begin to understand what he deals with on that and hope I never have to. On top of that, he has all eyes watching him because he credits his faith for delivering him from his addictions. No doubt, in this skeptical world, there are those just waiting for him to fail. Don't tell me there isn't any pressure there.
And so yes, even those things are not an excuse for tripping back into the things that have plagued your life for a long time. Even though Josh has yet to make a public statement about it, I'm sure he isn't offering any excuses either. It was very disturbing when I read a column in the Fort W0rth Star Telegram this morning questioning Josh Hamilton's trustworthiness. This particular columnist makes it sound as if this world is comprised of addicts (the bad guys) and the non-addicts (the trustworthy guys). He also makes it sound as if Hamilton has been fooling us all this time.
I've got news for this columnist and anybody else who has decided to put themselves on a pedestal on this issue; all of us have our demons. Galatians 5 talks about the battles of the flesh versus the life guided by the Spirit. And each of us have at least something (a substance, a behavior, a person, or some object) that stands between us and God. Repeatedly going back to that is either abuse or addiction if we're going by the textbook definition. Only God can deliver us from it and even after we give it to him, we still struggle with it. And there are moments that we slip back into it. Just like Hamilton, there is no excuse for slipping back into it, but we are all guilty of it.
I have more news for this columnist; some of my best friends and most trusted people are addicts. They are recovering addicts, but still addicts. The reason they are the most trusted people in my life is because someone who has been addicted and recovered has to be honest. That person has to be real about who he or she is and what he or she struggles with. And yes, these close friends who are recovering addicts have had their momentary slip-ups. But they are open about it.
I prefer that over someone who thinks he or she has it all together. When a person has a slip-up like that, this should be the moment when he or she feels support and accountability. This does not mean condoning or overlooking what has happened. Again, that needs to be taken seriously. But it doesn't warrant writing that person off or saying that trust is now broken and it certainly doesn't warrant elevating yourself on a pedestal over that person.
Josh Hamilton has come a long way over the past decade in battling his demons. He has given back by making amends to those he has hurt. He has given his all on the baseball field. He has given back to the fans in numerous ways.
Now is the time for the fan base to show support for Josh as he deals with this latest episode...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not Freaking-Out

I heard that the Southern Baptist Convention is declining. Overall membership in SBC churches are significantly less and continuing to drop and the number of baptisms are down. The solution from the Southern Baptist Convention Pastor's Conference is to emphasize evangelism again! Really? Is the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention not a product of a false understanding of evangelism? And we want to emphasize that more?
Look at what the tactics of the 1950's and 1960's revivalism-era produced. Yes, we have church rolls filled with names of people, many of which have not been back to a church building since the 1950's and 1960's. Expectations were lowered. Tactics that aren't found in scripture were used and still linger today. These tactics include the Invitation/Altar Call (which isn't bad in itself only that it isn't mandated in scripture and has been used to play on people's emotions and provide a false sense of salvation in many cases), using sales pitches to sell the gospel to someone with words and phrases that aren't found in scripture, and having the church and pastor vote someone into fellowship and approve his or her baptism without even trying to find out where the person really is with God. These are methods that I've seen all my life having grown up in Southern Baptist churches. I want no part of these methods. Isn't it interesting that Billy Graham himself has said that if he had to do it over again, he would have done it differently. He said he would have discipled the 12. He said that because he believes that 12 men properly discipled could do more for God's kingdom than the thousands and thousands who came forward during his crusades over the years. He and his organization tried to do a lot as far as discipling those who came forward following his preaching, but he admits that he is certain that a good number of them weren't sincere commitments.
So when I hear this same convention getting nervous because they are baptizing less people and calling for putting evangelism back at the forefront, I wonder if they even know what they are saying. When Paul gave the instruction to "do the work on an evangelist," I'm certain he meant more than just telling people about Christ and he certainly didn't mean many of the methods that have become popular among evangelics over the past century.
Yes, the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole is in decline as far as numbers. And now we're supposed to ask our people to start evangelizing. People who likely don't understand what evangelism really is because they aren't discipled. Again, they are a product of years and years of a false sense of evangelism.
As a pastor of a Southern Baptist Church, I am not freaking-out at all about these recent statistics. Instead, I'm called to prayer as I seek how to be more concerned about having quality baptisms over quantity of baptisms.
So yes, let's get back to the way we used to do evangelism. Let's get back to the first-century method of evangelism that we find in the scriptures. Let's put the tactics of the 1950's and 1960's revivalistic era in the archives and get to doing it the way it should be done. Doing so may result in even significantly less baptisms over the next several years, but may produce something greater later.