More Than Clones

I'm not Andy Stanley.

That's probably obvious. I'm taller, younger, and weigh a lot more.

I'm not Craig Groeshel.

I don't have those muscles.

Nor am I like any other leader. I'm not as refined as some. I can't speak as well as others. My vision casting skills pale in comparison to the greats.
And that's okay.

Okay, I may be a lot like Rob Bell in writing these one sentence paragraphs, but please don't tell anyone that I'm like Rob Bell.
Here's the thing. We fly out to conferences. We go to workshops. We hear incredible messages. We get inspired. But then we make the mistake. The big mistake. We try to become like the one who has inspired us. We try to become clones of the popular national speaker.
This year at Exponential in Orlando, I heard one of the most fascinating stories from Choco de Jesus. You have to hear it yourself some day. He shares how he ran and biked 180 miles to raise money to buy a farm that would provide a safe place for recovering prostitutes. It was a story of hope, of disappointment, and of great inspiration. God touched me greatly in hearing it.

The great thing about Choco's story is that I wasn't inspired to duplicate him. Who would want to run or bike 180 miles? That's just crazy. And it made me realize how I strive to emulate these "rockstars" of the Christian faith.

But I only emulate the easier things.
I take on this trick or that program. I think this strategy or method will transform my church. But it doesn't.

And it's all wrong.

We can look at Andy Stanley's or Craig Groeshel's models of being the church in their communities and be amazed. We want those kingdom results. We want to impact our communities for God like that. So we come home, digest our notes, and try to duplicate their church in our communities. But I am really convinced that North Point and Lifechurch are the way they are, not because of the systems they have, rather, it is because of their giftedness and all the other great people they have surrounded themselves with.

Then we see someone like Hugh Halter doing something different in Denver. Ooh, I want that different church too. Community. Life. Bring it on! And so we jump tracks and try to emulate that church too. Yet have you heard Hugh Halter speak? Adullam can't be duplicated because Hugh Halter can't be duplicated.

We unwittingly play the role of the mad doctor Frankenstein and create the Frankenstein Church. A church that is a patchwork of all these other exciting churches who are relevant in their communities and local context. Yet they are often out of place in ours making our churches about as productive as Frankenstein's monster.

There is this fine line between being inspired and trying to duplicate. We are each individually and wonderfully made. God is working on us to become the pastors and leaders that He planned for and called us to be. Yet we will not get there trying to duplicate others.
We will only realize our true ministry potential when we mix the practical training with a genuine commitment to grow in Jesus. He is the one we are to try and duplicate. He is the one who knows what the church should look like lived out in our local contexts. He has the power to make it happen.
How would Jesus reach my community? What would Jesus do with the resources He has provided me with? Who would Jesus love and how would He love them?

Whether or not this is what we get from the Stanleys, Groeshels, or others, this is really what they have wrestled with and figured out. Likewise, this is what we need to wrestle with and figure out. Our communities need the church Jesus is calling us to shape.
How can I lead in my location like Jesus would? How can you lead in yours?

More Than Fine and Dandy



Don’t confuse “God being on our side” with “everything will work out fine and dandy” here on earth. If we are following Jesus, we are involved in something greater than just our temporal comfort and safety.

And a song. It's folk and punk but with a point.

Lee



To sit down and share a conversation with Lee was an experience. He was one of a kind. I always intended to sit have him tell his story in his own words, but I never got around to it. This is my recollection.

Disclaimer about oral history: I don't believe that Lee is one to exaggerate, but the story sure seems like he may have. I think it is more of Lee having been an incredible person combined with him having lived an interesting life. This is his story, as told by him and recollected by me. It may not be 100% accurate. That's the way it is with oral history. There are details I would love to have asked further questions on, but this is what it is. Due to the nature of the story, I do not share Lee's last name. Other parties don't need to be identified.

**

Lee was brought up in different times. A segregated south. He would go and play baseball with his friends down at the field. When time for a water break came, his friends would go across the street to the gas station to get a drink of water. Lee would have to go home because he wasn't allowed to drink with the white boys.

Then desegregation began. Some of the whites were not happy. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little girls. Lee and his sister escaped Montgomery with their family to go north. He remembered being curled up and hiding in the backseat of their car as they fled town to what his parents hoped would be a better and safer life. It was different times.

He then found himself at a nice Lutheran school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He became the star running back. Yet he tweaked his knee in the best game of his career.

He went on to the University of Miami in Florida (In Ohio, we clarify when we say Miami). There he had more knee problems and lost his scholarship due to his inability to play.

And the downward spiral began.

I would say there were three things that changed his life for the worst.

First, the knee injury. I didn't know knee problems until a few years back, but if you have never experienced a knee injury, they make you less mobile. Lee's knee injury was pretty serious in an age that didn't have the surgeries that we have. It led to him being less mobile than he should have been. This allowed the weight to be packed on easier.

Second, he married the woman of his dreams, who then died of cancer at a very young age. I can't imagine the heartbreak although I know people today who have experienced the same. She was his high school sweetheart. I think he spent the rest of his life trying to find another one of her.

Third, a drug dealer approached him after his injury. His dreams of playing football had been squashed by his knee injury. He didn't know what he would do, so he started trafficking drugs. Lee never justified the decision with me. It was just the choice he made. He started running drugs from the Miami area to the Midwest.

These drug days continued. He was in shootouts. He was in the car when two others were killed. He used his brilliant mind to master the trade. Money was easy. Living life was extravagant. Cars. Comics. Trips. Everything the world can offer was at Lee's fingertips.

The one strange thing about Lee is that he never used drugs despite selling them. He drank apple juice in a cup to have the appearance that he was drinking alcohol. To hear him tell it, it was a terrible, low sort of evil. He knew what he was doing was atrocious, yet he continued doing it anyway. He was selfish. During our last conversation, he told me that he wished he could go back and have more empathy for others. He was a changed man.

The change happened through a surreal Hollywood-esque drug dealing experience. He was making a run to pick up some drugs near the Mexican border. He had money. A lot of it. He had networked a bunch of drug dealers together to leverage purchasing power for a better deal. Using his incredible mind and skills to further his drug empire, he took off to the border with some friends.

They were pulled over by a cop. But this cop wasn't on the up and up. He was in cahoots with the drug lords down there. The cop confiscated the money and never arrested them. The money then went to Mexico. Lee and his friends desperately scoured Mexico, chasing lead after lead for two weeks trying to find the money. To no avail. Hundreds of thousands of dollars lost and no drugs to show for it.

Lee came back home and the other drug dealers understood. It's the risk of doing business. Except one. And that one was going to kill Lee if he didn't cough up the money. One thing led to another, and Lee's father mortgaged his house to give Lee the needed money. This led to a huge fight between Lee's father and mother, who then split up. She thought that Lee should face the consequences of his actions. Lee's father, understanding what the consequences really were, thought differently.

Lee used the money to pay back the threatening drug dealer. And he felt terrible. He didn't want to be in debt to anybody. He didn't want his dad to make that sort of sacrifice for him. So he put the drug business into overdrive. He started cutting corners. He wanted to raise that money back quickly. And he became addicted to the fast money.

Eventually, all of the corners cut caught up with him when the cops busted him in his mansion in Florida with hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money. He was done.  

He went to prison.

In prison, he beat up a guard and was stuck in solitary to rot. A janitor snuck him a Bible, and he started to read. He read and read. Having grown up Lutheran, he knew the stories. But in that cell, isolated and all alone, the stories intermingled with the Holy Spirit to transform Lee. He became a changed man. He gave his life over to Jesus. Having only known him during the years after this experience, I know that it stuck. It wasn't just a prison conversion that disappeared soon after getting back into society. It was life-changing for Lee.

So Lee started following Jesus while his lawyer found a loophole in the case that got him off. Despite thinking the rest of his life was going to be in prison, Lee became a free man once again. Although his true freedom really began in prison, yet it was never totally realized in this life. His past decisions and experiences always seemed to have ripples that impacted the present. His health problems kept increasing, as many of us will also experience. Yet he continued to push more and more into his new life in Jesus.

I met Lee after he had found a job as a crane operator, and he would buy comics from my father's store. We became great friends. He loved comic books and history. He was like my clone, except for the drug dealing, insane variety of experiences, and having a brain that could squash mine. He would come in and take more time than I should give to a customer. We would talk about everything.

He eventually found another woman to love. They had two wonderful little children. She got mixed up in abusing drugs, which forced Lee to raise the kids while she was in prison. It's a tough world in the inner city. Hard, destructive drugs are so prevalent and genuine help and hope is so scarce. The slope down, when you hop on it, seems to be so much slipperier and go down so much deeper than I have experienced growing up in white, rural America.

Then tragedy struck Lee. He was providing a place to live for some recently released drug addicts. He was trying to help them get clean. To a fault, Lee would always see the best of people. He could see who they should be rather than who they actually were. He reminded me so much of God and the way He views us. He doesn't see us in the sin we are wallowing in. He sees us for who we could be.

Anyway, Lee had these two guys living with him, but he had to kick them out of the house because they weren't staying clean. That's what he did. That night, his house burnt down. Without insurance. A few days after the fire, I received a phone call from Lee. He was homeless, living out of his vehicle. His two little daughters living mostly with their mom. I didn't know where to send them for help.

I said that he could come live with us. Yet Lee was huge. Five hundred pounds huge. He had to sleep in our living room. His girls would go to bed in our girls' rooms, yet they would always find their way out to sleep with their dad. He would watch movies. He never quite understood me not having as much time to watch movies with him as he wanted. My life was filled with great conversations while also helping my friend lift his legs onto the couch so he could sleep. My wife was a supertrooper during this time. Our living room became Lee's room, decked out with an oxygen machine and other medical equipment.

I will never forget him making me watch John Wayne's Angel and the Badman. It's a movie that teaches nonviolent principles coming from the hero of the violent cowboy movies of the time. It will always be deeply connected to Lee in my mind. A man who came from a violent past, yet in the midst of that violence and chaos, he found peace.

Eventually Lee went to the hospital and moved on. To be honest, I had to ask him to move on. Despite loving him, his staying was too trying on my family. I felt terrible doing it. But Lee was so gracious and understanding. I thought, as my experience has been with many that I have helped, that when the help would stop, he wouldn't like me anymore. I feared that he would hate me for stopping to help rather than remembering the help. Yet that wasn't Lee. He loved me still.

I would visit him when I made trips into Fort Wayne. He lived in a rough neighborhood when he wasn't in the hospital. We would catch up and have conversations. His house was robbed while he was still in it, but he couldn't do anything about it as he laid there watching, barely alive. His health was failing fast. In and out of the hospitals. His love for his two girls never wavered. His hope for them having a good life kept him going. And his unrealized hope for their mom straightening out remained unwavering.

My last visit was five days before he died. I told him that I would be moving to the Detroit area and wouldn't see him as much. I brought him some comic books because he loved reading them. He always wanted to meet Stan Lee. We were going to make that happen in the next year at a convention. I guess we won't now. He made me make a promise to him if he would die, which I will keep; the same promise he had me make the visit before. He expressed his love, which I share in a different way, for Martin Luther King Jr. We talked Ferguson. We talked ISIS. We talked America. We come from two different worlds. We talked about his hopes, dreams, and the unwritten story ideas that he had. It was always good to spend some time with Lee.

I would be remiss to not mention the St. Louis Cardinals or the Fantastic Four in a story about Lee. So this is their brief mention.

May God grant that Lee's dreams be realized. Not the little dreams like meeting Stan Lee, but the big ones that he had for his daughters and their mother. May they find the peace and purpose that Lee desired for them.