As I closed things down at my old blog and started up here I mentioned that, over my years of blogging I developed a sense that I was engaging in much self-promotion. As I suspected, many of you, the readers offered some kind words of encouragement in that regard, assuring me that my blogging had not come off that way. I am, as always, grateful to you for that encouragement, but I had hinted back then that I may esplainify myself a bit more in this regard.
This nagging feeling that I was engaged in self-promotion is part of a larger aspect of my psyche that I have wrestled with for many years, many of those years being before the blogging days. I will spare you a detailed journey into my psyche, except to sketch out a few patterns of thought and longing that became troubling to me in recent days.
At the outset I want to assure you that I recognize these issues as my issues alone, so this is not a commentary on anyone but me.
I became a Christian at the age of 16 through the direct witness of my best friend, our football coach, and indirectly through the work of the Fellowship of Christian athletes. My conversion was genuine, many questions were answered, assurances of eternal felicity offered and embraced and a new life was begun. My life changed dramatically in many ways – most of all in that Christ began to dominate my life. I wanted to live and give my all to Him, to know Him and make Him known. Pretty soon I became known as a “good Christian,” due to a genuine passion to know Him and through the faithful discipling ministrations of my coach – Jim Scroggins, youth minister – Bob Tebow (yep, that Bob Tebow – father of Tim Tebow) and FCA area director – Rick Duncan. This was fostered by the loving ministry of the people at Southside Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL, pastored by Cornelius Davis.
Throughout my life I was always sidekick, never superhero. I made the team, but rode the bench. I got C+’s and “B’s” in school. I was average in every way. But in Christianity I excelled. I excelled to the point that I was elected president of our schools FCA, and was recognized as our school’s “Christian Athlete of the Year,” at one point. Christianity quickly became the thing I could excel in and over a short period of time I began to sense a call to the ministry.
Now, due to my own reflections I am going to look back on some of this and see my own idolatries popping up even then. But I also want to make clear that I believe that God has mercy on sinners, and that at no time in my journey was I forsaken by God and I want to make it clear that I believe He has used even my sins to praise Him.
But with a call to the ministry, it became obvious and reasonable that I would look for role models to emulate. This happens in any field. Athletes idolize professionals in their chosen sport and dream of the day they can make it that far in the game. Artists, businessmen and women do all of this.
For me, as one with a sense of call to the ministry I looked to the “successful” ministers to pattern my life after. This was in the late 80’s and 90’s and I was in a Southern Baptist context, so the people I looked up to were movers and shakers in the SBC like Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Charles Stanley, Bailey Smith, Jay Strack and others. At various times I was a member of churches pastored by Jerry Vines and Jim Henry. I also listened on the radio and got tapes of people like John MacArthur and Chuck Swindoll.
From where I sat it looked like the great pastors were the ones who were the best preachers. And, after all, I benefited greatly from their messages. From where I sat it looked like the key to successful ministry was to be a great pastor, and conversely it appeared to me that anyone who would become a great preacher could have crowds flock to him.
Now, I am obviously shortening things up a great deal here – there were many influences and experiences, and in truth, my own ambition was not the whole story here. God did man great things in my life through those years.
But as I pursued ministry and moved into the pastorate, though my view of the pastorate broadened and deepened through the years, I put the greatest emphasis on preaching, believing that was where the most value came in ministry, and frankly I never really learned to love people. I had a great deal of selfish ambition driving all that I did. I thought it was my destiny to build a great church and because of this I never became the kind of loving, passionate and compassionate shepherd the church needs.
When blogging hit the scene a few years ago it became a means for me to expand my influence. Due to the kindness of many bloggers with a larger audience, particularly Adrian Warnock, I was able to rise quickly to become a fairly prominent blogger, at least in the small circle of the Christian blogosphere. I had more people reading my posts in a day than heard my sermons in a month. I began to dream of writing books and things like that.
As late as 4 years or so ago I stil had a vague masterplan for where I wanted to go in ministry. I wanted to stay with my current church. Even though it had not grown to become the large church I had hoped, I still had hopes it was. Plus, the people here are terrific. While I do believe I have faithfully given them the Word, I did not give them a shepherd’s love. And while we still had a fair amount of conflict I knew I had received many kindnesses from them. The sheep always took great care of the shepherd, looking back I am sorry that they had to, but am glad they did. So I had hopes I could repay them their kindnesses, plus we were beginning to experience some demographic changes in the area that I believed might stil lead us to become that large church I wanted to pastor.
My personal ambitions were to continue to lead this flock, to see it grow, to keep blogging and to begin seeking out book contracts in the near future. I had a few ideas in my head of things I believed I could pull together and submit to a publisher.
So all of that was running through my head in 2007-2008. Those were particularly tough years at the church. We decided to sell a building and seek new property for financial reasons. Any pastor who has gone through that, or something similar like a building program can tell you it is a trying experience. Such was the case with us. Much dissension crept up, but at the same time, many pulled through and saw us through those difficult days.
Our leadership team went through an extended 8 month process of refashioning our vision and mission plan and it was a good plan. In the past I had done “vision retreats” with our officers and other things and the upshot was usually a bit of changed wording here on “vision” or “mission” statements and a few programs that no one really knew how we were going to get done. In this case though, the 8 month process was thorough – we had an executive coach lead us through the process and by the time were were done we not only had some nice looking pieces of paper to hand to people, but we had people in place to perform specific tasks and leadership roles. We were optimistic.
We picked the first three weeks of December 2008 to roll out our new vision to the congregation, we would have our last service in our old building the last week of December and would move forward into 2009 ready to roll in our new place.
I had not felt well on several occasions during the fall of 2008. I assumed it was the stress of the move, I wasn’t sleeping well, etc. etc.. Still, I missed most of Thanksgiving day in bed with extreme fatigue and we knew something was up. So I made a doctor appt. the first week of December.
The first week of December went well – we rolled out the first part and it went well. Laster that week the doctor called and said that my blood test showed I was anemic. She wanted me to get a colonoscopy to rule out colon cancer. That deeply scared me but I figured this is the kind of thing that happens to other people, and at worst I’d have an early stage which would be treated easily.
The second week roll out of vision went well. Friday of that week I had my colonoscopy. The doctor came out and said “there’s no good way to say this, you have a large tumor on your colon and I need to refer you to a surgeon was to immediately.”
That Sunday was to be the third and final part of the rollout – the big one where we would get the full plan and march on to glory. I preached that morning, and shared the prepared vision speech. Then at the end told our congregation that I had colon cancer and that apparently it wasn’t going to be very easy to work this vision.
Many were encouraging – they told me all kinds of stories of relatives and friends they had known who had caught it early and were living happy and healthy lives. I’m still young I figured, I’m sure we’ve caught it early.
We went to see the surgeon the following Monday and basically found out we hadn’t caught it early. It was already stage four – with metastases to the liver (two large tumors in the liver) and lungs.
All my ambitions crashed that day.
Over the next several months I processed what happened to me, a process I am still engaged in. One thing became painfully clear – that is that I have a painfully short life expectancy. I am hoping and praying I still have several years, I am hoping and praying I will be the miracle. At the same time, I just passed over the mean survival rate so I know what the medical community thinks about my life expectancy.
Facing death does at least one thing that is marvelous – it frees you to be honest with yourself and with God. I don’t have to pretend I was only sold out to Jesus through the years. He knew I wasn’t, and since I may see Him soon, I have less reason to keep up the charade. The truth is that I had many personal ambitions which I looked to stamp with His name on them. These ambitions included a certain level of achievement within the church, recognition of gifts and ever expanding influence. So in truth, my preaching and blogging served those ends to quite a degree.
As to what this means to anyone but me, I hope not much. This is my story of my struggles with my personal issues. I offer it to explain why I probably needed to get away from blogging for a bit. Even a cancer story can raise one’s celebrity profile in some ways and I want to get that out of my system.
My only concern in sharing this story is that we Christians have our own “Christian industrial complex” that we can find ourselves playing to without realizing it. We have a clear celebrity system which becomes very tempting to try to break into.
Those are temptations we need not fall into, but they are there nonetheless there. When we seek to break into them, the seeds of self-promotion are always present. And I hope I can warn any of you who may be susceptible, away from that.
The advent of blogging truly gave a platform for many people we may never heard of to share things worth reading. For all of this internal wrestling and wrangling I have with my own motives I know beyond doubt that I benefited immensely from participating in the blogging world for several years. The discipline of writing helped me find clarity in many ways, the back and forth communications through comments and other things sharpened my understanding of many things. And I dare say that I even wrote some things which were helpful to people at times.
But, the white devil has never been far, encouraging me to self-promote for the glory of God. If there is one thing I have learned through this battle with cancer it is that some of the very basic bottom line matters of Christianity are true. Chief among them is that our call to follow Christ is a call to come and die. That call is not only metaphorical. It it is a call to really come and die with Him. Along the way to our final physical death, He has ordained that we endure many other deaths. I figure that I have now been a Christian for 10,000 days or so, so I’ve had at least 10,000 or more lessons in dying to self. Most of them I didn’t pay attention to. Now I do pay attention to those things.
And I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt – self-promotion can not be accommodated in true Christianity. In True Christianity, the self has to disappear, not be promoted.
I know one more thing beyond a shadow of a doubt. Jesus died for people who find it hard to die for Him. He’ll catch you when you are dying. You don’t need that self you were trying to promote, you need His grace – to the degree you can ditch the self, to that degree you’ll get more of Him.