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Ircel Harrison’s “For Such a Time as This”: A Review

Like many pastors, I have done my share of reading books on leadership and being “on the missional journey.” There are a several choices and definitions about what this subject means and how it relates to the local church. So, I must admit I approached this latest effort from my friend Dr. ircel Harrison with modest anticipation. This has more to do with a poor mindset on my part rather than the contents of what I knew would be a fine work.

Harrison employs the title is “For Such a Time as This: Aligning Church and Leadership for Missional Ministry.” He acknowledges that there are already many books on the subject. But, he indicates that there is a great need to redeem the “traditional” church for ministry in the 21st century. In order for this be be effective, the congregation and leadership need to be in sync about what is important and how to go about “doing church.” Rather than detail the particular chapters of this book, I will do my best to point out the “takeaways” that I found to be most valuable and informative.

One of the most important takeaways from Harrison’s effort is his affirmation of the “traditional” church. It seems like many of the leadership conferences I attend only provide me with an opportunity to be discouraged. Those who are presenting the information preside over congregations that are new starts and do not have the organizational structure that exists in many traditional (dare I say ‘institutional’) churches. It is difficult and arguably a poor use of time to undo much of the organizational underpinnings of the traditional church. However, Harrison believes that these kinds of congregations (which comprise a large percentage of our churches) can be re-energized with a fresh vision and awareness that ministry is about people rather than merely maintaining the institution. He also provides help for pastors and other church leaders who find themselves in these kinds of churches, but want to move them forward in engaging their culture with the gospel. I found Harrison’s appreciation for the traditional church refreshing and on point with the reality of an aging church in a changing world.

Another takeaway related to Harrison’s emphasis on the church discovering “who it is” rather than “what it does.” In other words, the church should function from a concept of “being” rather than “doing.” Harrison is optimistic that the local (traditional) church can be an effective influence in a post-modern world. Harrison says, “I believe that the adoption and practice of a missional ecclesiology can have a greater impact on Christian witness than the ‘emerging’ or ‘emergent’ church movement” (33). He appreciates the lessons that can be learning from the emergent movement as it has helped the church understand a changing social and theological constructs. However, Harrison maintains it is also imperative for the church to re-discover “who we are and what we are about” (33). Rather than jettison our theological and biblical pedigree, the church needs to embrace the truth that it not only has a mission, but is the mission of God in the world. Harrison rightly points out this powerful truth.

A third takeaway is that Harrison draws from several authors in the field of leadership and church life to provide support and clarity for his views. The bibliographical material alone will make For Such a Time as This worth reading. I was familiar wita few of these individuals already, but Harrison uses them to provide organizational structure for his chapters. Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Reggie McNeal, and Curtiss Paul DeYoung are among those in the church leadership field whom Harrison references. By doing so, Harrison directs the reader to do additional research and seek out those whom have been writing on this subject for some time. Drucker and Collins are not “church” authors necessarily, but their insights have use for the local church. Harrison does well to incorporate them into his presentation.

Harrison’s perspective on leadership provided another helpful takeaway. He believes that leadership must have spiritual and relationship components in order to be relevant (66). There are several applications to this axiom, but the primary one is that a team of leaders may be very talented yet ineffective because they are not “on the same page.” I believe this to be at the heart of where many churches go astray. Some congregations have ample leadership in place but cannot agree on one direction to pursue. Harrison brings in the concept of “alignment” as essential for churches to on mission for God. It is possible to have multiple agendas on a church staff or among lay leadership, and attempting to satisfy these individual desires is an exercise in futility and frustration. Harrison offers a solution to this problem. He states that effective teams must have “mutual commitment to specific values and principles. Team members must have a core around which they can grow, encourage one another, and serve their church and organization” (82). The answer to the problem of “being on the same page” is to have only page to be for the pastor and church leadership.

The last takeaway relates Harrison’s providing questions at the end of each chapter. These questions provide a format for further reflection and are ideal for small groups and church leadership. Harrison raises the important questions for those who serve and love the local (traditional) church. There are those, like myself, who want to be authentic with the people within the church while being effective in reaching those who are not connected to the body of Christ. These questions allow readers to do some introspection and evaluation of their approaches to life, leadership, and ministry within the church.

I highly recommend this work, if for no other reason than Harrison’s appreciation and affection for the traditional church. He affirms those who serve in this context while challenging pastors and laypeople to recognize the tremendous opportunity that exists for sharing the gospel. I think that there is a great deal of similarity between the 21st century church and the 1st century church. Harrison reminds us of that this is the only context we have to live in, and it’s vital that churches “start where we are” in order to make a difference for Christ.

The Illness of Ingratitude

I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years now. The profession definitely has its share of highs and lows in terms of ministry successes, failures, disappointments, and challenges. Many of these experiences relate to dealing with people of a variety of social, economic, and educational backgrounds who bring their own biases and beliefs into the community of faith, known as the church. With so much diversity, there are opportunities for spiritual growth. However, there are also opportunities for people to get selfish and lose sight of the greater good which is building the Kingdom of God.

I don’t have much data to back this point up, but more of a general feeling that I’ve had as it relates to life and ministry. There are real problems facing our congregations and church members. My pastor friends can testify to that. But, what I wanted to point out heading into the Thanksgiving weekend is that there is a tendency for us Christians to bring our problems to Jesus, but not our praise to Jesus.

The story of the leper in Luke 17 comes to mind. He had two strikes against him: he was a Samaritan and he was a leper. Why the other nine Jewish lepers let him hang around is an interesting point all to its own. Apparently, their shared demise and disgrace was greater than the prejudice that would have ordinarily existed toward to the single Samaritan man. Those of you familiar with the story will recall that Jesus healed the ten lepers while he was on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. However, the only one who came back to give thanks and praise to God was the Samaritan. Jesus asked, “where are the other nine? were not ten cleansed? Has no returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then Jesus told this man to rise and go because his faith had made him whole. I think this was not only physical healing but also spiritual healing.

Fred Craddock talked about the failure for the people of God to realize their blessings and to give proper appreciation for them. He said, “It is often the stranger in church who sings heartily the hymns we have long left to the choir, who expresses gratitude for the blessings we had not noticed, who listens attentively to the sermons we think we’ve already heard, who gets excited about our old Bible, and who becomes actively involved in acts of service to which we send small donations. . . must it always be so?”

Many problems are seen, but there are some that are unseen. One of the most damaging is the illness of ingratitude. Ingratitude is bad because not only because of what it creates in the person who has it, but also because it is contagious and can affect the attitudes of others. I have seen this take place first hand and it is not a pretty sight, but without a spirtual solution there is very little to be done about it.

Revisiting the story of healed leper, I’ve come to realize that that praise and gratitude are the real cure for the illness of ingratitude. The reason for this is that it takes the focus off of “self” and on to “God” who is the one who provides for us in the first place. I get the fact that there are people who are really hurting right now and question whether or not God cares about them in the first place. But, I also struggle because there are those who are blessed with plenty and yet do not recognize what they have are gifts and blessings. I regret to say that sometimes I find myself in their company.

The leper came back to be thankful and praise God for his healing, but I also believe he came back because he wanted something else. He wanted Jesus. Pure and simple. And, at the end of the day, that’s enough reason for each one of us to be grateful.

As I told our people last Sunday, I believe there is room by the leper at the feet of Jesus. I also believe there is a little bit of the leper in each one of us. At one time we were “afar off” but through forgiveness and the work of Jesus we are “close” to him and to one another.

Things are going to happen that cause us frustration and sadness. We all go through times of happiness and sorrow. What I hope this holiday season is to discover what contentment means and how much we have to be thankful for as individuals and as the people of God. A grateful people becomes a loving people. And vice versa.

If you feel like you’re coming down with a case of ingratitude, be sure to head it off before it gets out of hand. This time of year in particular folks are inclined to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do have. Take time to praise and find yourself at the feet of Jesus.

Happy Thanksgiving and may this truly be the beginning of a meaningful Advent season.

Our Wearisome Habit of Worrying

We are good at worrying about things. When faced with a difficulty and we don’t know what to do, the tendency is to say, “Well, I guess I have something to worry about it!”

Do a Google search on the subject and you’ll come across a seemingly infinite number of articles on stress and anxiety. One is entitled “Stress Rates in America” and it records several kinds of anxiety that are caused by the workplace, obesity, and even people in our lives.

Our culture has come up with some solutions in the form on songs. Bobby McFerrin sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” More recently, Pharrell Williams (wearer of the large Arby’s looking hat) sings “Happy” with the lyrics: “Sing along if you feel like a room without a roof. . .”

Yes, we need a cure for anxiety since we are so good at afflicting ourselves with the sickness.

One interesting aspect to this dilemma is that it’s also possible to not only worry about things, but also people. I know this by personal experience and also by hearing some of you tell me things like “I’m worried about my daughter’s health” or “I’m worried about my granddaughter finding out what to do with her life” or “I’m worried about my parents and their ability to care for themselves.”

This malaise of anxiety is certainly not new, and it is highly contagious and spread easily and quickly by those of us who are prone to have an attachment to things (and people). Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been conditioned to feel guilty if we don’t have something to worry about.

Many of us suffer from “1st world problems” when we run out of gas in the car, or an appliance breaks down, or the DVR stops working for some reason and our children aren’t around to fix it. Things like that can create anxiety, but it’s not the same thing as wondering where our next meal will come from, not having clothes to wear, or having a place to live.

Jesus cautioned against worry. His solution? “More than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well” (Matthew 6.33 CEV).

Yes, we certainly ought to love and pray for one another. Actually, that is a large portion of the remedy for worrying over our friends and family members. Let’s love and pray for our friends and family members. Let’s also give thanks and appreciate the belongings that we have while we’re alive.

However, there’s one other component to liberate us from the chokehold of worry and fear. It involves trust in a heavenly Father who loves us and knows what our needs are before we ask of him.

Whatever it might be that’s creating distress or anxiety in your life, take time to turn that over to the Lord. I know it’s “easier said than done” but it’s also a good opportunity to ask ourselves why that is so.

Once we learn to seek the “Kingdom of God” and keep seeking after it, then we won’t have as much time to build our own kingdom.

For all the Saints (not just some of them)

Our church kids got dressed up in their costumes and went out into the community. They weren’t “trick or treating” but rather doing a “trick or eat” activity. It’s something we do each year around this time to gather canned goods from our neighbors, bring them back to the church house, and then take them on to a food bank. Upon their return, the kids go upstairs for a party with hot chocolate and enough candy to put them on a sugar high right before the parents pick them up to go home.

Of course, this is the weekend of all the Halloween festivities. Our children are especially excited to out of school for the day (and Monday too) so a long weekend looks good. They will go out into our subdivision and enjoy the time together and see how the spoils of a candy outing turns out. I won’t go into the theology of Halloween or how some other Christians get freaked out about it, but suffice it to say our family focuses on the fun and seasonal components of the day.

There is another aspect of the holiday, one that our church makes mention of as well. We give thanks to Martin Luther for his courage on November 30, 1517 for nailing his 95 theses on the Castle door of the Wittenberg church. Nowadays that would be comparable to posting a Youtube video and its going viral, or sending out something on twitter which makes the top 10 trending topics. Baptists should recognize that without the Protestant Reformation, we wouldn’t have the key components of our faith: scripture alone, salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, and Christ alone.

I came across a great article by Molly Marshall entitled “We Believe in the Communion of the Saints.” She talked about the significance of this time of year from a liturgical perspective, and how important it was to remember those who have gone before us to their heavenly reward. We need to remember, she says, our connection with those not only on this side of death but also those “treasured in memory and hope.” I especially appreciated her using the prayer of Cyprian: “We must not weep for our brothers and sisters whom the call of the Lord has withdrawn from this world, since we know that they are not lost, but have gone on ahead of us; they have left us like travelers, navigators, in order to lead the way. . .

As a pastor of several congregations, I’ve been fortunate to have known some wonderful people who have blessed me immensely. Some of these have gone on to be with the Lord, and I’ve often used this passage and their funerals; “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116.15). These men and women have been an encouragement to the church family and have generally mellowed as they got older. They died “old and full of years.” They have been missed.

On this Sunday, however, I am also thinking of those who haven’t been the most positive persons. Several persons in the churches I’ve served have been bitter and downright mean, and have gone on to receive their reward. To be honest, I wasn’t too disappointed to see them go. I recall one older gentleman (probably should leave the ‘gentle’ off) who never smiled and seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face. He never had anything good to say and I generally tried to avoid being in his presence. One time in particular when he was being cantankerous, he told me “God put me here to be a thorn in your side.”  I’ve never seen scriptural evidence to support his approach, but can attest he caused me a lot of frustration. It was usually located farther down on the anatomical chart, however.

There was this other man who got upset when the church decided to change its name. The neighborhood around the church had changed and people no longer attended the church from the neighborhood. The church decided on changing its name from a directional title to more of a regional one. As the church discussed this change, there were those who opposed it on personal and sentimental grounds. However, this man said, “If you change the name, I’m leaving the church.” Well, that’s what happened. The church moved on, pretty much kept the same membership but with a different name on the sign in front of the building. But, this man never returned. This was especially sad to me, because he wife continued to come by herself and sit in her usual spot, but without him. As her health declined, she came on to worship but her bitter and stubborn husband did not come to help her.

i know these two stories aren’t necessarily unique to pastors, but it is worth mentioning that there are miserable people in church and they can make it their calling to bring misery to others around them.

Sometimes I wonder about how these people relate to the Lord. I know they were members of the church and as such the larger body of Christ. They weren’t especially pleasant to be around. However, I have learned through the years that it is possible to learn something from folks like this. I don’t think their attitudes were particularly helpful to the body of Christ though. These two men, and others like them, have gone on to their heavenly home even though things could have a lot different and better while they were walking the earth.

On this weekend I will be remembering these two men, along with many others, who helped me grow and deepen in my faith. They helped me develop patience and perseverance in the face of difficulty, and appreciate the life I have now and the one yet to come. We don’t always know the history or reason behind the behavior of those around, but we can ask the Lord to help us appreciate them for who they are and how they help us deepen in our own faith.

Houston, We Have (Another) Problem

Social media is having a field day, and rightfully so.

Annise Parker, mayor of Houston, TX has decided to pressure a handful of pastors who are vocal in their disagreement of a new ordinance which adds sexual orientation to the list of protections against discrimination. Here is an article about it. However, Parker cites this article on her twitter feed to offset the negative publicity directed at her over the last several weeks.

This is a big deal, so much so that a Houston pastor penned an open letter to the mayor to voice his disagreement with her policies and the decision to subpoena five pastors, their sermons and other materials relating to their opposition to HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance).  After the media firestorm, it appears that the mayor and her administration recognize that things could have been handled in a different (better) way and are trying to temper the opposition. Parker appears to portray herself as a victim in this matter rather than taking responsibility for creating this backlash. I’ve attached a few of those news stories on my twitter feed (apparently a lot of other folks have too).

The problem I have with Parker is not her support of HERO, but her treatment of those who are in opposition to HERO. I realize the world of politics can be a brutal place. However, pastors cannot be subpoenaed for speaking out and against those in authority, especially if they are speaking out on something that in their mind is a biblical or moral issue. Incidentally, I would feel the same way if these pastors were in support of HERO and the mayor wanted to subpoena them for that reason as well.

I’m grateful that America is place of religious freedom. I have a low tolerance for folks who say American Christians are being persecuted when there are Christians in Syria who fear for their life from ISIS simply because of their faith in Christ. There is, however, a culture clash taking place in our country and it’s happening on the political and religious playing fields. When these two paths intersect, it can create a real mess.

Churches should not endorse political candidates. But, churches can speak out on moral or ethical concerns as they seem prudent and appropriate. This shouldn’t result in governmental interference or oversight. There are undoubtedly other details which will surface related to this news story, but the principle at stake is one of a free church in a free state. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “the church must be reminded that it is not the master nor the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

I’ve tried to really be mindful of the variety of opinions and political views of those in my congregation, and I encourage them to vote without telling them how to vote (I am not sure they would listen anyway). And, I do not always share the opinions or viewpoints of fellow pastors in what they say to their own churches. However, I would support these pastors in their right to interpret the Bible and present their findings to their people. I operate with a high view of the pulpit in this way. I also approach the matter with a high view of the pew, and trust people to determine for themselves the validity of what they are hearing, especially as it relates to matters of politics. If you don’t like what you hearing, or if you think the preacher isn’t being truthful in his/her interpretation, then there are many other houses of worship to check out.

Citizenship is a privilege in this country, but it’s not easy. Tolerance and respect should be mutually applicable. C. Weldon Gaddy’s open letter to the mayor is a good read, especially from someone who is supportive of her policies but not her recent actions. Gaddy writes, “My understanding is that the sermons that reportedly were subpoenaed take a very different perspective than mine. However, I will work as hard to defend the freedom of speech from the pulpit for those with whom I disagree, as I will to defend the rights of the LGBT community. As long as a sermon is not inciting violence, the government has no business getting involved in the content of ministers’ sermons.”

If you want to hear a sermon, attend a house of worship on Sunday or go to a church’s website. Many of them have sermons online or in manuscript form. They are freely given and freely received.

Church Shopping

“I’m church shopping.”

I have gotten this response a time or two whenever I talk to guests after the worship service. It’s a response that is unique in American churches, primarily influenced by our consumer mindset. I understand the rationale behind the phrase, but the application is regrettable.

In “Sentness: Six Postures of Missional Christians”, the authors offer this critique of the American church: “A consumer church does not require enough from its members. People look for a place to go to meet their needs, rather than a base to be sent to serve their community. We consider what we got out of the church service, and we go home feeling well-fed or not. Thus, church turns into a mall for consuming religious goods and services, rather than an equipping station to send us out into our world.”

I wish I could argue with that assessment.

Our church has a pedigree for missions. We have given generously of our financial support, and we put feet to our faith in making a difference for Christ in our community. Yes, there is always more to do, but we have endeavored to be engaged in our world. We will continue to do this.

However, we need to reminded that the church is not a mall where we consume religious goods and services. My hope and prayer that we can maintain our “sentness” by seeking ways to exercise our faith. Each one of us has the privilege to share his or her faith and invite persons to be part of our church family.

It’s a good time to be part of UHBC. We continue to receive guests in our worship services. Some of these folks may be “church shoppers” or even “church hoppers.” I hope that our people will not be one of them, because we need to show that church life is more than showing up for an hour on Sunday morning. You have heard me say that we “gather on Sundays, and then scatter throughout the week.”

The words of William Carey still apply today: “Attempt great things for God; Expect great things from God.”

A Sheep Finds His Way Home

Three people stood viewing the Grand Canyon: an artist, a pastor, and a cowboy. As they stood at the edge of the abyss,
each one responded as he was overcome with emotion.
The artist exclaimed: “Oh, what a beautiful scene to paint!
The pastor echoed that sentiment: ” Oh, what a wonderful example of God’s handiwork!”
Then the cowboy responded: ” Oh, what a terrible place to lose a cow!”

Life is about perspective and attitude. We all bring with us a multitude of experiences, joys, challenges, and disappointments. We can’t always control what happens to us. But, we can choose how to respond to what happens to us.

I’ve enjoyed the journey through Psalm 23 this month. It has been good to reflect upon David’s metaphors in describing how he felt about the Lord. He drew upon the most personal language he could to do this. David had been a shepherd, and his core identity remained secure in that distinction.

No matter what happens, it’s good remember who we are, and Whose we are along the way. The Lord has been good to each one us, and despite (and because of) the valleys along the way, we can more ably appreciate the life we have now.

Linda Bollenbach is a chaplain at Mercy Hospital, and she spoke to us last Wednesday night on the subject of “Advanced Directives.” She culminated a month long Wednesday night emphasis on “Before Winter Comes: Planning a Good Death.” Once again we were reminded of how difficult the subject of death is to talk about. Linda did a great job telling us about Living Wills and Power of Attorney, and  telling us to do all that we can now to make our wishes known as it related to how we wanted to die. She asked one question, however, that has stayed with me this week. It was simply this: “How do you want to be remembered?”

I had to go by the middle school to pick up my daughter Lucy. She stayed after school for her debate club meeting. Upon meeting her teacher for the first time, she told me that “I’m teaching them how to argue.” For a moment, it made me wonder about the wisdom of putting Lucy in there. But, I know that really is what debate club is about and so we’ll see what becomes of that.

Anyway, on the way to the debate class, I noticed numerous papers in the hallway on the wall where students were displaying their work. One of the assignments read “Describe your life in 30 words or less.”  I realize this reflective assignment is being completed by 6th graders, but it get me to wondering how I might answer a question like that too.

I think Psalm 23 is a way of understanding David’s life “in 30 words or less.” I didn’t go back and count the exact number, but the ebb and flow of the metaphors in this chapter is a wonderful way to understand who David was and how he viewed his life. His core identity was that of a shepherd, and he drew upon the most personal language he knew to talk about his closeness with the Lord.

David closed this beautiful psalm with an affirmation that he “would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” He wasn’t giving a fully developed eschatological statement, but rather a statement of hope and optimism that his future was secure with his Lord. As a “sheep”, David wanted to live the remainder of his days in the full view of the wonderful shepherd who had been with him his entire life. In short, David was home.

No matter what “season of life” you might be in, only you can give an answer for that provoking question. Never underestimate the value and impact you have on others around you. We are God’s people, a community of faith connected through a common faith in Jesus Christ. Each one of us is important. Let’s endeavor to focus our perspective on the beauty and blessings around us.

Remember, life is a gift and time is so precious.

The Lord is My Shepherd

This last Sunday I started a sermon series on Psalm 23. I will be taking four Sundays to cover this very familiar passage of Scripture. It’s always a challenge to present something new to people who have heard so much about these verses.

Most of us associate this passage with death and funerals. As a matter of fact, just today I went to a funeral service and picked up a worship pamphlet with a picture of the deceased on the cover. On the inside was recorded Psalm 23. These are words are comfort during a painful and sad situations.

I am not sure exactly what David was going through when he penned these words, but some scholars suggest he was running for his life. His son Absalom had conspired to take over the throne and David abandoned his position for the time being. The other thought I have is that Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22 (of course), but that the previous psalm begins with the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a question that many of us have asked at one time or the other, and demonstrates the range of emotion David experienced during extreme difficulty. 

We don’t have a lot of sheep around here, or people wanting to a shepherd for that matter. I did come across an interesting explanation from Phillip Keller. He grew up in East Africa where they do have sheep, and penned a book entitled “A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm.” Keller offers a number of observations, including the realization that sheep require much more attention than any other livestock. They can’t take care of themselves. They are nearsighted and very stubborn, and have no homing instincts. Dogs and cats can find their way home, but if a sheep gets lost, “it’s a gone sheep.”

I found that last thought particularly helpful. Sheep can’t find their way home. This reminded me of Isaiah 53 and the reminder that “all we like sheep have gone astray, each one of us to his own way.” There are a lot of lost people wandering around out in the world, and the good news is that the Good Shepherd knows each one and is searching for them. However, each person must respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd and determine to follow after Him (John 10).

In his book, “I Shall Not Want” Robert Ketchum tells a story about a little girl in a Sunday School class. The teacher asked the class if anyone knew the 23rd psalm. The little girl insisted that she did, and while the teacher was skeptical, told the girl to stand up and recite the familiar words. The little girl stood up, went before the class, and bowed. She then said, “The Lord is my shepherd. That’s all I need.” She then bowed once again and sat down.

I’ve been a pastor for 20 years and here at University Heights for seven of them. One thing I am learning by being around “the sheep” is that many of us are stressed and worried by a number of things. If the Lord is our (my) shepherd, then we (I) have the assurance that we (I) won’t be in lack. I can have the confidence of not lacking even though I might not be liking what going on. The English translation for Psalm 23.1 has nine words, the Hebrew only four. These are succinct and direct in their focus. The natural conclusion to the Lord being my shepherd is simply this: “I shall not want.” That means there is nothing I will lack or go without if it is important to the Shepherd for me to have. it also means I need to rely upon the Shepherd and trust Him to know what is best for me.

Psalm 23. It’s not just for funerals. “The Lord is my shepherd. That’s all I need.”

Indeed. 

 

St. Francis and Ferguson, MO

I played baseball for a high school that had mostly black students. The sophomore class, of which I was in at the time, had a majority of the white students. I was part of a class of students that was bused to different schools in the Monroe, LA area to assist with integration.

Baseball was about the only sport I could play with any degree of competency, and I thought about playing for Neville High School, even though I didn’t attend there at the time. It was understood that players in their 10th grade year could play for NHS if they chose to do so, because that is where most of the sophomores went at the end of the year.  I remember being aware that Neville had seven seniors and two juniors in their lineup, and didn’t think I had too much of a chance to get any playing time. So, I decided to do something which was very unusual for a white athlete to do: I played for Carroll High School.

It was a unique and sometimes difficult experience, being a white player on that team. I remember the baseball coach at Carroll informing me that I would be the “white Jackie Robinson” and to consider what that might mean. I remember being introduced at the school assembly and the murmurs from the students, and the principal asking them to support this team and its players. I really wasn’t thinking of making such a social or political statement as a 16 year old. I just wanted to play baseball. Still, the social and racial overtones in that public school district became evident to me through the season.

I remember traveling to Grambling High School, and while arriving on the bus, seeing students and other players pointing at me. It was like they had never seen a white person on their campus before. Maybe that was the case. But, I never felt threatened by being there. I just had to overcome the unusual sense of being different and having some spectators staring at me and bringing it to my attention. It was more difficult playing our district schedule, against other high schools with people who knew me. They wondered what I was doing and some openly criticized me for it. They used a few select adjectives and monikers during the games too.

I’ve thought about the people of Ferguson, as everyone else has, and have a deep sadness at what is being portrayed. There is the terrible loss of an 18 year old’s life, and the expectation and hope of his having made a positive contribution to his community and world. I understand he was enrolled to attend college. I also think about the police officer whose life has also been forever changed, and wondering what the grand jury will do as they review the evidence. The world is watching to see how this unfolds.

There has been so much written and said about Ferguson, and no doubt there will be more. I did not realize that 50 of the 53 police officers on its force were white. That will have to change. Still, my initial thought is that I hope and pray that the rush to judgment can be avoided. I hope and pray that threats of violence and actual violence can be avoided, and that in fact justice can be blind in this case. I hope and pray that the facts and situation can be considered for not only the Brown family, but also for this police officer. I hope and pray that leaders who are close to the situation will rise up and call for peace and justice for everyone concerned.

Many people have already made up their mind about this case. This is disturbing to me. It also bothers me to see the incredible police presence at the protests, and the escalation of rhetoric from those who aren’t witnesses of what actually happened. If you want to hear some of that, you can go to YouTube. And I don’t think all the violence at those protests are coming from residents of Ferguson.

I’ve come across a few balanced editorials about Ferguson, and think this is one of the better ones I have read. It comes from a minister of a CBF congregation in the St.Louis area. This tragedy is going to take a while to sort out. No matter what happens, that young man won’t get his life back. But, how things are settled and the process may have a profound impact on the future of Ferguson and our nation.

I don’t pretend for a moment that playing baseball and being close to black players and coaches for that year makes me an expert on race relations. But, it did put me in a position to listen and learn from a different perspective. It has helped me to understand a little bit about the anxiety and fear that come from stereotypes and a lack of communication. It also informed me that friendships can be made regardless of a person’s color or economic background. We didn’t win many games that year, but I still have good memories of that season. I think playing together as a team made us winners of another more important type.

A few words of a prayer by St. Francis come to mind: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  I am not naive enough to think that simply asking for peace and justice will be enough, but that is a good starting point. In times like these, we need to use as many (wise) words as possible.

Robin Williams: Laughter and just a few lessons

I never knew him.

But I felt like I knew him. Just a little bit anyway.

The death and apparent suicide of Robin Williams has shocked and rocked the entertainment industry, and millions of fans around the world. It is hard to believe that the 63 year old comedian and actor is gone. It is a loss that impacts many, many people, even if they never knew him personally.

The news tonight took a little bit out of me, mainly because of how Williams presented himself to the world. Williams was public about his bouts with depression, and apparently was no longer able to deal with it and took his own life.

All of us know about how talented he was. I remember “Mork and Mindy” as a spin off of the “Happy Days” show decades ago. I was talking to a college student today about the magnitude of Williams’ death and about this show, and she acted like she had never heard about Williams. But, as I went through what I could recall about his acting contributions, I think I got her on board with some of his more recent efforts. I hope she’ll go back and do a bit of research on the broader scope of his work.

There will many people who will write tributes to Williams. There’s no way to really know what he was like unless you knew him, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts about this tragic loss of life.

First of all, people who are outwardly happy can be dealing with their own demons on the inside. It’s hard to imagine a man who brought laughter to millions could struggle so much with depression. He was wealthy, successful, well-liked, and had the admiration off many people. It wasn’t enough.

Second, despite his own struggles, he was able to bring a smile to the people around him, and we need more people like that. There’s an adage “there’s always someone else who has more problems that you.” We need to remember that.

I was reading a post on facebook by someone who was complaining about how they were unhappy about their children not getting their preferences met at school, and then I remember a family whose grandson was killed in an accident and won’t be starting kindergarten this Fall. We need to be a little more grateful about what we have when we start to complain. Maybe it would help us not to gripe so much. We should especially be mindful not to voice our “problems” in the presence of those who have endured more significant and life-changing losses. There’s no comparison.

We have so much to be thankful for. And there are many people who could be encouraged by our cheerfulness. There are people who “fill our buckets” and those who empty them. We have a finite amount of energy in those buckets, and I know I more drawn to those who fill mine than those who constantly drain it. From time to time we get sad, but we can all work on our attitude. Williams seemed to be someone who filled a lot of emotional buckets.

Third, depression is for real. It’s hard to understand how this affects the mind and a person’s thinking. Sometimes we can more readily grasp the reality of someone who is struggling outwardly having this condition. It’s much more difficult to fathom a wealthy person dealing with this problem. And, if you have someone who struggles in this way, then you can relate to the pain of what the Williams family is going through.

Finally, life can seem incredibly short and we need to enjoy the time we have. I’ve often quoted John Claypool’s statement that “Life is a gift.” We aren’t guaranteed a certain number of days in this life, so that ought to make the most of the time we have.

So, take time to tell someone how much you care about them and what they mean to you. Do it today, there’s only so much time that we have to use.

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