What I remember most about that day, however, was my dad. I wondered if aliens had abducted him and replaced him with the man who sat before me now. Why wasn’t he shutting me up or correcting me or rebuking me? Trust me; he had ample reason.
I don’t think “throwing up” on your father is a good thing to do. But this time, I think it saved my life. And I know it taught me grace: not the kind of grace that in some spineless way says, “It doesn’t matter what you say or do, regardless how vile,” but the kind of grace that says, “You don’t have to hide anymore; you don’t have to pretend, because for whatever ugly thing is in there, there is grace.”
I remember thinking, even as a seventeen-year-old kid, that this sounded like really good news. Beyond the good news of “you’re not going to hell,” this meant I could live a different way, a freer and more honest way. I felt as if I could breathe.
The early years of my life were spent in a religious environment where the unspoken slogan for how we lived our lives was “how things look is what matters.” Paul calls that wanting “to make a good showing in the flesh” (Galatians 6:12, NRSV Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). We were really good at that, but it’s a miserable way to live, primarily because if how things look is what matters, how thing are will not get dealt with or even talked about. If you can’t talk about it—be honest about it—you have to keep it. All of it! All the pain and fear and doubt and anger are hidden behind a happy face that looks good in the church foyer.
So how is it that I’ve become willing to model honesty and brokenness from the pulpit? I think it’s because of grace: the kind of grace I tasted first from my father, the kind of grace that gives me courage to live in the light of what is true, even if it’s ugly, and to do it right in front of everybody. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that kind of grace is amazing.
Paul Helped Too
When the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NASB Scripture quotations marked (NASB®) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. (www.lockman.org) affirms that “no temptation [or trial or trouble] has overtaken you but such as is common to man,” I believe it. Not only do I believe it, but for some reason, I believe it easily, and it gives me a strange kind of boldness in sharing things openly that others might want to keep hidden. See, I just don’t think there’s a fear or a doubt or a question or a struggle I could possibly have that isn’t “common to man,” simply part of the human experience that all of us share.
Over the years, I have found that on those occasions when I publicly share the “real stuff” of my life from the pulpit, it’s often met with two general responses: surprise and gratitude. Surprise not so much because I struggle with this or that, but because I named it and wasn’t ashamed of it (though I wasn’t necessarily proud of it), and I didn’t feel any need to hide it. Gratitude because if the pastor struggles with and wonders about that stuff, maybe it’s okay that I do too (because people do; we all do; it’s “common to man”).
I began public ministry as the senior pastor of a very small church in the Chicago area at the ripe old age of twenty-four. Twenty-four? Are you kidding me? What on earth did I think I had to say? What measure of wisdom did I possess? How desperate was the church that extended the call to me?
Actually, it was a fairly common practice back then to hire young guys like me while we were still in seminary, and it turned out to be a good thing for all of us (at least it was for me—a really good thing). What I brought was energy; passion; idealism; a love for God, the Word, and people; and a belief that it wasn’t my job to stand before the people as an example of perfection or even maturity—I was twenty-four!—but to stand before them as a person in process; to be someone who was, in visible ways, growing right in front of everybody.
Paul (the Apostle guy) was a great encouragement to me in this because of what he said in Philippians 3:12—not that I have already obtained it, but I lay hold of that which has laid hold of me (paraphrased).
Here’s what I know about me: I haven’t arrived. I’m not even sure what it would look like if I did arrive. But I also know this: I’m not a slug! I know it! I know I spend and have spent enormous amounts of time and energy trying to “lay hold of that which has laid hold of me.” I also know that in the mix of all that is a whole lot of “stuff.” Just really hard stuff that at times makes wonder if I’m growing at all, if I even belong in the ministry (I’m a senior pastor, for crying out loud!), if the church thing is worth it . . . blah, blah, blah. But there’s one more thing I know (at least I believe). All that stuff is “common to man.”
That’s why several years ago, when my wife and I were going to marriage counseling, it was no secret to the church. It’s why, when my therapist identified narcissism as something of which I needed to deeply repent, I did, and the confession eventually made its way into a sermon. Understand, I’m not proud of being a self-absorbed jerk. But I’m not ashamed of it either, because it’s “common to man.” And when it’s repented of (an ongoing process), there’s grace, amazing grace, and not just for the pastor, but for you too.
In the fall of ’97, my father died. He had not been feeling well, but no one knew how sick he really was. On a trip to our home, his ailment took a terrible turn, and ten days after his arrival, he was dead. My dad, my hero, my mentor in ministry was gone, just like that.
A few days after the funeral, unable to sleep, I wandered outside in the middle of the night. The moon was full, the stars were bright, and I felt small. As I looked up into the vastness of that night sky, I had the weirdest thought: I wonder where he is. Before I knew what I was doing, I said it out loud: “Where are you, Dad?”
Holy cats, what a crazy question! Especially for a pastor! You know where your father is; he’s with the Lord! “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Didn’t someone say that at the funeral? But the feeling persisted: What if he’s lost? The sky is so big, the universe so vast, and my dad was never good at directions. What if he’s lost in space? What if none of it was true?
Some weeks later, I referred to that incident in a sermon. I called it “a glimmer of doubt at the moment of truth.” Some who heard it were surprised that the pastor would “wonder” about such things. But many more were grateful because sometimes they wondered too. And it didn’t mean they were weak or had lost their faith. It’s all “common to man,” part of the human experience and part of what it means to be laying hold of that which has laid hold of us.
Behind the Scenes
“Can I talk to you guys?”
His face showed unusual seriousness—very unlike him, our youth pastor and the staff’s practical joker for ten years running. He had just been transitioned to new responsibilities. He was now one of our lead preacher/teachers and had assumed oversight of the whole adult program for our growing megachurch.
The conversation he wanted was to be with the senior pastor (David Johnson) and the executive pastor (me). We had been his superiors for the last ten years, but now, on a newly structured and much flatter team model, we were becoming more like teammates and peers. Please see The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Character and Influence by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath (San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 1999). Bill Thrall and Bruce McNicol also have a leadership and organizational culture training program used at Open Door called The Catalyst Process: Building a High Trust Culture. They can be reached at www.leadershipcatalyst.org.
The three of us met at Dave’s house. After coffee and some small talk around ministry stuff, he said he was anxious to get to what he wanted to say. He prefaced his remarks with appreciation for what we had meant to him. He reminded us that we were his heroes, who had taught him much and had contributed to his life and ministry. Yet there was more he needed, and he wasn’t sure we were up for the task.
I was sure I knew what he was going to ask. He probably wanted to know if we were going to support him in an area that had just suffered setbacks and was in tough shape. Would he be the next casualty of trying to bring changes to the adult area? Or maybe he had some ideas for which he needed our support as he put on his new hat. But it was not any of that. He surprised us both with what came next.
He prefaced his questions with, “If I am not the person you need, I understand; I am privileged even to be considered for my position.”
I thought to myself that he just needed some encouragement, some confidence from us, a “you can do it” pep talk.
But then he asked the questions we weren’t prepared for.
“Are you willing to be more than just ‘transparent’ with all of us on this new team? I mean, are you willing to go beyond sharing selective windows into your lives, being only cautiously transparent? Are you willing to be really ‘vulnerable’ with us? Can we speak into your lives too? Will you open up your lives to us for our mutual growth? Can we tell you what we see that we think you need to see? Are you willing to talk about changes we think might have to happen in your leadership, in the way we relate?”
After our initial shock and defensiveness had been expressed (e.g., “Of course we are vulnerable, aren’t we?” After all, we had brought to the team the training that talked of transparency and vulnerability. The fact he could even use the language of transparency and vulnerability was a result of our desire to be that way, wasn’t it?), he didn’t budge. He needed to know. Would we take his input now? Would we “let in” what he was saying?
Slowly we took in what he said. We tried to understand him. He stayed with us. We stayed with him. Our defensiveness gave way to openness. We had entered a new place. If this was vulnerability, it was pretty awkward for all of us.
He continued to share how in the old staff model, he had experienced that Dave and I were often transparent but rarely vulnerable, rarely open to being influenced by the staff. He understood that in the old model, this would have been impossible, since there wasn’t the kind of trust needed for more than selective transparency. But he was hungry for deeper levels of trust, and he wasn’t sure we really wanted what we were voicing about this “new team.”
If we didn’t want to dive in that deep, he would understand, but he wanted nothing to do with another team that couldn’t reach a new level of trust. It was essential, not just for his area, but for the whole church. We needed to model a new way of leadership. No program would take the place of our actually living out these principles we had learned.
His question was, “Are you going to be the kind of leaders your staff will want to follow—due to respect and trust—or is all of this just talk?” Under the new veneer, would we continue to be “executives” they had to follow out of cold obligation and fear of losing their jobs? He had wanted to follow us so far, but now he was asking for more. He was asking us to go together where we had never gone before. Was there grace enough for all of us to go where so few teams ever venture?
So where are we now? We all accepted this new challenge and began a journey of developing trust. It isn’t easy, and we aren’t where we want to be quite yet. But we are on a quest together, following a management road much less traveled. Why is this path so deserted? Perhaps it’s because many have never been asked to dream it. We had presented the dream. And to our surprise, we were being taken up on it.
Judith: What does it mean, David, when you say, “Grace works best in brokenness”?
David: What I mean is that the only people who are really hungry for grace, who really want it, are broken people! People who’ve come to the end of themselves, who realize they can’t do it on their own; they’re broken and can’t fix themselves! In A.A. language, they’ve “hit bottom.” People like that are not only ready for grace; they’re desperate for it. They also end up being very grateful.
Judith: Keith, if the kingdom of God is not for the powerful, then who gets in—and how do you create programs that help to form folks who feel at home in the kingdom?
Keith: The Kingdom is for ordinary, broken people. The powerful in the world’s eyes are often those who look invincible, unbreakable, and without weaknesses. In the church also, this is too often the case. Things are upside down in God’s kingdom when compared to the world and even the average church culture. Our programming is not only attended by people who are broken, but also happens to be run by people who are just as ordinary and broken as those who attend. Part of our process of finding leaders is to ask how they have been shaped and whether they have ever dealt with their own “hitting the wall” of personal failure and weakness—coming to an end of themselves—that places them at the foot of the cross. And then they are ready for God’s formation and maturity. We believe maturity is becoming a “graceful” person. Holiness is becoming more and more “merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36). We make sure that people are healthy enough to be leading from God’s strength and not from an unhealthy “neediness.” But we are all wounded healers.
Judith: It sounds as if you are no longer comfortable producing people who are willing to slap on a “happy face” and call it abundant living. What types of resistance have you encountered?
Keith: David’s early years at Open Door faced fierce resistance. Many in the church had been slapping a happy face on family and church dysfunction. And the message of grace exposed that false front. People started to “come out” of their hidden lives of pain, and it was not comfortable for the ones in power at the time.
But then when grace took hold, there was another kind of resistance. Many had no vision of what the full grace of God could do in them. They liked the abundant forgiveness offered, but when challenged to become forgivers . . . well, then a new force emerged: those who saw any call to growth in character or the use of the disciplines as legalism.
Brokenness without an understanding of formation becomes toleration of sin. We have had some who resist the call to be formed in Christ because they want sin tolerated, not dealt with. Grace becomes very cheap. It stops at forgiveness for the sinner, but doesn’t move into the sinner’s becoming an obedient—though imperfect—forgiver.
Judith: What should pastors do if they feel that members of the congregation are abusing grace—becoming comfortable with cheap grace?
David: This sound a bit too simplistic, but I try to make it clear that they don’t really “get” grace—they don’t understand it yet! Grace doesn’t come to people who have become OK with their sin; it comes to people who see their sin, are sick about their sin, hate their sin, and then come to realize there’s grace. The result is gratitude, joy, and the desire to live a different way. Titus 2:11–13: NKJV Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.”
Judith: If a pastor took either of you for coffee and said, “I want to change the way we do things at our church; I want to focus on formation instead of formulas for producing more nickels and noses,” what would you say next?
David: If a pastor told me he wanted to change, to produce “formed people,” not formulas for nickels and noses, the first thing I would press him on is, “Really? Is this what you really want?” See, I really think that one of the biggest battles has to do with whether or not this is what we really want. If he does, I would then begin to warn him that some of his closest allies may soon become his greatest adversaries; people who signed on for the “bigger is better” deal may feel betrayed and disappointed that nickels and noses are no longer the goal. Are you really okay if the numbers go down? To tell you the truth, I don’t know how you can do this alone! If it weren’t for the fact that Keith and I had the same passion for this, I don’t know if we would have survived or pressed through. So I guess I’d ask, “Are you alone in this? Do you have significant people who will stand with you while you ‘change the contract’?”
Keith: Yep. Better have a meeting with your board. You are about to change the contract with everyone. Formulas have a lot of equity in the consumer church. Just offering formulas in exchange for nickels and noses is the currency of much that is called ministry. But even better than a meeting with your church board . . . and before you start to change anyone else or preach a new series or write a new vision statement . . . start with yourself, your family, your leaders closest to you. Let this revolution be a quiet one that is noticed gradually because you are actually trying to live in a new way with one another. Don’t call attention to it until someone calls on you to explain what is different about you. And know that it always begins with your own utter dependency on God, your brokenness and weakness. Start where you really are with whoever will be there, not where you “should be.” God does quite well in forming those who can kneel for a good long while at the cross.