Author Archives: Randy Ehle

When Leaders Change

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Joshua R. M. Dewberry. Public domain photo, cleared for release.)

During my four years of active duty in the Air Force, I attended a number of change of command ceremonies. They can be pretty impressive affairs, with all the troops lined up, flags from each squadron or wing under the command, and medals gleaming on the chests of the officers up front.

In the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, though, the official transfer of leadership is quite simple, only eight words: “Sir [or Ma’am, as in this photo] I relinquish command. … Sir [or Ma’am], I assume command.”

God led a change of command ceremony, once, too, and probably with no less pomp than the Air Force. After the people of Israel had been led out of slavery in Egypt, and after they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness because of their sin of disbelief, it was time for leadership to pass from Moses to Joshua. What God said to Joshua during that ceremony—and what the people said to him—give us a clue about how to be successful as a church.

When I became pastor of The Journey Church in Sonora, California, I used this “change of command ceremony,” described in Joshua 1, as the text for my initial message. Here’s the basic message:

Whatever success in the church may mean—more people, more resources, more impact in the community and the world—success in God’s church demands three things: believe God’s promises, obey God’s Word, and follow God’s leader.

Believe God’s Promises. When Joshua took over, the Israelites were on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, looking west toward Canaan, “the promised land.” Centuries before, God had promised that land to Abraham. Forty years earlier, they had stood in the same place; but in the first failure of a church committee, by a vote of 10-2, they had decided to let fear reign instead of faith. As a result, they wandered in the wilderness until that entire generation had died. Now, on the edge of hope once again, they heard God repeat his promise: “I will never leave you [Joshua] nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” God promised a place and his presence; all they had to do was believe.

Obey God’s Word. We don’t much like the word obey; it’s too strong, too authoritarian. And besides, if you’re a Protestant (protest-ant) like me, you prefer to speak of grace. We need grace. We live by grace. We’re saved by grace – grace alone (solo gratia, in Martin Luther’s Latin vernacular). But grace—or our misconception of it—gets us in trouble, because we can tend to allow ourselves too much freedom, and then we slip into sin. But hey, more sin, more grace, right? Paul had a strong response to that attitude: NO! No, no, no; a thousand times no! (See Romans 6:1.) But God told Joshua to make sure he obeyed all the commands, and we have to keep that in mind, too. And the whole Bible commands obedience: Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Deuteronomy 32:46-47, Matthew 28:20, John 14:15, John 15:10, etc. Jesus makes obedience easier when he boils down all the commands in Scripture to two things: Love God and love people (Matthew 22:40).

Follow God’s Leader. This is where it got tricky as a pastor: challenging a church to follow me as God’s leader. But I reminded them of their unanimous vote a couple months earlier that said, in effect, what the Israelites told Joshua: “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we fully obeyed Moses, so we will obey you.” Of course, I’m sure that made Joshua a bit nervous, because he’d been around for a while and had seen how they’d obeyed Moses – with grumbling, complaining, and a whole lot of sin. He’d also heard what God had said about the people not too much earlier: “[T]hese people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them.” (Deuteronomy 31:16)

None of this is necessarily easy. God sometimes delays his promises (check out Hebrews 11:13). Though he has promised never to leave us, sometimes he seems distant, silent, unresponsive (check out any number of the Psalms, or most of the book of Job). And his Word isn’t always easy to obey, or we can’t agree on what obedience looks like. And so often, our leaders say or do stupid things, offensive things, or we just don’t like them! But God never promised an easy life, an easy faith. It takes work, it takes patience, it takes humility.

In that first message, I reminded the church that God still promises his presence. I promised that I would keep his Word central to everything we do. And then I challenged them to respond in three ways:

  • First, to “examine the Scriptures” daily (see Acts 17:11) to see if I’m on track. I want my church to be in their Bibles regularly, consistently, and in community, because I believe that the Bible is best understood in community. I need them to know God’s Word.
  • Second, I want them to pray for me – especially if they have a problem with something I’ve said or done. One of the best ways you can follow your pastor—God’s leader—is to pray for him or her. It helps the pastor and it keeps you humble!
  • Finally, I asked them to encourage me, as the people of Israel encouraged Joshua: “be strong and courageous!” Any kind of leadership is hard; pastoring is especially so. We feel the weight of responsibility, and the role can both stroke our egos and tear away at our hearts. I’m my own worst critic, so I need encouragement: notes, kind words, a text, an email.

BELIEVE – OBEY – FOLLOW: God’s prescription for success.

Home…at last

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Whether you measure it by days, weeks, months, or years, our journey has been a long one. And adventurous. We started in August 2013 with the decision to pursue a Lead Pastor role. Today—four years and eight months later—I am sitting for the first time in my new-to-me study at The Journey Church in Sonora, California.

What began as an exciting, if not a bit unnerving, challenge took our family through the twists and turns of cancer, unemployment, loss, and death; we faced depression and discouragement.

Along the way, we also reconnected with old friends, saw acquaintances become lifelong friends, and made new friends. God pushed, prodded, and poked us, challenging each of us to lean on him more and in new ways. He continued his lifelong transformation in our lives. He showed me my pride (again) and stripped (some of) it away. I saw my attitude toward churches shift from, I could lead that church; to I don’t know if I can do this – but I can love the people and walk along with them.

And so here we are, back in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just starting this journey with a very appropriately-named community. And if what we’ve seen in the five days we’ve been here is any indication, God’s going to do some amazing things through us all – and I mostly need to hang on tight!

#JourneyToTheJourney

Prisoners of Hope

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“Prisoners of hope.” It’s not a phrase you hear very often. Prison, especially in the ancient world in which these words were written, is not a place one normally associates with hope. Yet here is the phrase, in the middle of a prophecy (Zechariah 9:9-12) that held hope for the exiled Israelites and holds hope for us today. It is a Messianic prophecy—the foretelling of a coming Messiah, a savior—fulfilled in part on that first “palm Sunday” when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey.

But as is true with so many Biblical prophecies, this, too, finds its fulfillment both Now and Not Yet; it has been fulfilled, and it is yet to be fulfilled. For while Jesus the Messiah did indeed “speak peace to the nations,” his rule is not yet “from sea to sea and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (verse 10).

That is what we long for: peace. Messiah’s rule. We long for an end to war and the flag-draped caskets we receive in return. We long for an end to the threat and fear of more war, of bigger, badder wars. We long for an end to violence against women and innocent children, the broken homes and broken lives left in the wake of that violence. We long for an end to racism, to the wrongs done to men and women only because of their skin color or birthplace. We long to send our children to school without wondering whether theirs will be the next to be ripped apart by gunfire on national television.

Today we celebrate the hope of Palm Sunday. But just as the partying crowds some 2,000 years ago were blissfully unaware of the brutal death just five days away, so we, too, shut our eyes to the death that surrounds us. We long for peace … but just like those long-ago crowds—who wanted Jesus to throw off the Roman occupiers—we put our hope in laws and and lawmakers and governments instead of in the Prince of Peace. We are prisoners indeed, but not prisoners of hope if our hopes are set on these long-failed institutions.

And just as Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus then but is still yet to be fulfilled, we can bring peace to our world now even while we wait for peace to come finally in Jesus Christ. Prayer is needed, but prayer is not enough. Laws are not enough, but laws are needed. 

Today, on Palm Sunday, if you profess to follow Jesus Christ, speak out for peace in Him – and for peace in our nation – and for peace in our world. Let your worship of the Prince of Peace not be undermined by your worship of a weapon of war.

The End of A Road … maybe

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It’s only been a couple years, but somehow it seems longer – and somehow much shorter. Two years after stepping in front of a classroom for the first time, that part of my journey is coming to an end. Soon I will be back to a different kind of teaching, as a pastor, leaving this role of teaching, which I have discovered to be a different kind of pastoring.

Living on only in my memories and a few hastily-scribbled notes will be several hundred kids whose lives have been woven briefly into mine. If my whole life were to be displayed as a tapestry, this time, these kids, would be mere threads…yet they would stand out bright in the midst of an otherwise dark spot somewhere in the middle of that image.

As is the norm for substitutes, most of my assignments were for just a day or maybe two. Often, my role seemed more babysitter or classroom monitor than teacher. The day was a success if no one got hurt; if they actually learned history or math or what “obligation” means, that was a bonus. My biggest hope on those days was that students would have what a mentor of mine calls collisions with righteousness: a fresh breath, a teacher who didn’t belittle him; a teacher who saw through her teenage mask to the value and potential hidden within.

But twice I was given the chance to be with classes for multiple weeks, first with fourth graders and then with seventh. Each time I got to know more than a hundred students, learning their names, matching them to faces that will long be engraved on my heart. I learned how hard is the work of a teacher – work that goes far beyond the labor of planning lessons, clawing coherent sentences out of kids who prefer video games and sports and dance over agriculture and urbanization in medieval China.

I learned how important are those moments of going off topic—”bird walks,” some teachers call them—because those bird walks just might take us into territory that one kid out of 130 needs to see to give them life and hope. I’ve been able to talk graciously about homosexuality and comparative religion. We’ve scratched the surface of human trafficking and how a 12-year-old might learn tips from the samurai to protect herself against an adult aggressor. I’ve tried to break the awe kids seemed to have about seppuku, the ritual suicide practiced by samurai to guard their honor; and encouraged kids to speak up when a friend says they’re having thoughts of suicide. (That one may have been effective far more quickly than I ever dreamed.)

And, of course, we’ve had some fun. While role playing scenes from Imperial China we met the fictitious Empress Ping Pong (or was it Empress Ping from the Pong Dynasty?). When we moved to Central America to learn about the Maya and the civilizations that influenced them, like the Olmec, we met an anthropologist named Don, immortalized in a familiar song: “Olmec Donald had a farm….” We’ve learned about cultural exchange, cultural diffusion … and, well, cultural confusion (which is what happens when seventh graders suggest that Europe’s knights were led by people from Japan!).

Teaching has been a cultural immersion for me. I’ve had students from Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Germany, Japan, Philippines, and a few from the U.S. I’ve learned, almost, to say good morning in Arabic – which sent the 12-year-old twin girls from Syria who tried teaching me into near hysterics when I repeated exactly what I heard! (Thank you is much easier: shukran.) I was introduced to Frankenstein by a class of Honors English students. I laughed with a fourth grader who learned for the first time that the cute dogs with the bad reputation are called pit bulls, not pipples! (But if I were ever to get one, I’d name it Pipples.)

When I stepped out of the classroom on my last day, I said good-bye not just to the 127 kids I’ve been with most recently, but to all those who have loved, accepted, laughed with, and maybe even learned with me: Cassie, Clara, Nick. Emma and Emily. “Mad Dog” Madison, Duncan, Mohammed, Muhammed, Yousif (all of them!). The 3rd graders from Ms. Bradbury’s class, 10th grade Honors English students at Christian High, all the kids in 3rd through 8th grades at Fuerte and Hillsdale and LFCS. The students at my daughters’ (and niece’s) school who call me not just Mr. Ehle, but Father, Dad, and Uncle Randy.

To all of you, I say: Thank you. Gracias. Danke. Arigato. Merci. Shukran

The Long and Winding Road*

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With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg