The Stuff of Life

It’s been like ten days.

Ten days since I did anything on this blog other than answer a few comments.

As much time and energy as I have put into this thing… At one point, being on the outside and looking in, you’d probably think the guy writing all this (me) didn’t have much of a life.

But I do.
I find myself busier than ever.

We are working hard in this rodeo they call real estate. Sometimes I feel more like the clown than I do the successful bull rider. But then again, it really doesn’t matter as long as I have the bull by the horns.

Yes, it’s a bad cliché. I have to own that one.

But truthfully? We are busy with the process of living. Instead of just reacting to life, we are grabbing the horns as hard as we can.

I want to live.
Not just exist.
I want to live.

So we work this real estate gig.
I write and seek places to speak and share.
Occasionally, I apply for a different kind of job.

But, we are busy.
In North Little Rock this Sunday.
The week after in Monroe, La.
Then the Tulsa workshop where I am blessed to speak three times.
And then the last Sunday of March we will be in Ridgeland, MS.

Did I mention I am writing? Yes! I wish I was working on book stuff, but I am staying busy trying to get lessons and sermons situated and done.

The book stuff will come–and it does in bits and spurts. The big deal with that situation is finding an editor who can work with me (translated: doesn’t cost an arm and a leg–I can afford a toe, but who’s counting?).

In the meantime, I want to live.
Not just exist.
I want to live.

My struggles with the difficulties of this world can be exacerbating at times–and that on a good day.

But, I want to live.
Not just exist.
I want to live.
And so, my focus can’t be on all the stuff and things that tend take up our time and attention.
Sure, some of it can be important and may have a needed bearing on where we go and what we do.

But not life.
No sir.
No ma’am.

I want to live.
Not just exist.
I want to live.
And to do that, it is all about relationships.

God, my family, friends, neighbors, co-workers… And even the guy at the Tamale shop next door.

Relationships are the stuff of life.

I want to live.
Not just exist.
I want to live.

My relationships are all a work in progress.
But I am working.
Forgive the mini-sermon, but you should be working on your relationships too. You never know when the time to do so will be no more!

Thanks for being in a relationship with me–even if it is just through the words of this blog. You have blessed me greatly.

Les Ferguson, Jr.

When Church Is A House Of Pain

The title to this blog post sounds mighty negative. I get that. However, my goal in sharing what you are about to read is that it not be another post bashing the bride of Christ.

To the contrary.

I love the church and have much I owe her. I have not always gotten along with her well–there have been many days when she frustrated or made me angry.

But when you are dealing with mistake prone people–family and friends even who are as damaged by sin as the next guy (the next guy being me), you’re going to find flaws. And where you have flawed people, you will find pain–self-inflicted as well as inflicted by others.

As Uncle Si would say, that’s a fact, Jack!

I have written before about the pain and anguish felt as the result of people who didn’t handle the hurts and disappointments of others very well. Especially those who are struggling with death and loss.

Obviously, everybody’s story is different. But for most, the initial days, weeks, and months after the funeral is over are just the beginning of new adjustments, new levels of anguish, and trying to rebuild. Frankly for me, the second year was harder than the first. I don’t know why, it just was.

To illustrate how it works for some, read what Pam McCutcheon says about the aftermath of losing her son….

“I have a confession.  Please don’t judge me.  I haven’t attended a church service for over three years.  My relationship with God is strong and my faith is not in jeopardy.  But church is a house of pain, on many levels, since Max was killed.

First and foremost, my grief lives deep down in my soul.  A vulnerable place.  That same place in my soul that I tap in to when I worship God.  The tears naturally come.  And I refuse to “play” church and keep a happy face on.  I bawl when praise music starts.  God is fully worthy of my praise.  But (He already knows this, it’s well discussed territory), I am mad at Him for the decision to take Max to heaven at 18. I cannot sing about the faithfulness of God when I know very well I feel like He betrayed my trust.  I cannot sing about His goodness, even though I know and believe He is good.  Not in public.  I know others cry in church.  But I don’t have a ‘pretty’ cry.  My face gets red, I am vocal, and I melt down.  I’m a spectacle and truly, I don’t want people gawking at me when I’m that exposed.  It was much easier for me to sing “I Surrender All” when it didn’t require me surrendering my oldest child to death

Secondly, I have been betrayed by those who genuinely love and follow Jesus.  Some do not know how to minister to grieving people.  Some can only do it for a short while. I’m not talking about those people, although they have hurt me because I truly needed them and they weren’t there.  No.  I’m talking about the horrible things said “in the name of Christ”, or “telling the truth in love”, both phrases thrown around with too many cliches that have no meaning or power in my grief.  I am not going to get too specific because I hope to mend those fences someday, even if I have to wait until I reach eternity for unity again.  The self-righteous, smug, advice-givers inflict the most damage.  And they are not the reason I stay away from church.  But they certainly contribute to the church being a house of pain.  I do not doubt that they love Jesus, but they surely don’t reflect His heart for grieving people.

Do you know what Jesus did when He came upon the sisters of Lazarus right after he had died?  The sisters were angry with Him, yelling, they told Him that if He had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died!  Did Jesus say “but he is in heaven, a better place”?  Did Jesus say “you might damage your witness by grieving so outwardly”?  Did Jesus say “here is some Scripture”?  NO.  Jesus simply WEPT.  He wept with them.  He was deeply moved and He wept.  Even though He knew He was going to resurrect him that very day.   He wept out of love.  (John chapter 11)  I pray more would use His example and not say damaging things, but simply weep with those who weep.
The man who asked me to write a blog on this topic has this to say in HIS blog – ‘I discovered that theological arguments, debates, and discussions matter little to people living on the jagged edge of holding it together or losing it entirely. And, I discovered that more “church members” are in that category of folks than we could possibly imagine.’ 

And finally, if you (as a church) are looking for people to minister to, please humbly accept my suggestion to start with your own congregation.  There is plenty of pain in your own back yard.  Talking of grand mission trips are fine, but only if you are taking care of your own too.  Know someone in pain in your congregation but don’t know how to help?  Take a meal, send a note of encouragement, organize a group to come over and surprise with a cleaning crew or a day working in their yard, take the kids out for an afternoon so the parents can be alone for a few hours, call them for lunch, meet them for a walk, ask questions that allow them to talk about their pain rather than avoiding them.  The gestures don’t have to be big, but they need to be ongoing beyond the first days of crisis.  People in pain look around at the others in church and beg to be helped, yet it seems easier not to get involved or bring “it” up.  Please do.  Get involved, bring it up, JUST DO IT.  Otherwise, your personal church is a house of pain.

I will attend church again.  I want a place to belong and feel loved again, a place that I can contribute my gifts and talents to.  But not yet.  Just not yet.”

Yes.

Even though everyone does not have the same grieving experiences, those are hard words to read.

And, in an effort to help the church be what she should, may I humbly suggest… We can do better.
We can.

Part of my mission in life is to help those who hurt and those who might minister to us.

Here’s the second rule to follow: when striving to help the hurting, patience is the key, along with lots of mercy, grace, and compassion.

And the first rule is even more simple: use hugs and actions. Words just muddle it all up!

God bless us all.

Please remember my in-laws in prayer… Joan Brown is very sick and Bob is keeping a bedside vigil. They have experienced so much loss…

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Church Questions

A little different kind of a post for me, but maybe it will be of interest…

Awhile back, I sent a resume to a church and received the following questions in response:

–Churches across the country are struggling to maintain attendance and growth. Do you agree that Churches of Christ are also fighting this decline? Give us your thoughts on what is driving this.

–What specifics might you focus on, at the congregation level, to change the direction of decline?  Specifics might include demographics, worship styles, education, outreach, etc.

–In your personal experience or observation of other congregations, what have you seen to make you feel these things would work?

I thought they were good questions and actually enjoyed formulating my answers.

I thought I would share them with you as a topic of discussion…

Yes, I agree with the premise that churches are struggling to maintain attendance and growth. Certainly, churches of Christ cannot be singled out any more than any other group of believers. We all have our fair share of problems.

Obviously, I cannot answer for every church in every place. There are often economic factors that change populations. Socially and culturally, we face an often-disheartening system of values or a lack thereof. Morally speaking, church members tend to be just like the people around us.

From that perspective, instead of leading, guiding and illuminating our culture, we are either reacting to it negatively or living in it no differently.

And, where we have focused on minor issues, argued among ourselves, participated in power struggles, missed the major issues, and failed to live out the story of Jesus individually and collectively… We have quite simply lost our influence and ability to deliver a life changing perspective.

In some ways, we have lost our place at the table while we have celebrated the irrelevant.

In the midst of and as we moved out of the immediate heartache and despair of our family tragedy, my faith wavered. I never lost my belief in God, but I certainly began a period of questioning exactly who and what He was. Some of those questions remain and are good reminders of what is real and important.

Personally, I discovered that theological arguments, debates, and discussions matter little to people living on the jagged edge of holding it together or losing it entirely. And, I discovered that more “church members” are in that category of folks than we could possibly imagine. Some of them are quite cognizant of how much they struggle even as they do their best to hide it from themselves and others (the biggest lie told at assembly times? I am ok, doing good, etc.). Many more are just one difficulty away from finding out their faith isn’t as deep as they might have surmised.

What was important to me were simple but deep theological questions with life-altering impact.

• Does God really love me?

• Does God really care?

• Where is God when I needed Him the most?

So what is the answer?

A theological buzzword bandied about these days is missional.

Everything is missional. Missional coffee, missional programs, and on and on it goes. I suspect the validity and intent of what being missional is all about gets lost in the clutter of ecclesiastical systems.

Take a look at these excerpts from Alan Hirsch in Leadership Journal, Fall 2008…

A proper understanding of missional begins with recovering a missionary understanding of God. By his very nature God is a “sent one” who takes the initiative to redeem his creation. This doctrine, known as missio Dei—the sending of God—is causing many to redefine their understanding of the church. Because we are the “sent” people of God, the church is the instrument of God’s mission in the world. As things stand, many people see it the other way around. They believe mission is an instrument of the church; a means by which the church is grown. Although we frequently say “the church has a mission,” according to missional theology a more correct statement would be “the mission has a church.”

Many churches have mission statements or talk about the importance of mission, but where truly missional churches differ is in their posture toward the world. A missional community sees the mission as both its originating impulse and its organizing principle. A missional community is patterned after what God has done in Jesus Christ. In the incarnation God sent his Son. Similarly, to be missional means to be sent into the world; we do not expect people to come to us. This posture differentiates a missional church from an attractional church.

A missional theology is not content with mission being a church-based work. Rather, it applies to the whole life of every believer. Every disciple is to be an agent of the kingdom of God, and every disciple is to carry the mission of God into every sphere of life. We are all missionaries sent into a non-Christian culture.

Being missional is about restoration. Not restoring a church, but restoring a world to God’s ideal. That starts individually and then collectively within our own family and church family. Being missional is about taking responsibility for our own little corner and shinning the light of Jesus there.

I believe churches of every stripe will continue to decline when our focus is on anything else than connecting people to Jesus. That’s the answer for the hurts and despair so many experience. That’s the answer for struggling marriages and faltering families. That’s the answer to a crumbling society and culture that is completely out of tune with God.

Jesus. That’s the answer to decline.

Certainly, I have my favored church systems. I like a more contemporary worship experience. Those things help me connect, if you will. But we could spend an enormous amount of time designing and tweaking our assemblies and still miss folks who are looking for something different.

Somehow we have to help people connect outside the assembly. Using pressure and guilt to build attendance does not facilitate spiritual growth. Restoration and renewal of the heart have to be our focus—and not a one-hour a week assembly time that caters to whomever has the loudest cry for doing things the way they like.

In my case, after our loss and becoming a single parent for a while, Wednesday nights became a curse. It caused me to rethink our purpose in doing whatever we do. If people want to gather on Wednesday nights, then by all means let them gather. By the same token, if this strung out family of four has no family time, no opportunity to just be together, then spiritually, emotionally, and physically, they might best be served by dedicating that evening to just being family.

Outside of the Sunday morning assembly, small groups—with a focus and plenty of dedication—can be great tools in helping people connect to each other and a higher purpose for life.

But, this restoration and change we seek—no matter the tools we use–can only begin when people are sold out to Jesus—and want to make a difference in the lives of others.

As shepherds and ministers, our job is to model the Christian life—to let our light so shine that the world may see Jesus. Let restoration and renewal begin with us.

Don’t be afraid to toss the traditional formats; don’t be afraid to embrace them either. The purpose isn’t how. The purpose is Jesus.

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Vicksburg, MS