Over the Thanksgiving week-end I was given the opportunity to lead a memorial service for one of the church members that died unexpectedly. They had moved to Sun City (the retirement community located near the church) some eight years ago, and his unexpected death came as quite a shock to the family and community. Earlier that week, I had attended a memorial service for a friend, who I had not seen in 10 years. He was our neighbor, or rather we owned land next to where he lived, and when Suzanne and I were working on our land, him and his wife were always very kind to us. But since they had moved to Sun City, and I had gone into the ministry, we had lost touch. Then Suzanne’s sister saw his obituary. At his memorial service, I learned that Sun City has its own unique liturgy for memorializing the dead, and then a week later I was leading just such a service for my church. I do believe what the Bible says about all things working together for good for those who love God, and this was just one more example.
I learned three things from our friend Jack Lindsey, who’s service I attended first. If you’ve known me for a while, then you’ve likely heard me expound on at least one of these wisdoms. At the memorial service, I called them “proverbs” from Jack’s life. When Jack and Peggy first started clearing the land that they would later build their house on, it was winter and they being new to this land and retirement, were eager to start the task of taming this Texas scrub brush. Clearing land in the winter has several advantages, and one great disadvantage. The advantage is that the grass and scrub brush has died back, it is usually cold, thus the great bonfires burnt at night fall feel so good as the day’s work is disposed of.
So Jacks advice to me, his proverb, was to own the land a full set of seasons before cutting anything down, which I quote as “always understand what you are changing before you change it.” There is a darker side to that wisdom in that only in that first year do you have fresh eyes to see what needs changing, or not only the what is, but also the what could be. If you wait a year before making any changes, you will likely have lost the energy, or vision to do so. OK- so I’m really taking about change in the church, but Jack’s first proverb is still true.
The second proverb of Jack Lindsey had to do with fence posts, or T-posts as we call them here. Seems that when Jack started to fence his property, he got the notion to paint the t-posts white. I don’t know his rational for doing so, but for the next 30 acres or so, every t-post he put in the ground had to be white, and they don’t come that way from the store. Many the day did he rue painting that first t-post.
The proverb becomes never start something you can’t finish, or its corollary, always finish what you start. It was a proverb I held to in those early days at a previous church, especially during the building process, which can be so draining. I felt honor bound to finish what we had started, but as time went on, the finish line became less and less clear. How would I know when to leave, when what I had started never seemed to be complete? There was always What’s Next.
I know several pastors who are in or about to start the building process, and they are already stressed out. I see that hope in them that when this building project gets started, or is complete, or they move into their building, or their church grows larger, that everything will be easier. I actually pulled one aside last week and said, “the real measure of success in a church building project is when you are still pastoring that church two years after you move in.” So many pastors don’t make it that long, they leave, or are run out of town, or have so damaged themselves or the church, that changes must be made. So maybe moving in isn’t the finish line, but two years later, when the shiny has rubbed off the new building. But here is the danger, if you cross that finish line and keep running, it means you’re starting another race, maybe one you’re not called to finish. So maybe there should be a second corollary to the wisdom of never starting something you can’t finish, which might be: always know where the finish line is, and when you cross it, stop running and rest, otherwise you’re running toward burnout. I am still woking on that corollary.
The third proverb of Jack Lindsey came from the west side of his house near the garage where Jack had 100s of plastic one gallon pots filled with potting soil, and a strange assortment of plants growing in about half of them. Seems that when he and Peggy traveled, he would collect seeds, bring them back and stick them in a pot to see if it would grow. We would be talking, and I would watch his foot scuff the ground, or kick at one of the pots, as if to scratch his head, and say something like “ ever seen something like that?” or “I don’t remember planting that,” or sometimes he would find what looked like an empty pot and stick another seed in it, only to later find two different plants growing in it. A more meticulous man might have kept records, where the seed was from, when it was planted, but for Jack, the interesting thing was just seeing if it could grow in the Hill Country of Central Texas. I imagine that today, ten years later, there is still a interesting assortment of things growing on the west side of their garage. So the proverb becomes: When you travel, always bring something back, and see it if grows here.
I have to think that proverb is alive in our lives now, as we have brought plenty, plenty seeds back from those two years in Africa and are planting them, metaphorical, into our lives here to see what grows. (Disclaimer: we did not bring back actual seeds, as that would be a violation of US agricultural law). Some days it feels so strange being back in Texas, acting as if we never left, or that we were unchanged by our experiences overseas.
Suzanne and I went into a Blockbuster Video the other day, and on the three walls of new releases, we only knew maybe three or four movies, the rest we had never heard of. There were so many, we didn’t even know where to start, and so we left empty handed, completely bewildered. So maybe we’re still trying to find what grows in our new old life here.
Back to the Thanksgiving week-end memorial service I conducted. I was struck by a phrase the family and several friends used, they said the diseased practiced the art of medicine. Since then I have been wondering, is there an art to ministry? Those who have worked with me know that I believe that 70% of all problems in the church, are not real problems. When we pastors treat any of that 70% like they were real problems, then they become so, we give these non-problems legs. What we end up having to deal with then is not what we thought was a problem, but how we dealt with it. If 70% of all problems in the church are not real problems, and 30% are, then maybe the art of ministry is knowing the difference between the two. Kind of like that Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr that AA adopted.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things that are not real problems;
the courage to deal with the ones that are;
and wisdom to know the difference.