Monday, February 17, 2014

Of Presidents and Pastors: Ronald Reagan and the Importance of a Sense of Humor

Because I am something of a history buff, I’ve enjoyed reading a few presidential biographies across the years.  I enjoy people’s stories, and I’m always looking to learn from presidents things that might help me be a better pastor.  I posted on Harry Truman and leadership a few years ago (  On this Presidents’ Day 2014, I’m thinking of Ronald Reagan and the importance of a sense of humor. 

While presidents and pastors deal with serious matters (and for pastors even eternal matters), a sense of humor can help us build relationships, reduce stress, make points people will hear, and change the tone of awkward moments.  Because preaching on money and marriage speak to areas of life that can create tension for our parishioners, a sense of humor comes in especially handy for topics like these.  A sense of humor can ease tension in an uncomfortable conversation too.  And it can also change the tone of a difficult business meeting.  Some pastors have a knack for this—it’s natural to them.  Others have to be more planned in their use of humor lest it come off contrived and flat.  Trial and error is the only way to figure this out.  But it’s worth the trying.  God doesn't call pastors to do stand up comedy, but a little humor in the right way at the right time can get some things done.

As presidents go, Ronald Reagan was known for his sense of humor.  Here are two stories that highlight how Reagan could use humor to diffuse tense moments and put people at ease—which, of course, usually helps people perform their functions at a higher level.

The first story comes from that March day in 1981 when Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin outside the Washington Hilton.  As Reagan was moved from the stretcher to the operating table, he looked at the team assembled around the table and quipped, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.”  Not only did his comments draw a chuckle in a stress-packed, even life and death situation, that simple comment put the surgical team at a certain level of ease and focus.  Dr. Joseph Giordano, a liberal Democrat in his own politics, was even provoked by Reagan’s quip to answer in reply, “Mr. President, today we are all Republicans.”  We pastors could learn how just a little quip at the right time in the middle of a stressful meeting or conversation can ease tension for everyone in the room.  That’s one story. 

Here’s a second.  It’s a bit longer, and it's told by Peggy Noonan in her Reagan biography, When Character Was King.

Once, in 1981, the president and Mrs. Reagan gave a formal state dinner for the president of Venezuela, Luis Herrera Campins.  They had asked Frank Sinatra to take charge of the entertainment.  Sinatra, of course, was a veteran of such things—he’d put together JFK’s inaugural gala and had helped the Reagans before.  But this time Sinatra thought he’d do something different, jazz things up a little.

He asked Robert Goulet to be the evening’s main entertainment.  Goulet, the former Broadway star who played Vegas and other venues, was honored to be asked but had never sung at the White House and wasn’t quite sure what kind of material he should do.  He asked Sinatra what would be appropriate.

Sinatra told him these people at these formal parties have had enough with strings and cellists, let’s swing, do your act.  So Goulet did his act, singing a certain kind of sexy love song of the get-down variety and swinging his mike toward the Venezuelan president’s wife and crooning to her.  It was … a little cheesy, a little vulgar for a state dinner at the White House, but everyone was good-humored about it and applauded.  Then, in his between-songs patter, Goulet told of touring recently in Lake Tahoe.  The audience there was a bunch of stiffs, he said, but there was one gorgeous girl, a stunner standing in the back.  Tall, statuesque, a real fox.  So he pitched all his songs to her, and flirted.  And it was only later, he now told the dinner guests, that he found out that the beautiful woman was the biggest transvestite in Tahoe.  Then he joked that it all worked out, “He writes me every week!”

      There was mildly embarrassed silence.  Goulet then sang another song and left the stage, and Sinatra finished up.  Soon President Reagan rose to thank everyone for coming.  He thanked Sinatra for all his efforts arranging such a show, and then he said, “And thank you, Bob Goulet, not only for entertaining us with your wonderful voice but for remembering our night in Lake Tahoe.”  (Noonan, 231-232)

      The whole audience let out a gust of pent-up laughter and side-long glances.  It allowed everyone to acknowledge what had been said, and laugh at it, and the dinner went on and was a success.

It’s been my experience across well over three decades of pastoring that few things ease tension, build relationship capital, and open stopped up ears like the proper use of self-deprecating humor.  Too much of it gets old in a hurry and sounds like false humility.  Too little of it and the pastor comes off a bit stuffy and arrogant and one who takes himself/herself too seriously.  But just the right amount makes for a better pastor and preacher.

So on this Presidents’ Day 2014, while I’m thankful for all of our presidents (well, most of them anyway), I’m especially thankful today for Ronald Reagan who helps me learn how to use a sense of humor to be a better pastor.

Monday, February 10, 2014

My Tribute to The Beatles

Unless you live in a cave, you know that Sunday, February 9, was the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first appearance in America on The Ed Sullivan Show.  CBS aired a salute to The Beatles in honor of that anniversary last night.  Wow!  I loved it.  The Beatles are my favorite band of all time.  So how can I join the celebration and offer my tribute?  Here’s what I decided.  I would try to mingle my passions for ministry, the church, writing, and The Beatles by telling a minister story into which I’ve woven the titles of 62 Beatles’ songs.  The Beatles had a few cover songs in their history, but I’m only including in this story the titles of songs written by John, Paul, and George. 

Now if you like The Beatles, I encourage you to see how many of the 60 titles you can find in the story.  While a title or two may show up a couple of times, I’m only counting it once.  You ready?  Go for it, and let me know how you do?


His name is Lennon McCartney.  People call him Len for short.  And this is the story of a day in the life of this faithful pastor.  And not just any day, but his first day on the job as the new pastor of the Little Faith Baptist Church in a small, rural town in the south. 

But first a little background.  Pastor Len had served a rather large suburban congregation for a number of years.  The church grew by leaps and bounds under his ministry.  He loved the work.  But it was demanding: 12 hour days sometimes followed by phone calls and emergencies he had to tend to into the wee hours.  He had a hard day’s night more times than he could count.  Len more or less let his congregation know that they could call him any time at all.  To his wife Prudence and their daughter, Julia, it seemed like Len was working eight days a week.  Len was going so much that their conversations weren’t much more than “Hello, goodbye.”  Even Len felt like the congregation expected him to be here, there, and everywhere.  It started taking a toll on him—sleeplessness, irritability, he’d find himself weeping at the littlest things.  But there was just something in him that drove him to go even harder. 

The people who loved him noticed first.  His mother talked to him often. She first noticed signs of burnout when she visited him on his birthday.  But she could even tell through their conversations on the phone that something was wrong.  “I’ve got a feeling all is not well with you, Len,” she said.  To which Len replied, “I feel fine.”  Mom wasn’t buying it: “A mother should know when something’s wrong with her son.  You’re working way too hard.  You’re neglecting your family.  You can’t do that.  Prudence is trying to be as patient and understanding as she can.  She loves you, but if you don’t get your priorities straight, you’re going to lose that girl.”  But Len wasn’t in the mood for a lecture, and he still couldn’t admit or understand the helter skelter emotions that were rumbling in his soul …

Until one day when it all came to a head.  Feeling neglected by her dad, his little child was acting out for his attention at home.  His wife wasn’t happy with him either.  They followed him to his car that morning, “Can’t you spare just a few more minutes to have breakfast with your family before you go to work?”  He made quick eye contact with Prudence, “Please, don’t bother me right now,” he said to them as he slammed the door to his car.  He cranked the engine.  His tires squealed as he backed out of the driveway, nearly plowing over their mailbox.  And off he raced to church.  “Maybe I can get a little peace and quiet at the office,” he thought to himself.  But as he walked toward his office he heard the noise of a handyman inside fixing a hole in the wall made by an angry husband during a marriage counseling session two days before.  Len remembered that angry husband’s words before he left in a huff: “This ain’t working Brother Len.  And I’m counting on you to fix this marriage.  Don’t let me down!”  Len felt he had let him down. 

So Len stopped in his tracks.  His head drooped.  His shoulders slumped.  Tears welled up in his eyes.  And he whispered the only prayer he could say in that broken moment, “Help.”  Then he crumpled to the floor in the office hallway and sobbed like a baby.  A couple of the staff members heard him.  They didn’t know what to do.  The youth minister sat down beside him, and then another staff member knelt down, and then another, as the secretaries looked on from down the hall.  “Call Dr. Robert,” the youth minister said to a watching secretary.  Len raised his arm, composed himself a bit, and said, “No.  Just please help me get home.”  Len reached in his pocket and handed his keys to his associate, “Would you drive my car?  I don’t think I’m up to it.”     

One of the church secretaries alertly called Prudence about what was going on.  She met Len in the driveway and threw her arms around him, mingling her tears with his.  The associate took their daughter Julia for ice cream so Len and Prudence could have some time alone.  They sat next to one another on their worn green sofa—its fraying edges something of an image of Len’s fraying soul.  They sat in silence.  “Please, hold my hand,” he said.  “I want to hold your hand.”  She gave him her hand, and he collapsed into her lap.  “Hold me tight,” he begged.  So she held him and rocked him on that couch.  “Cry, baby, cry,” she whispered.  “Let it go.  Let it out.”

“Dear Prudence,” he whispered, “I’m so tired.  I’m down.  I don’t think I can do this anymore.  I don’t feel like a pastor.  I can’t carry that weight anymore.  I feel lost.  I feel like a real nowhere man these days.  I feel like I’m a loser.  What am I going to do?”

“You mean, ‘What are we going to do?’” she corrected him. “I’m in this with you.  We’ll come together, the two of us, and we can work it out.”

“Really?” Len said with a hopeful look in his eyes.  “After all I’ve put you through, will you really stick with me in this?” 

“Yes” she said as she stroked his head.  “I will.  And it’s going to be all right, Len.  God is with us.  God will see us through.”

And God did.  Len resigned the big suburban church.  He pulled out of ministry for more than a year.  He got counseling.  He started to heal.  And it was as if one day the fog lifted and the depression cleared.  “Good morning, good morning,” Len said to Prudence and Julia.  He had a smile on his face and a spring in his step.  “I’m getting better.  I just know it.”  That’s when Prudence decided it was time to break the news to Len, news she hoped would make him happy.  “Len, I’m pregnant.”

Len’s eyes got wide as saucers.  “Really?”  He grabbed Prudence and began to dance her around the room.  He twirled her and leaned her into a dip as Julia giggled and their collie looked up from chewing on an old brown shoe in the corner.  Prudence said with a gleam in her eye, “Tell me, sir, do you like to dance with all the girls?”

“Nope,” Len replied, “I only want to dance with you.  And you know what else?  I hope we have another girl.  The only thing that could make the day better would be to get a call to pastor another church.”  They had talked in counseling about when the time might be right to seek another pastorate.  At first, Len said, “I won’t do it again, not a second time.”  But as the months passed and as healing grew, Len was ready to get back to being a pastor again.  He’d sent his resume out to a few churches.  At first he received no reply from most of them.  He did hear from a couple.  That encouraged him.  “I hope it happens soon,” Len said to Prudence.

“God is on the case,” replied Prudence.  “I bet it won’t be long.” 

And it wasn’t.  Within a couple of months Len, Prudence, and Julia moved into the parsonage of the Little Faith Baptist Church in Outback, Arkansas.  It was a town known for their strawberries.  And instead of the suburbs where it was house after house after house, Outback, Arkansas, looked like strawberry fields forever.  Outback, Arkansas, seemed clear across the universe from their suburban home.  This was a small church in a small town.  Len and Prudence thought there would be less pressure here.  This would be a good place to see if Len was up to the pastorate again.  A number of the congregation met them on the day of their move.  The people brought fried chicken and fresh vegetables.  It all tasted so good, but maybe their favorite dish was the wild honey pie.  That was the specialty of an aging Russian immigrant, Sveta, who married a serviceman and moved here shortly after the war.  When Prudence asked for the recipe, she said that it was an old family recipe she learned back in the U.S.S.R.  But she would translate it from Russian to English and share it with her pastor’s wife.

Len walked from the parsonage to the church office on his first day of work.  The only other paid staff member was a church secretary.  “Good morning,” she said, “I’m Mrs. Rigby, Eleanor Rigby.  And you’ve already got a visitor waiting in your office.”

It was the Chairman of Deacons, Jude Harrison.  Len stuck out his hand, “Hey, Jude,” he said.  “Thanks for giving me your time today.” 

“Welcome, pastor.  I guess I’m a little early but I know you wanted to see the field and meet some people today, and I was so excited I couldn’t wait to get here.”

“I’m ready,” said Len.  “Where do we start?”

“Well, there’s a place downtown we can grab some coffee and a sweet roll and visit with some of the locals.  That would be a good place to start.  Then I thought we’d go visit the matriarch of the church.  She lives out on Penny Lane.”

“What’s her address?” Len asked in an effort to get the lay of the land.

“Well, it’s 910 Penny Lane, but kids keep knocking down her mailbox with her house number on it.  So she likes to tell people that her house is the one after 909.”  Len smiled.  He liked her already.

While they were making the rounds, Len pointed to an isolated house high up on a mountain.  “Who lives there?” Len asked.  Jude frowned.  “That’s mean Mr. Mustard.  He hates everybody.  People in Outback refer to him as the fool on the hill.  We all just try to avoid him, and it works out better for everybody.”

Len enjoyed the day.  He enjoyed meeting people, and he enjoyed putting a few books in the shelves of his office bookcase—a beautiful bookcase made from dark, rich Norwegian wood.  Late in the day, as he organized his office, he gave quiet thanks to God for the counsel of the deacon chairman.  He was able to tell him things that people might be ready to change.  And he was also able to point out a particular matter that needed some changing that the people weren’t quite ready for just yet.  “We’ll get it changed when the people are ready," he said, "but for now, I recommend you just let it be.”  Not anxious to add unneeded stress to his life, letting it be was fine with Len.  “Besides, pastor,” said Jude, “when you think about it, when it comes to doing church, all you need is love.  Love God, love one another, love the world.  That seems like enough.”

And that first pleasant day was the first of many pleasant days for Len and his family.  This church didn’t offer the same kind of opportunities as his first church, but they enjoyed the people and the setting and the pace.  Len’s family grew.  They added a girl and named her Michelle.  The church grew.  They decided to change their name to the Great Faith Baptist Church.  Len even reached out to Mr. Mustard and eventually led him to Jesus and the church.  It was a great ministry.  God was glorified.  Len and his family were satisfied.  Len served that church through its up and downs for thirty years.  And on his last Sunday as pastor, the church thanked Len and his family for their long and fruitful ministry. Now an old man, Jude Harrison, said to Len, "I still remember what you told us on your very first Sunday.  You said, 'I'll follow the Son, and if we all do the same, God just might do a great work here.'"  Len then stood in the pulpit. He thanked the church for taking a chance on a burned out young pastor all those years ago.  He thanked them for their patience and their love, for the way they cared for his family, and for the way they served God together in Outback and even in other places in the world.  “Thank you,” he said, “for making this the best pastorate in my life.”


Hint: if you need to access titles to The Beatles’ songs, you can find an exhaustive list here:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Bless the Children

I try not to brag on our church family too much because none of us would want to rob God of His glory.  But can I tell you how proud I am of what some of our folks are doing to care for children in our community? 

Recently, the Arkansas Department of Human Services gave a plaque to a group of people in our congregation who work with the foster child program.  The ministry is called Pure Commitment.  The goal of the ministry is to provide care packages for kids who, because of some crisis in their own homes, enter the foster system.  The group also ministers directly to the children and provides some respite care for foster parents.  Booyah!  That’s taking Jesus to the kids—a group among whom Jesus is very much comfortable and at home.

Another group in the church works in our weekly after-school program with older children from the Hot Springs School District.  This is the second year for this ministry.  Our workers help them with their school work, provide casual mentoring and encouragement, feed them and good supper, and move them into the Wednesday evening children’s programs in the church with the rest of our kids.  God is using this to allow us to have an impact on these children and their families.  Some of these children are at-risk kids and need all the positive influence and love they can receive.

The reason I’m sharing this is because of something I stumbled across in my files in the last couple of weeks about children.  Amy O’Neal, who has spent much of her life caring for her own special needs daughter and other special needs children, shared this with me a few years ago.  It reminds us of our blessings and our responsibilities to the children of our world.  It’s called We Are Responsible for Children.

We are responsible for children
who put chocolate finger’s everywhere,
who like to be tickled,
who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
who sneak popsicles before dinner,
who erase holes in their math workbooks,
who can never find their shoes.

But we are also responsible for those
who stare at photographers from behind broken windows,
who can’t bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers,
who never “counted potatoes”,
who were born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead,
who live in an X-rated world.

We are responsible for children
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
who sleep with the dog and bury the goldfish,
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money,
who cover themselves with band-aids and sing off key,
who slurp their soup.

But we are also responsible for those
who never get desert,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who watch their parents watch them suffer,
who can’t find any bread to steal,
who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.

We are responsible for children
who spend their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and who pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who don’t like to be kissed in front of the car pool,
who squirm in church and scream on the phone,
whose tears sometimes make us laugh and whose smile sometimes make us cry.

And we are responsible for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren’t spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.

We are responsible for children
who want to be carried and for those who must,
for those we will never give up on and
for those who don’t get a second chance,
and for those we smother and
for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.

In 1971, the Carpenters sang the theme song from the movie Bless the Beasts and Children.  I’m all for blessing beasts, but by all means, let’s be sure and bless the children in our world.  If we don’t, who will?  And even more, let’s do it in the love and name of Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).