What I Learned from Kids Who Survived Cancer

My youngest daughter, Tiffany, has survived a brain tumor. Between age 1 and age 23 she underwent four brain surgeries, two by the famous brain surgeon, Dr. Ben Carson who authored the book Gifted Hands (a must read).

Tiffany has a heart for hurting people. A few times a month she takes he dog, LuLu, to the hospital to visit patients. She often makes cookies for men from a rescue mission that we bring to our church. And, she serves as a counselor each summer at a camp for kids who survived cancer.

Each year this organization, Camp Quality, invites the kids, counselors and family to a dinner/dance the day after Thanksgiving.This year I took Tiffany. After dinner, Tiffany, the other counselors, and the kids took to the dance floor.

That’s when, as I fought back tears, I jotted down these thoughts in my iphone.

  • We all yearn for a place where others accept us “as is.” All these kids had this in common, they battle cancer. Many that night carried the obvious evidences with them–bald heads and puffy faces due to chemo, wheelchair confinement, or visible scars from surgery. But these things didn’t matter to them. It was as if they were oblivious to each others’ physical limitations. They accepted each other “as is.” (Jer. 31.3, I have loved you with an everlasting love.)
  • We all need moments when something transports us away from thoughts about our problems. One rule the camp rigidly enforces; “We will not talk about our illness.” That same spirit carried over into the comments by the director that night as she spoke of joy, hope, and future. That same spirit pulsated from the dance floor as these kids jumped, danced, and twirled to the beat of the music and the direction of the rotund DJ. (Phil. 4.8, Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.)
  • God’s image that He implanted into every human heart shows itself when we sacrificially give ourselves away to others. Each camper is assigned an adult that spends 24/7 with that child during camp. At this dinner the adults sit next to their ‘companion,’ as they are called, and they joyfully dance with them on the dance floor. You can see Tiffany and her companion here. One counselor whom Tiffany introduced to me, had served 15 years straight. Her effervescent personality oozed love for these kids. (Gal. 6.2, Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.)
  • God wants us to celebrate each other’s milestones with great joy. Each year at the dinner, they play Pomp and Circumstances as the camp’s high school seniors march to the podium. This year only one made it. Two others couldn’t attend due to their illness. The high school senior whom the group celebrated that night had attended camp 13 years straight. Although surgery scars marred her face, she walked across the room and held her head high for she had not only survived, but thrived. After she received her ‘diploma’ the DJ began the dance music and this senior, dressed in her graduation robe, became the center of attention. The kids rushed into a circle as they danced and celebrated her milestone. My thoughts drifted back to when Tiffany graduated from high school. We weren’t sure that she would make it that night because the effects of her brain surgery often left her unable to stand on her own. The teachers had assigned a big football player type to stand at her side and help her if needed. But, with a sense of great accomplishment, she walked across the platform on her own and received her diploma. I rejoiced. Then I cried. (Rom. 12.15, Rejoice with those who rejoice.)

With my three degrees, I never expected to learn about acceptance, thinking about the good, sacrificial service, and celebration from kids who have cancer. Yet that night I committed, for Tiffany’s sake, to stay as long as she relished those magical moments with people who accepted her unconditionally.

Modifying the line from My Fair Lady, “I could have danced all night,” I could have stayed all night as Tiffany danced all night.

How an Improv Class Improved my Preaching and Enhanced my Life

Drew Carey hosted a TV show called Whose Line is it Anyway that ran for several years until 2006. You can still see re-runs on cable.

The show, based on what is called ‘short-form’ improv, included four characters, most memorable being Wayne Brady. They would take suggestions from the audience and would create characters, scenes, and songs on the spot.

The few times I watched it, I couldn’t believe they just made that stuff up.

Well, about four years ago while at lunch with a professional speaker who attends our church, I asked him what he’d suggest I do to improve my speaking. He told me that attending an improv class in downtown Chicago was a great help for him.

I tucked that thought away until about a year ago I learned that a local comedy club, the Comedy Shrine in Naperville, IL offered improv classes. I signed up, and have been taking classes ever since.

To give context, I’ve always considered myself a very funny guy. The only problem is that hardly anybody else did. I can tell a joke in a sermon that I thought would bring the audience down only to hear cricket sounds in response rather than laughter. When I did get laughter my son would often say, “Dad, don’t let it go to your head. Those were courtesy laughs.”

I’ve finally surmised that my humor is at such a high level that most people simple can’t grasp it. :)

As I’ve almost completed five series of improv classes, the most recent a musical improv one, I’ve learned these lessons that have improved my preaching and made me a more rounded person.

  1. I’ve learned to separate the language a person uses from their value in God’s eyes. Sometimes the language used in classes can burn your ears. I remind myself, though, that God deeply loves people, regardless of the language they use.
  2. The classes have helped me connect more with current culture. Often we pastors can get so focused in the Word that we lose touch with what the world is thinking. We must be in the world but not of it.
  3. I’ve built friendships with people who aren’t interested in God, and I really like them. I pray regularly for opportunities to engage them spiritually, yet even without the spiritual connection I have with those who know Christ, I truly enjoy being with these guys. I’ve had some great conversations about Christianity and two of my classmates have even attended our church.
  4. I’ve been able to break the mold many people hold about ministers. I’m afraid many outside the church see pastors as legalist finger-pointers. At first when my class found out I was a pastor, everybody felt a bit awkward. But, now that they see I’m a normal guy that likes to have fun doing improv, I believe I’ve helped tear down the ‘sometimes true’ stereotype many hold about us pastors.
  5. I’ve actually heard more laughs when I preach, even when I don’t tell a planned joke.
  6. I’m more comfortable and loose when I preach. My engineering background lends itself to more linear sermons and a linear delivery style. Now, I’m more open to allowing God to use more of my creative right-brain when I preach rather than relying on my left-brain logic side.
  7. Improv teaches you to respond to what your scene partner says or does, rather than to pre-plan how you will respond. As a result, instead of always pre-planning what I want to say, I’m learning to be more spontaneous with my thoughts and words. I’m finding that those spontaneous thoughts can become some of the most powerful. Perhaps I’m listening more to the Holy Spirit’s voice.
  8. I’m learning to laugh at myself more and not take myself so seriously.

If you have a hankering for such an experience, give it a try. I bet you’ll find the experience will enrich your life as well.

Is the Best Term “Christian” or “Follower of Christ?”

As a pastor of a mid-sized church, I try to read broadly enough to understand the current Christian vernacular. My current read, Deep Churchunpacks the terminology of emerging/emergent church and those that think more traditionally and suggests an in-between position. I recommend it.

Through my reading, I’ve noticed the past few years that the church’s vernacular seems to be in constant flux, depending on who you read or listen to. The church growth movement taught me avoid certain words or phrases for fear of turning off the listener. Other recent voices suggest new terminology as well.

  • Some replace such terms as justification, sanctification, and atonement with other words with less syllables.
  • The term seeker was/is used as a preferred word for  a lost person.
  • Salvation is now cross the line of faith.
  • The newest replacement phrase is follower of Christ in lieu of Christian or believer.

When I preach and teach, I try to use theological terms that make sense to the listener. If you listen to any of my messages, you’ll probably find that my word choice matches the above.

But the last one, follower of Christ, even though I sometimes use it, feels disingenuous to me.

I’m not sure why I feel that way.

Is it because I’ve used believer and Christian for so long that subconsciously I don’t like change?

Is is it because I feel like I’m trying to be theologically hip by using the coolest new words or phrases? (I am not the coolest pastor around. I don’t drink beer, smoke cigars, or study at Starbucks while having deep spiritual conversations with the barista. A future blog post.)

Or, is it just too new for me to feel comfortable using it?

I’m still wrestling with this one. I’d welcome your thoughts.

Is Propositional Truth Passé?

At a recent church leadership conference, I heard an author criticize those who believe in propositional truth.

This speaker built a straw man and then tore it down with arrogance and a dismissive spirit.

seek_truthHe even made a comment something like, “Those who teach and believe this stuff are misguided, misplaced, and downright wrong.” He accused those who believe in propositional truth of making propositions and then beating the (heck) out of people. Interestingly, he used propositions to make his point.

On the other hand, I’m reading a refreshing book, Deep Church-a Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, by a guy named Jim Belcher. He graciosly uncovers the weaknesses of both traditional foundationalists and extreme emergents as well as drawing out the best from each.

I look forward to delving deeper into Deep Church. It would be a great book to add to your library.

Does Social Media Hinder or Help Community in the Local Church?

social-media2I just had a great conversation in the doctoral seminar I’m attending at Trinity Seminary. Dr. Bill Donahue, Willow Creek’s guru on small groups is teaching the seminar.

We talked about whether or not real community can happen through social media (facebook, twitter, etc). He didn’t have an answer, but here are some thoughts that surfaced.

  • The verdict is still out as to whether or not social media helps or hinders community. Recently in a Story Chicago conference one of Lifechurch.tv’s guys who works in their online ministry said that they are still asking questions about its effectiveness.
  • Social media has the potential of fostering and opening up community.
  • People tend to open up more quickly through social media than they do when in person.
  • Social media could hinder people from learning to appropriately communicate honest feelings when in the presence of others.
  • Using social media to foster community probably scares boomers.

Do you have any thoughts?