We were up one with eight seconds left on the clock. Our small forward had just knocked down two free throws to take the lead. The other team inbounded the ball, advanced it to half-court, and called time out. As the opposing coach drew up her desired play, our staff decided to stay in man-to-man defense, but to switch every screen. We emphasized over and over during that sixty second time out for our players to TALK and make sure they knew who they were guarding and to TALK through switching every screen. I even asked each player to say the number of the player they were guarding before we broke the huddle. Every player identified an opponent she would defend. As our players walked out to half court, I felt hopeful. If we could defend for one more possession, we would win a hard fought game.
I watched as the official handed the inbounder the ball and quickly turned to watch the opponent’s offensive play develop. It was a “screen the screener” play, one which we had reviewed the day before in practice. We should have been ok, but, two of our players failed to TALK through a switch that should have occurred on a screen. As a result of not TALKING through the switch and to my disappointment, a girl on the opposing team curled towards the corner of the floor and got off a wide open seventeen foot jump shot. Nothing but net.
We lost because we did not TALK through the play.
I was attending the practice of a Division One women's basketball program when I heard a very irate head coach abruptly stop a drill. She shouted, “Ladies! I am going to tell our staff to not recruit anyone who doesn’t TALK on the floor! I’m tired of you all NOT TALKING. We cannot win if we do not TALK to one another.”
“We cannot win if we do not TALK to one another.”
Most of the time when I am on the practice floor instructing my team to talk, I think about prayer because prayer is simply talking to God. I agree with the coach who said, “We cannot win if we do not talk to one another.” I would paraphrase her words this way, “We cannot win in life if we do not talk to God.” James, the brother of Jesus, said, “You have not because you ask not.” Jesus said, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Jesus, the creator of the Cosmos, has given us an open invitation to TALK to him and tell him what we need.
I once had a parishioner tell me, “I feel like God doesn’t exist and if he did, he wouldn’t listen to me.” I asked the parishioner, “Well, have you tried talking to him lately?” His reply was, “No.” (I immediately went back to that last second play when my team did not talk through the switch. We won not, because we talked not.) I looked at him and said, “You have not because you ask not. Give God a chance and TALK to him again. You never know what his response might be.”
Sometimes God answers our prayers with a “yes,” sometimes with a “no,” and sometimes with a “not yet.” I often grow frustrated when I feel as if his timing is off. When I pray or TALK to God, I sometimes focus on the answer over God. It doesn’t matter. No matter how often I pray or TALK to God, no matter my level of frustration or faith, and even when I struggle with focus, God still calls out to me, “Come. Pray. TALK to me.”
We have not because we ask not.
We have not because we pray not.
We have not because we talk not.
Ask, pray, and talk to the one who cries out, “Come to me.”
"Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." 2 Timothy 2:15
I was a young high school assistant coach tasked with creating the scouting report against the best team in the region. Our program was on the rise, but we still needed to notch a marque win verses a higher ranked opponent. Our next game was our first chance to show area teams that we were for real and it was my job to let our team know how to stop and attack the best team in the region. So, I set about watching film and looking for tendencies.
I also received a certain gift as I developed my scouting report. Another coach contacted me and said, "I have a gift for you." And then they sent me our opponent's FULL PLAYBOOK. "Where'd you get this," I asked. He replied, "From no one. I've been scouting them all year and this is what I've discovered." I was amazed that he had put in that much work, excited that there was so much detail in the scouting report, and thankful that he'd made my job easier.
I still watched tape on our upcoming team to make sure that I agreed with what the other coach had given me. I did agree with that coach, made a few slight adjustments, and set out creating a practice plan that would prepare our team to exploit the other team's tendencies. We had a great two days of practice leading up to the game and our team spent a significant amount of team studying the other team's playbook. Our staff was both nervous and excited. We felt we had a chance to beat the best team in the region.
Every time the opposing team's coach called a play, our girls were extremely prepared. They were so prepared that they would beat the opposing team's players to their offensive spots. I will always remember one play where a girl from the opposing team made a basket cut, but our power forward jumped to the exact spot of the cut, and stole the pass as if she was the offensive player who was supposed to receive it. She "beat the player to the spot" and disrupted the offense. We scored off that turnover and went on to beat the best team in the region by 15. It was a great night for our program!
Scripture tells us to study to show ourselves approved by correctly handling the word of truth. The only way we can correctly handle the word of truth is by studying God's playbook like our team and the other coach studied our opponent's playbook. When we study God's playbook, we know how to attack the opponent.
I think of how Jesus confronted his opponent, Satan, in the wilderness. Every time Satan tried to tempt Jesus, Jesus quoted Scriptural truth back to Satan. How different would our lives be if every time we were confronted by evil and temptation, we were able to "correctly handle the word of truth" in that moment of temptation? What if God's playbook truly became the lamp to our feet and a light to our path, guiding our way through life?
"You missed her! She was wide open! Pass the ball!" The incensed father yelled from the stands at what I assumed was his daughter. At the same time the father was yelling at his daughter, the coach was trying to get her attention. The coach was waving his arms wildly, shouting her name. I felt bad for the girl. She was a very talented high school point guard, but the competing voices were keeping her from playing within the rhythm of the game. There was a look of confusion and frustration on her face. She couldn't get a break. Her dad was embarrassing her.
I wish I could say that I've only seen such an incident once. Sadly, I've seen it multiple times as an athletic director, coach, parent, and pastor; a parent or family member yelling at their child to do something better, whether it be pass, shoot, dribble, or play defense. And, almost always, I see a look of confusion and embarrassment on the face of the athlete. They're confused because there are competing voices vying for their attention and they feel torn. "Should I listen to my dad or my coach?" And, they're embarrassed because it feels like everyone is looking at them as their parent or family member yells at them.
My dad was both to me; a father and a coach. Ironically, he was never my coach because he coached girls basketball at another school. Yet, he was my coach in the fact that he would always attend my games when his team wasn't playing and he would always provide critiques after watching me play. (Sometimes very difficult critiques that made me wish he hadn't seen me play.) But, it's what he didn't do that I still remember and hold dear to this day; my dad, the coach, never ever spoke while watching me play. Never. Not once. My dad never yelled from the stands, never criticized, never encouraged. He simply sat there and watched. When I asked him why he was so quiet in the stands, he replied, "I want to give you space to play the game. I'm not your coach. You need to be listening to him."
I want to give you space to play.
I'm not your coach.
You need to be listening to him.
Dad knew that it was important for me to focus on playing and listening to my coach. He didn't want to be another competing voice in the midst of a game. His silence empowered me and simplified my responsibilities on the court.
Play the game. Listen to your coach.
Play the game.
Listen to your coach.
Now that I have a daughter who is a competitive gymnast, I find myself attending her competitions and being tempted to coach her through critique and praise. But you know what I do? I simply sit and watch. Don't get me wrong. I'm squirming inside with excitement and trepidation. But I do not speak because I want my daughter to focus on two things...
Play the game. Listen to your coach.
My daughter and I debrief her competitions, but I want to continue to practice the discipline of being quite while she is competing. I don't want to be a source of confusion or shame for her. I want to give her the space to play and listen to her coach.
My goal is the same for my children when it comes to the game of life. I want to give them the space to be who God created them to be and so that they can listen to Him, their true coach. Yes, God has placed parents on this earth to raise children in the proper way, but doing so means that we train them to ultimately listen to Him. That means that we sometimes must remain quiet and encourage our kids to listen to God when they are faced with a tough decision or circumstance.
I am not saying we abandon our kids during difficult moments. Are you kidding me? It would take the U.S. Army to take me away from my children in crisis. Nor am I saying that we withhold praise. I've always believed people, especially kids, respond better to praise than criticism. However, the sobering reality is that we, as parents, will not always be around when our children face crisis. We prepare them for those crisis by teaching them now how to listen to and spend time with God. So, please be teaching your children how to take a break from the world, pray to God, and listen to him. Teach them how to simply live life while listening to God. In essence, teach them to...
Play the game.
Listen to your coach.
"And in despair I bowed my head: 'There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 'God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.'"
It has taken me a while to understand why the words above move me so deeply. I've always felt drawn to this song, but have never been able to identify why. This year, I am starting to understand why these words stir me so.
Yesterday, I sat down at our extended Christmas table and had an amazing dinner with extended family. It felt perfect, wonderful, and...peaceful. Everything felt right in my world. Yet, as I bowed my head to say grace, it occurred to me that I have friends whose worlds are not at peace.
I have a friend whose mother is battling cancer.
I have friends whose little toddler is battling pediatric heart disease.
Cancer. Pediatric heart disease.
Cancer. Pediatric heart disease.
I get it now. When I reflect upon a world that has a place for cancer and pediatric heart disease, I want to sing the first stanza quoted above, "And in despair I bowed my head, 'There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'"
Hate is strong...and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Cancer is strong...and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Pediatric heart is disease is strong...and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.
Are the words pronounced by the angel in Luke 2 even true, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men?" How can God's good will be resting on a family whose less than one year old child is battling heart disease? How can God's good will be resting on a family whose mother has had to battle multiple past cancers and is once again fighting for her life?
"There is no peace on earth," I said.
If the story ends with cancer and pediatric heart disease, I'm out.
But then, I am reminded of what the little baby in a manger was/is all about...God with us. To quote the angel that appeared unto Joseph and the Old Testament prophet, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is God with us."
God With Us.
That little baby that was laid in a feeding trough would grow up and quote the following words from the Old Testament:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
"He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted," including less-than-one-year-olds whose physical heart is literally broken.
"He hath sent me to set at liberty them that are bruised," including those bruised from IVs and chemo lines.
"He hath sent me to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
That little baby was not just a little baby. That little baby was Emmanuel, God-with-us.
God with the parents whose little baby is sick.
God with the children whose parent is sick.
A God-With-Us is not dead nor doth he sleep. A God-with-us will make sure that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail, and that there will be a day when there will once again be complete peace on earth, good will to men.
We may grieve and ache and hurt until that day. But we anxiously wait, just like the prophets of old waited for the promise of Emmanuel to be fulfilled. We wait until that day when the following words will be true...
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people (Emmanuel), and he will dwell with them (Emmanuel). They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God (Emmanuel). ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”” (Revelation 21:3-4 NIV)
God will once again be Emmanuel and there will be no more death, no more crying, no more pain, no more little children battling pediatric heart disease, no more moms fighting cancer. The old order of things will pass away and that same gift and promise we celebrate today will be once again, God-With-Us.
A Hotel Room in Baltimore
I was in a hotel room in Baltimore. I had just walked into my room after a late night flight and I was turning on the television to catch the news. I saw something I was not prepared to see. I was unaware that the hotel I was staying in had a subscription to the television channel Cinemax. And, Cinemax late at night shows pornographic movies. That night, flipping through the channels, I found myself drawn deeply to a pornographic movie that I had no idea would be on the television screen. I knew that watching the movie was wrong, but their was such a strong emotional desire to keep watching, it felt like I was on a drug induced high. Everything about what I saw was so paralyzing, I almost felt numb. I somehow found a way to turn the television off and when I did, I threw my remote down on the floor. I was so strongly tempted to turn the television on again over the course of the night that I left the hotel and walked around a local Target. I was not prepared for the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual battle that had just occurred and continued to occur. Once I returned home from the conference, I immediately confessed to my wife what had happened.
1 Peter 5:8 states, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Sadly, yet not surprisingly, the devil has made pornographic material a primary weapon in his attack against pastors. A January 2016 article from christianitytoday.com cited a Barna Research Group study that indicated approximately 21% of youth pastors and 14% of senior/lead pastors struggle with on-going pornography use. I encourage you to think about the harsh reality of those statistics; close to 1 in 5 youth pastors and 1 in 10 senior/lead pastors struggle with pornography usage. That means approximately 1 in 5 churches have a youth pastor that battles pornography usage and 1 in 10 churches have a senior pastor that battles pornography usage. Do the math: whether you live in a large city or small town, you most likely have a pastor in your immediate area that struggles with viewing pornography.
How should a church respond if they find one of their pastors using pornography? The Barna study cited above goes into great detail on views regarding how a church should respond. The answers range from firing to no action. When pastoral pornography use or any sexual indiscretion is made public, the congregational response is normally intense with large amounts of anger, sadness, disappointment, and disbelief. And, the following phrase is often heard, “I never would have imagined the Pastor doing such a thing.” The sad truth is that the Pastor is just as susceptible to sin as Adam and Eve were susceptible to sin. The most dangerous thing a pastor can say is, “That would never happen to me.”
What if our churches and congregational systems are approaching the pornographic struggles of pastors incorrectly? It is time to be stop being reactionary to pastoral porn use and instead, be proactive in preventing such use from occurring. A proactive approach to reducing the use of porn by pastors would need to include a holistic approach that not only addresses a pastor's personal walk with Jesus, but also their emotional, mental, physical, and social health. And, such an approach would start with the reality that serving as a pastor means playing a part in spiritual warfare.
Pastors and Soldiers
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11% to 20% of soldiers who have fought in the United States of America's most recent wars develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Notice that the percentage of soldiers suffering from PTSD is similar to the number of pastors that Barna indicates struggles with pornography use.) The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs also indicates that these soldiers are tempted to medicate their PTSD with a Substance Use Disorder (SUD). According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, "people develop substance abuse problems in an attempt to manage distress associated with the effects of trauma exposure and traumatic stress symptoms." In other words, trauma survivors, like soldiers, develop SUD in order to medicate the emotional and mental pain of experienced trauma.
Most people don't look down on a soldier who has been mentally and emotionally wounded while fighting for their country. And, most people have a great deal of compassion for those soldiers whose pain is so great that they feel the need to want to medicate through substance abuse. Our nation desires to help these soldiers recover from SUD through addiction recovery programs.
What if pastors, like soldiers, turn to substance abuse, especially the use of pornography, in order to medicate the pain they experience while dealing with the traumas of spiritual warfare? I once heard a wonderful therapist, Diane Langberg, say that, as a pastor or counselor, one cannot expect to go untouched by the constant sin and death that surround us in our professions. In essence, Langberg strongly indicated that we will be stained and wounded because we walk along side and with the stained and wounded. A singular, personal fight against the evil one is tough. But to also partner as a pastor, with so many in their fights against the evil one? Talk about exhaustion and fatigue. Mountains and valleys. Think Elijah on Mt. Carmel and then Elijah after Mt. Carmel. Pastoring is extremely hard work. Pastors can quickly burnout and experience exhaustion or spiritual battle fatigue.
So, what are pastors, who are burnout and exhausted, tempted to do? Shutdown. Medicate. Escape. They will drink. They will develop a gambling addiction. They will be tempted to engage in an extra-marital relationship. They will power up and bully in order to avoid having to be vulnerable and sensitive. They will watch hours of endless and meaningless television. They will do whatever is necessary to dress the emotional wounds and cover the emotional stains that develop from both their own battle with the evil one and with all the other battles they share with their parishioners. Dressing the emotional wounds and covering emotional stains will also include the use of pornography.
Unfortunately, many churches immediately judge pastors for their pornography use with condemnation and dismissal. Do we judge soldiers with condemnation who struggle with PTSD due to mental and emotional wounds caused by war? No, we try to get soldiers help. What if churches, instead of reactively condemning pastors for pornography use, worked to "gently restore" their pastor by getting them help? What if churches proactively mandated their pastors take a course in addiction prevention?
Pornography use is a sin. But, what if the greater sin is a church turning its back on a pastor who, while suffering from the traumas of spiritual warfare, turned to a substance to medicate their pain? Pornography use or any other SUD is not acceptable. But, neither is a church who does not help its pastor or pretend its pastor does not suffer trauma from fighting a spiritual war.
What Are Churches to Do?
Again, I believe it is time that churches stop expressing reactive surprise when their leaders fall and, instead, proactively prepare their leaders to avoid the temptation that occurs due to exhaustion and burning out. Below are a few suggestions I have for congregations who wish to avoid the heartache of pastor failure.
1. Hold your pastor accountable regarding their walk with Jesus. And, start by asking about their practice of Sabbath. I have yet to meet an older, wiser pastor who did not practice sabbath on a consistent basis. If your pastor does not practice Sabbath, take away their church keys for a day (seriously)! A great resource for pastors who struggle with Sabbath is a book titled, “Sabbath Keeping” by Lynne M. Baab or “Sacred Rhythms” by Ruth Haley Barton. I have used both to help me shape a doable rhythm of life and ministry. A pastor who is unable to step away from doing ministry is a red flag.
2. Make sure your pastor focuses more time on their family than on their role as pastor. Celebrate the times you hear of your pastor turning off their phone in order to focus on their family. Honor those times when your pastor says that they will be away from work. (Yes, all pastors know that they are needed in times of emergency. But, make sure you are contacting your pastor during a true emergency.) Offer to watch the kids in case your pastor needs some time with their spouse. Like their family’s pictures on Facebook. Show your pastor that you understand that their family is first.
3. Create safe places of confession and forgiveness for your pastor. I can imagine that in all the lives of the pastors who developed pornography addictions, there had been moments where they felt like they needed to seek help, but did not for fear of exposure. After all, how can a successful pastor actually admit that they need help? Creating environments where pastors feel as if they cannot be human and ask for help and forgiveness is dangerous and unbiblical. Pastors need safe places like a therapist’s office or a friend’s back porch where they can be honest about their own struggles without having to worry about repercussions or judgements. (Side note: If affordable, I like to mandate to my staff that they either receive life coaching or counseling at least once per year. If they refuse to do so, that’s a red flag.) If a pastor confesses a serious moral failure that affects their ability to do ministry, do what is best for the church, but also make sure the pastor gets the help they need to be redeemed.
4. Work to educate your congregation of the burdens of pastoral work. Pastoral work is not easy because it's waging in the greatest war; good vs. evil, dark vs. light, Jesus Christ vs. the devil. Congregations that understand pastoral burdens are much more likely to care for and support their pastors.
5. Make sure your pastor understands the burdens of ministry. The most dangerous thing a pastor can say, "That'll never happen to me." It can happen and it will happen if a pastor does not stay sober and vigilant in their fight against the evil one and his ability use pornography to control a pastor's life.
These are only a few suggestions, but I believe they are foundational to helping a pastor survive and even thrive in their fight and their congregation’s fight with the evil one. Please pray for your pastor on a daily basis and together, you guys can help your city, town, or local setting look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
Lee, Morgan. "Here's How 770 Pastors Describe Their Struggle with Porn." Gleanings | ChristianityToday.com. Christianity Today, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
"Making the Connection: Trauma and Substance Abuse." Nctsn.org. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, June 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
"PTSD: National Center for PTSD." How Common Is PTSD? - PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 3 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:16
As a father, Trump’s actions and words abhor me. I cannot vote for someone who I would be afraid to have around my daughter. As a person who loves my country, Clinton’s strongly questionable actions as Secretary of State disappoint me. I cannot vote for a person who appears to not understand the double-standard that has been set regarding her behavior and the ramifications of such actions for any military personnel who would choose the same actions. However, as a Christ-follower and pastor, I find their inability to be contrite and humble regarding their actions to be most telling. I never want to follow someone who is unable to confess their sins or shortcomings and genuinely ask for forgiveness.
We need healing in our great land. Based upon the words of James, healing occurs when we confess our sins to and pray for one another. I do not ask that our candidates be perfect, but I ask that they are honest and confessional regarding their sins and shortcomings. Sadly, we have seen the exact opposite during this election cycle. Horrible things have been said and harmful actions have occurred. Has either major party candidate expressed humility and contrition which lead to true confession and repentance? A person cannot offer a true confession while practicing projection or casting blame or minimizing their offenses.
But, I have heard others say, “We are not choosing a Sunday school teacher here” or “They were just playing to their base.” As if to say, “This is politics and we excuse comments and actions based upon their political and social contexts.” I wish Donald Trump would truly understand how horrifying and painful his comments are to sexual assault victims. I wish Hillary Clinton would truly grasp how servicemen and service women grow angry when they see a double-standard regarding classified material. But, both candidates do not understand or grasp the weight of their actions because, well, after all, “it’s just politics.”
It’s not “just politics.” It's about the future of my children and grandchildren. It’s about being a decent person who loves and values humanity. And in order to love and value humanity, one must be willing to confess in a contrite and humble way when they have maligned their fellow human. (See Psalm 51 and King David.) I am not asking that a Sunday School teacher be president, but I am asking for a president who strives to pursue “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, and whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8) and to confess when they fall short of the mark. No politician will truly heal our land. Confession and prayer can heal our land.
But, lest I only shed light on the actions of our politicians, I must first understand and admit that confession and prayer starts with me. I cannot control the actions of Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton, but I can control whether or not I am practicing contrite confession. I can control whether or not I pray for our current and next president. And, I can confess that there have been times during this election season that I have taken my eyes off the King of Kings and have placed them too much on fallible candidates.
Lord, please forgive me of taking my eyes off of you. And Lord, please, heal our land. Heal our land. Heal our land. Amen.
Scott (or Franklin). Mike. Scott. Dennis. Four names of four coaches who will always hold a very special place in my heart. They were the first four coaches I ever worked with on a full-time coaching staff. Man, did we grow close. When I think about these guys I think of two verses from Proverbs, “Iron sharpens iron” and “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” These guys were my iron and we were brothers.
I remember the time we were tied with less than 10 seconds left. Scott, our head coach, called a timeout. After discussing, as a staff, the proper play for the moment, we decided to draw up a play calling for our best shooter to catch the ball in the corner off a pin-down screen. We had executed that play MANY times in practice. It was a sure and wise decision.
The girls listened intently as Scott purposefully and artfully drew the play on the dry erase board. We, the entire staff, were confident that the girls would execute it to perfection for a game winning shot. We broke the huddle with a hopeful all-hands-in “team” cheer and then we, the staff, waited for our girls to display our coaching prowess.
The girls set up in the right formation. The ball was handed to the official. The screener went to set the screen and then…Our shooting guard, who was supposed to go under the screen, went over top of the screen, allowing her defender to deny her the pass. Our screener panicked and instead of trying to re-screen the defender, just stood still. The eyes of the girl in-bounding the basketball grew wider and wider as the horror of the play breaking down took place before her eyes. The other two offensive players started running around like chickens-with-their-heads-cut off, doing, what I am sure they thought, were productive basketball moves. As a staff, all of our faces turned ashen white. The play we thought was fault proof was unraveling before our eyes. Instead of thinking, “Get the ball and make the shot,” we were thinking, “Dear Lord, please don’t let it be a turnover.”
And then, somehow, the ball was inbounded to our shooting guard who was supposed to be open in the corner. However, instead of catching the ball in the corner, she caught the ball about five feet behind the three point line, near the hash mark. And, once she caught the ball, she dribbled away from the basket! What was she thinking?! By the time she made any move towards the basket, there were only three seconds left on the clock.
“Well, at least it’s not a turnover.”
“Maybe we can get them in overtime.”
“This is possibly the worst executed play in the history of basketball.”
Two seconds. One second. Our guard was about three miles away from the basket when she attempted a lean-in, falling down, one foot, with one hand tied behind her back 25 footer (slight exaggeration). Time stopped. (You know those scenes in movies where everything slows down while everyone is following the flight of the ball. I can almost swear that the theme to “Chariots of Fire” was playing in the background too.)
“There is no way this shot is going in.”
“Who are we going to start in overtime?”
“If only we would have blocked out more.”
All of a sudden, I noticed something strange. The arch of the ball actually looked like it might end up close to the rim, which meant the shot had a chance of going in. (The music to Chariots of Fire grew louder.) The ball grew closer and closer to the basket. And then, I see the ball bank off the backboard and into the basket. The shot didn’t even touch the rim. The broken play-25 foot-falling down-lean-in acrobatic shot was a success.
My reaction was to jump into the arms of Scott, who was a good two inches shorter than me. Now, we were the ones running around the court like chickens-with-our-heads-cut off celebrating the victory. Picture two grown men, two short grown men, acting like two little boys who had just defeated Mario Brothers for the first time. We celebrated by eating at Wendy’s. We laughed so hard we cried. Everyone was talking about either the miraculous shot or the two short coaches running around the court celebrating.
What made that moment so special? Was it the miraculous shot? Definitely. Was it the fact that our team made something out of nothing and won? Sure. But what made it the most special was the band of brothers that I shared the sidelines with. I couldn’t think of a better metaphor to describe my time on that staff; in the arms of my brothers, running around like chickens-with-our-heads cut off, having a great time coaching a game we loved. A great staff can feel like family. These guys were my extended family.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27.17
“I wish it was easy.”
“I wish it was easier.”
“I wish I didn’t have to put in all this work.”
Four phrases that I often uttered as an athlete during pre-season workouts. Four phrases that I still hear athletes say today as I coach. Pre-season is not easy. Athletes are asked to focus on parts of their development that appear to have nothing to do with the sport they love.
“What do mile runs have to do with my ability to make jump shots?”
“How can sprints possibly be tied to cutting off the player I’m guarding?”
“Agility drills? I never zig-zag like this during a basketball game.”
“Plyometrics? When will I ever jump on a box in the 4th quarter?”
Many a basketball player, or athlete, has found themselves wanting to give up in the middle of a pre-season conditioning drill because they are physically fatigued, are in pain, and do not understand that, if properly built upon, hard work pays off. What does a basketball player, or any athlete, do when pre-season conditioning gets tough? They lean in. They embrace it. They believe that the pain and hard work has a purpose.
In life, I sometimes find myself saying, “I wish this were easier.” “This” could be my role as a pastor, being a parent, being a husband, being a friend, being a coach, being a doctoral student, etc. I have often thought that if “this” were easier, my life would be better.
However, the older I get, I am finding myself starting to say a different prayer in the midst of pain, “Lord, use this pain to teach me what it is you want me to learn.” There are still many, many days where I still say, “I wish this were easier” or “This sucks.” But, the older I get, the more I believe that growth is not possible without experiencing pain and hard work. And, I believe that God primarily uses pain to grow us.
“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” James 1:2-4 (NLT)
That athlete on the track during pre-season who is tired of sprinting—the pain and hard work will pay off by increasing their endurance.
The parents who are wrestling through a tough parenting season with a difficult child—the pain and hard work will pay off by increasing their endurance.
The pastor who is fighting battles from all sides—the pain and hard work will pay off by increasing their endurance.
Pre-season workouts could be easier, but there would be no increase of endurance.
Life could be easier, but there would be no increase of endurance.
So, when, as a point guard, parent, pastor, or spouse, life is full of hard work and pain, lean in because you are in the blessed crucible of growth.
After reading about multiple moral pastoral failures over the last month, my first emotional reaction was that of heartbreak. When the mighty fall, those we deem mighty in spirituality, how hard and reverberating is their fall? After the feeling of heartbreak settled, my first thought was, "Why is anyone surprised?" I once heard a wonderful therapist, Diane Langberg, say that, as a pastor or counselor, one cannot expect to go untouched by the constant sin and death that surround us in our professions. In essence, Langberg strongly indicated that we will be stained and wounded because we walk along side and with the stained and wounded.
Perry Noble. Wounded. Rob Turner. Wounded. Darrin Patrick. Wounded.
Paul Gibson. Wounded.
Wait..What?! Have I experienced a moral failure that disqualifies me for the pastorate? No, but I must admit that hearing about these pastors shook me deeply. If it could happen to these bastions of evangelical faith, it could definitely happen to me. Therefore, in the words of St. Peter, I must be sober and vigilant because the evil one walks around preying on whom he might devour. Based on the history of the pastorate, especially very recent history, he loves to devour pastors. When we fight someone who wants to devour us, we will be wounded and stained.
There is an additional problem for pastors. We not only battle the evil one in our own lives, we enter into the dark battlefields, the secret places, the traumatic scenes of many of our parishioners. We might survive our own battle with the evil one, but what about helping other people fight the good fight?
When I heard of Pastor Noble's failures, again, I was heartbroken. However, Pastor Noble is a man that God has used to grow a church to over 2,000 people. We celebrate that growth, but while we celebrate that growth, we forget that a church of 2,000 people is full of 2,000 broken, messy, sinful, wounded, and stained people. I cannot imagine the burdens and wounds that Pastor Noble sustained while pastoring a church of so many people. Again, a singular, personal fight against the evil one is tough. But to also partner with so many in their fights against the evil one? Talk about exhaustion and fatigue. Mountains and valleys. Think Elijah on Mt. Carmel and then Elijah after Mt. Carmel. Pastoring is extremely hard work. Pastors can quickly burnout and experience exhaustion.
So, what are pastors, who are burnout and exhausted, tempted to do? Shutdown. Medicate. Escape. They will drink. They will look at pornography. They will develop a gambling addiction. They will be tempted to engage in an extra-marital relationship. They will power up and bully in order to avoid having to be vulnerable and sensitive. They will watch hours of endless and meaningless television. They will do whatever is necessary to dress the emotional wounds and cover the emotional stains that develop from both their own battle with the evil one and with all the other battles they share with their parishioners.
I believe it is time that churches stop expressing reactive surprise when their leaders fall and, instead, proactively prepare their leaders to avoid the temptation that occurs due to exhaustion and burning out. Below are three suggestions I have for congregations who wish to avoid the heartache of pastor failure.
These are only three suggestions, but I believe they are foundational to helping a pastor survive and even thrive in their fight and their congregation’s fight with the evil one. Please pray for your pastor on a daily basis and together, you guys can help your city, town, or local setting look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
(After the many recent shootings and pastoral failures of a moral nature, I'm reposting a blog from a year ago regarding mental illness. It's real and the Church must be prepared to address the reality.)
How many prominent evangelical leaders believe in the reality of mental illness? I ask this question for two reasons. First, I have no doubt that mental illness is real because I see it on a regular basis as a pastor and pastoral counselor. Sadly, because many church traditions do not recognize the reality of mental illness, those who suffer from mental illness within the church community often do not receive the adequate health care and spiritual support they need to treat their illness. The exact opposite often occurs; a person is told their illness is due to an unconfessed sin and that the key to healing is confession and accountability. I'm all about confession and accountability, but what those offering such spiritual counsel don't understand is that persons struggling with mental illness have cried out to God, confessed, begged, pleaded, shed many a tear, and bargained for their illness to be taken away. I've discovered that many with mental illness have a deeper prayer life than me because their dependency on God is more authentic and urgent. Confession and accountability are of central Biblical importance to any Jesus follower. However, when addressing mental illness, confession and accountability are only part of the healing process.
The second reason I ask this question is because I believe churches are missing a key component of the Gospel when they do not address mental illness effectively. In Matthew 5, Matthew records Jesus saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn,
because they will be comforted.
Those struggling with mental illness are often poor in spirit and they many times suffer from deep sadness. If I read Scripture correctly, which includes a contextual understanding of Matthew 5, those suffering from mental illness are at the heart of the Gospel.
Later in Matthew 9, the author once again records Jesus saying something very pertinent to the church that we can easily apply to those who struggle with mental illness, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Who are those sick around us? The one with cancer ravaging their body? Yes. The little child suffering from a heart defect? Yes. The older person just diagnosed with Alzheimer's? Yes. The church member suffering from depression? Well…They just need to trust God and pray more. Really? I struggle with church cultures that embrace treatment for physical problems, but quickly dismiss treatment for mental problems. After all, isn’t the brain part of the body?
According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 9, Christ-followers are called to show mercy to those who are sick and sinful. Does sin cause a person’s mental illness? Yes. However, it doesn’t mean that their personal sin caused their mental illness. The effects of sin are often forced upon us by our messy, broken, and sinful world. I think of Jesus’ words in John 9 when asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.” Yes!
What if churches embraced the reality of mental illness so that we can help those struggling in our communities so that “God’s work might be displayed” in those who suffer? What if churches were to approach mental health care as a means of evangelism? What if families were to surrender to God’s love because they saw his love displayed through a church to a mentally ill family member?
Church, we’ve got to rise up and address mental illness. There is a messy, broken, and sinful world that is waiting for us to do so.
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Hardinsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.