LEADING FROM LOSS

When God Scripts a Different Plan

As I suffered through the post-op discomfort of a fifth and final jaw reconstruction surgery in February, it dawned on me.

God’s designs for my last years as my church’s lead pastor differed greatly from my deepest desires.

Who longs for a stewardship of loss, suffering, and pain? Nobody in his right mind.

Ernie Johnson didn’t. A friend of mine sent me his video story suggesting we share a lot in common. He was right. See for yourself.

For a more detailed version, watch here.

My hope for the end game was to lead from growth, gain, and mission. Instead providence scripted the opposite.

I’ve buried a son and a wife.

I’ve endured a pathological fracture of the right mandible due to osteonecrosis from radiation for head and neck cancer.

Jaw reconstruction has involved a total of five surgeries in Miami, a bout with osteomyelitis (bone infection), speech therapy, loss of all my bottom front and right side teeth, chronic drooling, impaired swallowing, and thousands of dollars of medical and travel bills not covered by insurance.

I’ve been in and out of the pulpit so often and so fast I’ve got chronic whiplash.

While recovering from the latest surgery, something else hit me. This year likely brings yet another loss–the end of nearly a two-decade investment in ministry at my church.

It’s time to pass the baton to a younger man. I have no doubt. It’s my idea and God may well have a successor on the immediate horizon.

Talking about succession the last couple of years didn’t faze me much. Theory is like that; reality is not.

I didn’t feel the loss coming. But now I do. I hope to navigate this loss like the others–with the help of God’s grace–as I have often blogged about in the past.

A few days after news of the transition went public, I received an email from a relative newcomer to our church. These words encouraged my perspective greatly:

I read about the big succession announcement in the E-news and heard about it last night at community group. Woah! I am selfishly so sad that you all are phasing out, but I feel like I can resonate on some level . . . and that I should be unselfish and rejoice with what God seems to be doing. Praying for you guys as this next year sounds like it will be filled with many changes and mixed emotions. Last night in community group, and the last few times, people have mentioned in conversation how much your sufferings have impacted their spiritual walks and worship of Jesus as they have watched the grace of God as you have walked through such hard providences. It makes me wonder if your lives as a living sermon illustration are the most powerful, though the most painful, sermon you could give. I have heard it said in community group multiple times how much power of the Spirit has come in your preaching over the past few very hard years. I think it all has been and is doing more than we could ever know this side of eternity. Praying that God encourages your hearts in this season.

That note goes in my “Why I Became a Pastor File.” A great reminder to say “yes” to the unscripted.

SDG

Question: How has God used the unscripted in your life to advance His purposes and grow you spiritually?

Chronic Pain & Deeper Healing

I dealt with considerable pain from my tongue cancer and its treatment back in 2005. But it doesn’t compare with my experience these days enduring a pathological fracture of the jaw. Pain which never lets up brings a whole new series of challenges to redeeming suffering as a follower of Jesus.

Knowing I would have hours of windshield time to and from Miami last week for the consult with the surgeon there, I did a search online the day before I left. I wanted to download some resources/messages on the subject of pain. The Lord reminded me of Joni Eareckson Tada along the way. If anyone would have words of wisdom about dealing with chronic pain, she most certainly would. I had no idea just how right that impression from the Lord would prove to be.

Of the half-a-dozen or so talks to which I listened on the road last Monday and Tuesday, this one struck home with the most Holy Spirit force. Nancy and I just finished watching it together prior to my writing this post. Whether your story involves protracted suffering or not, I cannot commend more strongly this teaching from a woman who testifies authentically with the poet, “My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees” (Psalm 119:71, NLT).

Please, I plead with you, do your soul a mega-good. As soon as you possibly can, invest the mere thirty minutes it will take to view Joni’s message. My prayer is that every one of our covenant members at Orlando Grace would do so. Beyond that, of course, all the better.

The Creed According to “Creed”

I told Nancy all I wanted for Christmas–other than a new jaw, of course–was to see the movie “Creed.” Hailing from the Philly area and long a fan of the “Rocky” films, regardless of their relative quality, I wanted to see this latest edition in the saga, even if it hadn’t gotten such a good review. For Flikster’s take on the film click here.

The point of this post isn’t for me to review the film, although my bride and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sylvester Stallone delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as Adonis Creed’s trainer. Michael  B. Jordan is riveting in his portrayal of the conflicted son of one time heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Be advised if you do see it, that there is one scene of PG-13 sensuality which did not seem necessary to me, but Hollywood will be Hollywood.

Oops, I slipped into review mode after all. Enough of that.

castaway

I felt led to do this post because I sensed the Lord speaking to me rather distinctly through the movie. OK, some of you are thinking, pastor’s painkillers have taken their toll. I’m not talking about any kind of audible voice. It’s hard to describe. I’ve only ever had it happen to me one other time that I can recall. That was back in 2001 with the movie “Castaway.” So this is rare. But just as the Lord had a word of encouragement for me with Tom’s Hanks’ port-o-potty washed ashore his island prison, He clearly used this film in a common grace timely way to help prepare me for what looms around the corner in 2016.

Take a look at the trailer, if you like, and I will explain what I mean.

In the film, Creed has his fight and Rocky has his. “It’s just another fight,” Adonis pleads. They got me with the two of them standing before the mirror. So in the ring, also in life. One’s biggest opponent is oneself. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As for this jaw replacement challenge, it’s just like any other fight. “One step, one punch, one round at a time.” Oh I wish that oft repeated line in the movie had made its way into the trailer! That, dear ones, is the creed according to “Creed.”

What heavyweight bout looms on your fight card in 2016?

So maybe God won’t speak to you from a movie, but what about these jewels from His word as you enter the New Year fray?

“Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12).

“If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom. 8:31)?

“We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

It’s just another fight.

Sorrows and Preaching

If the good people of Orlando Grace Church can possibly summon the patience to wait AGAIN for this pastor to struggle through what feels like his thousandth sorrow, I hope eventually to return to them a better preacher and pastor. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

For my readers not enamored by the likes of D.A. Carson or Tim Keller or even my beloved John Piper, I ask your indulgence through viewing this video. I wept and prayed as I watched.

On Asking Why

why

For some reason I don’t usually. Ask the Lord why He lets me suffer like I am right now with my jaw, that is. Well, there was that time in 2005. I had finished cancer treatment with all its nausea and vomiting. My expectation that those symptoms would cease soon after the last chemo blast proved to be wishful thinking. One particularly violent episode turned into a flood of tears and a very loud “Why, Lord?” in my family room.

But for the most part, I’m not inclined to go there. Perhaps one reason lies in what I know the Bible teaches about God’s purposes in the trials He ordains for us. There’s a world of instruction in various texts to that end. For example, that we might grow in steadfastness which would have its perfect result—complete, lacking in nothing (Jas. 1:2-4). Or that we would be able to comfort others with the same comfort whereby we have been comforted by Jesus (2 Cor. 1:3-5). And that we get to identify with the Master in His sufferings because the servant is certainly no greater than He is (1 Pet. 2:21). I could go on.

Another reason for trials in our lives dawned on me recently with comforting intensity. In the middle of HBO2 dive #10, one of the nurse/techs engaged me about what kind if church I pastor. The Lord opened a door for the gospel so big, even I could drive a summary presentation of the good news through it! For once I had the presence of mind to make the most of the opportunity. I laid the truth in love on the man. It almost made my sentencing to hyperbaric oxygen prison palatable. Almost.

And then I thought of Paul’s attitude in Phil. 1:12-13. Writing from prison, here is how he framed his difficult circumstances:

 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.

Now I can’t say that it has become known throughout the whole of Florida Hospital that my treatment is for Christ, but to some extent it is becoming known in the deep wound unit that this is the case. Frankly, that took a good bit of the pain out of this preacher’s jaw that day. Have you considered the possibility that, among other reasons, one why for your trial involves God’s plan for your beautiful feet to bring the gospel of peace to someone in need?

Nearest When Most Needed

mighty-fortress-a_t_nv

Yesterday some of us from Orlando Grace stood watch at the hospital. One of our own waited in suspense while her husband, a much treasured servant in our church, underwent a heart catheterization procedure. She got “bad” news. Even as I write this, her man faces bypass surgery in a matter of minutes.

After the shock subsided some, we prayed together. We thanked God for watching over our brother, who does strenuous work as part of his job, that his condition came to light before the worst may have happened. We asked God for His mercy in the procedure to circumvent the triple blockage. Finally we believed God together that our sister and her family would experience the all-sufficient grace of God as never before. He has pledged to be our helper.

So says Psalm 46:1. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (emphasis added).” Charles Spurgeon commented about this massive promise in God’s word:

All creatures have their places of refuge. “ As for the stork, the fir trees are her house. The high hills are a refuge for the Spurgeonwild goats; and the rocks for the conies.” All men also have their places of refuge, though some are “refuges of lies.” But God is our refuge and strength,” the omnipotence of Jehovah is pledged for the defense and support of his people. “A very present help in trouble,”- one who is near at hand; always near, but nearest when he is most needed. Not much entreaty is required to bring him to the aid of his people, for he is close at hand and close at heart, “a very present help in trouble.”

What need, extreme or otherwise, prompts you to say “Help!” Make God your refuge in it. Always near, but nearest when most needed.

Something I’ll Never Say Again

never-again

Never say never. We all know the proverb. I, for one, hereby defy conventional wisdom. I will never say something again as long as I live.

“I can’t imagine anything harder.”

Why? Because every time I do something new comes down the pike that redefines hardness for me.

I said it when I broke free from the authority-cult like church I belonged to as a young follower of Jesus.

Then I had to quit my first church pastoral assignment due to chronic fatigue. That was harder. Couldn’t imagine anything more difficult. Wrong.

For reasons far too complicated to unpack, I resigned from the only church plant I ever founded back in 1998. We left Central Florida for Idaho. No way anything would be tougher than that. Guess again.

Head and neck cancer in 2005. Surgery, radiation, chemo. May I quote my medical oncologist? “We sent you to hell and back to save your life.” Indeed they did. What a miserable year. Hard, harder, hardest. Uh, not so fast.

“Josh is dead.” Six days from now will mark the one year anniversary of our great loss. Every day lately I find myself thinking something like this: one year ago today my son had a week left to live, ___________ days. It’s excruciating counting down the days to remembering the worst possible news. Or was it?

My bride with ovarian cancer. You’re kidding? It’s not possible. I don’t believe is. Oh, yes it it. You’d better believe it.

I give in. This is easily the hardest yet. Hardness to the nth degree. Uncle. I give in. I’ll never say it again. I don’t even want to imagine something harder than this baffling turn of events.

Alright, now that I’ve vented my lament, what is this man, husband, father, pastor, follower of Jesus to do? I have only one answer. It has always been the answer and it will forever remain the answer by God’s grace.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

How grateful I am today to have come across this Puritan prayer entitled simply “Refuge.” It corrals my runaway thoughts and emotions to send them heavenward:

O Lord, Whose power is infinite and wisdom infallible, order things that they may neither hinder, nor discourage me, nor prove obstacles to the progress of Your cause. Stand between me and all strife, that no evil befall, no sin corrupt my gifts, zeal, attainments. May I follow duty and not any foolish devicegod-is-my-refuge of my own. Permit me not to labour at work which You will not bless, that I may serve You without disgrace or debt. Let me dwell in Your most secret place under Your shadow, where is safe impenetrable protection from the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that walks in darkness, the strife of tongues, the malice of ill-will, the hurt of unkind talk, the snares of company, the perils of youth, the temptations of middle life, the mournings of old age, the fear of death. I am entirely dependent upon You for support, counsel, consolation. Uphold me by Your free Spirit, and may I not think it enough to be preserved from falling, but may I always go forward, always abounding in the work You give me to do. Strengthen me by Your Spirit in my inner self for every purpose of my Christian life. All my jewels I give to the shadow of the safety that is in You—my name anew in Christ, my body, soul, talents, character, my success, wife, children, friends, work, my present, my future, my end. Take them, they are Yours, and I am Yours, now and for ever.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Grace Active

My grace is sufficient for you

Tomorrow I have the privilege of speaking at Reformed Seminary Orlando during chapel. My text is 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. The title of the message is “The All-Sufficiency of Christ in the Midst of Trials.” I hope to convince those who listen that Jesus is enough, even through things like head and neck cancer and the loss of your first born.

I hope to conclude with this prayer:

Grace Active

Lord Jesus, Great High Priest,

You have opened a new and living way by which a fallen creature can approach you with acceptance. Help me to contemplate the dignity of your Person, the perfectness of your sacrifice, the effectiveness of your intercession.

O what blessedness accompanies devotion, when under all the trials that weary me, the cares that corrode me, the fears that disturb me, the infirmities that oppress me, I can come to you in my need and feel peace beyond understanding!

The grace that restores is necessary to preserve, lead, guard, supply, help me. And here your saints encourage my hope; they were once poor and are now rich, bound and are now free, tried and now are victorious.

Every new duty calls for more grace than I now possess, but not more than is found in you, the divine Treasury in whom all fullness dwells. To you I repair for grace upon grace, until every void made by sin be replenished and I am filled with all your fullness. May my desires be enlarged and my hopes be emboldened, that I may honor you by my entire dependency and the greatness of my expectation.

Be with me, and prepare me for all the smiles of prosperity, the frowns of adversity, the losses of substance, the death of friends, the days of darkness, the changes of life, and the last great change of all.

May I find your grace sufficient for all my needs.

“Grace Active, in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, ed. Arthur Bennett (Edingburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust), 214-215.

Can’t say it/pray it any better than that.