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?

A STRATEGY FOR LOVING LIFE AND SEEING GOOD DAYS

How Peacemaking Commitments Make for the Good Life

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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the French philosopher warned:

Let it not be imagined that the life of a good Christian must be a life of melancholy and gloominess; for he only resigns some pleasures to enjoy others infinitely better.

The apostle Peter, writing to believers suffering severe persecution, would concur with that sentiment. Consider his words in 1 Pet. 3:8-12.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For
“Whoever desires to love life
    and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
    and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
    let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

Verse 10 holds out hope that Pascal knew what he was talking about. “Whoever desires to love life and see good days.”

Know anybody who does not want that? Nobody in his right mind wants to hate life and see bad days. We all want the best life has to offer.

Few things can threaten a Christian’s sense of happiness and well-being like their church imploding with conflict.

The summer our church melted down I recall for many among us at OGC as some of our worst days. Loving life fell far short of how any of us would describe our experience.

If King Solomon got it right in Prov. 17:14 (and of course he did)–“The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out.”–then heeding Peter’s advice here makes a lot of sense.

The best church fight we will ever have is the one we never experience. We all have to get equipped with this kind of strategy particularly as it pertains to countering evil when it rears its ugly head in our relationships.

I will warn you up front. The strategy prescribed here flies in the face of the world’s approach. This is a distinctly counter-culture way to fight for the good life.

But Peter has been arguing ever since 1 Peter 2:9-10 that, based upon who we are as God’s chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and treasured possession–based upon these extraordinary appointments of grace–we must make certain radical commitments.

We must determine to conduct ourselves in strategic ways with God’s help in all kinds of places–from the state, to the home, and now, wrapping this section up with Finally in v. 8–the church.

Here’s the main idea I think he is saying: Our extraordinary identity as God’s people calls for radical peacemaking commitments in the church.

There are three. They are showing grace (8), refusing revenge (9a), and giving blessing (9b-12). Future posts will unpack each in the interest of loving life and seeing good days.

THE LATEST ON NANCY’S FIGHT WITH CANCER

NancyA natural-friendly MD Nan now sees in Lakeland advised from the get-go that she have a full-body PET scan. I remember them well from my own cancer journey back in ’05. This will give us a baseline from which we can determine how things progress over the course of treatment.

She had the scan this past Tuesday. Her OB/GYN called us in to review the findings just this very morning. I wish I could post a more encouraging report. The results showed that my beloved lost ground over the last few months. The disease definitely has spread. Nan asked me to divulge no greater specifics than these given the sensitive nature of anyone’s health history.

What does this mean now that we’ve got a clearer picture of her condition? Beyond one move for certain, we don’t know just yet what the Lord would have her do. I respect my wife for the patient processor that she is. She will definitely talk with the Lakeland doctor today for his input. The additional move for certain involves her getting a medical oncologist on the team. Her OB/GYN enthusiastically consented to my suggestion that she refer Nan to the medical oncologist who cared for me way back when. The personal relationship we have with Dr. G will serve things well in terms of helping Nan weigh her options. Once a direction comes into focus I will post further updates as necessary.

How are we doing? Good question. I think Nancy is sorting that out for herself; I feel a bit numb at this point. Of course we continue to covet the prayers of God’s people for His purposes to carry the day at every turn on this roller coaster ride. The emotions ride higher than usual in January as it brings each year another anniversary of our son’s death back in 2014. These latest developments challenge the emotions all the more. Through it all I keep asking the Lord to anchor us in a Job-like grip on reality. Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return (Job 1:21a). Mike Mason captured it well:

Job knew one of the great secrets of faith: the believer in God has no worldly rights. The true believer is someone who has abdicated all rights, freely accepting the status of a slave and no longer laying claim to any earthly chattel, whether it be “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields” (Matt. 19:29). These are precisely the sort of things that Job has just lost, and yet his initial response to their loss is not bitter complaint, nor even mere acquiescence, but adoration (The Gospel According to Job, Crossway, 37).

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

 

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.

Mandible Misery My Mentor

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I know. I don’t look very miserable in this picture. That was a good day coming forth from hyperbaric O2 therapy number whatever for deep wound treatment to my radiation-decimated jaw. I managed to prevail on the nurses’ good graces that day to get some pics from the bowels of the compression chamber so others could have some idea of what my new normal looks like these days.

Here’s another.

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I’m not hooked up here, of course. There is no O2 flowing. But this gives an idea of the rig I have to wear as a delivery system of 100% O2 for three thirty-minute periods, five times a day at Florida Hospital South. All sorts of fun.

So far I’ve navigated twenty-one of these. Nineteen to go. The adjustment hasn’t gone all that rough. I read a good bit of the time now. Apart from the occasional nausea bout, things go pretty smoothly.

Unfortunately I don’t have much progress to report. Hence my word “misery.” This past weekend my pain spiked. I cut church. If you know me, I never want to give up a preaching opportunity and chance to worship with God’s people (Heb. 10:24-25). Oops. I probably should have put them in the opposite order. Oh well. Sunday is the best day of the week, by far. I am thankful for an extraordinary pastoral intern who stepped in for me at the last minute. You can listen to his message here.

With the pain spike came a fever on Sunday night. OK, now I’m getting nervous. Long story short, after consulting my dentist, infectious disease doctor, and oral surgeon since then, we have a unanimous verdict. Off to the hospital I go. It’s time to circle the wagons and call in some big gun consultants to play what-do-we-do-with-what’s-left-of-this-preacher’s jaw. The idea is to get my pain under control. I’m all for that. Then to get me hydrated and built up nutritionally. Not only can’t I eat; I am also having difficulty swallowing. It hurts that much. Then, Lord willing, next week they will operate again to remove more dead bone and hopefully save the jaw. I’m not kidding on that one. If my mandible gets a pathological fracture, I’m looking at some sort of radical replacement surgery I DON’T EVEN WANT TO THINK ABOUT! Has my sense of urgency come across the page? Please pray for mercy for me in this regard. I have read about this procedure. I would really rather avoid it, if at all possible.

But if I do, my mandible mentoring, miserable as it might be, will continue with sovereign efficacy. God wastes nothing in our suffering, whatever its nature. In hard providences like these, I remember verses like Psalm 119:71.

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.

This slow learner apparently needs an extra dose of afflictions that he might learn all the more the treasure of treasures, the law of the Lord. Mentor me, oh my Master (and I don’t mean my mandible, but my mandible-maker), but please, I beg of you, go easy on what’s left of this poor man’s miserable jaw. Amen.

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

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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.