Monday, November 25, 2013

When God Speaks

Whenever something dramatic happens to you, some freaky thing that you can’t explain, you should examine it for a postmark from the heavens. Maybe somebody’s trying to get your attention. Even though I stopped traffic in Northampton two weeks ago, something just as meaningful happened to me thirty years ago: I signed up for a para-church campus ministry job, one in which I would have to raise all my own funds, and something happened on the way to almost quitting that job. The signing up is the fun part: the glory of para-church ministry is similar to that of the para-military: it’s not the officious arm of the church that does everything by the book and looks good in uniform. No, para-church ministry is the sexier black-ops side of the church – blending in with the locals and then targeting enemy facilities like MIT and Harvard. So, raising money for what you do comes from folks in the church who are tired of the blah blah blah of normal church life, looking to invest in something more exciting, something fresh. Again, something sexy. The signing up part is fun, but then came the fund-raising side of things: the tough task of raising money changed my life but it was one special incident that kept me in the game.

When I was new staff with Campus Crusade for Christ – now known simply as Cru – the methodology we were supposed to follow was what I adhered to faithfully: meet with church friends, ask them to be involved, and then ask them if you can talk to their friends too. My first meeting was with two of my favorite friends and fellow church members, Don & Laurel. It was the first week in August and I went to Don & Laurel’s in my new navy blazer and refused to take it off. Why? I wanted to prove that I was cool as a cucumber and that the heat and humidity of a hot August night was nothing. Up to that point, what I thought was supposed to be the “difficult” part of support raising: keeping a smile through your sweat, wasn’t difficult at all.

Six weeks later, it was the lack of action that was eating my lunch. Only a few donors were on board and I had so many miles to go that I was losing the vision and ready to cash in my chips. My wife was working so we had a little money coming in, but it wasn’t the money – it was the not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. The often talked about assurance that support development would only be a hard thing at first and then would slip away and never be that hard again was not happening. One morning, after my wife went off to work, I decided to walk to the church and tell Pastor Rayner that I was going to quit. He was the nicest guy on earth, full of empathy and understanding. If anyone could make my quitting easier for me to swallow, it was Ken Rayner. After walking to the church, I found out he wasn’t there. The whole church was locked up. Now what? I’ll walk back home. Oops. I locked myself out. Now I had to spend the rest of the day with my own down-in-the-dumps thoughts. I decided to walk down to the train station to wait for my lovely bride to come home. I had no wallet, no money, what else was I going to do? It was going to mean several hours of waiting with my dark thoughts.

However, here’s how God worked in a way that only I could have ever understood. I sat on the bank of a creek and from a meaningful distance I tossed a pebble into the very narrow creek’s water. But before I made that one toss, I took great stock in the mental game of whether or not I should even attempt the toss. I never hit things I’m aiming at, so why make myself more miserable than I am now? After a few minutes of over-thinking it, well, I threw – and hit the creek dead-center. Not in ten or twenty tosses would I ever expect that to happen. Without thinking too much about it, not 10 seconds later I threw a second pebble: dead-center again.

To you, this is just dumb luck or coincidence or pretty decent skill. But to me, what I’ve just done is the impossible upon the impossible. You know what I’m thinking: if God wants me to keep me in that crazy fund raising, I’m going to have to hit this creek a third time, a kind of thing I could never do once  - but I’ve just done twice. Y’know, no one else is present. No one can say whether I’m lying or telling the truth. Thoughts lingered in my head between my ears for a good while. Mind you I do not look for miracles behind every bush, I just do not go there and think that if you do there’s something wrong with you. And I seriously do NOT want to hit the creek, because I do NOT want to go back to fund raising, but now I also do NOT want to face the nicest pastor in the world with quitting. Before I can think my way into or out of anything else I fling that third pebble, and it goes in again, dead-center.     

Thirty years later, I have a theory. God Himself knows that some of us are our own worst enemies and that we shouldn’t pray. We’d drive Him crazy and other people crazy too, because we’re too determined to tell everyone everything and not listen to anything. So, to protect God and man, whom we would only mow down with our mental machine guns, God sends ridiculous events into our lives that only we would understand. And it’s then that the praying and the sharing can commence in clarity.

I gently stood up and stepped away from that creek bank like it was a minefield. My poor wife got off the train several hours later and heard about the miracle over and over as we walked all the way back to the house. She was the one person with whom I achieved closure with over this incident, and it brought us closer together as a result. Did she know how miserable I felt before the pebble incident? No, until then, no one knew. I’m the guy who won’t take off his blazer in a 90 degree kitchen, I’m too cool to let you see me sweat. Anyway, we agreed together to give the fund raising three more days. And, things turned out okay. How much did the pebble incident mean? Did I wizz through support raising in record time? Not even close.

Over the years, while other gorilla movement mercenaries like me with Campus Crusade were enjoying their campus ministry experience, I was out raising support a lot of the time. Literally half the time. By the time I passed through a five-year assignment at Penn, and then come back to Boston to be at MIT, I’d spent four years of my first eight years in ministry raising support. If you told me that would be my destiny eight years earlier, I wonder if I’d ever made it. But, that’s what three in a row after a lifetime of missing can do for you. There is an old saying in the Bible: you reap what you sow. After those first eight years of sowing, the next twenty were some pretty good years of reaping, or good enough: I just had to put in the first eight. Incidences like those need sharing with someone for the sake of your own personal closure, for bonds to be made, and for lessons to be learned. Two weeks ago, closure with the farmer who knocked me over in Northampton reminded me of similar lessons. You may not know how to pray – but that’s okay. God will get your attention somehow.   

Dave Thom, Chaplain,
The Leadership Connection

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Friends I have lost

From Proverbs:

The Memory of the righteous is a blessing…

Blessings are on the head of the righteous….

Whoever walks in integrity walks securely….
Proverbs 10

Two friends who exerted great influence over me died within the last three months. Memorial services were held last month.  They were about the same age, in their mid-80s, had lived very good lives and made a great deal of difference to a lot of hurting people.

One was a psychiatrist, the other was a banker. One was a child of privilege in New York City; the other grew up in a small dust bowl town in West Texas. Both had professional degrees from Harvard.  It was a long way from Throckmorton, TX. to New York City.

I first met the banker when he came to Harvard for graduate study. It was said in his obituary that he had gone to church with his wife of 60 years every Sunday of their life together. One  Sunday while at Harvard he came to the church where I was preaching. He was the chief officer of a bank  and later when he retired they called him the greatest banker in Texas.

So he showed up on Sunday, I preached the sermon, we observed communion as we do each Sunday and women presided at the table. This was 40 years ago and it was uncommon for women to take leadership positions among congregations in our tradition.  He noticed and when I took him back to the business school he asked how we had arrived at our practice. I explained. He listened. When he returned home he wrote me a long letter suggesting that we ought to rethink the matter. I explained again why we had reached the conclusions we had reached.

Later he told his son, a medical student in his final year of study, about us and when the young doctor came to do a rotation at a local teaching hospital he worshiped with us. Later when offered a residency in Boston the son and his new wife came and were part of our community. A trained accountant, his wife served as the treasurer of the church. Over the years our lives have intertwined through children, shared experiences and conversations.  His church home in Houston never found a public role for women but his son got the message.

My friend the psychiatrist, also studied at Harvard. We worked together for over a dozen years doing what I called community psychiatry. No matter how ill the patient, he never forgot the person. He was a humanist in the best sense of the word. He loved the outdoor life, the beauty of mountains, the power of a sunset but he was a stranger to the vagaries of church.

He was a highly ethical man, who listened carefully to the words that were sent his way and was invariably kind when helping parents work through tragedy. I counted on him in different circumstances and contexts.

When his final illness began to overtake him, I listened carefully having learned from him and reminded him what he had left as a legacy. I think I could have shared the 23rd Psalm with him, but the moment was never right.  I often felt I should have been able to give him more since I had received so much from him.

My banker friend wrapped himself in the flag of our country; my doctor friend talked of progressive politics and eschewed platitudes. Their extremes left me some middle ground to explore.

Both men were remarkable fathers, both men lived with integrity. As different as they were I knew I could talk with them and get a straight answer that I might or might not like. Their contrasting world views  broadened my world and gave me room to grow. They challenged me to think carefully before acting; they cautioned me to avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. They took seriously my conclusions even as they expected me to defer to theirs.

The virtue of these two men is captured by the writer of  Proverbs; I benefitted from knowing them because they both challenged me offering a vision of integrity lived out in real time. They would have liked it if I had chosen their conclusions, but they were able to hear my own take on questions they had already settled. I have been blessed by their presence in my life and they are missed.

Let us pray:

Almighty God,  we give thanks for the varied voices we have heard in our lives. May we always appreciate those who challenge us and listen to us, those who take us seriously and those who have no room for our self-importance.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute