Devastating Disappointment, and the Continuing Story
As I mentioned in ending Part One, it is inevitably true for roller coaster aficionados that thrill rides are at their best when they give you surprises. With God being both the designer of life’s roller coaster and the one at the controls, we should expect to encounter rides replete with surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, occasionally devastatingly so. You can guess which type I experienced when my cancer diagnosis was reversed, right? You will likely assume what the nature of my disappointment was as well, but you won’t get that part right until you read this article. But it was for me a devasting experience that put me back in the pits. God knows that we can never appreciate the exhilarations of life without visiting the pits occasionally at least. After such a visit recently in my cancer saga, I deleted both the article and the Facebook post of February 8. The article is now republished along with this second one, which means God has continued to work on my mind, heart and soul (successfully).
The Most Basic Principle
In Part One, I mentioned a principle that might have been passed over too briefly. The principle begins with the premise that life on planet earth is not only brief but highly significant – a preparation ground for eternity with God. This being true, God is constantly attempting to mold us into his own character so that heaven might be, well, heaven, with like-minded beings totally connected. This development process centers around building faith in a God who is good and only good, and whose love for us is unfathomable. But how does that faith come and then become a growing process through all the days of our lives? It must be tested over and over and over. The testing is the fundamental method of developing and strengthening our faith. Hence the roller coaster ride analogy. I know of none better, at least to me as a lover of roller coasters.
I keep making one fundamental mistake in how I view this most basic principle. It provides a life lesson with many applications. I keep putting periods when God is using commas. That’s what we do in the midst of struggles. We see the struggle as the final result, and it ain’t good! All the while God is saying, “Patience, patience – we aren’t done yet; the solution is coming, and you will get through it.” In my present situation, I get past one challenge, the scary part of the ride, sometimes absolutely terrifying, and want to put a period on it. End of ride. Challenge met and challenge over. I keep making that mistake. Don’t you? But when we do that, we forget the principle – God builds faith precisely by testing it. And that principle demands a constant series of commas, not periods. Let’s just be happy to see the occasional semicolon when the challenges are spaced out with some needed pauses inserted to allow us time to process the challenges and get ready for the next one. God knows exactly what he is doing in your life. Chill out and try to enjoy the ride. You are strapped in with him as your safety belt. You will be jerked halfway out of your seat at times, but the safety belt will never break.
An Ice Storm? Really?
I didn’t forget one scary part of my earlier ride, but I did leave it out of Part One, due to space and the length of the article already. But since it was to me a significant part of the adventure God was determined to provide, I will include it now. After the exhilarating revelation that my very important test series was amazingly moved up from February 14 to February 3, I was relieved and elated. Peace had arrived, so I put in a period. Challenge over in one regard at least. But God then said, “Oh yeah? Watch this!” As the new date of testing approached, something else also approached – the worst weather day of the year, an ice storm. “Lord, you have got to be kidding! How can this be happening?” It quickly became obvious that driving from my house in North Dallas to the hospital near downtown Dallas was going to be literally impossible. It was predicted to start raining the evening before my test day and by midnight, the temperature would start dropping into the 20’s. Good grief, Charlie Brown! I thought roller coasters had some lower heights and gentler curves somewhere. Maybe so, but obviously not yet.
Being determined to take those tests, my mind started racing in looking for solutions. I thought of finding a hotel near the hospital, near enough so that I could walk to it if necessary. In looking at a map of the area, I discovered the closest hotel about a mile away and booked it for two nights. Not only was it nearby, it was cheap. Great! After I booked it, I decided to take a look at the reviews by former guests. Uh Oh! It was in a bad area and most reviews mentioned drug dealers and fearful nights full of loud talking by numerous people doing drug deals. Great location for my purposes, but a scary location in a bad part of town. Oh well, you can’t have everything go your way, right? It was a scary place, obviously built originally as an apartment complex with lots of separate buildings containing four one-bedroom suites apiece. When I walked into the lobby to check in, I encountered a younger man, a black one for those of you with racial presuppositions, dressed in street clothes with a glock in a holster strapped to his side. That didn’t alarm me, actually. It’s the hidden pistols that concern me. I asked him if he were an officer, and as expected, he answered in the affirmative. He explained that this was a rough part of town, and he did some patrolling here regularly. Those reviews weren’t wrong.
The weather report was also regrettably accurate. Ice covered the roads by morning. Fortunately, some sleet had also fallen, making driving slightly more plausible. I left the hotel early, dressed warmly, determined to leave my car and walk if I couldn’t drive all the way to the hospital. Having lived in Boston for sixteen years, I wasn’t a novice at driving on slick roads and I managed to make it all the way to the hospital without incident. My worst fears were of other drivers who didn’t have the same experiences of driving on frozen roads that I had. But only a few brave (or not-too-bright) souls had ventured out, and I managed to dodge those few.
I would like to say that God finally put a period or at least a semicolon on my day once I arrived at the hospital. No chance of that. I won’t go into the details, but nothing worked quite the way it should have. At one point, I ended up in the middle of a difference of opinion between my oncologist and the doctor in charge of my MRI regarding necessary preparations for the procedure. I will mention that the written instructions from the MRI department itself failed to include instructions for those preparations, which I pulled up on my phone and showed to the nurse. Oh, well… The nurses of the two doctors went back and forth to their respective doctors and me for some time until the MRI specialist finally asked to talk to me on the phone. It was a weird process which shouldn’t have happened, but I finally decided to go with the MRI guy since I was in his house at the time, his department.
I stayed calm but registered my concern that a medical facility with their reputation should never have such an issue arise in the first place. No one disagreed with me, and they assured me that it would be addressed and corrected for the future. The delays involved resulted in a long day, just under seven hours, to take one blood test and two scans. But by then, I was pretty much expecting the unexpected. My thrill ride continued. Back to the hotel, I was thankful that the weather kept most people holed up inside rather than engaging in their usual activities in that place. The main roads were clear enough by the next afternoon to drive home on mostly clear roads, although the news stations were repeatedly urging people not to drive unless absolutely necessary. For me, it was absolutely necessary. I had had enough – time to go home, and I did.
The Nature of My Disappointment
The secondary title of this present article includes the term, “devastating disappointment.” If you assumed that the disappointment was finding out I still had cancer after three tests saying otherwise, you would assume wrongly. Oddly, the diagnosis of cancer was not that big a deal to me. Quite a number of other diagnoses would have hit me emotionally a lot harder than a cancer diagnosis. I’m not quite sure why that is the case, but it has been from the beginning to the present. Maybe it’s because I know a number of cancer survivors, although my father and many other relatives and friends have died from cancer. Maybe it’s because I have lived my fourscore years already, counting my time in my mother’s womb. I’m old enough to die at what most would consider a “ripe old age.” So grateful for that fact. Really grateful. Really blessed.
In this present situation, my biggest disappointment was informing hundreds or thousands of people who had prayed for me that the “no cancer” diagnosis had proved to be premature and inaccurate. As I stated somewhere along the way, my oncologist requested the pathology slides from my former surgeon just to make sure. Once those were reexamined, the cancer was present as expected, but no margins were found. That being the case, I was referred to a surgeon to take a closer look and have another tissue sample tested. Once again, the cancer showed up, although it was seemingly confined to a small space and had not spread. Their concern was not only what was discovered, but what might have been present and not discovered – microscopic cancer cells in the surrounding area. Thus, the next step recommended was to have the area treated with both radiation and chemotherapy. That was the original recommendation before I went to UT Southwestern, so we hadn’t lost any ground. We had actually gained ground by discovering more about the cancer, since the chemo treatment is now going to be milder than the other medical oncology practice had prescribed.
But here was what disturbed me the most, by a wide margin. By announcing the “no cancer” test results, many people who had prayed for me were using the term “miraculous” in answer to their prayers. Honestly, we need to believe in the power of prayer to move God to answer them, at times answering miraculously. I didn’t want the reversal in diagnosis to hurt the faith of those dear to me, to put it bluntly. I pray that this “partial” reversal doesn’t discourage any who have prayed and will continue to pray for me. Personally, I am holding on to the principle mentioned earlier: building faith demands testing faith. I can handle that truth. I’ve had lots of practice through nearly eight decades of life, most of those decades spent walking with God. I understand the principle and the process – most of the time, at least in looking back at it. My hindsight is better than my foresight, to be sure, but somewhere in the processes, the light bulb comes back on and I see clearly once again. I greatly appreciate all of the prayers offered for my health challenge, pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. I believe they made a difference. The tests could have shown a much more aggressive form of cancer and one that had spread throughout my body. Although I am dreading the upcoming treatments with their potential side effects, the prognosis is good. I have faith that the cancer will be stopped. Keep praying for that result, please.
Looking for the Big Picture View
No human being has all of the answers to life, and death. I can explain why bad things happen to good people, at least reasonably well on an intellectual basis. But when you are the one to whom bad things happen unexplainably, the emotional understanding and acceptance is the real challenge. No pat answers will do in those moments, nor will any answers totally satisfy. Much in life remains a mystery, which is why we must live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Although we are inclined to ask, “Why me?” when tragedy strikes, the Christian would do better asking, “Why not me?” We are prepared, and thus we trust by faith these statements of Paul.
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
2 Corinthians 5:6-9
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Fairly recently, I watched a sad but very inspirational movie. One scene in the movie was especially helpful. The movie is “Greater,” and I would urge you strongly to see it. It is a spiritual movie based on a true story, quite inspiring. The scene to which I refer is when a mother and her oldest son are talking about the death of her youngest son and the kid brother of the older son. The son in the scene was struggling mightily with his faith in God and expressing his doubts angrily to his mother. She at one point simply said something to this effect: “Son, there are things we don’t understand and will never understand on this side because we cannot see the big picture that God sees.” That has helped me more than I would have imagined, including in my present health struggle. I don’t ask “Why?” much anymore, because I know I have but little slivers of the big picture. God has it all. But prior to playing the end game and reaching home, we as believers are equipped to handle whatever challenges come our way, simply because we see enough of God to know what life is about.
Understanding the Mystery of Miracles
In my Facebook post on February 8, giving a health update, here are a few comments from it (since it was later deleted as a result of the altered diagnosis). “Back to the call yesterday. None of the tests showed any cancer. The doctor is looking for answers, requesting the actual pathology slides to have her pathology department read them. She is also having me see a surgeon to examine me and make sure there is no suspicious tissue that could later develop into cancer. For them, it is understandably a mystery. Not for me. Your prayers moved God and he answered them. He doesn’t always answer with a yes and one day he will have to say no to other prayers to sustain my life, but not this time. I have been waiting to have more information before posting an update. I have it and now you have it. May God bless each of you in unexpected ways, as he has me.”
Since those conclusions turned out to not be entirely accurate, I removed both that FB post and the article (now called Part One and republished). I was perplexed and perturbed, but almost entirely about how to explain this unexpected phenomenon to my readers and friends who had prayed so much for me to be healed. I write and preach to build faith and encourage, not to do anything that might negatively affect those goals. My dilemma led to some wrestling with God, as such challenges usually do. It is a part of the faith tested, faith increased, process. I live on the roller coaster of life with its ups and downs. Sometimes the ride pauses long enough to allow for a wrestling match between me and God, to use mixed metaphors. He always wins but knowing that doesn’t stop the match. Thankfully, it usually shortens it. This one lasted for just under two weeks. I wish it had lasted less time, but I just couldn’t get there. I at times wished that the “no cancer” report had never come, setting up expectations that proved to be invalid. But God is always in the middle of the process. I just had to get okay with that once again and to trust him.
Miracles have more than one definition. Most think of them as instantaneous and otherwise impossible changes, like the healings we read about in the earthly ministry of Jesus. I call these direct miracles. Then we have what I call providential miracles. These can be identified as events that could not have occurred coincidentally but had to be orchestrated by God in his providential working together of the details. The old saying that the devil is in the details is an interesting concept, and can be true when humans make bad choices. But mark this down as an absolute certainty: God is in the details. I have always felt that providential miracles were the greatest type. Just doing a direct miracle instantaneously is impressive, and I do believe that God still does those at times. I have examples from personal observation and sometimes personal participation. But for me, I am more impressed with providential miracles, for they involve humans with freedom of choice and details too intricate to even grasp.
In my initial cancer free diagnosis, I wasn’t sure which category the apparent healing miracle fit. I had one possible explanation involving what would have been an inadvertent removal of the cancer by my first surgeon in collecting tissue for pathology. That would have fallen into the providential miracle category. And then, of course, the other possibility would have involved a direct miracle. I didn’t care which it was at the time. Hearing “no cancer” was enough for me. My first thought upon finding out that that diagnosis was replaced by “little cancer” was simply contemplating how others might be affected by hearing it after expectations had been raised through the initial diagnosis. For me, these back-and-forth diagnoses have been going on for months now. I’m used to them and probably will need to remain used to them. I just didn’t want others to be hurt or disappointed. That was my primary concern and still is. It accounted for my wrestling match and ultimately for this present article. I want us all to develop a bigger picture of life and death, mine and eventually yours.
The Bigger Picture…
Only God has the big picture, but we must strive to enlarge our own picture, combining what God said in the Bible and what we allow our experiences to teach us. On January 1, in keeping with what my home church was doing in making out lists of impossible prayers, miracle prayers, I wrote my list. The first thing on my list was that I not have cancer, but that if I did, it could be cured. A later item on that list involved my thinking processes, described thusly: “To eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. If something ends up being negative, let it come as a surprise because I will be looking for best case scenarios.”
After my list of impossible prayers was another list with this subheading: “Miracle Sightings and Spiritual Insights.” Near the top of that list, on Sunday, January 2, as I was anxiously (too anxiously) awaiting the initial pathology reports, I wrote this: “I may need cancer to help me spiritually or to help others through my experience. I have seen both happen with friends and heard of both happening in the lives of others many times. If this is your will, Father, please increase my faith enough to help me handle it well.” This insight gave me the opportunity to put into practice the above concept of looking for best case scenarios rather than worst case ones. It took some work to get there, but by God’s grace, I have.
Many have prayed for my healing, and still are. They are asking for cancer to not have the final word in what ends my life. Good prayer. Thank you for it. I pray for that result too. But there are many more important aspects to the bigger picture. One may well be that I and others need spiritual healing far more than physical healing. My cancer journey thus far has taken me to places with God I have never been before. My prayer is that my example will affect others similarly in their journey with him too.
I don’t know all of what God has planned for this bigger picture. I know that some of it involves my relationship with him. I believe that some of it includes my preparation for my eventual death, whenever and however it may come. I’ll have more to say about that one in a moment. I believe that some of that bigger picture involves how my having cancer will affect others in various ways. Recently I received a call from a woman at the medical center to set up an appointment with my chemotherapy specialist. We talked for 30 minutes, not a normal conversation for her I am sure. I started a spiritual discussion that took on a life of its own. It ended up with me going to my appointment (of which she was a part) and my giving her two of my books, one of which she had requested. During the appointment about the technicalities of chemo treatment, she shared what she and I had talked about with the doctor, which pulled him into the discussion. Where will that all lead? I don’t know, but God knows.
Then a few days ago, I went in for my final scan, a mapping scan to help determine exactly where the radiation treatments will be aimed. This visit began with a nurse collecting my vitals. Then came the IV nurse to puncture my arm once more. Then another person to explain and have me sign permission documents. (Does anyone actually read those?) Then came the two scan specialists to put me in that big apparatus, explain the process and carry it out. Then came my oncologist’s PA and finally the oncologist herself. Maybe there were more. Starting spiritual conversations is second nature to me, and I did it repeatedly with everyone who had to deal with me, or nearly everyone. What will come of that? I don’t know, but God knows. How many people have I shared my faith with thus far as a result of developing cancer? How many will I yet share my faith with due to having this disease? Do you not think this is all a part of God’s bigger picture?
So how bad is it to still have cancer? Gee, I don’t know that it is bad at all. It has already accomplished some really good things in my life with God. I wouldn’t give them up to be rid of the cancer, that much I know for sure. I also know that many spiritual seeds are being sown with many different medical people. One of them may wake up one morning facing the biggest challenge of their life and think of the old crazy preacher guy that they just cared for recently and try to figure out how to get back in touch with me. With many of my books listed on Amazon and having two web sites, it wouldn’t take a lot of effort on their parts to find me. Plus, I give out cards with my web sites and phone numbers listed. God does work in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. I love that old hymn with those words in it, and I love having seen God do it in my life time and time again. There is a much bigger picture than we now see, but I have no doubt that God will keep revealing more of it to us, especially if we are looking for it. There is a God who sees, wants to be seen and most certainly can be seen. And finally, we have one more part of the bigger picture to consider.
The Final Road Home
I am a teacher. God gifted me to be a teacher and called me to use that gift. I have used it all over the world for many, many years. As I watch the news and the reports about the current Ukraine conflict, I weep. Theresa and I made many trips to Kiev to teach the Bible to the ministry staff, the shepherding students from all over the old Soviet Union countries and to the average members in the church. We poured our hearts out doing so and loved it immensely. It was a rare privilege. But it was only one example of that rare privilege being enjoyed in teaching about God and his plan for our lives. In Acts 20:27, Paul said that he had “not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” That is my calling as well.
I have spent the years trying to teach the whole counsel of God, focusing primarily on teaching others how to live. Before I pack it in, I have the responsibility and opportunity to also teach others how to die. Some might be thinking, “Gordon, that’s morbid!” The dictionary might agree, with this definition: “characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.” But I most certainly do not agree that these subjects are morbid. They are a part of life. Something will stop our heart and we will leave this realm and journey into the next. None of us are exempt. God is trying to prepare us for life and for death. I am a teacher and I want to be used by God to do my best to help you with both parts. That’s not morbid; that’s life, life with God.
My fellow teacher and friend, Douglas Jacoby, recently set up a phone conversation with me just to catch up and see how I was doing. I think he knew by then that I had cancer. He told me about a book that a man wrote about his life which was in the process of winding to a close through a terminal disease. Doug suggested that if the cancer was going to take me down that road, I could contribute to helping people by following a similar course. I appreciated his suggestion and awoke the next morning with a title in mind, which I wrote into a document designed as a book cover. “Cancer – From Diagnosis to Death” Unless I die suddenly, I will write that book in some form or another, even if death comes from something besides cancer. You are going to die too, and I want to do it well in order to help you do it well. I have been blessed to see some do it admirably and inspiringly. I want to follow their example so that you can follow mine.
We must come to peace with our mortality. It most often is going to be a process. If we are fortunate enough to live to an old age, aging itself should usher in the process. One of my great friends during our Phoenix years was Jerry Jones. We served as elders for some years after the initial appointment of elders in the church there. Jerry was a classic disciple of Jesus, although he was converted later in life. He had such a soft heart, but such a courageous heart. We faced some tough times during several years when the church was going through a firestorm. Jerry was a rare bird as a leader. I taught repeatedly and insistently that as leaders, we couldn’t let concerns about reactions and responses determine the decisions we made and the paths we chose, but only what was right and what was righteous before God. Jerry in response was all in, like few leaders are capable of being, conflict avoidance and sentimentality being what they are. I couldn’t have made it through those tough years without him. I was blessed to speak at his memorial last year on the one-year anniversary of his death.
His view of death was beautiful. Once when I was with him and his wonderful wife, Karen, on a trip to serve in an orphanage just over the Arizona border in Mexico, he asked me a question. He said something to this effect, “Given our ages, you and Theresa do talk about what to do when one of you croaks, don’t you?” I burst out laughing and when I later shared his question with Theresa, she just cackled. After that, she bought him birthday cards with pictures of frogs on the front and the inside captions saying in some form, “Glad you haven’t croaked yet!” But he did croak. He was in the hospital on dialysis when he decided it was his time. He came home to die and did within a few days. The last time I called to speak to him, Karen said that he was asleep and had only brief periods of being lucid when awake, but that if he had another such period, she would call. He did and she did. Jerry and I had such a wonderful talk and he encouraged me greatly. He died the next day. I was his teacher, but he taught me that day about dying well, a lesson that I want to pass on to others.
In a wonderful book entitled, “An Aging Grace,” edited by and written in by Jeanie Shaw and many others, I wrote two chapters. Although that was only about seven years ago, I was not in the best place to write about aging and death. Yet, those were the topics Jeanie assigned me. God has such a sense of humor, as does Jeanie. You should read the book, and I think you will enjoy my two chapters. I am nothing if not candid in them. My title for chapter two of the book was, “Aging Grace, How Sweet the Sound?” and my title for chapter thirty-four, the final chapter, was, “The Best Is Yet to Be.” I needed to write those chapters, for they were a part of my preparation for playing my own end game. What I wrote then I fully believed intellectually but hadn’t fully reached the point of accepting it emotionally. I’m there now, thanks to cancer – a part of the bigger picture. I close with a quote from the last section of that final chapter.
As it is with aging, death is all a matter of perspective—seeing the material world or seeing the spiritual world. Both are real, but the former one just barely so by comparison. It’s a nice place to hang out for a few decades, but it’s merely a launching pad to the really real world. I’m thankful to have lived on planet earth, but I was here for only one main reason: to get prepared for blastoff to the next. A baby in the womb is comfortable and peaceful, and when they start to make their entrance into a big new world, it is probably very scary. Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
The God Who Sees and Wants to be Seen
After I was diagnosed with cancer January 5, 2022, I posted a request for prayers on my Facebook page to my 5,000 FB friends. For years, I have prayed through a long prayer list kept on my computer, asking God to bless specific people with all kinds of needs, some of whom I didn’t know personally, along with their families and all who were impacted by their situation. I believe that simply the mention of their names and problems to God makes a difference. On the days when doing this seems a bit laborious, after having finished my personal prayer times, I always had this thought: one day I am going to be in a serious situation in which I am going to want my name brought before God’s throne by as many as possible. With that motivation, I always get past my selfishness and respond to the Golden Rule of Jesus and pray through my list.
That “one day” became Wednesday, January 5th. The response to my request has been overwhelming. I can’t stop crying right now as I write this. God has been kind beyond comprehension in giving me so many friends. At my age, most of them are as my spiritual children. They care deeply and want to help, just like my physical son and his family. Bryan and Joy asked us to move close to them, for two reasons. One, to enjoy their three sons as kids more, since they had lived in Hawaii for 25 years and the boys were fast approaching adulthood. When we moved to Dallas at the end of 2014, a mile from where they now live, Bryce (Bryce Gordon, by the way) was in high school, Blayze was in middle school and Ronan was in elementary school. Watching them grow into men has been indeed special.
Two, they wanted to help take care of us as age takes its toll on us, which it inevitably does. Bryan has the heart of a natural caretaker, as does Joy, who is also a nurse. Although we haven’t yet needed much help from them yet, they still look for opportunities to give it. We are ever so thankful that our son and daughter by marriage (daughter-in-law doesn’t work for us) wanted us close by. It has been very special. Right now, God has seen fit to bless us with many who share that same heart for us, and it is very humbling and wonderful beyond words. The scope of our blessings far surpasses anything we deserve, especially me, which speaks volumes about God and the impact of Jesus upon the lives of those whom he has brought into our lives.
Into a Writer’s Mind
I do a lot of prayer journaling. As a writer, I can express my feelings better through typing than through speaking or writing with pen and paper. On most days, I don’t save what I write. It is very personal and not something I would want others to read, for a number of reasons. You understand that I imagine. Because of the wild emotional and spiritual roller coaster ride that started on January 5th, with its unexpected twists and turns, I knew instinctively that I needed to save what I wrote. In this case, I wanted to keep a record of the events and my prayers in response to those events. I thought of titles for two different books in the process, in which to include what I was writing as a framework for them at some future point.
Some of what I wrote in this present long account will probably end up a part of at least one book, but that isn’t why I wrote it. I wrote it because I felt compelled to record what God was doing in my life, the insights I was gaining and the spiritual growth I was experiencing. I was unburdening my heart and having my heart filled by God at the very same time. It has been a life-changing journey thus far. On February 7th, which happened to fall on the 19th birthday of our fourth grandson, Cody, who lives in Arizona, I received the results of two scans and a key blood test. No cancer. (As you will later see, this diagnosis was soon revised to “not much cancer,” not a welcome development, but one in which I must trust that God has his reasons. The continuing story is found in Part Two of this article.)
As I mentioned in a FB post a day later, that report put me in shock. I did have the faith as I prayed beforehand that it was not only possible that God might heal me, but probable. Prayers offered by so many people all over the world simply had to make a difference. That said, it was still a shock. After sharing the details with Theresa about it all, putting her in shock with me, I went on a long prayer walk. At one point along the way, and I remember exactly where I was at the time, a thought hit me that caused me to burst into tears. It was not produced by a sense of relief that I didn’t have cancer, although I was understandably very, very relieved. It wasn’t caused by a heightened feeling of gratitude, although I was filled with gratitude.
That overwhelming thought was the realization of how much the past month had changed me spiritually. I told God that I would not eliminate a single thing in that wild and scary ride or change it in any way. I told him that I would rather have the cancer back than lose what I had gained spiritually. And I meant every word of it. I still mean it. Being in my 80th year of life means that I am nearing my end anyway. When that comes, I won’t feel any differently than I do now about life and death. The real me, the part made in God’s image, doesn’t age. Only the body ages and passes away. Plus, time goes by fast. I will be on death’s door soon enough. Staying alive on planet earth isn’t the big issue or anywhere close to it. Staying close to God and falling more and more in love with him is the big issue. Actually, it’s about the only issue.
Enter the Big “C” Word
Cancer. That’s a really scary word to most people. I remember being with my dad when the doctor told him he had cancer. Hearing it almost took my breath away. Daddy and I were really close. He lived another six years, but that word always hung in the air when I was with him. It was a tough six years for him and for those who watched him endure treatments and surgeries. In June of last year, I had my third rectal surgery. The pathology reports began as indecisive but later progressed to a diagnosis of adenocarcinoma. At the initial indecisive stage, the surgeon said that she needed to go back in and get a deeper sample, and she would get the best margins she could in an attempt to get all of the cancer if it were cancer. Oddly perhaps, hearing that wasn’t scary to me at the time. I simply told the doctor that we all have a shelf life, and I was almost 79 at the time and had lived a very blessed life. I always think of the old version of Psalm 90:10, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” After that surgery ten days later, the pathology report came back clear.
She wanted to see me again every few months to remove tissue in her office for continuing tests. It was after the second of those on December 29th that led to the call on January 5th saying that I did have adenocarcinoma and would need to start treatment by oncologists. She was pretty positive about radiation being able to cure it and was going to have an oncology service contact me for an appointment. At that point, I was amazingly calm and at peace. Surrendered. I slept like a baby that night. A part of that peace was my “impossible” prayer list those in my church were encouraged to write in conjunction with reading Kit Cummings’ book, “Forty Days of Prayer.” The first item on my list was to not have cancer, but that if I did, that it would be God’s way of exposing it early so it could be treated successfully. The second item on that prayer list started with the words, “More importantly,” followed by a request that no matter what happened with the cancer, up to and including a terminal stage of it, that I would trust God and his timing implicitly and unquestionably. So, in any case, my prayers were being answered and I was at peace, a truly wonderful feeling, that peace that surpasses human understanding described in Philippians 4:7.
That peace lasted just over twenty-four hours and was beautiful while it lasted. However, that was soon to change and change radically. I decided to call Mark Mancini, a fellow minister and longtime friend, the next afternoon just to find out how the radiation affects you. He did cover that, for his surgery had failed to remove all of the margins of his cancer, thus necessitating the radiation treatment. His situation reminded me of my father’s surgery that ultimately led to his death, a result of the surgeon not removing all of the margins, leaving cancer where it shouldn’t have been. I couldn’t help wondering if that might be true in my own case as well, an unsettling thought. But back to the unexpected direction in my conversation with Mark. His main emphasis was his absolute insistence that I contact the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for a second opinion. To say that he was pushy would be to make an understatement. He wouldn’t let up on that one, which left me very disturbed at the end of the call. I felt like I got robbed of my surrendered sense of peace. I was very troubled and unsettled. I was actually ticked off at Mark, a dear friend.
The question that came to mind at this point is the one that has come up hundreds of times when circumstances seem difficult or impossible to interpret. Was this just another test of my surrender, since I was definitely surrendered prior to the call, or was this a circumstance designed by God to lead me in another direction? I believe God has sent both my way hundreds of times. I hate the feeling that my wisdom, human wisdom, is in the driver’s seat and it’s up to me to make the right choices in serious situations. I just despise the idea, a popular one with many people (especially the driven, successful types), that “If it is to be, it is up to me.” No, no, no – not that! I want it to be, “If it is to be, it must be up to Thee.” But there I was, caught between two choices in interpreting the talk with Mark – a test of surrender or a circumstance designed to lead me in another direction, a needed one. Oh no! Not again!
The Wrestling Match Continues
Like Jacob of old (Genesis 32), I was wrestling with God, but not fully realizing it yet. For the next several days, I was up and down and all around. Fortunately, those days were very busy ones, occupying my mind (mostly) with other things. Theresa had two doctor appointments the next day and I had to prepare to deliver a lesson on Zoom the next day, Saturday, for a conference in London. Thankfully, my lesson went well in spite of the disturbance in the force (a la Star Wars). Those events were helpful just as distractions if nothing else. I watched lots of football that weekend, an NFL playoff weekend, providing more distraction for which I was grateful. But underneath the surface, I remained filled with angst. On Tuesday morning, I had a virtual appointment with the oncology radiologist, which generally went well. The proposed treatment sounded about like I expected, and the doctor seemed nice enough and competent enough, answering all my questions well. There was just a hint of arrogance on his part that made me a bit nervous (God opposes the proud – James 4:6). Otherwise, it was good.
I think it may have been the next morning that I woke up with the memory of what a perky, petite redheaded doctor had said in reply to a question I asked her years ago after she had just performed a sigmoidoscopy on me. My curiosity about what would motivate a doctor to pursue a specialty in dealing with this part of the body led me to ask, “Why would a doctor go into this line of work?” A few years earlier, I had asked this same question to another doctor in a similar circumstance, also a female physician, and it flustered her. She just said, “That’s a good question” and left the room (and didn’t come back).
The little redhead, whose husband was the head of that department, wasn’t flustered in the least. “Easy answer,” said she. “If you catch this kind of cancer early, you get it every time!” Out of the clear blue that memory appeared. I thought of John 14:26 where Jesus promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would bring things to their remembrance. I know that this was a promise to them of the Spirit doing it in a miraculous inspired sense, but I have long believed that for all of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, there are non-miraculous counterparts. So, in my mind, I had such a blessing that early morning to ease my mind. It was a special beginning to the day, a needed one.
That Fateful Thursday
On Wednesday, one week after my talk with Mark, I called Mike Isenberg, my friend in church who is a PA (physician assistant). He listened carefully and said that continuity with my present doctors was important if I trusted them and that he thought either place could do the needed job. He did say that UT Southwestern was a great place, but that he didn’t think I could make a wrong decision either way. In other words, both would be competent to do the job well. That was reassuring, as Mike always is, and tilted me back toward feeling good about staying the original course. I even told my sister on the phone that I was almost certainly going to do that and quit being torn between the two. I felt much more settled out. The only question in the back of my mind was prompted by some underlying feelings about my surgeon. While I liked her and mostly trusted her, the confusion about the first pathology report and the failure to take out a little lump that I could feel myself and had told her about several times stayed in the back of my mind. However, I was pretty much settled out about my present fairly firm decision and still a little ticked off at Mark’s pushiness.
Since the next day was nice day outside and I hadn’t walked for a while due to the residual pain after my last tissue removal for pathology, I decided to take a walk. My wound was mostly healed by then, thankfully. As I walked out of the house, I saw my neighbors pull up and start getting out of their car. We have a little cottage in East Texas across the street from a lake and they live on the lake. Robin isn’t out in the front yard nearly as often as Harry and knowing that she had been through cancer treatment recently, I wanted to show her a calm, faithful reaction to having cancer to encourage her. So, we talked. I found out that she had radiation for her breast cancer that put it in remission or eliminated it. Then I had to ask, “Where did you get your treatment?” Of course it was UT Southwestern – of course it was! And like Mark, she gushed about doing research and UT SW being the cat’s meow. She wasn’t as pushy as Mark, but just as gushy. Okay, unsettledness again. Ugh! The big question popped into my mind once more: test of surrender or circumstantial guidance of the Holy Spirit? Aaaggghhh!!!
Then I continued my walk. Danny and Jynae, neighbors opposite our garage, were out in their yard talking over some construction plans they had for their house. I’ve probably not said ten words to Jynae before, and her being out in the front yard was rare. Those on the lake usually hang out in their back yards for obvious reasons, but there they both were. They asked how I was doing, and in my reply, I included the cancer diagnosis and upcoming radiation treatment. Danny said that they had a good friend who just finished with that type of treatment. Keep in mind that I’m talking to people out in the countryside nearly 100 miles from that medical center.
Where their friend lived, I had no idea. They could have lived anywhere in the world. But of course I had to ask the question, right? Of course. When I did, Jynae answered, since it was her female friend who had been treated. By now you can easily guess the answer. UT Southwestern, followed by more glowing reports of this place being the best of the best, with people coming from all over to go there for cancer treatment. Amazing, simply amazing! Where were the odds of this being mere circumstance – both women being out in their front yards on the same day at the same time – in the winter at that? I’d never seen it before. With both women having the same story about UT Southwestern too?
I See You Now, God
Okay, give-up time, God. I’ll seriously start looking into the option of getting a second opinion. I began calling that afternoon, but that wasn’t a good initial experience. I pushed my phone key #1 two different times, the option for new patients, and the woman who answered sounded muffled and not nearly on top of her game. Disappointing. Nothing like Mark and Robin had described. I was in a bad place emotionally, to put it mildly, although I didn’t show it to avoid unsettling my dear wife. I didn’t sleep well that night and felt drained when I woke up the next morning. Otherwise, the morning went okay. I had the virtual appointment with the medical oncologist, the chemo doctor. She was very pleasant and explained things well and answered my questions thoroughly. But the amount of chemo she described was disturbing. The one positive thing that the call did accomplish was that I was even more motivated to get a second opinion. I did not like the sound of the treatment described and wanted that second opinion.
That same morning as we started heading back to Dallas and Theresa’s two medical appointments, I called UT Southwestern once more, pushing the #1 button for new patients. The same woman answered and still sounded muffled, so I pulled off the road in an effort to try understanding what she was saying. It was frustrating and I got nowhere. Not good. I dropped Theresa off at the medical facility for her appointment and tried to take a nap in the car. I was too geared up to sleep. I called UT Southwestern again, either in the parking lot or right after arriving home, intending to apologize for being a pest but just wanting to see if I had done all I could to push the process forward. I simply could not get through. The woman or the system finally just hung up on me. Aaaggghhh! Again! But by then I was determined to try once more, and this time I pushed the button for “existing patients.” When a woman answered, whose name I found out to be Rosie, I explained that I wasn’t an existing patient but was trying hard to become one and was hitting roadblocks. She was the type person Mark and Robin described – precisely. She was super nice and super helpful. I had the thought that she might be an angel. Seriously. She was that good. From there we got the balls rolling in several directions.
She fairy quickly said that she knew exactly which doctor I should see and if everything fell into place, she might be able to schedule me on Wednesday (five days later). Timing meant a lot to me. If cancer metastasizes, it has to begin at a certain point in time, right? That seems logical. Ahh! Good news, finally. After finding out the referrals and reports they required, I started doing my part. It was Friday afternoon and their admitting department was about to close for a long weekend, since MLK Day was on Monday. But Rosie assured me that if I could get everything in by early Tuesday morning, she would make it happen for that Wednesday appointment. Getting in to see specialists just doesn’t happen that way, and I speak from experience. It was almost too good to be true and thus difficult to trust what I had been told.
However, I was set on doing my part as best I could. They wanted reports and referrals from both my surgeon and my primary care physician. I sent written messages through the internet portals of both. I made phone calls and left voicemails, including one to the nurse of my primary care doctor and another to their remote emergency nurse. Then I thought of pushing the button for contacts from doctors or hospitals. When a live person answered that line, I told her that I was calling on behalf of the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern (sorta true). I explained what was going on and she said she would send it over, hopefully that same afternoon (late Friday afternoon).
The pieces all seem to be falling into place, good places. So far so good, although gut-wrenching at times. Just about then, it hit me that the answer to the question of whether the situation was surrender being tested or the Spirit leading me in another direction was both/and, not either/or. I looked up and said, “Good one, Lord. I hope you are enjoying this. I’m starting to. You are doing your thing again, jumping out from behind bushes to scare the liver out of me. Okay. I’ve still got a sense of humor and an appreciation of yours. We’re good for now. More to come, I’m sure.” I often talk to God, not just pray to him. Friends do that, right? (John 15:15)
Where is the Peace?
I was at that point thinking about what was keeping me from being surrendered and at peace again. God knows how much I love being there when I do get there. It is the greatest feeling on his green earth – an at-oneness with him that has no superiors. But I hadn’t had it recently, although by that Saturday, I got back close to it. I think my problem was that until I got the UT SW appointment nailed down completely, I couldn’t relax enough to be totally at peace. That realization disturbed me. Complete trust in a God who works everything together for good (Romans 8:28) should have produced peace in me. I’m slow to learn, no questioning that, thus slow to trust.
When will I ever learn that God will take care of the details if I will simply just let go and let God? Ferguson, you wrote a book on this. Why in the name of common sense don’t you listen to your better self? Goodness gracious! Trust is the issue. The call to Mark set me on my ear. But then the sequence afterwards should have put me in a good place, right? I made out a list of what God had done since that fateful call to Mark, a list of what should have stopped me from being untrusting and stupid. What’s the matter with you anyway, Gordon? Why don’t you stop this faithless stuff and quit going down rabbit holes? (Do you talk to yourself too?)
Without the absolutely pushiness of Mark, I wouldn’t have followed through. I needed to hear from Robin and Jynae too, but I wouldn’t have reached out to them without Mark’s getting under my skin. To top it off, Joy informed me that our mutual friend, Bethany Smith, got her treatment at UT SW too, which was confirmed by her husband Adam. He said a cancer specialist friend in another city advised them to always go to a place connected with a medical school – there you will find the latest and greatest doctors and procedures. I didn’t know that Joy even knew Bethany, much less about her cancer treatment. I didn’t beforehand. That was just one more layer on the cake God was baking.
What else could God possibly have done? Was it easy to get to a surrendered faith? No, but when is it ever with matters that really count? It shouldn’t be. It should be a journey of faith, and at times a challenging journey. God is a tester of faith because he is a builder of faith. Those two go together. They are actually inseparable. Thanks for persevering with me and revealing yourself to me, Lord. I wish I could see your hand faster with the eye of faith, but just so I end up seeing it, I’m good. And most appreciative. Hold on to me, Father. I’m a mess. But you are the God of unlimited patience who understands messes and loves us anyway. Thank you!
On Monday morning, I awoke on pins and needles once again. On my knees, I asked God’s forgiveness and strength to surrender again. After all that had fallen into place by God’s providence, why was I not at peace? I determined to call UT Southwestern at 9:30 just to make sure they hadn’t forgotten me and that the process hadn’t been somehow sidetracked. Rosie had promised to call me Tuesday morning. I at least decided to show minimal patience by waiting until 9:30 to call and tried to carry on with my normal morning routine. But I was not at peace. At 9:27, I needed to relieve my bladder, and as I was doing so to help three more minutes pass, the phone rang. The caller ID told the story. It was Rosie – my personal angel assigned me by God. She said she had been working on my case since 8 am and I was scheduled for the very next day.
That was an amazing morning. Surely it would all be downhill from there, right? Wrong! My roller coaster rides with God are never short and are always a combination or sheer terror and absolute exhilaration, as roller coaster rides should be. That’s why we buy the tickets in the first place, and whether we realized it or not at the time, confessing Jesus as Lord was our request for a ticket to ride and a guarantee that we would receive it. That being true, I (and you) need to stop complaining when it feels like we are coming off the tracks of this thing called life with God and just keep holding on for dear life. Periodic wild rides are part and parcel of what we signed up for in the first place.
A Surreal Doctor Visit (January 19th)
When I entered the examination room on that Wednesday, five days from my first contact with Rosie, the nurse came in first and did her thing. Then a resident doctor being trained in this specialty came in and we started talking. He was from Phoenix, where we had lived for nine years, and it turned out we had much in common. We had played many of the same golf courses in Phoenix, for one thing. I mentioned in our conversation that we had lived for sixteen years in Boston prior to moving to Phoenix. As he left the room, I told him it was really good to meet someone from where I had once lived, and he replied, “You will like the doctor then; she is from Boston.” Then entered that very impressive specialist from Boston, a Harvard Medical School graduate and a professor at the UT Southwestern Medical School, the largest medical school in Texas.
Her introductory question still gives me chills thinking back on it. How did you get here? I deduced from the question that new patients didn’t normally start with her. The right answer was God, of course, but working through lots of people and situations, not the least of which was Rosie. When I mentioned Rosie, the doctor laughed, realizing how I got there (from a human perspective). She knew Rosie well it seems. Just amazing, the whole sequence. God didn’t violate my free will – but almost. To say he influenced it or even strongly influenced it doesn’t do justice to what he actually did. Simply mind-boggling amazing!!! Wow, just wow! I knew it might not work out as well as I hoped. I also know that one day the other shoe must fall. It is appointed unto man once to die (Hebrews 9:27), and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because that fact of life (and death) is all wrapped up the greatest story ever told, the greatest story ever conceived, a story that man could not possibly invent nor even believe at the deepest level. It is too good to be true; too spectacular to be true. But by the eye of faith, we can know it is true anyway. The Creator dying for the created – (likely the most profound sentence you have ever read.)
So when the end does come, it will be okay. But as another good doctor said (my old friend, Mark Ottenweller), “I’m going to die – just not today!” Yea! Today I am alive and well and relieved and most grateful to the only One in the universe who deserves all the gratitude received and a googol more. Thank you, Abba! You outdid yourself on this one. Spectacular, and all of the other words that can try and fail to describe you and what you did that day. Praise your holy Name, the Name that is above every name, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. AMEN!
Prayer of January 20 – Wonderful Insights!
The thought hit me last night when Theresa came by my office door that she was the greatest miracle of all, that little angel God made especially for me and then made sure I got her. I began thinking about the millions upon millions of miracles that had to occur to make this most important of all human miracles occur, and it is totally mind-boggling. For God just to have put my mother and father together seems impossible – a church girl and a party boy and barroom brawler when they married. I hope to one day find out how they actually got together. I’m sure the details must be quite interesting. But anyway, the miracle of my little angel with whom I recently celebrated our 57th wedding anniversary is the greatest miracle of all on the human side of life. Thank you, thank you, thank you – beyond words again.
Another insight was about God me, and our relationship. 2021 was a tough year in some ways, but it was a great year for spiritual growth, needed growth, much needed growth, essential growth. God has given me so much evidence that he was guiding my life in all of its paths that it seems criminal to keep questioning whether he was going to do it “this” time (the current time at any point along life’s pathways). Then the thought that hit me is that my definition of surrender focuses on his Lordship in a way somewhat different from a Father/son relationship, a love relationship. My early religious background seriously damaged my view of God and it has taken a long time, too long, to dismantle it and replace it with a more biblical view. I just want to keep falling in love with my Abba more and more deeply. That is why I am on earth. Yes, I have other purposes to accomplish, serious ones, but those purposes are because he loves me and wants the best for me. He knows that when I am aligned the most closely with his purposes, the happier and more fulfilled I am, the more I feel loved and cared for by him and special to him.
A Meltdown – Off the Edge
I suppose everyone has to find their edge and go off it. I went off mine on Tuesday, January 25th after beginning to slide the night before. In checking on the MyChart portal, I saw a message from the doctor’s nurse that my scans were set on February 14, three more weeks away. That was four weeks after my first visit to UT SW and almost a month and a half from receiving my diagnosis. That left me with a scary, sickening feeling. The two biggest things in dealing with cancer are timing and expertise. I felt like I traded the former for the latter. I just didn’t know how to weigh all of this out. I hated the intrusion of Mark to begin with but ended up feeling certain that it was God’s doing to move me in the direction of the second opinion at UT Southwestern. I also ended up feeling that my lifelong dilemma of trying to discern between God testing my surrender level and taking necessary steps to move me in a different direction to a different decision or action was a both/and this time.
I felt a crisis that I thought was easy to discern – it was only a surrender test, and one that I failed and wept about in disappointment and fear. I decided to shut down my emotions and just resign myself to the inevitable, whatever that turned out to be. I know intellectually that I cannot see the big picture of what God is doing, but spiritual surrender was not in my deck of cards at that moment. Resignation was. I can do that one. That is how most human beings survive life anyway, especially in the challenging times. We just resign ourselves to the realities no matter how bleak or painful they are. I did have enough sense left to realize that I should not share my faithlessness with others for fear of hurting their faith.
I hoped to get to a better place and always do, but this time felt different. Although I wasn’t angry at God exactly, I was for sure very disappointed and hurt. But no matter what, I determined to do my best not to hurt the faith of others. That meant, like many, many other times, I would basically be faking it. I don’t feel hypocritical about doing that. I felt like the Psalm 73 guy.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. 14 All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments. 15 If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children. 16 When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply…
Unlike him, I did not keep my heart pure nor my hands innocent. I did feel like he did in verse 14 since receiving the news of the three week’s delayed scans. But my point from the Psalm was in verses 15-16. I couldn’t understand the three weeks delay, and like the Psalmist, it indeed troubled me deeply, very deeply – to the edge and off with no hope of surrender, only a grit-my-teeth-grin-and-bear-it resignation. But it was resignation to the point of trying to say what Jesus said in the Garden, “Nevertheless,” and like Daniel’s three friends said as they faced the fiery furnace, “Even if…” I wanted aloneness from everyone, whether they loved me or hated me. The day starting at Jewish time the prior evening and continuing to and through the next day was for me like a French movie. The French say that their movies start bad, get worse, and end! Viva la France!
On the evening of my very-bad-no-good-meltdown-day, I shared many of my thoughts with Theresa and was at least resigned to whatever was to come of the delayed scans and what they would eventually show. I wasn’t in a good place, but I didn’t think I was still in verses 21-22 of Psalm 73: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” Once again, as God often does, he exposed and embarrassed me that same evening. The protocol is for a medical person to call and inform you of any scheduled scans or changes in their schedule. I had received no such calls. But for some reason, I happened to look at the portal before going to bed. The tests had been moved up in spite of the fact that I had been told it was impossible unless a cancellation occurred. But two tests of different types cancelled, opening up two spots on the same day at just the right intervals? How many “coincidences” could come my way in such a short span of time?
Huge Benefits of a Meltdown
After seeing the change in the schedule, I was indeed exposed and embarrassed at my lack of faith, and convicted of my mistrust and accompanying sins. I stayed up for a long time, praying and journaling and reading Scripture and writing. It was a time of pain and joy uniquely mixed together in bringing my heart back to God. My lack of trust in that one twenty-four-hour period was deeply convicting and deeply saddening. Honestly, it still is as I write this. God had done nothing but bless me and show himself to me. I felt like Hagar in Genesis 16:13, “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” People complain that it is difficult to believe in a God that they cannot see, much less trust him. But you can see him. He wants to be seen. He has shown himself to me over and over, but I am too often blind or just not paying attention. You see that in this story thus far, don’t you? But in my meltdown, I didn’t. And that is not all that I had experienced during that time, just the main points.
I continued to pursue my repentance late into the night and early the next morning. It was a rich experience. I looked up familiar passages and saw lessons I had missed before. That is a part of seeing God. He shows up in his love letter revelation to us in ways we haven’t seen him previously. He keeps giving us new insights through both experiences and Scriptures. Romans 2:4 was one of the first verses I looked at. “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” The context of this verse is showing the sins of the Jews in judging the Gentiles. They thought they had been blessed because they deserved it, that they were better than all those outside the Israelite nation. But God had been good to them to induce repentance and appreciation in them, not to exalt them. Their own judgmental attitudes condemned them.
As I thought about that context, I suddenly realized that I took it to a much higher (actually far, far lower) place and judged God himself! Perfectly horrific. Through his word, the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), he cut into my messed-up heart and in the process, started his beautiful heart surgery on me. He is the Great Physician, after all. I know that God allows us to question him, just as any good parent does their children. The Psalmists prove that over and over. But the questioning can go too far, as did Job’s. I didn’t want to cross that line, but even if I had, God would still be right there. I realized that when I began looking at the ending of Psalm 73.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, 22 I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. 23 Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. 28 But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
What a beautiful ending to the Psalm! That’s God in plain view. He always holds us close and holds us tight – even at our worst when we are brute beasts. God is good and always good and cannot be otherwise. In addressing the Jews Romans 2, in spite of their sins of which they were totally unaware yet proud of and justifying, God was trying to lead them by their right hand out of the mess they were in. When we are out of our senses, God is still with us, holding us by our hands, leading us back into spiritual reality. I picture a parent with a three-year-old child who wants to go the opposite way than they are being led. They are kicking and screaming and throwing a tantrum. What does the parent do? They just keep gently pulling the child along with them in the direction they know they should go, knowing that the child will eventually give up the fight and follow, and either apologize or be taught by the parent to apologize after throwing a hissy fit. That’s what good parents do and that’s how children learn to trust parents. Where do parents learn how to do that? The writer of this Psalm would say, correctly, from God.
Satan’s work with us is the exact same as it was with Eve in the Garden, namely to cause us to mistrust God by believing that he is withholding something good from us; to believe that he really doesn’t want the very best for us. One of his tools is to convince us that God only loves us when we are doing well. When we are a mess in a mess, he turns aside and with arms crossed in frustration or anger, he waits until we straighten up and then he turns back toward us and if we have repented with enough guilt and sorrow, he is then willing to give us a hug. That is exactly the opposite of how God really works. Using the analogy of the parent holding on to their three-year-old child in rebellion, what does the parent do in this case? They hold on tighter to keep the child from hurting themselves. Now the child may step in mud puddles and skin their knees on the sidewalk in their self-inflicted escapades, but the parent holds on tighter. Were the child not fighting, the parent could pick them up and carry them over the mud puddles and the rough patches, but no matter what, the parent holds on – especially when the child insists on going the wrong way. That is like God, isn’t it? He doesn’t just hold on to us when we are gleefully following his lead. It is precisely when we are at our worst that he reaches for us. Read it.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Psalm 73 goes on to say that God keeps guiding us, teaching us and maturing us until such time as he takes us home with him to glory. Thus, as we do mature spiritually, what happens? Heaven becomes all about God and our relationship eternally with him. It’s not about streets of gold or anything we humans imagine as being heaven. It’s not about making 1000-yard drives on golf courses constructed from our wildest imaginations or catching ten-pound largemouth bass on every cast on the most beautiful lake imaginable. It is about being with our Abba, forever and ever, loving and being loved in unimaginable ways. More importantly in the here-and-now, life on earth becomes all about God and developing a relationship with him into deeper and deeper levels. Everything else in this life pales into insignificance when we get the lesson that our writer friend learned. I’m just using his words with a bit of editing. It’s all right there.
He ended this marvelous chapter in this longest book in the Bible with complete satisfaction in being near God and in making him his refuge. That is all about relationship, simply and beautifully. This is why God made us and he works with us from the day of our birth until the day of our death, helping us see that and once we see it, helping us grow continually until we are at home with him. No wonder our dear writer says that he would tell the story of all of God’s deeds. How could he not? He had just been led out of a dark place to the brightest realizations known to mankind. He foreshadowed the words of my favorite Bible character, “We also believe and therefore speak” (2 Corinthians 4:13).
Seeing God Everywhere
Seeing God is a learned art. It is a matter of looking and focusing. Many years ago, I was staying in the home of a good minister friend and his wife whom I had helped train. His church was conducting an evangelistic campaign and I was the guest speaker. One afternoon, the brother and I were walking through a small grove of trees behind their house, and he commented about how the trees were just full of plums that season. I thought he was kidding me, because when I looked up into the trees I didn’t see one plum. But he insisted that he wasn’t joking and was surprised that I thought he was, since he assured me that the trees were indeed full of plums. I kept looking up for a while in search of plums and at a certain point, I suddenly saw them – tons of them. They were the same color as the leaves of the tree, not yet being in the ripened stage. I was shocked, pleasantly so. I just wasn’t focused and prepared to see what was abundantly obvious all the time. You get the point, I’m sure. Start looking. God is everywhere, omnipresent we say, and all loving, which means that he is in your life too – and observably so if you are prepared to see him.
One of my “impossible” prayers for this year is to eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. In other words, trust that every dark cloud has a silver lining if we will but look for it and be patient as we look. It often takes time to see it. Hindsight is much clearer than foresight. I think back to an unusual episode last November. I had just returned from attending and speaking on a beautiful memorial service for one of my heroes, Ron Brumley, in San Diego. On the following Saturday, I was spending time with Theresa and all was well with my world – until it wasn’t. I started having some odd little hallucinations, like I was dropping off to sleep and having a series of quick dreams. Yet I was wide awake and walking around inside the house and even outside once to check the mail. I talked to Theresa about it and we decided it was probably wise to visit the ER, although the episode only lasted five or ten minutes. Once there, they started doing tests of several types, primarily checking to see if I had suffered a stroke. I hadn’t. But the blood test showed a kidney problem, enough to be called an “acute kidney injury.”
They checked me into the hospital for the night and hooked me up to an IV. By morning, my kidney function was back in the normal range. I described every part of my activities for the past week to the doctors and nurses, including the trip to San Diego. Dehydration was a part of the issue, I’m sure, and I had a theory about what else might have contributed to the odd and scary episode. None of the medical folks had any better theories than I did, and the hospitalist discharged me just after noon the next day. That experience bothered me until I had my scans of last week explained. They injected me with Iodine-containing contrast medium in both types of scans. My specialist had my kidney function tested again before the scans, because the scan processes put a strain on the kidneys. Mine checked out fine. So what is the silver lining in that November cloud experience? I had done something that temporarily affected my kidney function and without the strange episode, what was called an injury might have progressed to damage. That was a heck of a way to find it out, but a part of an ongoing roller coaster ride with an adventuresome God. At least, that is the best I can make of it, and that is good enough for me.
A Final Story (just came to mind)
I could go on and on about my recent experiences and seeing God in them, but I will just include one more that I just thought of while writing this. It’s worth the read, trust me. Years ago, while living in Boston, we had a very close relationship with a couple originally from Australia, Graham and Suzanne Gumley. Graham was (and is) one of the foremost microsurgeons in the world. When they were in Boston, Graham was a professor in the medical schools of Harvard and Northeastern. They are back in Australia now, and prior to going back, Graham served as the chief surgeon in a hospital in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a project of HOPE Worldwide. With all of the injuries still occurring from Pol Pot’s buried land mines, it would be interesting to hear Graham’s surgical stories from that decade of his life. He is still a professor in medical schools in his home country and at age 70, still conducting surgeries to reattach body parts severed through accidents. I know some of those stories but won’t take the time here to tell them, though they are beyond fascinating.
After years of not connecting with the Gumleys, I just “happened” to receive an email from Graham on December 30th of 2021, the day after the sample tissue was taken by my doctor that led to the cancer diagnosis. When I communicated back via email the next day, I described in some detail my health issues, including the fact that I was awaiting the results of that test from the day prior to his first email. His reply to mine arrived January 6th, the day after I got the cancer diagnosis. In it, he asked if we could share a Zoom call to catch up, which we did a few days later, and had a wonderful talk. Graham isn’t just a great surgeon; he is a great person and great disciple of Jesus. His wife is quite special as well.
Here’s the kicker. Graham was in his office when we were talking on Zoom. He said that literally right next door to where he was sitting was the best colorectal department in all of Australia and he could ask his friends there any question that I might have or get any advice I might want. As I said, I just thought of this story as I was trying to finish up this already too long article. It’s just one more of the incredible adventures in my recent spiritual roller coaster ride with God, who himself obviously loves adventures. He created us, didn’t he? After hearing about one 33-day adventure in my recent life experience, isn’t it pretty clear that God not only wants to be seen but can be seen – clearly? Of course, I could continue by mentioning that 33 is my all-time favorite number. My email addresses both start with gordonferguson33. Coincidence? Think what you want, but I knew before I started counting the days between January 5 and February 7 what the number was going to be. I’m not always blind or not looking. As my good friend, Steve Hiddleson, would say just about now (approvingly), I’m just getting plumb “wiggley.”
Join me, and start looking everywhere for God. He is there, anxious to be seen and be with you. The old spiritual song, “My God and I,” describes it well. And with it, I close.
My God and I go in the fields together
we walk and talk as good friends should and do
we clasp our hands our voices ring with laughter
my God and I walk through the meadow’s hew
He tells me of the years that went before me
when heavenly plans were laid for me to be
when all was but a dream of deep reflections
to come to life earth’s verdant glory see
My God and I would go for aye together
we’ll walk and talk as good friends always do
this earth will pass and with it common trifles
but God and I will go unendingly
Roller coaster rides are at their best when they give you surprises. Thus, being on life’s roller coaster with God as both designer and the one at the controls is destined to be chock full of surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, even devastatingly so. You might guess that I had such a shocking disappointment soon after I wrote the first part of the story, right? After experiencing it, I deleted both the Facebook post of February 8 and this article. I forgot to delete the FB post seven days later which introduced the article. Odd I didn’t think of that, but I didn’t until now. Roller coaster rides which expose you to a lot of G forces must affect your memory, at least temporarily! You will want to read Part Two of the article, “Devastating Disappointment and the Continuing Story.” You should also guess, God being God, that the continuing story finds me back at the top of the rails once again – howbeit not easily nor quickly!
All of us have relatives who become so special to us that they hold a unique place in our hearts and lives. When they die, they leave a big hole in our hearts and it takes a while for the grieving process to replace the pain with only precious memories. Ten years ago yesterday, I lost such a relative, a very special uncle. As I almost always do in times of loss, I wrote, as I mentioned two days ago in introducing another similar article. I just posted what I wrote on Halloween ten years ago. Hardly anyone who reads the brief article will have any idea of who my Uncle Pete was, but I would like to introduce a man to you who was an important part of my growing up years. Hopefully it will encourage you to write as you work through your own times of grief. Enjoy!
Today, Uncle Pete passed from this life. He was a half month shy of his 79th birthday (which would have been on November 16th). His name will be listed in the obituary as “Brider L. (Leroy) Ferguson” but the only name I ever heard him called by was Pete, or Uncle Pete by his nephews and nieces. I was blessed with five uncles and a number of great-uncles, and I loved all of my uncles in unique ways and thankfully, felt loved by all of them. But for me, Uncle Pete was in somewhat of a special class. For one thing, we were reasonably close in age. I made my entrance into the world when he hadn’t yet turned ten. And he married two years after I did. For all practical purposes, we were contemporaries or at least became that in a reasonably short period of years.
However, for a decade of my life, we shared something especially important to me as a youngster growing up. Prior to my teen years, my dad and I regularly enjoyed the Louisiana outdoors together with Pete and my other two Ferguson uncles, Stanley and Jack. We fished until hunting season opened, and then started back fishing again as soon as the hunting season closed. I could write quite a long article (maybe a book) about all the adventures of the Ferguson boys. As the oldest grandchild, I pretty much became the fifth Ferguson boy. My granddad died when he was relatively young, and in time, I sorta became one of Grandma’s five sons. It was not a coincidence that all five of us went to make her funeral arrangements together when she died at age 75.
But back to what made Pete so special in my life. About the time I became a teenager, he and Grandma moved to Gaars Mill, Louisiana in Winn Parish. They lived on a 65 acre farm with its own little fishing pond and all of the trappings of farm life. Although Pete kept laying brick for a living, he populated the farm with cows, chickens, a horse or two and a couple of dogs. God provided the rest of the population, primarily rats, snakes and other assorted pests. The first two on the list were actually fun pests, in that they provided excellent opportunities for target practice. I shot the snakes with my pellet gun as I made my way around the banks of the pond fishing. Pete, Daddy, Jack and I often shot the rats at night with our .22 pistols loaded with rat shot as they were running across the rafters of the various barns and sheds. Wearing headlights and yelling and hollering as we emptied our guns time and time again would have no doubt alarmed the neighbors – if there had been any! Grandma and Pete definitely lived in the country, but that’s what made it extra special.
Pete didn’t have many rules for me when I visited them, and I visited them often – from about age 13 until they moved back to Shreveport ten years later. He often did make me get up well before daylight to feed the cows and do various other farm chores, but most of the time I did exactly what I wanted and little else. And considering the breakfasts Grandma cooked, getting up early had its own rewards. Pete was not only a really fun uncle, he was an amazingly generous one. From the time he moved to the country, he started letting me drive his fairly new car. I would occasionally pick up a certain distant relative so early in the morning that he didn’t have time to get drunk yet, and the two of us would drive 50 miles to a good fishing hole. He didn’t have much about him to endear himself to the human race, but he endeared himself to me by knowing how to catch lots of fish. It was always a mystery to me why Pete would trust me with his car to drive, knowing that I was not only an underage driver for a few years, but I carried passengers of questionable character in his car when the need arose!
Those years visiting in Gaars Mill left me with some of my best memories of my growing-up years. I could write a fairly lengthy book filled with the memories of those years, replete with chapters that could only be viewed as Ferguson craziness. Right now, I couldn’t imagine life without those years, nor without the memories that made those years so memorable and enjoyable. And all of that means that I couldn’t imagine life without my Uncle Pete. After I heard that he had been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, I tried to make it back to my hometown as often as possible to see him, and was able to visit him on at least four different occasions between diagnosis and death. The last time was one week ago today in the hospital, and he was still lucid enough to recognize me. For that I am most grateful. I am also strangely grateful that he only lasted one more week, because being confined to bed wasn’t his thing and watching him suffer wasn’t mine.
Although I knew he couldn’t last long, and hoped that he wouldn’t since recovery wasn’t a possibility, hearing the news today hit hard. I’ve thought of little else since, and after talking to his sweet daughter, Melissa, I was able to let the tears flow and drain off some of the grief. Like all such occasions when losing someone you love, it will be a process in which the pain is gradually replaced by the special memories. The mental image of seeing him in his last stages will give way to the memories of a young uncle doing the things that he and I shared together. Even as I write out my feelings of pain now to hopefully help deal with the loss, I have a plethora of feelings of appreciation for having enjoyed an uncle named Pete for the 69 years and four days of my life. Tomorrow will be my first day to awake without an Uncle Pete to share planet earth with any longer. But that fact can never erase his residence in my heart. Good-bye Pete, and thanks for the memories. It was quite a ride.
John 10:11-18 (NIV2011)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Leaders Know Their Sheep
Knowing those whom we lead is not just being in touch with them and their issues and needs; it is being in close enough touch that we really know them. When they believe that they are thus known and considered, they are willing followers and not disgruntled ones. Being a good shepherd begins with sacrifice. Jesus described it in the most graphic terms possible, as laying down our lives for those whom we lead. Here are some challenging words for all disciples, but they should apply most directly to leaders: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Valuing others above self on a 24/7 basis is quite the challenge, but it is at the heart of a Jesus’ style leadership.
Getting in Touch and Staying in Touch
You can effectively lead only those whom you know and know reasonably well. The larger the group being led, the bigger the challenge of really knowing them. While you may not be able to know them well enough to have a personal relationship with each person, you must find ways to know enough about them as a group to meet their needs. This calls for being aware of the various types of folks in the larger group and developing ways to get their consistent input. For example, the needs of single moms, divorced persons, senior citizens, persons who have lost their mates, young single persons, married persons of all ages in all stages of life, etc. are all quite different. Then add in the differences in racial and ethnic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, financial backgrounds, to name but a few, and the amount of diversity in a ministry is almost staggering to contemplate. Yet, in imitation of Jesus, leaders must know their sheep.
A good starting place is in the makeup of a leadership group. Enough variation should be a planned part of such a group to insure that much input comes organically. In addition to that hopeful composition, other groups should be selected for regular meetings with leaders at reasonably spaced intervals. Although many different groups could be suggested here, at our current time, two are absolutely essential: a racial diversity group and a younger generations group. If you are lacking either of these, I would advise you to develop such groups post haste. We are at a crisis point in most churches within these two categories of our membership, whether we realize it or not.
Recognizing the need for open dialogue on the racial front, I started writing a blog some years back (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). My home church was also taking steps to meet this need, a history of which can be found on my blogsite or my teaching website under the title, “DFW Church Cultural Connection History.” In our family of churches (the ICOC) in the United States, we have been blessed with an overall Diversity Group (of which I was a part for several years) designed to promote similar groups at the congregational level. We now call these groups by the term “SCUAD” (Social, Cultural, Unity and Diversity Team).
Early during the pandemic, we conducted a very well attended Zoom meeting for church leaders, explaining the need for such teams in each congregation and offering direction for establishing them. Michael Burns, a proficient writer and lecturer on racial issues, has a link to sources on his website (michaelburnsteachingministry.com) for starting such groups. His books and other materials are listed and linked on his website. Michael also has a podcast series entitled, “All Things to All People,” listed on the Resources page of Disciples Today (disciplestoday.org). His materials have been invaluable to me and to thousands of others.
Feeling that so many resources on racial issues were available and that those resources were provided by authors better equipped to address the issues than I, I resigned my position on the ICOC SCUAD last year (2020). I have also slowed down considerably in adding my own articles to my blogsite for the same reasons. As I heard of more and more congregations establishing their own SCUADs, I felt as though my earlier attempts had been helpful and now others were contributing more than I possibly could. I think all of that reasoning was sound and my diminishing involvement was likewise reasonable.
How Much Better Are We Doing?
However, I do need to add a footnote on this subject aimed at what is or is not taking place in some of our churches. I was talking recently to someone about the diversity group arrangement and explaining how encouraged I was that so many congregations had organized these groups. The person to whom I was talking said that their congregation was the only one who had established a SCUAD in their entire geographic family of churches. I was more than shocked; I was dismayed. The need has been publicized so much that it was almost hard to believe what he said. I’ve no way of checking up on the accuracy of his statement, but he is a well-informed brother and had to be pretty accurate in what he said.
Why would a church with a racially diverse membership not see the need to develop such a group? I just don’t get it. With all that is going on in our society at present, how could a leader not get on board quickly to help his church negotiate these troubled times spiritually, for both our members of color who are facing the challenges most directly and our White members who, as fellow members of their spiritual family, have the opportunity and responsibility to help bear their burdens. We cannot share the burdens of others until and unless we know what they actually are. We need to be helping one another in multiple ways in the racial realm.
One thing I have heard offered by White church leaders as an excuse for not addressing racial issues is that such issues are simply political and political issues have no place in the church. I do understand that all issues can be and are being politicized. Many can’t even discuss the issues surrounding the pandemic without devolving into political discussions, be they about the wearing of masks or getting vaccinations. I recently touched on that issue in a sermon, and somewhat humorously noted that I had seen a tee shirt with a universal inscription on it that anyone in the audience could wear right now. It went something like this: “Ignorance can be educated; Crazy can be medicated; but there is no cure for Stupid!” Anyone could wear it because whoever doesn’t agree with us on pandemic issues are the stupid ones, right? Good grief, Charlie Brown!
The racial issues are much more significant than the pandemic issues in the church, trust me. I will not discuss and argue about the latter. My wife and I have some differences in this realm. She can believe and practice what she believes and I can do the same. Our differences are not an issue to either of us. The racial issues are a big deal, however. We need to be able to discuss these and find solutions within the church. I know that attempts to converse about them can digress into politically loaded areas but they don’t have to. We can discuss real issues without getting hung up on the BLM organization or CRT (Critical Race Theory). We are in the world but we are not of the world and do not behave as the world. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we must seriously attempt to meet the challenges faced by each other, together as a spiritual family.
Losing Our Youth in Droves?
I continue hearing this alarming phrase from older and younger people alike: “Our youth are leaving the church in droves.” Are we? I’m not sure how many constitutes a drove, but I know that we are losing a lot of young people. All churches are right now. Articles about losing the Millennial group started being written a long time ago, and we are way past just losing that age group now – way past. When anyone addresses the “Millennial problem” now, they date themselves. I have written some about this serious situation already and intend to write more.
The reason most give for this dilemma is a failure of churches to adapt and change to meet the needs of younger generations. That is a big part of the reason, for sure. But there is another side of that coin too. Many younger ones are so focused on what they need that they pay little attention to what the older ones may need. Plus, they are so influenced by their own generation and social media approaches that their way of seeking solutions is simply unspiritual, and thus ineffective. As I say, I will write more about the generation gap later.
What I do know is that unless church leaders find a way to connect in meaningful ways with the younger generations, we are going to be in dire straits soon and probably are already in most churches. In my home ministry region, we are just now developing an input group from our youth. Interestingly, just like our older folks, the younger ones have diverse views from their peers too. Many of them don’t yet realize how diverse in thinking they are because they tend, as all humans do, to congregate with others of like mind. Birds of a feather flock together. That’s why input has to come from all types of people, to take the wide variations of ideas and preferences into consideration. Just knowing that others don’t see things the way you do helps avoid divisions if handled spiritually.
Let me illustrate that point. We once moved into a congregation who was experiencing a firestorm, one burning nearly out of control. Knowing human nature regarding diversity of thought, my beginning point was gathering the members in small groups of six to ten at a time for discussions. I put a signup sheet on the wall with specific time slots noted and asked everyone to sign up for a convenient time that would fit their schedule. As we started meeting, to say tension was in the air would be a big understatement. I asked people to begin by expressing their viewpoints of why they thought the church was in a bad place and so disunified.
As they listened to one another, some of the listeners literally had their mouths drop open. They assumed that everyone felt just as they did, which was far from the truth. Why did they think that? They were birds of a feather who had been flocking together with those who shared their viewpoints. That’s what humans do, regardless of age. We need to hear from our youth and they from us, to be sure, but they need to hear from one another too. It will provide a balance that they won’t otherwise get and the same is true of us older ones who must hear more divergent opinions about how to “do” church.
But don’t miss the bottom line: wisely select a group of representative youth and start meeting with them immediately if not sooner. And you need to do the same with a racially diverse group, and from there, move into well planned diversity training discussions of your broader membership. Read the articles and take advantage of the resources I have mentioned already about that particular need.
Deeper Issues: Team Leadership and Beyond
In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned the book, “Golden Rule Leadership.” Probably the most novel idea in that book was regarding team leadership in the church rather than the one-man-at-the-top leadership style as most had practiced it (some still do). In my later book, “Dynamic Leadership,” I spent some time trying to help us distinguish between the concept of team leadership and that of simply having a leadership team. The former is a much broader principle out of which the latter comes, but just having a leadership team doesn’t fully satisfy what team leadership involves. That said, Wyndham and I were trying to move us leaders off the idea of one man at the top of a military modeled leadership dynamic. We were at that point (nearly two decades ago) just trying to help leaders replace a faulty concept with a better one.
I was somewhat amazed at how deeply attached some were (still are?) to the one-man-at-the-top idea, in whose hands most leadership decisions were made, or for sure, finalized. On a related topic, I am currently amazed at how many male leaders (and males in general) believe that family leadership should function basically the same way, with the husband making or finalizing all family decisions. That is illogical and wrong on so many levels that I won’t go further into it now. Later, Gator, on that one. I will say that the one-man, top-down church leadership concept may well grow out of a faulty family leadership concept. I do believe that the physical family leadership dynamics and the spiritual family leadership dynamics are very closely related in multiple ways. If you accept the wrong view of individual family leadership teamwork and decision making, it is not difficult to see why some insist on the same model for church leadership.
Here’s an important question. Have you ever carefully thought about how the one-man leader and decision maker idea could possibly have become so entrenched in our thinking at one time? Aside from the likely connection to how family leadership and decision making is erroneously viewed, something much deeper had to be involved. The only logical way it could have happened is in thinking that a designated leader (appointed in some way) had a direct pipeline through the Holy Spirit to access God’s will. That viewpoint was not absent, I can promise you. It was a terribly faulty viewpoint, but it was the only one which ultimately could logically account for the idea that the thinking of one man was better than the combination of more minds thinking together. I cannot escape the logical necessity of that being the foundation of the view. Can you? And many applied it all the way down to the discipler/disciple relationship. In retrospect, it was idiocy.
Broader Issues: Unity in Diversity?
Much of what I have written in my last several articles could fall under this heading. Within all congregations we have diversity of so many different types. Yet, we are family. Every physical family has diversity within it and usually, as a result, some dysfunction. But we are still family and we figure out how to get along most of the time and love each other all of the time. The church is God’s spiritual family, and he says much more about how to live together in his family than in our individual families. Why is that? I would hazard a guess it is because of the much broader diversity within the larger group. But yes, unity in diversity is possible if we are intent on pleasing God in our congregations.
One of my bigger concerns is unity on a broader scale, where the diversity is also broader. I refer, of course, to our entire family of churches worldwide, and on a smaller scale, to our geographic families of churches. Our being categorized as families of churches is aimed at promoting unity, effectiveness and progress. I am sure that these goals are being aided through being grouped together in geographic families of churches. But I do have concerns about how much diversity we can handle on the broader scale and still maintain unity.
For example, I have friends who lead churches and yet feel as though they are on the outside looking in. They have actually been told something to that effect by other leaders. I’m not sure of all the issues involved, but I am aware of some of them. I have spoken by Zoom in these churches and/or to their leaders. I will continue to do so. I can handle their diversities of opinion. I share much in common with those diversities of thinking, actually, regarding the specifics involved. I would perhaps have approached those differently than my friends did (or not), but in the end of the day, I am not willing to make the approaches themselves or the specifics matters of division. I do not believe that the ones of which I am aware are salvation issues. They are issues that may well raise the blood pressures of other leaders, but then I do some of that myself – sometimes unknowingly and sometimes on purpose. I can handle the disagreements because they fall into the realm of opinion matters (Romans 14). My wife and I don’t agree about everything. No two humans do, nor do groups.
I will probably write more about unity in diversity between congregations in the future. I don’t see it as a widespread problem yet, but I did spend my youth and early adulthood in a family of churches that divided over more issues than you can imagine. Thus I know where this can end up and we don’t want to go there, rest assured. An old Restoration adage was a good one, but history showed it was an exceedingly hard one to apply. It goes, “In matters of faith, unity; in matter of opinion, liberty; and in all things, charity (love).” The problem is in differentiating between what belongs in category one and what belongs in category two.
Given that the Restoration Movement of churches, out of which our group came, used a patternistic method of biblical interpretation, the problem was compounded. Matters of interpreting Scripture is another topic for another day, but it is at the heart of some of our current differences just mentioned. We need help with this one because it is a problem that we definitely have and yet most don’t realize that we have it. More later on that one too. In the meantime, let’s just work on the topics I addressed in my last three articles. You might want to reread the other two as well to get the backdrop that prompted all three. Thanks for reading (and thanks for your patience with an old guy who rambles a bit too much these days)! I love you!
My Facebook Introduction to this Article
Some years ago, I began a blog about racial issues entitled, “Black Tax and White Benefits.” One of the early blog posts was entitled, “White Church Leaders – Are You Listening?” I followed this post up with several others showing that some church leaders were indeed listening and taking action. Thankfully, my home congregation, the DFW church (Dallas/Fort Worth) is one of those who has set a very appreciated example in this regard, over the past five years. Although I still hear of some leaders who want to relegate racial issues to the political realm and avoid it altogether, much progress has been made by many churches. To encourage more progress for all of us, I asked Todd Asaad and Pierre Saget to compose a history of what we have done and are doing. I just posted it on my blogsite. Read it and you will want to post it and pass it around in every way possible. Let’s do it! Thank you!
The Article by Pierre Saget and Todd Asaad
In 2014, the Asaads saw the need for our congregation to celebrate the diversity among us while deepening the love we have for each other. Todd asked the Sagets to help meet this need by looking into a training model on the topic of diversity that would be appropriate for our fellowship. After a traumatic string of unjust killings of black individuals around the country and the unjust killings of police officers in Dallas in 2016, our need to develop a training grew into so much more. We saw the need to establish a team that could help us deepen our love and unity while we processed the harsh realities of the world through a spiritual lens and while still being a light to our communities. The team consisted of Todd and Patty Asaad, Pierre and Shara Saget, and Marcos and Kinny Pesquera.
Beginning in 2016, we were able to use the expertise of Marcos, who is the System Vice-President for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at CHRISTUS Health, to put together a workshop that started the conversation around diversity in the body. This workshop was facilitated by the Pesqueras and the Sagets and was conducted first with the staff of the DFW Church. We then conducted the workshop with all of the Bible talk leaders, the singles ministry, and then with each worship center. In total, it took about a year to complete these workshops. Following the workshops, the entire staff was directed to read Michael Burns’ book, Crossing the Line: Culture, Race, and Kingdom. In June of 2019, Todd invited Michael to come to Dallas to conduct a mini-workshop based on his book. This event was held on a Sunday, during a congregational worship service. Michael also provided a time of teaching the next day to help further equip the church staff in our task of leading a diverse congregation.
To date, we have continued to expand our team to include two representatives from each of the six worship centers of the DFW Church. We did this because we recognized that the work in this area is vast and important, therefore, we needed more disciples involved. We also took on the name Cultural Connection Team because we felt it communicates, in a broad but adequate way, the objective of the team. The team has met regularly since 2020 and seeks to provide educational opportunities that will equip our brothers and sisters to talk about our various cultural and racial differences in a way that promotes greater understanding and value for each other and those we are reaching out to who are different than ourselves.
One of these educational opportunities was born out of a meeting with Dr. George Yancey, Baylor University Professor of Sociology. After reading Dr. Yancey’s book, Beyond Racial Gridlock, and finding out that he lived in the Dallas Metroplex, Todd and Pierre invited him to have lunch with a number of the staff and elders of the DFW Church. We explored his thoughts and ways on helping multiracial churches develop greater love and unity because this is an area that Dr. Yancey is particularly interested in himself. We then asked for a second meeting to discuss the possibility of him presenting some of his research to leaders of our Texas family of churches and leaders of the Chicago, Kansas City and Nashville churches who joined us. Dr. Yancey’s presentation of his research was refreshing and timely as he discussed a viable way for us to fulfill our calling to be like Jesus as we navigate the divisive times we live in.
Our relationship with Dr. Yancey has led to an invitation for the DFW Church to participate in a new research project which will help teach and inform us on how to better love all nations. Dr. Yancey is set to provide a training session that will teach us how to have collaborative conversations with each other. This training will be followed by six separate small group sessions that will test the effectiveness of the training and allow us to put into practice what we have learned. The potential for growth in our fellowship is tremendous as we anticipate each of us learning how to come together and love each other deeply in a way that values the diverse perspectives we all bring to the body. We also anticipate that participation in this research project will better equip us to be about our mission of sharing the gospel with others who are different from ourselves. Our prayer is that God will be honored and glorified as we strive to sincerely love each other deeply and be a light to our world.
Pierre Saget — DFW Evangelist
Todd Asaad — DFW Congregational Evangelist
Last week I published an article on my teaching website entitled, “Is Your Religion Focused on Christ or the Church?” My bottom-line point was that if it is focused primarily on the church, becoming disillusioned, discouraged and critical is difficult to avoid. If it is focused on Christ and imitating him, you will have grace toward the church and its leaders and can serve as a constructive critic rather than a negative one. I didn’t advise saying nothing, to simply grin-and-bear wrong practices, although some took it that way. My main emphasis evidently left that impression with them.
On this past Sunday, I preached a sermon with the same title, although the content was not exactly the same. You can watch and/or listen to it on the DFW Northeast Facebook page or on You Tube if you want. I received some critiques on both the article and the sermon which were very beneficial to me. They were basically of two types: concerns about what was included and concerns about what wasn’t included. Regarding the former, I did revise a paragraph in the article. What I said and the tone it carried were not good and it needed changing. Some of the rest of it was edgy, but I still think it was appropriate for the intended purpose.
Regarding the latter, the critiques were about not saying more about faulty leadership, the church atmosphere created by it and the individuals hurt by it. Those giving the critiques agreed that no matter what happens, we still need to go the way of the cross in how we respond to being mistreated or encountering practices which we believe violate biblical principles. On the other hand, facing such treatment or atmospheres without becoming sinfully critical is understandably very challenging. I understand. I’m in that boat with you. Hence this article (and at least one more) in dealing with some of the specific concerns about faulty church leadership and what it creates. I use the term “faulty” because it can apply to ineffective leadership as well as sinful leadership and everything in-between.
Being able to identify worldly leadership can be a challenging task. We are introduced to leaders from birth – our parents. As we grow up, we see leaders of all types in roles of all types, and we develop views of leadership based on what we have seen and experienced. Thus, our view of leaders can produce very positive feelings or very negative ones. But whatever our views of leadership are when we come into the kingdom of God, those views are so deeply embedded that we can read what Jesus said about spiritual leadership and totally miss his meaning. Our worldly views are a part of our DNA and will remain so unless we get a lot of help to see what the New Testament is teaching about the topic.
When Wyndham Shaw and I wrote “Golden Rule Leadership” back in the early part of this century, we were trying to provide that help. Simply put, if we lead like we want to be led, that alone will enhance our leadership greatly. When we wrote the book, some leaders had children who were reaching high school or college ages and they now had ministry leaders with significant influence in their lives. Hence, I worded the Golden Rule of leadership in a slightly different way, namely, to lead others like you want your own children to be led. Trust me, some leaders who themselves had led campus students very forcefully at one time were now much more sensitized to how their own children were being led.
One thing Wyndham and I learned was that some leaders don’t do well with being critiqued. In our earlier days, many of the leaders with the most influence had pretty obvious pride problems. Tom Jones has said that the book he co-authored about pride and humility, “The Prideful Soul’s Guide to Humility,” was not read by a good number of leaders because buying the book would be an admission that they had the problem! He wished he had chosen a different title. I think he was right – about them and the resultant book readership.
I wrote the Introduction to Golden Rule, and the final part of it carried this heading: Warning! I went on to say this: “The greatest danger in reading this book is to assume that you really already understand the principles being discussed and are currently putting them into practice. This is especially true for our most experienced leaders. We do not see ourselves as we are; we do not see ourselves as others see us. Our strong tendency is to think more highly of ourselves as leaders than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). Wow! That definitely set off some leaders, at which point I just smiled and said “Bingo!” Keeping pride in check is an ongoing challenge for all those who lead.
The Roots of the Problem
One root is what I have already said about our experiences in the world and the definition of leadership thus produced in our minds. It takes a lot of work (and time) to eradicate the worldly thinking in this and other areas with which we enter the kingdom. Another root of the problem in our movement was the military mindset in our singular leader in our early days as a family of churches and the military style he used and trained other leaders to use. In my later (and longer) book on church leadership, “Dynamic Leadership,” I address this part of our root system in detail. It led to a trail of woe, although in the short term, this leadership style can produce some pretty amazing results. They just cannot be sustained. Plus, people get hurt.
The prevailing leadership style of our early days hurt almost everyone in some way at some time. It was hard to avoid harshness with the military model as a foundation. I am hearing currently that some leaders are returning to these roots and again leading with a controlling style that includes harshness. This unspiritual quality sometimes shows itself in significant displays of anger, in spite of biblical warnings against “fits of rage” in the catalogue of sins in Galatians 5, as well as in other biblical passages. This is not just faulty leadership; it is sinful leadership.
I think all of us, leaders and non-leaders alike, are tempted with anger now more than ever, simply because of the pandemic atmosphere tensions under which we are living. The old illustration about a man having a really bad day at the office coming home to kick his dog and yell at his family finds many applications in our current hurting world. I have had my challenges with that, although it is usually not directed toward fellow disciples. But then I am not in a leadership role now at my age, so the temptation is lessened – not removed. Whatever our circumstances, failure to maintain self-control is not an option.
An Important Disclaimer
If I could put my finger on the biggest mistake we made in our early days regarding leadership style, it would probably be how we defined and employed what we call “discipling.” Let me begin with this disclaimer. I believe in discipling in the ways the New Testament describes it, as the exercise of our “one another,” “each other” responsibilities toward one another. Believing that my former fellowship of churches didn’t come close to obeying the teachings about our relationships with fellow disciples, this concept was the most influential in bringing me into my current family of churches back in 1985. I wrote a long book entitled, “Discipling,” back in the 1990’s, which was condensed into “The Power of Discipling” later. I believe that our movement is suffering greatly because of the virtual disappearance of discipling among most of our membership. The prevailing idea seems to be, “If you need discipling help, just go ask someone for it.”
That is not discipling; it is counseling, which also has its place. But discipling carries the idea of having at least one purposeful spiritual friend with whom you meet regularly with the specific aim of helping one another become more like Jesus – in character and in mission. Having the heart of Jesus will lead to having the actions of Jesus, including his goal of seeking and saving the lost. My early favorite definition of discipling came from an idea stated in one book, that discipling was God’s plan to help us deal with sin at the temptation level before it came in to damage our lives, sometimes terribly. Our early problems with discipling came from adopting a worldly approach to it just like we did with leadership in general. The devil was in the details of application, not in the biblical concept itself.
The Fork in the Road
When I first met this movement, it was in the campus ministry stage. That ministry was the engine, and it was wildly effective in converting campus kids in the first couple of decades, and in some places, much longer. Every new convert received spiritual help and training from having a “Prayer Partner.” That term suggested a mutuality of helping each other and praying together. When I first inquired what a meeting of prayer partners was like, the answer I received was that they talked about how they were doing spiritually, good and bad, and made plans to improve. Then they wrapped it up by praying about those things. That sounded great to me. I was all in. I knew I needed all the help I could get to be spiritual and to grow spiritually to be more like Christ. I’ve not outgrown that need, nor has anyone else.
But then came the fork in the road – of soldiering up! The term “prayer partner” was replaced with “discipling partner” or “discipleship partner.” More significantly, the approach was changed as well. While the terminology change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the change in approach was. Enter the requirement of “one over another,” indicating that in every case, one of the partners was now in a position of authority over the other in all things spiritual. This led to more abuses than I can address here, but the biggest was the authority model brought into the arrangement. It was now a full-blown military model, applied to every leader and every member. You had a discipler who discipled you, which meant in far too many cases they were the boss of the relationship. The list of abuses under this heading is a painfully long one.
Human beings are in general obsessed with power, position, authority and control. That is why wars are fought. That is why politics has invaded almost every aspect of American society right now. Who has the power and control? How can we get it and how can we keep it? Need I say that this approach is just about 180 degrees opposite what Jesus said in his most famous comments about true leadership? The context was when his twelve disciples, the apostles, were arguing about which of them would be the greatest. It was obvious that their view of leadership was totally worldly. Even pretty much living with Jesus hadn’t eradicated it, for false concepts in this area are so hard to dig out and discard. Here’s what Jesus said to them.
Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV2011)
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Okay, So What’s the Intended Application?
Good question, right? As I’ve already said, some leaders appear to be returning to their roots and going heavy on the authority and control issues, complete with harshness and sometimes anger. But I think they are in the minority. My bigger issue with a majority of older leaders within their congregational leadership role is that they are not leading the charge to change the world. They are too comfortable to really lead a radical charge in carrying out the Great Commission and evangelizing the world. But this type can also be harsh if someone tries to pry them out of their comfort zones. Some are describing one form of harshness as “boomerang discipling,” meaning that instead of humbly hearing critiques, even well delivered ones, they turn it back on the person delivering it (or trying to). Leader, just how approachable are you? Don’t trust your own answer – ask around.
The one ministry that still uses more of an old leadership style is campus ministry, in my opinion. The situations I hear about give me that opinion. And by the way, when I am offering critiques, I am not saying that every leader is guilty of the sins I describe. That has never been the case. When Wyndham and I wrote our early book, we didn’t believe that all of our leaders had the problems we described. I don’t believe that everyone has the problems I addressed most recently in writing and in a sermon. But enough problems exist among us to motivate me to address them.
Campus Ministry Challenges on Both Sides
Those leading campus ministry are trained, at least partially, by older leaders who themselves led campus ministries in their younger years. It was often during those years that the military model was most popular and during those years, the model was often amazingly effective. But to repeat an important point, this model has a short shelf life. In time, if not changed it will implode or at the least become much less effective. When the young campus trainees hear about the results their trainer had in his or her youth, they want to see the same results in their ministry (who wouldn’t) and assume that using the same approaches will get the same result. When it doesn’t, they can feel like failures. Michael Burns addressed this well in one of his books.
The shocker is that they don’t seem to realize that it has been decades since those leaders had those results and their present ministry results are not nearly the same. Times have changed; society has changed; results have changed. Approaches need to change too, but often don’t. Traditions are hard to abandon, especially if they worked well at one time. We are slow to adapt and figure out new ways to be effective. We are in a post-Christian culture, especially in the thinking of our younger generations. The churches they have seen are not just out of step with society in ways they shouldn’t be. Their version of Christianity is a polluted one. American Christianity is in general a far cry from what I read about in the Bible, politicized almost beyond recognition. No wonder younger generations are turned off by it. I am too.
Back to the Story
Yes, old style leadership is found in our campus ministries probably more than in any other ministry. Some of the reason is the training received which promotes it. But it is a double-edged challenge that has to be understood by youth and leaders alike. Leaders have to understand that every individual they work with is different and in need of having those differences taken into account in leading them. They also have to understand the differences in those raised in a strong church culture by their parents and those who didn’t experience the same blessings (and sometimes curses). When youth from church families are treated exactly the same as those coming into the church without the same spiritual training and values, it is challenging for the church kids. I have often spoke of age-appropriate leadership. If you treat fifteen year old kids like you treated them when they were five, rebellion is likely coming. But background appropriate leadership is a related need.
The ones with different backgrounds often need more by way of guidelines to protect them against themselves. This is nothing new. I remember one of our well-known leaders describing how the dating guidelines back in his campus ministry days came about in the first place. We are talking about the 1970s here, when the sexual revolution was breaking out everywhere. He said that after conversion, without guidelines for relating to the opposite sex, he ended up having sex with a sister in the church. He took responsibility for the origin of what came to be accepted guidelines, and too often, rules.
It is essential that we have guidelines in relational areas for young people (and sometimes, older ones as well). But when they become rules, we have problems. What’s the difference? Guidelines are explained well and often and applied with individuals in mind. All don’t need exactly the same guidelines. Many times the young people with strong spiritual backgrounds don’t have the same challenges that others do. But, I would say this to you if you think you are in this category. It is really hard to have varying guidelines in campus ministry, because less mature kids have a difficult time understanding why they are treated differently when the guidelines are not applied uniformly.
I have been in a number of situations in the church where I was expected to do the same things as new Christians. Understanding the challenges just described, I just went along gladly with the expectations. I didn’t want to be seen as an exception to what others were being taught to do and not do. I may not have needed the same teaching, but they needed my example of submitting to what was requested of us. As a somewhat older guy when I came into this movement, I understood the importance of my example in this regard.
I would appeal to our younger church background folks to try hard to appreciate this principle and not allow yourself to be too critical of group guidelines, even when many in the group have different backgrounds, needs and challenges than you. I understand your feelings, but I also understand the challenges of leaders trying to work with young folks who are still trying to figure out life. And please don’t think you have figured it all out yet either. Life is a lot more complex than you imagine right now. Being open minded and flexible in the process of continuing to mature will protect you from yourself too. (smile…)
One Request of Older Leaders and One for All Leaders
One of my biggest concerns for the leadership of our movement is that a disproportionate number of leaders with the most influence in developing directions for the future are old (okay, older if that helps you). I’ve nothing against old people, since I am about to turn 79. I understand how our movement leadership developed as it did during this century. We lost a generation when we had a serious challenge in the early 2000s. Financial contributions decreased considerably, and understandably, the younger ones were laid off first. Changing careers was much easier for them and we needed our more experienced leaders to help us maneuver through the crises.
When we did reach more stable ground, we were able to start hiring young people again, but their opportunities in supported ministry were mostly limited to working with youth. I describe this situation in an article entitled, “My Hope is in Our Youth.” You can read it on my website. Bottom line, we didn’t made opportunities for the younger set of leaders to have much of a voice in determining directions for our movement’s future. We still haven’t. The same older set are leading in the same older ways, and innovation isn’t highly visible, to put it more gently than I did in the article just mentioned. Please read it. This issue needs serious attention immediately, if not sooner! Our youth have voices that must be heard.
Speaking of reading, I would strongly suggest that all leaders (and many others) read “Dynamic Leadership,” even if you have read it before. The very first chapter about the difference between offices and titles, and roles and relationships – through the lens of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 23 is so fundamental. We need truly spiritual leadership and this calls for spiritual leaders. One of my dearest and most respected elder friends, now deceased, gave my book the highest compliment I ever received on it. He said that he would never recommend a second book on church leadership until my Dynamic Leadership had been read first. I’ve never taken the words of that elder, Ron Brumley, lightly. I hope you won’t in this case.
Thanks for reading this article. Another to follow soon addressing additional leadership concerns. The Lord bless you and keep you!