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Another Adoption of Another Kind

After Kelly Flores and I exchanged some Facebook posts on this Father’s Day, I thought of another of my adopted daughters who had texted me quite a message today also. (Kelly is the young woman described in the “Another Kind of Adoption” article on this website.) Michelle Garrett, now residing in Colorado with her family, moved to Phoenix in 2005 when we were on staff there. I was leading the ministry region into which she and her husband, John, moved.

They came from the San Diego church at a time when most of the congregations in our movement of churches were going through some challenges. Leaders were not easily trusted, both because of mistakes we had made and because of something similar to a mob mentality that had invaded the thinking of not a few church members. Suffice it to say that it was not an easy time for leaders or for those whom we were trying to lead. With time and God, most of us worked through it all and grew from it.

This gives you some background for my first meeting with Michelle. She and her family attended our service one Sunday when I was preaching. After the lesson, Michelle came up to introduce herself and inform me that they had moved into Phoenix and into our Region area. When I gave her my name, she said simply, “Yes, I’ve heard of you,” to which I replied, “Well, what did you hear, good or bad?” I was attempting to be lighthearted, but she was having none of it. She said quickly, “Some of both.” I continued, “Well, what do you think?” She replied very seriously and honestly, “I don’t know yet; I’ll let you know when I know more about who you really are.”

Wow – pretty interesting introduction! But I appreciated both the honesty and the bluntness. That is my MO and I appreciate it in others. That’s probably why I loved living in the Northeast for 16 years. The people there are nothing if not blunt and often even what has been called “brutally honest.” I far prefer that to the kind of deceptive communication described in Psalm 55:21 – “His talk is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords.” The concept of discipling (by whatever term) has long appealed to me, and my need for honesty in both speaking and being spoken to is at the heart of it.  Proverbs 27:5-6 puts it well in these words: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. 6 Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

At any rate, I was immediately drawn to Michelle and quickly grew to love her hubby, John, as well. Some weeks or perhaps a couple of months after they joined us, she came up to me after a sermon with tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked at me very intently through those tears and said simply, “Thank you for being you.” That was one of the most touching compliments I have ever received. I get emotional every time I think about it, including right now. From that moment, our father/daughter relationship started to grow and continued to deepen. She writes (texts) me pretty often and tells me ways in which our relationship makes her feel special. In so doing, she always makes me feel very loved and very special.

Here is her note to me on this 2018 Father’s Day.

Happy Fathers Day!! For years of my discipleship, I wrestled with God as Father. With some professional help and a whole lot of God being patient the last couple of years, I’ve been able to settle into his wings and not just be okay but be proud that my dad is God Almighty. Throughout my years, even in my pre-disciple days, I see how God placed certain men in my life to father me, to show me more of Him. Some were for only seasons of life, and some who will forever be near if I call. Thank you for taking your calling from God to be a Papa to many and yet make each of us fatherless girls feel closer to God. You and I are so similar in spirit, backgrounds and personalities it makes me giggle at God. I love you, Happy Father’s Day Papa! ️ Michelle

Once again in my life, Mark 10:29-30 has been beautifully fulfilled. It’s a good day to be a father in the complete sense of that word spiritually.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

I Have Lost My Faith! (in coincidences)

Today, as I begin this article, it is April 8, 2018 – one day after my son Bryan’s 50th birthday. I spoke in a part of the Dallas East Region of the Dallas/Fort Worth Church, a part that has most of our East campus students in it. Our oldest grandson, Bryce Gordon Ferguson, is a part of this campus ministry. I asked for the opportunity to speak because I had some things on my heart that I thought were especially important for young people who are in the process of making major decisions about their lives. The lesson is entitled, “Life Choices, Purpose, and Eternity,” and the audio of it can be heard on this website: dfwchurch.org.

The outcome of the lesson surprised me, for it clearly exceeded my expectations regarding how it hit me emotionally and how it hit many of those in the audience. It was another of those “God moments” where he honored his promise to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us (Ephesians 3:20).” God has stirred up the gifts he has given me so many times in similar ways that I sometimes wonder why it still surprises me. I know it must be because it is so obviously him and not me; sometimes him in spite of me. At any rate, it was one of those times when I am left drained emotionally and touched spiritually beyond words. And yet I write…

A Strange Book

The biblical basis of the sermon was the Book of Ecclesiastes, a strange book as I explained in introducing the lesson. It is strange in that much of it sounds really pessimistic and faithless. It was written by King Solomon as an old man, who, after having started his reign in such a good spiritual place, ended up in a bad spiritual place. In the book, he described his search for the true meaning of life. He went down at least four dead-end streets and described them as “meaningless” and a “chasing after the wind.” The word meaningless is found 35 times in the book.

The pessimism of the book is explained pretty well by the phrase, “under the sun,” which is found 29 times. In other words, Solomon is describing life as it appears from only a human perspective – without God in it. Of course, at times, he puts God in the equation and when that happens, life is seen differently. The streets he took in his search for life’s meaning are very familiar ones, the same streets humans have been traveling for centuries, including our own. They are: wisdom (including education in order to obtain it); pleasure; possessions and accomplishments; and finally, power and position.

At the end of his failed and frustrating searches, he shared the reality of what really matters in these words: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).” Many times during the previous chapters, he mentioned that we will all die – rich and poor, wise and foolish, servant and master, young and old – all die. Now he concludes by stating that the only thing past death is meeting God in the Judgment Day.

Old Guys and Their Musings

I’m not surprised that he thought a lot about death. Old people do. I do. Our candles of life are nearing the last of the wax and about to be snuffed out. Of course we think about the “end game!” We are no longer at the back of the line or the middle of the line – we are near the front of it and our number is about to be called. That being true, the certainty of the Judgment resides in our hearts and minds pretty much daily. If God is in the middle of our priorities, that is a good thought; if he isn’t, that is a scary thought. Hence the reason for the sermon, to help the young realize the brevity of life and how important their choices are. Most choices are inconsequential. Others are very important because they are developing our characters one decision at a time. Some are ultimately important because they significantly determine our direction in life and our destination in eternity. Solomon made many bad choices, choices that I desperately want my fellow disciples to avoid at all costs, particularly the young ones.

Within the lesson, as I moved toward the conclusion, I explained how I had tried all of the same four searches for meaning and succeeded in all of them at a very early age. My life has been blessed with many successes, in both my pre-Christian days and especially in my Christian days. As I thought about what I had said, I started thinking about the specifics involved. A couple of passages came to mind in my contemplation, passages written by two of my greatest biblical heroes, David and Paul.

Psalm 18:35
You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great.

Galatians 1:14-16
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.

Now I realize that applying these passages to oneself can seem arrogant and presumptuous. Point taken. It would be true if you were looking at them “under the sun” from merely a human perspective, but I am most decidedly not doing that or anything close to it. It is all about God and what he has done in my life – more in spite of me than because of me. My gifts are just that – gifts, from beyond me as a human being. When thinking about God stooping down to make me great, I don’t mean great in the eyes of men or great in my own eyes. Quite the contrary. I mean great in comparison to what any sane person might have expected of me, given my background and life without Christ, and definitely in comparison to what I would have ever even imagined of myself.

God’s Surprises

That’s why it all continues to be surprising. I know who I was without God (a total mess) and who I am with God (often still a mess). But as Derik Vett put it in his response to either my message today or to the communion sharing by a sister today, “our mess becomes our message.” And that is what I am trying to describe. Without God I am nothing and with God I am still not much, but in both cases, he can still do his wonders, which means that he receives all of the glory for using flawed mortals to accomplish his purposes.

As to what Paul said, I did advance beyond many of my own age in both my pre-Christian life and in my Christian life, just as Paul did. With both of us, God gave us all of the gifts we possessed and all of the opportunities to develop them and to use them. It was, and is, all about him. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature (Romans 7:18).” “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).”

Paul said that he was set apart from birth to be God’s messenger. That included the days when he was a fire-breathing dragon of a persecutor of God’s people. I believe that I was set apart from birth to be a preacher of the gospel. That includes my degenerate days when I was far, far from God, having no desire to be any closer to him. Therein lies the wonder of it all. God has a plan for each of us, you included. How many thousands (far more, likely) large and small miracles does he have to work behind the scenes to get us there? Only he knows, but the number must be a staggering one. That is why a Christian cannot really believe in coincidences. Instead, he or she believes in divine interventions as God’s means of carrying out the destinies he had planned for us before we were even born. Is that so hard to believe? Not if you believe the Bible. “Your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16).”

God needed to have Paul go though legalistic Jewish training in order to become the apostle to the Gentiles and the greatest expounder of grace the world has ever known. God needed to have me go though worldly successes in order to discover the emptiness of those successes. Only then would I have been open to his plan for my life to become a preacher and teacher of his message and to adopt the way of life described within it. He made sure I got those fruitless searches out of my system at an early age, and by the time I was 25, it was done. At that point, he put a thought in my mind from which I could not escape: “Is this all there is to life?” I remember every detail of the day when he put it there. It remains one of my most vivid memories, a memory now 50 years in the past.

A Long Drive in the Countryside

After arriving home today, I let Theresa out and went for a long prayer drive through the remote countryside nearby. I thanked God for the surprise today, his working in and through me in ways beyond my expectations (although I had prayed for him to use me). I drove slowly for some miles expressing my wonderment at how he keeps working in my life. Then I started just talking through my life with God, recounting the ways that he has allowed me to be raised up beyond any reasonable expectation. The idea that he had done so much quite early in my life just to stop me from looking for answers in all the wrong places became clearer and clearer. Given my background as a redneck bricklayer’s kid raised on the wrong side of the tracks in a highly dysfunctional immediate family and extended family, failure upon failure would have been a much more realistic expectation in my case.

So what about the successes that came my way? Recounting them today in my long talk with God was revealing. Some might explain them as me being more talented than I really was, or being in the right places at the right times, or just being flat-out lucky – but God and I know better. It was all his doing and a part of his plan to develop and use me for his glory. It wasn’t about me; it was about him – from start to finish. If this account sounds like a bragging session, it is – a bragging session about how God can use otherwise weak and sinful humans to honor himself and show his power. To connect anything good in us with “life under the sun” (our own doing) is not simply a disservice to God or an insult to him; it is a sin. Anything that robs or diminishes his glory is a sin.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

In recounting how God blessed me in spite of me, I started with my earliest years. My parents married just a couple of years after the Great Depression ended, a worldwide economic downturn that began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized Western world. Because of the economy, we lived with relatives for the first several years of my life. We were poor, by anyone’s definition. My parents had a terrible early marriage, including a legal separation for a couple of years, which ended when I was five years old. After they got back together, times were still hard. For whatever reasons, we moved from house to house often when I was in elementary school. One or two of the little houses was purchased and the rest were cheap rent houses in not-so-nice neighborhoods. I attended seven different elementary schools.

Most aspects of my life were pretty unpredictable and often pretty unsettled. I had a problem with wetting the bed as a young child, suggesting some emotional problems arising from my environment. My father spanked me for the very problems that he had a major part in causing. My parents both had emotional issues and they passed them on to me. However, I wouldn’t trade my early life with its problems for anything. It was a part of God’s orchestration of making me who I am. Working through problems has made me stronger and prepared me to help others work through their problems. I don’t blame my parents for the damage with which they inflicted me. They were raised in dysfunctional families as well, during very hard times in our country and simply didn’t know any better.

I am sure that they loved me and wanted me, and I am equally sure that they didn’t quite know what to do with me. They had no examples of good marriages or good parenting techniques to imitate. Why blame them for what they really couldn’t fix in themselves? Thankfully, with time and maturity and God, I came to peace with both my past and my parents. For most of my adult life, I had very good relationships with them, by God’s grace. I see it all now as a part of my spiritual preparation. I honestly wouldn’t trade it. I have grown substantially in having to laboriously work through it all, and besides, I have a plethora of wild stories to tell. Some of them aren’t too pretty, but some are downright hilarious. Believe me, in looking back, there is definitely some fun in dysfunctional! See!

“God Things” in Those Early Years

Most of my earliest years don’t contain much that stirs my memory, but here and there were some of the high points that I believe God must have been using to prepare me for higher points in the future. We moved to a small town about 50 miles from my hometown when I was halfway through the third grade. We moved to a new neighborhood near the edge of town just before I started the fourth grade. My parents bought me a (cheap) horse and we had a lot behind our house in which to keep her. No other kid in the small neighborhood had a horse, but the other kids thought I was cool with my horse, and at least a half dozen persuaded their parents to buy them a horse by the time we moved at the end of the school year. I had a definite influence on my friends, and I in retrospect, it involved a rather latent leadership gift inside me.

I also had a teacher that year who figured into the equation. I saw myself as just an average student, at best. I also saw the danger of ending up as a student in Mrs. Carter’s class. Her reputation preceded her, as expressed in “Whatever you do, don’t get Mrs. Carter!” She had a big paddle with holes drilled in it, and she reputedly was quick on the draw and knew how to move the blood from your hind parts up to your face with that paddle. Unfortunately, I got both Mrs. Carter as a teacher and her paddle on my behind. However, because I was afraid of her and that infernal paddle, I applied myself to schoolwork perhaps for the first time. Prior to then, I was known as a “goof-off!” At the end of the year, Mrs. Carter told my mother that I was her best student in the class. That was a first and a shock, but somewhere in my cranial matter, that point got filed away. Maybe there was more to me than I thought, and more than others thought.

The fifth grade was pretty nondescript. I was bussed away to a school on the other side of town, located in a neighborhood a notch or two below my own. It was a seriously poor area, but like all other years, that year passed and I passed – not with the flying colors like when in Mrs. Carter’s class, mind you, but I passed. That teacher (whose name didn’t stay with me) didn’t have a paddle, so my goofing off stage returned. In my family, grades were never much of an issue with my parents. Mother finished high school and Daddy may have. Years after he died, his brothers (my uncles) told me that they thought he had been kicked out of school for gambling or fighting (he did both) just prior to his graduation. Oh, well!

In the sixth grade, at a new school just built in our area of town, God’s apparent intervention began picking up speed. Mrs. Teacle, my teacher, told my mother early in the school year that I was shy and withdrawn and that she was going to draw me out of myself. Whatever she did must have worked. By the end of the year, I had been sent to the principal more than once for “coming out of myself,” so to speak! The female principal had a paddle too, by the way, and didn’t hesitate to use it on me. I have never forgotten Mrs. Teacle, not because of anything that I recall her teaching or even doing to me, but because of what my mother told me about her decision to help me change. I think she succeeded enough to start a leadership gift ball rolling.

God and a Teenager

Then in the seventh grade, I had a number of different teachers each day. Life was certainly different in junior high school. I do remember one of those teachers better than most, whose name was Mr. Renfro. The main reason I remember him is because one day he stopped me and my friend, Everett, in the hall and fussed at us. He said in a frustrated tone, “You boys are capable of doing tenth grade work and you are not even doing seventh grade work!” I honestly took that as a compliment. I didn’t change and start doing even good seventh grade work, but I remember a teacher seeing more in me than I saw in myself.

My approach to school was primarily doing well in subjects that I liked and just doing enough to get by in the ones I didn’t like. Six weeks into the school year, my mother persuaded me to become a band member. The son of a family we knew well was already excelling in band, since he had started the program two years prior. So, we met with Mr. Simmons, the band director, and he said that he could make room for a trombone player, but not another trumpet player (the instrument my friend played and I wanted to play). Thus, I ended up playing trombone. My parents sacrificed to give me private lessons with Mr. Simmons so that I could catch up. To my amazement, I took to it like a duck to water. In a matter of weeks, I was promoted to the concert band (the top band). In a matter of months, I was the “first chair” trombone player (the best one in the band). I had hated my attempts to learn to play the piano a few years prior, but somehow band was clearly my thing. I excelled at it.

When in the eighth grade, I took what I believe was called the “Kuder Interest Inventory.” I looked it up on Google and it is still around, now called the “Kuder Occupational Interest Survey.” It shows where your greatest interests lie, interests that might indicate a suitable career path for the future. Being a Louisiana outdoorsman, I scored 99% in the outdoors category. Next came music at 95% and my interests dropped considerably after that. Math was third, at about 67%. I remember giving the test results a good deal of consideration. My reasoning process led to this thought (and yes, I still remember it well): if I go into some outdoor line of work, I will lose the music side of my life; if I go into the music field of work, I can still hunt and fish on weekends. On this basis my decision was made. I wanted to become a band director just like Mr. Simmons. Once decided, I never wavered from that decision and ended up as a junior high band director upon graduating from college with a degree in music education.

My leadership gift was about to be stirred up much more. In retrospect, it was already functioning in an informal way for years. My friends looked up to me as a leader, although I never thought of it that way. I was the one whose ideas were taken most seriously. What I wanted to do was generally quickly accepted by my circle of friends. I didn’t connect it with being an opinion leader; I just thought that we all had the same opinions and the same preferences.

In the ninth grade (the last year in my junior high school), I was selected to be the drum major in the band. I thought at the time (as did most of my fellow students) that I should have been selected the year prior, but I was fine with waiting another year. Once selected, that event identified me as an up-front leader, and I rather cherished the role. It seemed natural to me, and I was quite confident in it. I look back on it as preparation, not to one day be a band director, but to be a spiritual leader in God’s band. Odd, the details that God works out in our lives, dots that we do not connect except in retrospect.

Another little tidbit was likely a piece of the puzzle that God was assembling in my life during that ninth grade year. I was about the only boy in school that turned 15 while still in junior high. The age requirements were different in Texas, where I started the first grade, than they were in Louisiana. I had to wait until I was almost 7 to start school. Thankfully, in those days in Louisiana, you could get a driver’s license at 15, and I most certainly did. I had already been driving for a couple of years prior, especially when visiting my grandma and uncle in the country. My uncle, who was single and only ten years older than me, virtually gave me the keys of his new ’55 Chevy when I was visiting. Obviously, he was a really good uncle in my eyes – my favorite! When I received that driver’s license in October of my ninth grade year, I was automatically a more popular guy with both males and females. It was indeed a good year! And unbeknownst to me, God was assembling a puzzle with me in the middle of it.

High School – God Was Still There

Then came my entry into high school. But we cannot leave those junior high years without mentioning one thing that is far more important than anything else I described. I met Theresa Ann Clemens in the seventh grade, and because we were both band kids, we had many classes together. We didn’t like each other in any way, and it might be said that we repelled each other. Five years later, however, that was all going to be reversed 180 degrees. Let it suffice at this point in my young history to just say that God was working all things together for good (Romans 8:28) in providing me with the perfect wife for the role that was yet many years away.

I loved my high school years, and band was at the center of it. I started taking private trombone lessons with Mr. Minnear, my new no-nonsense military style band director. I became drum major in my junior year and served in this role for two years. I was a featured soloist at a number of band concerts, and generally excelled in my budding music career. Looking back, I don’t remember anyone else playing solos on that performance stage other than me. Perhaps there were, but I don’t remember it. Although Mr. Minnear would never have shown it, I must have been one of his favorites.

For some reason, I decided a month or so into my tenth grade year to join the Junior ROTC program, a program that at least half of the male students chose. Perhaps the reason was the memory that my mother’s older brother was the first Lieutenant Colonel of the same program back when the school was new. I had seen photos of Uncle Victor in that uniform, with presentation sword hanging at his side – an impressive figure was he! Although I entered the program late, I earned regular promotions, and near the end of my second year, I was in the highest ranking group for Juniors. In the beginning of my senior year, I was promoted with those in the top tier of the Corps. I was told that I would have ended up in the top staff group except for the fact that I was by far the most qualified to be the Company Commander (Captain) of the Band Company. I had been the drum major for that unit the previous year, and now ended up in the Captain’s role.

She Wasn’t An Angel, Or Was She?

God obviously had a plan to use that role for much more than leadership development. Every officer had a female sponsor, and sponsors were elected by the student body. It was basically a popularity contest for the young women. My sponsor was Theresa’s best friend, and Theresa was the sponsor for my Exec officer. We had been in band together, and in many other classes through the years, yet were not even friends. However, when I introduced her to the Company in that white summer sponsor’s uniform, a spark was produced that started a little flame in each of us – a flame that grew in size and intensity within weeks. By the time I turned 18 that October, I believed in my heart of hearts that I had a new girlfriend who was destined to become my wife. Many of my teenage emotions were quite off-target, but that one was spot on accurate!

However, just why she was the ideal choice of a mate would never have entered my worldly mind at the time. A finer preacher’s wife could never have been prepared for me, in retrospect. God has used her in my life in amazing ways, ways without which I would not be going to heaven. She may be human, but she is as close to an angel as I have ever met.

Mediocrity and Excellence Mixed

During my high school years, I may have excelled in band and ROTC, but not in much else. My pattern of doing well in subjects I liked and not putting forth much effort in those I didn’t continued. I don’t remember what my grade point average was, but it wasn’t enough to get me into the Honor Society with Theresa, that’s for sure. Oddly, I still was selected by the faculty to be one of the school’s 10 or 12 representatives at Pelican Boy’s State. Those slots were normally reserved for students with outstanding grades, and considering that our graduating class was about 550, I never understood how I was selected. I suppose it was on the basis of leadership qualities, for it definitely wasn’t based on my grades. That occurrence still seems odd to me. Obviously, my teachers saw past my mediocre efforts in general to view other qualities that I didn’t recognize in myself. God was still in the middle of it all, as he always is.

Then on to my college years, where my choice of schools was determined almost entirely by Theresa’s choice of schools. We entered Northwestern State College (now Northwestern State University) in the fall of 1961 and graduated together in late May of 1965. We crossed the stage together, for we had gotten married in January prior to graduation, between semesters. Getting married while still in college was a dream of mine, although I couldn’t figure out how to do it financially until the summer, a few months before the start of our final year in school. I had saved up as much as I could through my summer construction jobs, and out of nowhere, my mother suddenly remembered a small insurance policy that they had taken out years prior to help with my college costs. It was a small amount, but along with my savings and frugal approach with money, it helped put us over the hump. We ended up having to take out some school loans, but that wasn’t a lot of money. The whole situation aligns with my early life in general, in that things seemed to break my way if I wanted them badly enough.

My study habits improved after we married, and for the first time in my life, I made the Dean’s List. Up until then, I was still in my lazy days of having fun and not sweating the small stuff, and most everything fit into the small stuff category. I went through most of the first two years with a gambling addiction. I played cards almost all night every night, and with a couple of hours sleep, somehow made it through my classes. About 3 days a week, I didn’t sleep at all except in a couple of carefully selected classes. My friend, Ben, who was already married, picked me up between 4 am and 5 am on those days and we went fishing or hunting.

Most of those days, we made it back in time for my first class, but not always. The requirements for attendance were very strict, and I ended up on attendance probation nine straight semesters. If I had missed one class without an approved excuse after that, it would have meant expulsion for the remainder of the semester. How I walked that tightrope is another mystery, given the sleep deprived near-stupor I lived in for the first two years. My grades were none too good, but I managed to pass all of my classes. I had a lot more academic ability than I would have thought, an ability I didn’t fully realize until I was back in a school for ministry training years later.

Characteristically, I only did well in subjects that I liked, and those in my music major curriculum were the only ones that fit into that category. I was selected as drum major as a freshman and that meant four years of being in front of the band. It turned out to mean being up front in more than one way. I was obviously in front leading the band during halftime shows at the football games, but often during most of the rest of the game in the stands, I was directing the pieces we played there. Our band director hated everything about the band’s role at games, and he pretty much left everything up to me. For all practical purposes, I was serving as a college band director on those occasions. I relished it all and did it well. From God’s perspective, it was all spiritual leadership training, something I could not have come close to imagining at the time.

God and the Next Phase

Theresa and I both graduated with education degrees, hers in upper elementary and mine in music. We were hoping to find positions back in our hometown of Shreveport, but we heard nothing from that school district in the time period that most were finding jobs. We went to interviews in several places in the state, and were offered jobs. Just as we were about to accept the offers from a school in the southern part of the state, we received a call from the school board in Shreveport. In fact, the first call from them came we were traveling back from the interview I mentioned, intending to call and accept their offers upon arriving back at our college home.

The Shreveport folks were by then trying to track us down rather urgently, and when they finally got in touch with us, they apologized for being so late to the hiring frenzy. I forgot what their excuse was, but the timing involved a whole series of fortunate events. Remember that cell phones were yet far in the future in those days, and quick communications were anything but easy. They offered us jobs on the spot, without interviews. That part still seems a bit strange. Theresa started teaching at her old elementary school, one block from the house she was raised in. I started teaching at a relatively new junior high school, located only a few blocks from the house where I was raised. The timing and the circumstances left us a bit incredulous.

I was fortunate enough to begin my teaching career with one of the most outstanding educational professionals I have ever known, Stanley Powell. He ended up in a very influential position with the school board. His influence on my life was significant. I started teaching at age 22 and Theresa at age 21. The school I taught in was located in what most called, “the working man’s part of town,” a way of describing neighborhoods of blue collar workers. The year I started teaching there, a new junior high school opened that was located close to my school, and most of the suburb students left my school for the new one. The band, which had been very good the year prior to my arrival, had been nearly decimated. Almost all of the best players had gone to the new school, a fact I discovered on my first day of teaching.

A Unique Training Experience

My best hope was to recruit the best candidates from the incoming seventh grade students, and really start teaching them well and in earnest. I was fortunate to be able to recruit an even dozen from the accelerated class students, one of whom was my kid sister, Pam. She had always called me “Bubba” (still does), and my insistence on being called Mr. Ferguson did not sit well with her, to put it mildly. I think she has forgiven me by now! I worked long and hard to teach all of my students, old and new, the fundamentals. Many band directors just focused on teaching a few numbers for the annual music contest, hoping to get the top rating of “Superior.” I knew that shortcuts would hurt me, the students, and ultimately the program itself. I didn’t cut corners, and that took perseverance with a capital P.

While we did manage to obtain a Superior rating at the spring music contest, another part of the program that also received a rating didn’t go so well. That part was the “sight-reading” part. The band was given a newly published piece, hot off the press, and then both director and the band were given only about 10 minutes to look it over before playing it for a rating. My band failed miserably, even though the piece was actually quite simple. Every band besides mine received a superior rating. When all of the band directors met after the contest to officially evaluate it, I made the statement that the sight-reading piece had been too easy for the junior high level. The laughter that erupted was loud and it lasted embarrassingly long. But I stuck to my guns.

The year between then and the next contest found me working extremely hard, still trying to instill music fundamentals into my young students, many of whom had only been playing an instrument for a year or less. But I pushed them hard and they learned fast. The good thing about kids that age is that they don’t know what normal is, other than what you tell them. Telling them that they can do something means more than the actuality of reasonable expectations. That was a marvelous lesson for me to learn as a leader.

The next year when the contest rolled around, my band had developed in a way that shocked even me. I asked experienced high school directors to come in and work out my band. Most of them were very pleasantly surprised by how well my group was playing. Earning a superior rating in the part of the contest where you only performed the three pieces that you had been practicing for a long time was a piece of cake for us. The judges were blown away. I was blown away. How could kids with at most 2 ½ year’s experience play like that? My best players (the “first chairs”) had been playing only a little over 1 ½ years. But they were not limited by reasonable expectations, for that didn’t know what those might be. They didn’t know any better than to do what I told them they could do. Sweet!

The sight-reading section of the program is where the real drama took place. The powers that be had responded to my comments the year before during our official evaluation, and the sight-reading piece was a doozy. I started sweating as soon as I laid my eyes on the score. It was difficult, really difficult, for a band at that level. But I acted confident, talked the band through the piece, and told them it was a piece of cake. They believed me evidently, for they were the only band who played straight through the piece without stopping. We received a superior rating. Only one other band received a similar rating, but it was a superior minus rating, and the only reason they squeaked that out was because the judge was the former college professor of the director of that band. It was a gift in their case, but not ours.

I employed a similar approach of having great expectations a few months later as we prepared for the big downtown parade in which bands of all levels participated. Soon after the contest event, I passed out a John Phillip Sousa march that was clearly at a high school level of difficulty. I had never heard of a junior high band playing it. But it was one of my favorites, so I passed it out to the band, and treated our first exposure to it much like the sight-reading contest. I explained it fairly briefly, raised the baton and started them playing. They didn’t do well, which was actually understandable, given the difficulty level. But I stopped them, told them that this was unacceptable and that they could play it. I gave them a bit more explanation of the details of the march, raised my baton and started them again. They amazingly played it straight through. I was shocked, but didn’t let them know it. At that point, I told them to memorize it and that we were going to play it as we marched in an upcoming spring parade, which we did. All of the band directors who heard us, junior high and high school directors alike, were simply incredulous. I still remember some of their comments. It was something to behold.

Broadening Opportunities

Success begets success, and it also opens doors. Advancements in the band directing field track about the same as those in the school coaching field. The best directors and coaches advance the quickest. The Supervisor of Music, Dr. Lee, asked me to supervise a federally funded summer program after either my first or second year of teaching. He was scheduled to attend graduate school to either finish up his doctorate or to do post-doc work, and I was serving in his place. He granted me the use of his office in the school board facility, and while I was there I rubbed shoulders with the big shots. That was almost like an out-of-the-body experience for a neophyte like me. I visited all of the schools with these summer programs, in the city and in the small outlying towns. I met with the teachers of the programs and wrote up evaluations of how I thought they were doing. It was quite the heady experience.

Perhaps my relationship with my astute principal and my associations with many other administrators provided the motivation for starting graduate school in the field of supervision and administration at the high school level (that was the official title of my chosen curriculum). By the time I resigned from public school teaching after 3 ½ years, I was halfway to my master’s degree, with nearly all of my courses taken during the summer breaks. I was definitely ambitious in a worldly way, and my ambitions were being noticed and rewarded.

An Introduction to Failure

After my second year of teaching at the junior high level, two new high schools were scheduled to open in the fall, plus my old high school alma mater had an opening. Of all the junior high band directors in the system, I was given the choice of becoming the band director of any of the three schools. By that time, my life and priorities had changed, the preaching bug had bitten me and I really didn’t want to be teaching in public schools in any capacity. I yearned to somehow get training in the Bible and preaching field. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it yet.

In spite of my very mixed motivations at this point, my principal was, not surprisingly, tapped to become the principal at the most prestigious new high school. It was quite the showplace – three stories with a completely round shape! He wanted me to come with him and he pushed every button in me to persuade me. In the end, he succeeded in that task, in spite of my reluctance. Doing anything half-hearted doesn’t work well. My short stint as a band director in that new high school was one of my very few failures up to that point in my life, but a failure it was. I just couldn’t get my heart in it, try as I might. One of my fellow teachers actually called my preacher friend who had been used by God to inspire me and literally change my life. She told him that it was obvious that I was miserable in my job and wanted to be a preacher. I hardly knew that woman, but she was spot on with her observation.

I ended up doing something that teachers seldom did – I resigned at mid-year. I simply had to put my misery to an end and make way for someone more deserving of the job I vacated. I was left struggling with a very unfamiliar feeling, that of abject failure. I went from the mountaintop of having about everything I touched go well, to the valley of despair as I watched my world come apart at the seams. The mascot of that high school was fitting for Louisiana – a Gator. One of my closest friends at the time, also a band director, said behind my back and to my face (with purposefully poor grammar) that “Old Ferg got ate by a gator!” I could hardly argue with his conclusions.

I tried sales of various sorts but failed at all of them too. The one I seemed to be succeeding in, with promises of quickly making some seriously big bucks, came to a sudden halt when the Attorney General of the state put the company out of business as a pyramid scheme. I made some quick money alright, but doing so really hurt some of the people whose money I essentially took in the company’s scheme. Failing in one thing wasn’t enough; I evidently needed to experience failure upon failure. God put Moses through 40 years in the wilderness to figure out his life and role in life; he only put me through one year, but it was a very long and painful year.

Boasting – About God!

Why do I mention those experiences, especially the successful ones? To brag? As a non-Christian, I’m sure that was why I selectively talked about the good ones. Now, from a Christian perspective, I see God’s hand in it all, teaching me life lessons and particularly leadership lessons – both from unique sources. I learned that it takes hard work to accomplish worthwhile goals, a lot of hard work. God calls all of us out of mediocrity, out of a do-only-enough-to-get-by mentality. He doesn’t approve of his human creation doing less than they are capable of doing, and everyone is capable of doing more than they usually settle for.

I also learned that leadership works, and that expectations of leaders set the bar for the performance of those who follow them. People rise and fall according to the expectations of those to whom they look as leaders. My junior high band members did what I said I expected of them, even when I wasn’t fully persuaded that they could do it. Amazing lesson, that one. Any church, or ministry group within a church, or any group of churches will do what their leaders expect of them. Great expectations yield great results and low expectations will be rewarded in line with those expectations (using the word reward unusually). All of these early experiences of mine, good and bad, taught me important lessons and I don’t believe for a minute that any of them were mere coincidences. The lessons from my failures were the hardest to experience, by far, but they did a very essential part in paving the way to the life I was intended to live all along. Those lessons of long ago were all a part of a masterplan – God’s design and God’s doing.

My Next Two Lives

From that point on in my life, God came knocking on my door spiritually, in ways described in my book, “My Three Lives.” I won’t re-write that history of my spiritual development, but I do invite you to read that book and those stories of divine intervention into the early life of a none-too-cooperative sinner. God is never in a hurry in bringing us to himself and in developing us into the persons that he has planned. If he were, our free wills wouldn’t be really free, and that is a part of being created human. Robots cannot love and humans will not love easily. It takes a Potter, a potter’s wheel producing friction and pain, plus a piece of clay ultimately willing to be molded. Getting to that point of being even moderately willing was not easy for me, but God himself provides the greatest application of the bottom line definition of discipling someone, from beginning to end: “gentle pressure, relentlessly applied.”

One chapter in the book just mentioned is entitled, “Wild Adventures ─ Almost Too Young and Too Soon.” The first part of the chapter is important in showing that with God’s plan for us as individuals is tailormade for each of us. He knows us and he works on us and in us according to his complete understanding of who we are. Here is a part of that introduction:

God is not only totally unpredictable in how he chooses to work in our lives; he is totally adventuresome. He loves surprising us. He loves forcing us out of our small thinking boxes and narrow comfort zones. He knows how much we can handle, and he pushes us right to the edge of that limit. He recognized me as having a very fond appreciation of adventure and a very high capacity to endure it. I’ve done a lot of really crazy things through the years, enough to have already outlined a weird humor book that won’t require much embellishment at all. I’ve lived it from youth. The title of this chapter encapsulates the concept. God made me and understands me. He knows that I like adventure and get bored with the more mundane aspects of life quickly. I’ve often described my life with him as him jumping unexpectedly out from behind bushes and scaring me half to death. The key word in the chapter title is almost. Many adventures in ministry came my way almost too soon when I was almost too young.

My whole life has been an adventure in one way or another. Some of it was very challenging and hurtful in the short run, but still did its work of preparing me in the long run. Some of it was downright exhilarating as it occurred. The same two extremes are present today in my old age. I’ve not slowed down much, and don’t intend to. I’m running out of time, and I want to see my life end with me still swinging the bat for God. I made many bad choices in my early days, but more and more good ones as I have aged. God has used both kinds to make me who I am and both kinds to keep me on the Potter’s wheel so that I can become more like him.

Back to the Sermon

Now, back to the sermon and its final application. I used a movie illustration for the ending, a movie entitled “What If…” starring Kevin Sorbo. The movie is introduced with Sorbo’s character in a bus station with his girlfriend, a young woman who wanted more than anything else for them to get married and serve God together. He, on the other hand, reasoned with her that he would first go to the big city and make it in the corporate world, after which he would return and they would get married.

As he got up to catch the bus, he left behind the special Bible she had just given him as a parting gift. It was a sad scene to see her remain behind in tears. Many sad scenes were to follow. He is next shown as a highly successful business partner in a firm. He is a high-roller in every way. He has a very attractive fiancé, but attractive only in a worldly way, for she is as worldly as he now is. He buys a car costing about a quarter million dollars about the time he has to make a trip to his hometown. This gives him a chance to try out his new wheels. On the outskirts of the town, his car suddenly stops running. Shortly thereafter, a tow truck pulls up with a rough talking driver giving him orders.

It turns out that the truck driver is actually an angel in human form. He sends the big shot into an alternate life, the one he left behind and should have chosen. In a flash, Sorbo is in a house with his former girlfriend who is now his wife, and two children as a part of the scenario – one a teen girl and the other one a younger sibling. He doesn’t know the children but they know him. He is freaked out, understandably, especially to learn that he is the minister for the local church. In spite of his quick visit to the angel at the car repair shop and his heightened protests and requests to return immediately to his other life, the angel refuses to budge. He is stuck for the time being in this strange alternate life.

His first Sunday in the pulpit was a shocker. He knows nothing of the Bible and just shares his business ideas, which are anything but exemplary and commendable. The congregation was left reeling as was his family. That part of the movie is pretty funny. Seeing that he cannot quickly escape his present circumstances, he eventually starts studying that same Bible that he left behind years ago in the bus station. God’s truths start penetrating his worldly mind and heart. He begins to warm up to the spiritual world in an ever-increasing way.

About the time most of the dots start connecting, the angel comes back and informs him that it is time to go back to his other life. Frantically, he begs the angel not to send him back. He has just discovered the true meaning to life, and the idea of returning to the worldly life absolutely terrifies him. However, the angel says that the plan is irreversible. I will leave the last part of the movie without explanation in case your interest is pricked enough to watch it. I hope you do.

Realizations, Relief and Much Gratitude

I have watched that movie at least five times, never without crying. I look back at a point in my life and realize how close I came to being like this guy in the first part of his life; how close I came to being something besides a Christian and a preacher of the good news. The very thought that I would have given up what I have been blessed by God to be and to do is a nightmare of the worst kind. My tears always flow as I think of that possibility, but they are tears of appreciation to my God. He reached down and plucked me out of the fires, and he used a number of “angels” to accomplish his plan. Theresa was the best of the angels he sent, but others that I mention in my book were a lot like that truck driver in the movie.

My tears at that point in the sermon touched the emotions of most in the audience. I was deeply touched once again as my heart was being moved by what I was describing. That led up to the prayer drive in the countryside and the contemplation in all of this that I began writing after I returned. I didn’t finish until the next afternoon (and have edited a bit since), but the trip down memory lane give me a bigger picture of God and his plan. I understand much better some things in my past that I didn’t see as clearly prior to the praying and writing. It’s been a very uplifting exercise for me. I pray that it will have something of the same effect on you as you read it. Thank you for taking the time to read through it all. A currently highly popular TV show is entitled, “This is Us.” My trip down memory lane describes God and his angels producing another show, but this one is not fiction. It is the divinely directed story of “This is Me.” You would find it a helpful exercise to write your own story, looking through the lens with God in the center of it – all parts of it. Yes, I have indeed lost my faith – in coincidences!

The Big Black Brother’s Club

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).

Spiritual thinking means that we are colorblind in one sense, but it means more than that.  It also means that we are both color-aware and color-appreciative.  The Galatians passage above affirms that in some sense, physical distinctions are ended in Christ.  Regardless of race, social status or gender, we are all equally valuable to our Creator.  None is superior and none is inferior, for we are all made in the image of God and saved by the blood of Jesus.  But we do not cease to be who we are racially, socially and sexually.  Men are still men and women are still women.  We must remain aware of those differences if we are to be effective evangelistically.  Read Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 on the principle of becoming all things to all men to reach as many as possible.

We must also be appreciative of the differences that remain.  America is a blending of cultures like few other countries.  Of course, in our cosmopolitan world, the cultural and racial composition of most nations is far more varied than in the past.  However, Americans generally relish the variations more than the norm, since we were built with this diversity from the beginning.  We are the big melting pot, and the acceptance of this diversity is at least a part of the reason many from other countries would like to migrate here.  The attraction of financial opportunities is the biggest draw, but even more because these opportunities are found in a setting where backgrounds don’t mean too much.

However, in spite of this relatively accepting atmosphere, prejudices abound.  I was raised in a part of America at a time when blacks and whites were quite segregated.  I did not attend school with blacks until post-graduate studies when I trained as a minister.  (Thankfully, that all seems so strange now.)  When I was a teen, I did construction work in the summers as what was called a common laborer, and most in that category were black workers.  Being around black men on the job was the first time I was able to closely associate with them on a peer basis, and frankly, both they and I loved it.  We had a blast acting more than a little crazy together.  I enjoyed their fun-loving ways no end, and my life was enriched by close association with those who were different from me racially and culturally.  Since I was a young adult, some of my closest friends have been from different minorities.  As I learned from their cultures and backgrounds, I grew to delight in our differences.  

The church in the Bible was made up of equals, but equals with some pretty significant differences.  Learning to love each other and live together in one Body was not always easy, but it will always be God’s way.  All white churches or all black churches or all Asian churches or all Hispanic churches stand in stark contrast to the early church that Jesus built.  Variety is the spice of life.  We need each other, and we need to be enriched by the differences in each other.  I rejoice in the true kingdom of God, because it is such a conglomeration of different types of people.  We have the rich and the poor; the educated and the uneducated; the young and the old; the social adept and what the world might call the social misfits; the blacks, the whites, the Asians and the Hispanics, and then mixtures of all of these.  We are the same in heart and purpose, but not the same in so many other ways, and these differences are cause to rejoice.  Only God could bring such a group together in love and harmony.  Our unity is the demonstration to the world that we are true disciples of Jesus (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23).

On my desk is a very unusual picture of seven men, affectionately called the BBB Club ─ the Big Black Brother’s Club.  A number of years ago, several brothers in the church started coming over to our house on select Monday nights during the fall to watch Monday Night Football on TV.  Most of these brothers were black, and gradually, the moniker of “the BBB’s” started being used.  So, by mutual agreement, I was also black on Monday nights.  (Actually, I always thought that I had too much soul to be a white man anyway!)  On the nights when we are going to meet, we would discuss whether to invite a “token white” for the evening (remember, I’m black on Mondays).  It was quite a group.  Although a number of different “brother-brothers” (black disciples) have attended at different times, our club ended up with seven members:  Bob Peterson, Walter Parrish, Curt Garner, Keith Avery, Jon Williams, Arthur Conard and me.  My wife said that she could hear us out in the street, even though we met in the basement.  Gin Rummy or Spades card games often competed with the football game, and to say that it was a lively meeting would downplay the true nature of the atmosphere considerably.

These brothers seemed to understand that I needed some setting where I don’t have to be a church leader of any type, but only one of the brothers, able to let my hair (what I have left) down completely.  I needed these men and I cherished our times together.  Now that others have heard about us, they are clamoring to get into the fray.  With good-natured but raucous humor, we give them a hard time and let them know, that according to our by-laws, visitors have to be approved by a majority of the club members.  None of those little white skinny guys have much of a chance of approval!  Actually, those who do come have a great chance of losing their skinniness, since the food items are not exactly of the low-fat variety!

The picture to which I referred earlier is very unusual because it was taken after Arthur died suddenly of heart arrest last fall at age 38.  (With the help of a friend, Arthur’s picture was scanned into a computer along with our picture taken later, and now we have the seven originals in a BBB Club picture.)  He had a heart condition and realized that he would not live a normal life span.  Yet he was as full of zest for life as anyone I have ever known.  Deeply in love with God and people, he spent his last hours out sharing his faith.  Returning home on the bus, he simply went to sleep and woke up with God.  About 700 people attended his memorial service from all walks of life.  The BBB’s, along with several of Arthur’s closest brothers wept together at his casket, but during the day, laughed about as often as we cried.  Our tears were not for him but for ourselves.  He will be missed greatly by his faithful wife, Joyce, and by a vast throng of friends and family who loved him deeply.  Life for us will not be the same, both because he leaves a void and because he changed us by his copious love and laughter.  My background was about as different from Arthur’s as one could imagine, but we were (are) brothers, and on Monday night, brother-brothers.

In our racially tense society, people are more than impressed at our camaraderie and deeply appreciated love for one another.  Where else can you find such outside the family of God?  We are in no way up-tight about our differences; we glory in them.  God made us as we are and he expects us to enjoy each other to the full.  Any family in which all the children were exactly alike would be boring at best.  The diversity of nature demonstrates God’s belief in the special place of variety in his plans.  When visiting our son and his family in Hawaii, I usually go snorkeling at least once.  The numbers of fish species I see is astounding.  It is often claimed that no two snowflakes are alike.  (Of course, those making the claim must have done a rather enormous amount of research, and they will have to be satisfied with tentative conclusions at most.)  God obviously is trying to tell us something important, even by the design of nature.

Spiritual thinking is colorblind in its absence of prejudice, but color-aware and color-appreciative in making us a family.  I have often said that the ultimate effectiveness of spiritual leaders is found in their ability to lead different types of people.  If we can only relate well or become emotionally close to people like us, we are missing out on one of the greatest possible blessings of life.  May God grant you the perspective of family that he has taught the BBB’s, for then your life will be enriched more than you can imagine!  And thank you, my unique brothers of the club, for allowing me to be one of you in far more ways than simply being members of the same church.  Praise God for his plan for his kingdom! 

Protecting Relationships

Through my many years of preaching, I have often asked and answered this question: “What is life really all about?” The answer, of course, is relationships – not surprisingly the very focus of the Bible. God’s Word makes this focus clear as relationships in four key areas are addressed over and over and over: relationship with God, with our physical family, with our spiritual family and with those who need to become a part of our spiritual family. Relationship building and protecting is the essence of Christianity.

If that is the most important thing in all of life, you know that Satan is going to work hard to destroy relationships. That, in fact, is his number one focus in trying to deceive us into destroying relationships in each of these four key areas. This article will hopefully help us to better understand just how Satan goes about his work in trying to destroy human relationships in our physical families and especially in our spiritual family.

To begin with, God’s desire for us to have relationships in his kingdom that are far different from those in the world is spoken about all through the Bible. One of the passages that says it most strikingly is in John 17:20-23:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

If unity is what God loves, then that is what Satan hates and will do all that he can to work against. Further, since he is the Great Deceiver, he will try to do his work in ways that we don’t recognize, which is one reason why this article is simply entitled “Protecting Relationships.” Ephesians 4:22-32 is full of practical admonitions about our speech with each other, as God strives to protect us from Satan’s deception. Notice especially what Paul wrote in verses 29-30: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Thus, how we communicate to and about one another is the key to protecting relationships. If we could put these two verses into constant practice, life would be far richer and far less stressful (and far more righteous).

Humans Will Hurt One Another With Words

It is a sad but undeniable fact that we are going to hurt each other with our words, and it if often those we love most (or should love most!). Sometimes, we hurt one another in a completely unintentional way. No doubt that’s why James 3:2 says “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man.” But sometimes what we say is intentional, and we know that we are talking in ways that we wouldn’t want made public. This type of speech is called gossip and slander in the Bible. Here are a few key verses about this type of sinful speech:

Proverbs 18:8: The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.

Proverbs 12:18-19: Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.  Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.

Proverbs 15:4: The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

Proverbs 26:22-25: The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts.  Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.  A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit.  Though his speech is charming, do not believe him, for seven abominations fill his heart.

Proverbs 26:28: A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

Psalm 55:21: “His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords.”

1 Timothy 5:19: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”

We Usually Are Not Unaware of Our Own Gossip and Slander

Although we often attempt to disguise our sins through rationalization, our awareness is fairly obvious by how we introduce such speech. Let me give you some examples.

“You know, I just have some things on my heart that I need to share with someone, and you are one of my best friends…”

“I need a safe place and a safe person to share some things with that are really troubling me – can you be that safe person and keep what I tell you confidential?”

“I don’t feel like I have anyone who really understands what I am feeling, and I’m so happy to have you as a confidential friend who can listen and keep a confidence.”

Hearing such introductions, we naturally feel concern and want to help, and we feel flattered that we are that chosen friend with whom another person can unburden their hearts. But the problem with what then takes place is that the talker is sinning and we as a listener are sinning! And we find ways to justify their sin and our own. “Well, he just got emotional and needed to work through it.” So, does being emotional make it not sinful?

Try this one on for size: “I just got emotional and shot that guy, but it was because I was emotional so it wasn’t wrong!” Another statement is actually fairly commonly heard: “I just said that terrible thing about him because I was angry!” Not so – you said that because it was in your heart, for in Luke 6:45, Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” We don’t say things just because we are emotional – we say them because they are in our hearts – and our emotions remove our inhibitions!

The most dangerous form of unhealthy talk of which I am aware is also understandably the most subtle – I call it objective negativity. I have a separate article under that title, and I strongly suggest that you read it after reading this one. It describes a form of communication that is not only highly subtle; it is also highly damaging and likely the most dangerous approach of all. Unfortunately, in my decades of working with churches and disciples, I have seen the damage done by it in an up-close and personal way far too often. Satan must be diabolically laughing when we fall prey to such sinful speech. I mentioned James 3:2 earlier, but look at it in its broader context:

James 3:2-10
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. 3When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

What Are God’s Solutions For the Sins of Unhealthy Talk?

First, avoid it yourself. Before sharing details about another person’s life in a potentially sensitive area without their knowledge, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I considering sharing these things?
  • Will my sharing benefit the one I are sharing about?
  • Will it benefit the one with whom you are sharing?
  • Does the Golden Rule fit the situation?

Remember what Paul said in Ephesians 4:29:  “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Refuse to participate in the sinful speech of another, by being a willing listener. Here are some responses you can have that are righteous:

“Wait a minute – I am not comfortable with hearing negative talk about someone who is not here and able to give their side of the story.”

“You do remember what Proverbs 18:17says, right?”  “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.”

A good question to ask someone when they start down the path of talking negatively about another person is this one: “Have you shared this with the person themselves?” Using this line of inquiry, you have to be very thorough, for they may answer, “Yes I have told them this” when they really haven’t or perhaps that have hinted around at it but not really stated clearly the details that they are starting to tell you.

Then say, “Well, if you have told them this, I will want to talk with them about it later to make sure I hear their side of the story, based on Proverbs 18:17.” Truthfully, even if they have told the other person, why are they telling you?  Saying, “Well, I’m not saying anything to you that I haven’t said to them” doesn’t make it right to repeat something negative to you. It is still a violation of the Golden Rule!

If they say, “No, I haven’t told them because they wouldn’t handle it well, so I need to share it with you as a confidential person to just unburden my heart,” then you have to intervene and stop the gossip. Say, “You do have to go and share this with the other person, based on the commands of Jesus. If you need me to go with you, I will go, but you have to do what Jesus says.” I then ask, “Will you go? Next,  When will you go? And if they say they will go, I follow up with them later to make sure that they did.

If they say that they won’t go, I say, “If you haven’t obeyed Jesus and gone to them within a week, I am going to go and share with them what you have said, to make sure you two get together and work this out.” Now why would I do all that I just described?  (Because that sounds drastic to some of you, and very different from the way you have often done it and seen it done – right?). Listen carefully to Jesus’ solution to all of our relationship problems:

Matthew 18:15-17: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

All of this may sound challenging to us, because we are by nature people pleasers and conflict avoiders, but it is the only option we have if we intend to be disciples of Jesus Christ. I have spent much time trying to help church leadership groups deal directly with “the elephant in the living room” (various sorts of relationship issues). I am intent on helping all disciples to do this with all of their brothers and sisters, whether in leadership roles or not, because we are the family of God. As God’s children, we have to strive for complete unity – a unity that can be destroyed by the wrong kind of speech, but built by the right kinds of speech and healed by the right kinds of resolution and reconciliation.

Therefore, watch both your speech and your listening, and don’t sin against others of God’s children. We must become good listeners and pick up on the speech of others when it begins to go in a sinful direction. Refuse to listen to it when it moves in that direction and love them enough to insist that they get resolved with those about whom they try to talk negatively. We have to protect our souls and the souls of others, and protecting relationships in the ways we have described is a major part of how we protect souls. Granted, it is not easy, but it is the way of God and we really have no options in the matter – we must obey him!

Surprise, Surprise: Guess Who’s Been Coming To Dinner!

Let me give you one bit of advance notice: this article is not really about an old movie or about the Black history behind it. However, since I love Black history, it seemed a good way to segue into the real subject, which I predict you will find both surprising and fascinating. So, stay with me until I reach the real reason for writing the article.

The 1967 movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was a very controversial movie in that era, but starred some of the best-known actors of the day: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and also featured Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton. The film is about interracial marriage between blacks and whites, which historically had been illegal in most states of the US, and was still illegal in 17 states when the movie was being filmed, mostly Southern states. However, on June 12, 1967 (two days after Tracy died), laws against such marriages were struck down by the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Loving vs. Virginia. (Shockingly, Alabama became the last state to officially end its unenforceable ban on interracial marriages – in 2000!)

The movie is about a young white woman who has a whirlwind romance with a young, idealistic black physician she met while in Hawaii. The plot centers on her return to her liberal upper-class American home in San Francisco, bringing her new fiance to dinner to meet her parents. Although her parents were very broadminded for their day, having taught their daughter to treat blacks and other minorities as equals, they have a difficult time with their daughter’s choice, as do his parents with his choice. The prejudices went both ways, as was quite common in that time period (and not absent in our day).

The movie can be viewed on YouTube, and I encourage you to watch it. It was quite ahead of its time in a number of respects. Not only did it deal with such a controversial subject for that era, but it confronted head-on the stereotypical views of blacks commonly held by probably a majority of the white population (especially in the South). The lead black character played by Sidney Poitier was the most intelligent, best educated, nicest and most moral of the whole cast. He was clearly the hero of the movie. For that cast of characters to have the courage and convictions to have made that movie in those times is both striking and highly commendable. I understand an update has been made that majored in humor, but I haven’t watched it (and won’t). The original classic was serious business, and I shed tears on several occasions when viewing it recently. Watch it if you haven’t or if you haven’t in many years.

Now fast-forward to 2010, the latest year for which I could find related statistics on the subject. Recent studies have shown that 8.4 percent of all current U.S. marriages are interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. Although Hispanics and Asians remained the most likely to marry someone of a different race, the biggest jump since 2008 occurred among blacks. In another recent study, 83 percent of Americans say it is alright for blacks and whites to date each other, up from 48 percent in 1987. As a whole, about 63 percent of those surveyed say it would be fine if a family member were to marry outside their own race. Obviously, tremendous progress has been made since 1967 in the area of racial prejudice, but we still have a long way to go before Martin Luther King’s famous statement is a universal reality:  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Well, now that we have learned a bit about an old movie and something about black/white romantic relationships and marriages in our present day, what is the real point of this article? Good question with a very interesting answer. As all know who have heard me speak very often, I typically mention my affinity for black people and in fact express fairly regularly my opinion that I must have some black blood in me. I have certain characteristics in common with most blacks that make it highly likely, at least in my mind. My favorite introduction to the concept is found in my oft-repeated statement that “I have too much soul to be a white man!” Of course, by that I mean that I could not be simply 100% white, in spite of my light skin color and Caucasian features.

Not only do I have an affinity for blacks that dates back to my very early years, I have always had a very strong aversion toward watching most racially oriented movies based on the period of time when I was growing up. A few years ago, at a small group leader’s meeting in Phoenix, our Region Leader showed us the movie starring Denzel Washington, “The Great Debaters.” After seeing the movie, I was so emotional that I went outside, sat on a bench for at least 20 minutes and just cried. When I thought I had my emotions back in control, I went back in with the group, and a young black brother just looked at me and asked, “Are you OK?” I just melted into his arms and cried on his shoulder for another few minutes. Later in a discussion time, I discovered that the younger black men were not nearly as affected emotionally by the movie as I was. A part of the difference was simply age, because I lived through the years when racial prejudice was very high and very real in my environment. I have many stories about what I both saw and heard, and so it is not just history with me; it was reality, if only as a pained observer.

During 2011 and the first half of 2012, I worked with the Houston church as much as my schedule allowed (which was quite a lot). We clicked from the beginning, and I fell in love with the church to the point that I dedicated my new book, Dynamic Leadership, to them. During the last six months of my work there, I was an interim lead evangelist, while helping them find a permanent couple to fill the slot, which ended up being Doug and Angella Wens. Likely I referred to the race subject more often in Houston than in other churches, simply because of the larger percentage of Africans and African Americans in the membership than in other churches I have worked with. However, it is a topic that I have addressed consistently for years just about everywhere – both in sermons and in writing. I have a chapter in one of my books about the Big Black Brother’s Club in Boston, a group that became somewhat famous there, or in the minds of some, perhaps infamous! We watched Monday Night Football together, and they voted me black on Monday nights, and all signed a certificate to that effect! These brother brothers still call me fairly regularly to stay in touch, both because they know how much I love them and also because they appreciate me thinking I’m part black, no matter what their personal opinions about the matter may have been.

Most of those in my audiences, regardless of their own race, probably think I am just injecting humor in speaking of having black blood in an effort to establish rapport with the black constituency present. The blacks who know me well know that I am not just kidding – I really believe it. In my first speaking visit to Houston back in January of 2009, Ronnie Ricks, one of the elders and himself an African American, may have taken me more seriously than many do because he told me about several services available to test one’s DNA to determine race and ancestry. I very quickly researched the web sites of several of these services in an effort to determine which one seemed to be the most scientifically accurate in their approach. But as I mentioned in my last sermon there back in May of this year, I procrastinated in taking the test, not because of the fee involved of several hundred dollars but because of the fear of disappointment that would accompany finding out that I in fact had no black blood in me.

I did think of a way to deal with the disappointment if that proved to be the case. Our physical bodies come from our parents through the procreation process. However, according to Zechariah 12:1 and Hebrews 12:9, God places our spirits in us directly. Thus, if he decided to place a black man’s spirit in a white man’s body, he certainly could do it, couldn’t he? With this thought in mind, if the DNA test proved that my bloodlines were void of any African blood, I could still believe and state that I had too many black characteristics for it to be mere coincidence. This explanation makes reasonable sense, right?

After we left Houston in May, I did finally get the test done. The company even had a sale and I saved $100 on the fee! The test involves a very thorough process and took a couple of months to complete before they provided the detailed results and explanations. You would have to be more scientifically grounded in that field than I am to fully understand the manual that accompanied the results. Thankfully, the results themselves were easy to understand. So what were the results, you ask? I am of 88% European descent and 12% African.

In looking back at my family tree and what I knew about my ancestors, my best guess is that my paternal great-grandmother is likely the main one who introduced the African American element into our family, and if so, she must have had a very significant percentage of black in her for me to have 12%, although the family kept it hidden with an alternate explanation for her dark skin. She and my great-grandfather were both deceased before I came on the scene, but my oldest uncle said that she was an American Indian (Native American, as current terminology would word it). However, since I had absolutely no Native American ancestry show up on my DNA test, she must have been African American passing as Native American. That was not uncommon in that period of time, due to the intense prejudice against blacks. So that is my best explanation for my African descent, and the 12% fits just about perfectly into that scenario. But who knows, given my crazy Louisiana and Arkansas relative chain, the black blood may have come from several sources. The how of it coming about in those days would most likely have been shamefully sinful if it didn’t come solely from my great-grandmother. That’s the sad part to contemplate.

The important part now, to me at least, is that I have a scientific basis to help explain how a 70 year old white boy raised in the Jim Crow South always had a different spirit toward blacks than most of his contemporaries, and shared many emotional connections that almost demanded that something in his heritage was involved. I also was fortunate that my parents didn’t possess the prejudicial spirit that was definitely present in many others in my extended family. The stark reality is that if my racial profile been known publicly in my early years when the “one drop” rule reigned supreme, I, and at least one of my parents would have been drinking from the water fountains marked “colored” and using public restrooms with the same sign on the door. The list of humiliating indignities and hatred we would have endured would have far exceeded the mere observations we made of others being treated so inhumanely.

I am glad as I write this little article that the atmosphere in which I spent my boyhood has changed significantly. I am not so ignorant as to think it is fixed, and given the sinful human element, it never will be completely cured until and unless sin is cured. And that only occurs in one person at a time when the blood of Jesus purifies and provides a common bloodline of all people who have made Him Lord and Savior. But praise God that much progress has been made in our country overall. Further, I rejoice to be a part of a movement that is about as diverse as any group in the particular geographical area where each congregation is found. Even in Arizona, which is primarily white and Hispanic, our contingent of blacks in the Phoenix church is far larger than in the local population as a whole. In God’s kingdom, it is not the color of one’s skin or racial makeup that matters – it is our hearts and our love for Jesus, one another and the lost.

I once wrote that our goal spiritually in the racial realm is not to be color blind, but rather color aware and color appreciative. Every race and every culture adds something special to the mix. When God made fish and flowers, the amount of variations found are a marvel to behold. When he designed humans, it would have been flat-out weird had he only planned for one color to exist. As it is, he designed us to enjoy similar variations as those found in the rest of his creation with the treasures they contain. I appreciate all races and cultures, and I appreciate that my own composition racially and culturally is basically Heinz 57, and that mixture includes 12% African. So now who’s laughing at old G-Dog and his comments about being a brother brother? I don’t always get the last laugh on my doubters, but I do this time, and I must say that I’m enjoying it immensely!

It will be interesting to see what my friends and family think about my uncovering of some family secrets and having much more than “one drop” of black blood coursing my veins (and heart). And maybe when I am having dinner again with some of you, you will see me in a different way. That is not a concern to me, since I am much like the old cartoon character Popeye, who often said, “I yam what I yam!” And I yam 12% African! What I am concerned about now is that I know for sure when I said hundreds of times that I had too much soul to be a white man, my statement has now been validated scientifically. How ‘bout them apples?!

An Uncommon Peace

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” – Colossians 3:15

What enables us to have such uncommon peace as Christians? Probably the key word is “commonality,” for we share so many essential things in common. But three of these items are unquestionably at the very top of the list of essentials. One is our relationship with God and the nature of that relationship. All of us were baptized into Christ only after the decision to truly make Jesus the Lord of our lives. It was not a selfish decision to simply get saved; it was a selfless decision to surrender our lives in representing him to our fellow man. Therefore, we are intent on imitating him and doing what pleases him. He is, and forever must remain, our top priority of life.

A second essential that ensures peace and unity is based on that decision to make Jesus the Lord of our lives. This decision means that everyone will be discipled, which ensures in turn that a lack of peace simply will not be tolerated. If we have a problem with another disciple, we go to them or they come to us for a resolution. Actually, we should be going to them as they are coming to us, for in Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says that we should go to the other person if we have offended them, and in Matthew 18:15-16 he says that we should pursue reconciliation if we are the one offended. Hence, we have God’s double indemnity spiritual life insurance policy which guarantees the dividend of our uncommon peace.

The third essential is that disciples also have the same basic mission-—to seek and save the lost. When we are in the battle together, we are not very likely to attack one another. Persecution from a common enemy as we seek to carry out our mission will actually unify us even more if we view and handle it biblically. An all-out commitment to the mission and to discipling is what separates us from mere church goers. The first gives us our purpose in life and the second, the means by which it can be accomplished. If we stay committed to the mission and to discipling, our unity will stay strong. Obviously, if we begin to waver on either, unity will be threatened. We cannot afford to condone any deviation from the unity for which Jesus prayed—and died.

Biblically, the “daily diet” of the healthy disciple consists of the essentials above. We are to spend time in the Word daily (Acts 17:11) and in prayer (Luke 11:1-4), both of which are elements in our relationship with God. We are to share our faith daily (Acts 17:17) and be open with our lives daily with one another (Hebrews 3:12). Therefore, the first warning sign of approaching disunity comes when we as individuals do not have our relationship with God as our top priority. When either the quantity or quality of time with him is compromised, sin will enter and ultimately permeate our spiritual lives.

A second warning sign appears when there is a lack of commitment to and involvement in the mission of evangelism. Paul’s short letter to Philemon makes this remarkable statement: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 1:6). While the context of this verse is likely referring most directly to the sharing of faith and our lives with other Christians, all sharing of our faith builds our faith. Appreciation for our life in Christ grows with our sharing of it. Evangelism is not just to save the souls of the lost; it is designed to keep our own souls saved.

When we are studying the Bible with others, we are reminded of why we became disciples in the first place, our hearts and convictions are strengthened incredibly. We remain excited and thankful about the amazing life that God has given us in Christ. Therefore, if evangelism has become humdrum to us, a burden and not a blessing, a duty and not a desire, we are slipping into the sins described in Revelation 2 and 3: loss of our first love and lukewarmness. If you are not in the mission heart and soul right now, Satan is into his mission with you, heart and soul. Wake up and repent.

A third warning sign is more subtle and deceptive than the other two. It of course ties in to the discipling process. Are we being discipled? Are we consistently seeking advice? Are we being open with what is in our heart of hearts? Do we want to be open with everything? The honest answers to those questions will go a long way in evaluating where we are spiritually. Satan is a master at encouraging us to be partially open, but not to really share our deepest doubts, sins and fears. For God to use us powerfully, we must learn to trust and stay truly open to discipling and God’s Word.

Let us heed the words of Paul, “I appeal to you brothers, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). A clear focus on the essentials of our faith will produce in us an uncommon peace and a powerful people united in faith.