When I am weak, then I am strong

 

WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN I AM STRONG

Whenever possible, I attend and often speak for the CMF-Globalscope annual Celebration. Campus ministers from several major universities around the world come together for a week of inspiration and encouragement. The 2016  conference was held in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. July 24-28.

Globalscope Celebration, Mexico students, former students, professor and former professor Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Globalscope Celebration: : students,former students, professor and former professor
Globalscope Celebration, Mexico:  students, former students, professor and former professor

More than 90 of us attended (including a few babies—we’re growing!) Coming as it did at the beginning of our Next Phase, Joy and I decided to attend the Celebration and then stay another month in Mexico before moving on to England.

            Phil Tatum, the Director of Globalscope, asked me to present the opening devotion at the first session “to set the tone for the week.” Here are my remarks, following the reading of 1 Corinthians 10:1-12.

12 I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.`

Strange, passionate, intimate passage. Paul under attack. Relations with the Corinthian church somewhat dicey. Couldn’t be otherwise, with his high moral standards and their Corinthian practices. In this letter he has had to deal with division in the church, party/political squabbling, intellectual and theological arguments, sexual and other practices proving that these new Christians may have put on Christ but inside they are pretty much their old pagan selves—pretty much like the rest of us. And, of course, they defended themselves by attacking Paul. In this section of the letter he offers his defense—and his defense sounds pretty boastful. He has had, after all, a unique experience that, as far as he’s concerned, credentials his ministry.

Not just a unique experience. Special revelations. He could boast of them—and he does—but the Lord has kept him balanced through “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

We don’t know what the thorn was.

Malaria?

Epilepsy?

Poor eyesight? He used amanuenses (stenographers) to write for him.

Jewish persecution (the context speaks of opponents) In the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 33:55 uses thorns as a metaphor for enemies.

Memories of his own past persecution of the church

Sexual temptation (he was, after all, a man)

Depression

The consequence of this thorn, whatever it was? A more effective ministry.

Why did this passage come to mind when I received Phil’s invitation to bring the opening devotion?

First, because of a recent conversation in which I was asked to reflect on my years in ministry. When I review these nearly six decades, one fact stands out: Almost the entire time I’ve been running scared. A few decades ago there was a pop psychology category called “the Imposter Syndrome.” It described people whose chronic psychological state was one of fear, the fear of being found out, of holding positions of responsibility for which they knew they weren’t qualified, where knowledge and abilities were expected of them that they knew they didn’t have and couldn’t deliver.

I read about it with great curiosity and a sense of relief, because it meant that I wasn’t the only one. Until then I thought I was. Let me tell you a little about this imposter.

I became a volunteer youth minister when I was 18, a paid one when I was 19. My responsibilities included running the middle school, high school, and college age youth groups for St. Johns Christian Church in Portland, Oregon. I drove up every weekend from Eugene, where I was in college. Many of the kids in my “youth group” were older than I was. It wasn’t age that scared me so much, though, as the fact that all the successful youth ministers I knew were athletes. Their charismatic personalities and physical prowess made them the idol of the kids in their churches.

We have Roy

My sport was chess. I was a puny asthmatic who couldn’t run around a baseball diamond without collapsing at home plate, gasping for breath. I couldn’t compete. But the youth groups grew, anyway. It was only in later years, with the advantage of some more education and maturation, that I figured it out. I could be a youth minister not because I was so strong, but because I was so weak. When I competed in their sports or other games with the young people, the truth was that everything I could do they could do better—whether it was tennis or badminton or high diving or ping pong or softball. In school I was always one of the last to be chosen for pick-up games. I was a loser. The result: the boys weren’t afraid of me, didn’t feel they had to compete with me; they weren’t overshadowed by my prowess because I didn’t have any. Instead, since I couldn’t compete, I could encourage. I became their cheerleader.

I saw my own early ministry replayed many years later, when I became senior minister at Central Christian Church in Mesa, Arizona. I am going to brag, now, about one of our own. Steve Palich, whom some of you know because of his current work on the CMF staff, was the youth minister. He was one of the most effective I’ve seen. Steve didn’t fancy himself a charismatic speaker or leader. (In fact, like me he was asthmatic.) He didn’t take his place on stage, but offstage, where he could cheer on the young people. Our youth group grew dramatically under Steve’s baton. He raised our own three children in their teen years. He understood his job was to develop their gifts, not show off his own. To this day I’m in his debt.

A little more of my own story, and then I’ll get to you. I told you I’d always been in over my head. When I was 21 I was asked to plant a church in Portland, Oregon. 21—I didn’t even have a college degree. Then at 24 I became a high school English teacher. I was one night ahead of the students. At 27 I became a college teacher with a brand new master’s degree—and again I was one night ahead of the students.  At 32 Milligan named me Vice-President, back in the days when the college only had one VP. I promise you, I didn’t know what I was doing. Then at 35 I became the senior pastor of a large church in Indianapolis. The church boasted 2500 members. I had left the church I started before it hit 200 members. What did I know? Again I was in over my head. Let me jump to 52, when I became president of Hope International University. Again, over my head.

What did I have to offer? Inexperience, insecurity (that why I pursued a second bachelor’s degree—so if I failed as a preacher maybe I could make it as a teacher), uncertain health, untested opinions. But I also could offer my curiosity and my sense of being called to ministry, without knowing exactly what that entailed, and the conviction that since I was doing my own fumbling best to serve God, I wasn’t alone in this work.

But what I felt, more than anything else, was inadequate. I was keenly aware of my own weakness, even though I sometimes camouflaged it beneath a certain bluster. I may have fooled them; I couldn’t fool myself. That’s why early in life I adopted 2 Corinthians 12:10 as my life’s verse: 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Unlike the apostle Paul, I can’t say I’m delighted when I’m insulted or persecuted or in difficulties or hardships. I can’t even say I delight in my weaknesses. Mostly they embarrass me. But for sure the Lord has made it clear to me, “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

OK, I’ve spent a long time talking about me. I know I’ve been overusing the first personal pronoun. Here’s why I’ve done it. Phil asked me to speak an encouraging word, to set the tone for the week. Huge assignment. What I want to do more than anything else is assure you if I could do it you can do it. If you don’t feel up to your assignment, probably you are right. But we’d be more worried about you if you were sure you could do it.

My assignment in my work for CMF 50 years ago was helping to prepare missionary candidates get ready for the field. You know the ones who proved the greatest disappointments? Those who were pretty certain they were fit for the job. One young man even in his initial interview was giving advice on how CMF should improve its operation. He said this without any intimate knowledge of CMF or of the field he was to go to. He just knew he knew! All he offered was strength without weakness.

He never went to the field. The rest of his life has been marked by failure after failure–because he was too strong for his own good. He left no room for the Holy Spirit to work in his life, for the Word of God to direct his paths, for the example of Christ to be his model. He was too strong for all of that. But the truth is, when he was strong, then he was weak.

Some of you I know fairly well; others barely at all. Let me tell you what I’ve loved about Globalscopers from Day One. You’re a bunch of admitted weaklings. As year after year we’ve listened to your reports and heard your confessions, you’ve openly admitted how much you have had to learn, how many mistakes you’ve made, how often you’ve battled discouragement and even depression, how frequently you’ve been uncertain about the best course forward, and how many times you’ve wrestled like Jacob with the angel of God, seeking, hoping, desiring but not always receiving. Yet you’ve persevered. You’ve experimented. You’ve learned. You’ve poured yourselves into young people in other cultures. You’ve grown. And in country after country now you can point to men and women whose lives have been changed because you came to serve them. I’m talking about you, my fellow weaklings.

So during this week while you are in Mexico evaluating your ministries from a distance, and then when you return to your fields of labor, will you carry this verse with you? It has helped me. It will help you: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

On the (persistent) making of memories

On the (persistent) making of memories

Here’s a question for old people like us: Why are we still going to such trouble to store up more memories?  After all, they can’t last long, can they?

I’m not referring to the forgetfulness of the aged. This isn’t a veiled allusion to the onset of dementia. No, I’m just facing chronology. The truth is, both Joy and I reached our biblical threescore and ten years long ago. The road stretches out long when we look behind us; looking ahead, we’re about to run out of pavement.

What, then, are we up to with this incessant moving about, this rush to cram more and more adventures into a lifetime already overflowing with them?

It’s about memories, isn’t it?

I want to go the end of the Aleutian Islandsd during the winter!!!_edited-1

We are what we remember. When they leave us (and the statistics aren’t friendly: if our bodies are around in our 80s, there’s a 50-50 chance our minds won’t still be with us) we not only won’t remember much, we won’t even know who we are.

So does it pay us to be greedily soaking up new sights and sounds and smells at our age? Why don’t we relax, for heaven’s sake, and savor the memories we already have?Let's Stay Home_edited-1

It’s a fair question, because this incessant accumulating of memories is what travel is all about, isn’t it? When our children were still at home, we traipsed them off to exotic places all over the world: Israel, Mexico, Germany, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the United States. Our motive? To enlarge their world, to strengthen the ties that bind us together, and, simply, to store up memories. We had an advantage over many other middle-class parents, most of whom couldn’t afford the fares. Our travels, though, were for the most part work-related. Among other things, I led tours so I could earn their tickets. Attending conventions, part of my job description as a pastor, was a good opportunity to pack up the kids to visit unfamiliar places. So we hit the road—or the seas or the air—and explored strange and wondrous places. We still return to those places in our reminiscences.

The children have been out of the nest for decades now. Yet their mother and I are still traveling, still absorbing, still marveling over what we have never experienced before—still adding to our memory bank.

But here’s the kicker. As I said above, the memory bank is really a ticking time bomb. The fuse is steadily getting shorter and shorter. Before much longer (how much longer, at 78 and 75?) the spark will hit the powder. End of memories.

We know that. We are almost brutally realistic about time’s inexorable march toward that moment when for us “time shall be no more.” Ah, yes, we look beyond here to there, to that next dimension, but of that experience we have assurances but no empirical data. So we speculate. There, I suspect—I hope—we’ll have no recollection of this fleshly existence. Oh, there are some memories I’d love to hang on to, some people and places and events I never want to forget, ever, but I’m afraid if I’m granted those memories the price may be that others I’ve repressed or mentally fought to forget will also be admitted. If that happens, then heaven won’t be heaven after all. So when the time comes, I prefer sleep to dreams, or, in the best possible scenario, I prefer to select the memories I want to keep forever and delete the rest.

But back to the question. Here we are, this bride of 56 years and I, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, setting up housekeeping among a people whose language we can’t speak, stumbling over cobblestone streets lined with what must compete for the world’s most treacherous sidewalks, shopping by the pictures on the labels and laughing at ourselves when the yogurt turns out to be sour cream, ogling the magnificent creations to be found in this artistic colony—storing up more memories. I ask it again: Why don’t we quit? The storehouse is already crammed with good stuff from adventures past. Why not be satisfied?

Because we can’t be, that’s why. Because yesterday’s experiences can’t replace today’s adventures. Because once we decide enough’s enough, mental atrophy commences. Synapses start misfiring. A deepening fog sets in. The brain feeds on going where it has never gone before, doing what it has never tried. It renews itself by processing new data, forcing new connections. No input, no output.

It’s not just that we mentally slow down when we have less and less to think about. Nor is it only that we get bored. It’s that we ourselves become boring. We have less and less to say—and fewer and fewer people who care. Here’s the downside of memories: they dry up. And dried memories dry up relationships. People don’t willingly hang around people whose conversation is all about what happened on some yesterday. Nothing is less interesting than rehashed stories too frequently told. Visit a person afflicted with dementia. It’s a good test of your patience. How many repetitions do you grant the same story before you hunt for the nearest exit?

You see where I’m going with this. I’m trying to justify our traveling, Joy’s and mine. We aren’t even taking the same trips, though we’re going on them together. We travel with each other, all right. We’re both in San Miguel right now, but in different San Miguels. She stops while we’re walking together; I go on ahead, oblivious to her disappearance. She’s spotted a tiny flower pushing its way though a crack in the wall just above the erratic sidewalk or a rarely blooming cactus that just appeared last night and will be gone tomorrow.

Cactus flower extraordinarie!
Cactus flower extraordinarie!

I’m observing, also, but I often miss the flowers. I’m focused on the animated conversation between a couple of codgers on the park bench just ahead. They should be in pictures. It’s fun investigating different worlds together. She’s always painting, even when her hands aren’t moving.

Me, I’m forcing this old body forward,

Watch your step old man!
Watch your step old man!

trying not to stumble, inelegant in stride, stooped in posture, but recording the sights nonetheless. When we get back to our casa we compare notes. Each can’t believe what the other missed. Together, though, we can concoct a pretty good story.

Another story for the memory bank. More evidence that we’re not dead yet. Additional proof that we’re still climbing, that the crest of our journey lies ahead of us and not behind.

So why are we traveling at this age? Because there’s no better age.

 

First Letter to Family and Friends

To: Family, Friends

From: Roy and Joy

When: August 8, 2016

Well, you asked for it. As we were leaving for our life’s Next Phase, several of you demanded—yes, demanded—that we write from time to time to tell you where we are and what we’re doing. Every day your nagging has haunted me. And every day I’ve managed to ignore it. After all, the purpose of our Next Phase is not to write a travelogue, but to do our own thing. For Joy that means devoting herself uninterruptedly to her art. For me it means a little sightseeing and a whole lot of vegetating. When we left home I realized that at long last I needed some solitude, some extended periods without talking or being talked to. I needed to “be still and know,” to know that God is God,

Peace in the evening sky
Peace in the evening sky

to know that I can just be without having to meet classes, sermon and writing deadlines, and the multiplied pressures that go with having a couple of jobs.

So when we drove away from Johnson City (TN), having divested ourselves of the house, all the furnishings, and my car (Joy’s would be relinquished on the last day before leaving the United States), we both felt almost giddy as we exulted in our new freedom and drove across the country to our temporary residence with Brad and Gretchen Jacob in Tillamook, along the route visiting friends, children, grandchildren (and great-grandchildren), and our furniture.

The highlight of our time in Oregon was the all-family vacation in La Pine, where Velcro grandson Derek Hill once again played host to our thundering horde. There were more than 30 of us from Oregon, California, Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, and Australia. Unfortunately, distance is separating the tribe, with several families unable to be with us. Still, we had enough fun for everybody, even the absent ones!

We bade farewell to everyone on July 23, boarding a plane in Portland the next morning for Mexico City and then being shuttled to Cholula, Puebla for the annual Globalscope Celebration, which brought 90 of us together from around the world. Globalscope is the campus ministry arm of Christian Missionary Fellowship, with which I’ve been associated since 1964. I loved it that Joy could be with me this time, as she enjoys the company of these dedicated young leaders as much as I do.

When the conference ended, we headed to Mexico City for a couple of days. Our companions were Dr. Miriam Perkins (with whom I taught at Emmanuel Christian Seminary) and her vivacious mother Linda (whom I taught at Milligan College in the 1960s). We four were safely escorted to the airport by Brent Vokes, a Globalscope minister from Chile. We were grateful for his Spanish language skills.

Our brief time in Mexico City shattered one of my long held prejudices. I’ve often said I don’t like the place: too big, too smoggy, too much like big cities everywhere. Wrong. Perhaps it’s because the warmth of the Puebla residents we met had inclined us to be more open, but whatever it was we found Mexico City to be a beautiful, welcoming place. Miriam had rented an Airbnb house. It was spacious, easily accommodating the four of us while making us feel like we belonged here (once, that is, we learned how to work the gas water heater). We were able to do some of our own cooking (the “our” here referring exclusively to the females in the group), but not all. We treated ourselves to two exquisite meals out, finding the cuisine (Italian, Mexican) very much to our liking.

Miriam had one specific goal for Mexico City: She wanted to see the home/museum of Frida Lahlo, Mexico’s most famous woman painter. We learned a great deal of her struggles, overcoming childhood polio and a near-fatal accident as a late teen. She made her mark as an artist and personality.

Another excursion was to Temple Mayor, ruins of the ancient Aztec temple and grounds. I’m afraid by this time in our travels over the years we’ve seen too many ruins; still, the reminder of the grandeur that was the Aztecs and the devastation wrought by the invading Spaniards was worthwhile.

We spent a little time visiting Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral, mingling with the Spanish speaking worshipers, not understanding the language but sensing and appreciating their devotion.

On Monday we returned to the airport where Steve and Kay Carpenter, missionaries, packed us all into the Chrysler Town and Country they had borrowed from another missionary family and drove us to our new home for August, San Miguel de Allende. Here we were comfortably ensconced in a spacious casa that accommodated the six of us. Steve and Kay stayed for a couple of nights before returning to the city, taking the Perkins and their Spanish with them.  We are now in sign language mode.

So currently there are just two of us—until Brian and Mike arrive August 20–and we’re having a good time. When we’re together I’ll tell you of how I got lost on my morning walk and how helpful the people here are in giving you directions. Usually in the opposite direction.

The next day we decided (OK, I decided and Joy went along) to save taxi fare ($2.15) and walk to the Fabrica de la Aurora, a former textile mill that now houses some of the finest art galleries we’ve seen. It was to be a 30-40 minute walk. After a couple of hours we hailed a taxi. Someone might have had a word or to two say to the other someone who was in charge of the expedition.

Last evening we had a torrential thunderstorm. This morning we woke to puddles of water in the house and no lights. Electricity was gone. That meant that the electrically powered gate that lets us in and out of this place couldn’t operate. No way out. Interesting thoughts about what we’d do when all our battery operated electronics went dead. Fortunately, within an hour we were “empowered” again.   Alas, no exciting tales to fabricate.

We have deliberately not done a lot of sight-seeing yet. We’re mostly saving that for Mike’s and Brian’s visit. Our goal now is to settle in and get acquainted with our new lifestyle. So far, so good. Life on the run or walk—on San Miguel’s cobblestone streets and treacherous sidewalks—for us old folks is not only good. It’s very good.

Love to you all.

 

About Roy and Joy–the Lawsons on the Loose

 

On Saturday May 7, 2016 Roy participated in his last commencement service as a professor of Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College in East Tennessee. On Sunday he preached his final sermon as ad interim pastor of First Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee. On Monday he and Joy said goodbye to Velcro children (Darrin and Julie Ronde), grandchildren (Tom and Stephanie Arbaugh), and great-grandchildren (Eden, Elias, and Estin) in Johnson.

Grandma’s MOVING & Grandpa’s PLAYING
Grandma’s MOVING & Grandpa’s PLAYING

And on Tuesday they headed for the West Coast, visiting children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and their furniture along the way.

Here’s the backstory. A year ago we decided the time had come. If we were ever going to get serious about our bucket list, the time was now. Old age was no longer a theoretical possibility; it had arrived, with all the attending bodily malfunctions and diminishing energy appertaining thereto. Roy was 77, Joy 74. Roy had already retired twice but was no good at it. Maybe he could make it stick the third time. Joy was enjoying increasing success at her encaustic art studio, but she felt her art could be placed on hold for awhile.

So it was decided. Roy would retire, Joy would shift from encaustics (painting with hot wax) to painting with cold wax, a more portable medium. We agreed we’d travel with one suitcase and a carry-on apiece, plus a personal item (in the vague language of airline-speak). But what should we do about our house and belongings? Our accumulated precious stuff? Then came the epiphany: “Joy, what will happen to this stuff when we’re dead?” We wouldn’t have any say. Most of it would be trashed.  So we decided to beat our descendants at their own game. We practiced being dead! We would give up all control over our possessions, since we’d have none if we were dead. Joy says the decision to give everything away made the process easier, because she then didn’t have to decide what to keep and what to give away. It all went.

When Thanksgiving 2015 came around, daughter Kim and her whole family came for the holiday. Joy met them at the door with sheets she titled, “Lawson Inheritance Inventory Sheet.” They then went through the house writing down what they wanted. We were surprised at how seldom the requests overlapped, and when an item was listed by more than one person, polite conversations decided who got what. The net was widened to include other family members and friends. We discovered it’s a lot more fun to give away than it is to accumulate.

Then in April Kim’s husband Ed flew from their home in Seattle and loaded a U-Haul truck with the claimed goods.  Leaving Kim at the Chenault’s house in Rolla, Missouri, where she would be helping daughter  Bre and her husband Jack with Ann, their brand new baby daughter, Ed continued his drive  across the country,  depositing our furniture and other goods as he went.

So here are the Lawsons now, homeless. That meant staying with dear friends Brad and Gretchen Jacob this summer in Roy’s hometown, Tillamook, Oregon.Jacob sign

They are not only the most gracious hosts, but they have a large storage barn, in which Brad dedicated some space for Joy to set up a temporary art studio and store Joy’s art supplies and Roy’s file cabinets when they set off to travel the world.

All our worldly possessions
All our worldly possessions except Roy’s two filing cabinets

On July 24 Roy and Joy left for Mexico, where they will live until September.

                                           Who are these crazy people?

Joy Annette Whitney Lawson and Everett LeRoy Lawson were married in Portland, Oregon, June 11, 1960. Ever since they’ve been partners in ministry.

Roy and Joy in Seattle
Roy and Joy in Seattle

Roy wore the title to these jobs, but quickly admits he could do so because Joy was behind the scenes supporting, counseling, correcting, and stabilizing. She somehow managed to run the household, rear three children (in addition to taking in others we call our Velcro kids), complete her own bachelor’s degree at 40 and then launch a career in interior design and, eventually,   as an encaustic artist.

Our children are grown now. Kim (Kimberly Joy) and Candy (Candace Annette) were born in Portland, son Lane Whitney was born in Johnson City, Tennessee, during Roy’s first teaching stint with Milligan College.  Kim and Ed live in Seattle. Candy and her husband Michael split their time between their homes and jobs in Melbourne, Australia and London, England (that’s quite a commute). Lane died just before his 27th birthday.

The biological family is small: Kim and her three sons, Kyle, Nick, and Luke Denton and Nick’s daughter McKenna.

McKenna at the Wheel, 3 yrs old
McKenna Denton at the Wheel, 3 yrs old

It grows when you add in the sons-in-laws: Ed Thompson, Michael Ohanessian.

It grows more when you include the “steps-“ Ed’s son Nicholas and his daughter Bre and her husband Jack; Michael’s sons Jared and Kent and his daughter Talisha.

It keeps growing into the next generation:

Great Grandpa Lawson With Baby Anne
Ann Shirley Chenault, one month old

daughter of Jack and Bre, and as I mentioned above, Nick’s daughter  McKenna.

But years ago we realized we couldn’t limit our family to blood kin. So we have unofficially “adopted” family that are as much family as they would be if were blood kin. We call them Velcro family because like Velcro, they stick.

Grandma Joy & Aedan
Great Grandma and Aedan Ronde

But for now, let me give you an idea of the current size of our whole family:

Parents: 2

Children’s generation (including in-laws): 16

Grandchildren’s generation (including in-laws) 22

Great-grandchildren’s generation: 13

But this still isn’t the whole story. The lines blur. There are “adopted” aunts and uncles and cousins and very close friends who come to our annual all-family vacation (the highest number one year was 70).

This is the crazy family of the crazy Lawsons on the Loose.