Monday, August 27, 2012

An Old Flame Flickers Once Again

“I’m done,” I said back in 1995 when major league baseball players went on yet another strike.  I pretty much always side with the owners in players’ strikes because the players are already overpaid, and the owners take all the risk and pay all the overhead.  “I’m done!”

I was done with a sport I had followed passionately since my earliest childhood, a sport I played on playgrounds, baseball fields, and even my own front yard and street.  I was the kid on the bike with the baseball glove hanging on the handlebars.  I was the kid who came to school sweaty on spring mornings after playing the bunting game with my brothers in our driveway.  I was the kid who was enamored with a boy in my class named David Faucett because he was somehow related to Mickey Mantle.  I was the kid who had the collie that got down in ready position and fielded grounders with her mouth and fearlessly went after short pop-ups too.  I was the kid who played one-on-one whiffle ball in my front yard.  A lawn chair was the strike zone allowing for walks and called strikes.  A grounder was an out.  A base hit was getting the ball to the street in the air.  A double was a line drive over the hedge at the edge of the house across the street.  And a home run was a blast over the power lines that stretched parallel above the hedge in my neighbor's yard across the street.  And if the batter got it over the highest power line it was a grand slam whether anybody was on base or not.  Hours and hours of this through my growing up years.  I was done with a sport I loved to play. 

I was done with a sport I watched from the early days of The Game of the Week on Saturdays to the more liberal coverage in the late 80s and early 90s.  I still remember when my dad got us our first color TV so we could watch the All-Star Game in color in 1972.  I was done with baseball.  I still played softball for a while, but after 1995 I didn’t watch a major league game for years.  The only exception was the great home run chase in 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.  I did get interested in watching them chase Roger Maris’ record.  But that was it.  I didn’t follow any team.  I didn’t watch the All-Star game or the World Series.  I was done.

And then I made the mistake of going to a game at Orioles Park at Camden Yards two years ago.  My first baseball love was the Baltimore Orioles.  I flirted with Cardinals off and on.  And I considered myself a Royals fan for many years too.  But my first love was the Orioles.  I made no bones about my devotion.  I was a catcher in Little League and my coach, Bill Nevins, called my Etchebarren because that was the name of the Orioles’ catcher.  I first fell for O’s when I saw them sweep the Dodgers in the World Series in 1966.  And then when I found out that Brooks Robinson was from Little Rock, the city I was born in and lived in till I was 8-years-old, well, I was smitten.  I knew their line up from top to bottom.  I loved Frank Robinson and that great pitching staff of Cuellar and McNally and Palmer.  Boog Powell was a stud at first base and Paul Blair made centerfield look easy.  I loved those guys, knew all their stats, checked the box score every day in the paper, and pretended to be them when I was playing in the yard.  I was some fan.  Now and then they were on the Game of the Week and whenever they played the Kansas City (first the A’s, then the Royals), I could listen to them on the radio.  And of course, I enjoyed them in their three straight World Series too.  I didn’t enjoy those stinkin’ Amazin’ Mets beating them in ’69 or the Pirates knocking them off in ’71, but I loved it when Brooks and the boys put it to the Big Red Machine in 1970.  Ah, the memories …

The first flicker of that old flame sparked when I had the privilege to meet Brooks Robinson at a golf tournament in Hot Springs a few years ago.  Meeting a childhood hero was pretty cool, even for a guy like me in his 50s.  And that little spark rekindled more brightly yet when Dayna and I went to that game at Camden Yards in 2010.  Before I knew it, I had the Orioles on my favorite teams list in my I-phone app called ESPN Scorecenter which allows me to follow every game (every pitch even) in real time.  I can also listen to them on XM radio.  I can watch the game highlights on the team’s website.  I can even tell you the names of their players (though at my age I don’t worry about memorizing any stats).  When I fell for the Orioles again, they pretty much stunk.  They haven’t even had a .500 record for years.  But here it is the end of August and they are 12 games over .500 and right in the thick of the wild card race for the playoffs.  I guess they just needed me back on board.

And I guess that’s where I am these days: back on board with the O’s.  I’ve already bought two hats and a shirt, so I guess I’m committed.  Somebody once said something to this effect: “Within the heart of every man lives a little flame that still flickers from a childhood altar he built to his baseball idol.”  That little flame flickers once again.  And you know, I’m kind of glad it does.

Let’s go O’s!    

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pastor, I've Got a Beef With You!

I don’t think I’ve ever used the blog to rant about anything.  I only rant now and then as it is, and only then for a minute or two at a time.  Using the blog to rant just isn’t my style.  So with that caveat, I’m going to rant for a minute a two.  Ministers who read this will readily relate.  And for those of you who are not ministers, this will give you a little insight into some of “the little foxes that destroy the vines” for ministers—those little joy-stealers that over time can wound a minister’s soul.

This blog post was born in Honduras of all places.  I was on mission with a team from our church.  One of the team members told me about a conversation she’d just had with her daughter who serves as an associate minister to university students in another city.  Her daughter is new to local church ministry.  What happened to her was bound to happen.  It happens to every minister sooner or later and sometimes often.  A woman in the church appointed herself to be this young minister’s critic.  She took it upon herself to tell this young minister that she was not dressing appropriately (this was not a modesty issue it was a style-preference issue).  The woman also had some distinct pointers for this young minister as to what she was doing wrong in her ministry and what she should do if she wanted to do it right.  To her credit, the lady did not raise her voice.  She spoke matter-of-factly.  But she spoke in the kind of condescending tone that wounds the spirit.  The young minister braced herself in the moment but dissolved in tears later. 

Like the old bumper sticker says, it happens.  It happens a lot in the ministry, and young ministers are the easiest targets.  Sure, many of the critics are well-meaning, but they don’t realize that the damage they do is usually greater than the potential good.  And it’s not that young ministers aren’t open to criticism.  Most are.  But they need constructive criticism, not what feels like some sneak attack they never saw coming.  Thankfully, my young friend’s wise and loving supervisor helped put her back together and give her some perspective.

While young ministers are the easier targets, seasoned ministers get sniped at plenty too.  It’s just that seasoned ministers have been at it long enough to develop some calluses on their souls.  Plus, this kind of sniping at seasoned ministers often comes “anonymously.”  Listening to the story of this young minister, I was reminded that a Sunday or two before I left for Honduras, I found a note stuck in my study door.  We have two morning worship services.  This was placed there sometime between the services.  And this is what it said:

Well — I always suspected that you didn’t care for me—you just confirmed it today.  I guess it’s always good to know where you stand—just chopped meat!  I do not know what it is about me that offends you or what I’ve done to repel you, so I have attempted to stay out of your way and out of your eyesight as much as possible.  I apologize for anything that irks you about what I’ve done or said.

This one hurt.  As a pastor who intentionally works hard to love everyone in the flock and treat everyone the same, I was taken aback by this.  But even more, this hurt because there is nothing I can do about it.  I have no idea who this is, though I’m guessing by the excellent penmanship that this is a woman.  I’m truly sorry for the hurt this woman feels.  What a joy it would be to know who this is so I could sit down with her and rebuild something I didn’t even know was broken with someone I didn’t even know I was hurting.  This person is hurting because of what she perceives is my disdain for him/her.  It would be a good thing to be able to tell her that her perceptions are false and find out how I could better serve her as a pastor and even explore why she feels so easily slighted.  It would be nice to be able to be her pastor, to tend to the one hurting lamb rather than make some blanket statement to the entire flock in hopes that she gets the message.

This woman’s anonymous criticism is not an attack; it’s more a statement of her own pain.  I’ve certainly taken far worse shots in 37 years of local church ministry.  And I’ve had it easy compared to a lot of ministers I know.  Some are under constant attack from their own flock—sniping here, criticizing there, firing up a little gossip in this corner or that.  Some ministers get it anonymously—the sniper shot from long distance.  Some get Pearl Harbored—the sneak attack they didn’t see coming that catches them off-guard and unprepared.  Others get D-Dayed—a full-blown frontal assault.  I just read an article that says 79% of pastors admit that that their critics are a major distraction in their ministry—79%, that’s almost 8 in 10—see (  We ministers certainly deserve some of the criticism we get, but I doubt if any of us comes close to deserving it all.  There’s not a Sunday that goes by when some minister somewhere doesn’t resign one church to move to another or even leaves the ministry altogether because of his/her critics.  Over time, it wounds the soul, diminishes a minister’s love for the work, and drives them to other pastures or out of the ministry completely.  Some go quietly.  Some don’t—like this pastor I heard about who on his last Sunday in a church where the critics just wore him out, preached his final sermon, and walked to the back of the church with a sprig of mistletoe pinned on the back of his sports coat just above the waist.  Now that’s a statement!

There!  I feel a little better.  And if you’ve got an issue with your minister and want to help both your minister and you feel better, deal with it in appropriate ways.  Most ministers are open to the concerns of their congregation.  Here are some ways to approach your minister when you’ve got something a little hard to say and a little hard to hear:

Own your criticism.  Anonymous criticism is useless.  When there’s no name and no context, other than maybe making the critic feel better, the criticism will accomplish nothing.  Famous pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, once received an anonymous note inscribed with only one word: “Fool!”  Beecher said, “Usually when I receive anonymous criticism I get a note and no signature.  This is the first time I received a signature and no note.”  Own your criticism.  If you can’t own it, keep it to yourself.

Take your criticism to the minister.  Don’t take it to a staff minister.  Don’t take it to other members of the congregation.  If you’ve got a beef with your minister, take your beef to him/her.

Check your own motives and pray for discernment as to whether this is a criticism that you really need to share.

In discerning the value of your criticism, ask yourself these questions: is it truthful; is it helpful; is this criticism a matter of “iron sharpening iron” or do I just want to get something off my chest and draw a little blood; can I present it with a loving spirit?  Those are good questions.

Make an appointment and share your criticism/concern face to face.  If you don’t feel able to do that, then try a phone call or an email.  But conversation is best because it allows both parties to clear up misunderstandings immediately whether than wondering what one or the other “really” means by what they say.

Seek clarity, pray together, and leave to God whether the minister acts on your criticism or not.

If you approached your minister with a good spirit and the meeting was a disaster leaving you and the minister out of fellowship, ask a deacon to accompany you for a second meeting.  Work to restore fellowship.

So there you go—helpful ways to confront your minister when you’ve got a beef to deal with him/her.  (How ministers can be unfairly critical of their congregations is another blog for another time.)  And I can only imagine how many relationships could be restored, how improved the church’s fellowship could become, how much help a minister could receive, and how much better the ministry of the minister and the church would be if we’d just treat one another like Jesus taught us.  Now there’s a novel idea, huh?