Musings about Running the Church

This past week Peggy Noonan wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on the impact of changes because of the pandemic entitled “The Old New York Won’t Come Back”.  She made this statement, “To lead in times like this will require the eyes of an artist who sees the broad shape of things, not an analyst who sees data points.”

I like this quote and while the article is not about church leadership the quote got me to thinking.  

I have come to believe that trying to lead a church as an analyst immersed in data points as opposed to one finding their frame of reference for leading in “the broad shape of things” can become a distraction from the basic orientation in which church leaders must root themselves.  For church leaders, “the broad shape of things” includes not only having a panoramic perspective of our local and world culture and the particulars of keeping an organization running, but the biblical worldview that overshadows the way we do things.  These must be in dynamic juxtaposition with the priority on the biblical worldview side of the equation.  

For example if we limit a person to be considered for a leadership position solely based on psychological inventories, without giving first priority to a spiritually robust testimony of faith and follower-ship in Jesus then a church might find that they can mark out a significant kingdom for themselves but one that is void of spiritual depth.  Witness to a call to serve Christ in a specific way, a committed discipline to prayer, Bible, and to being immersed in a Christian community form the starting point where such a search begins. You would be surprised at the number of interviews for positions in churches I was in where these questions were only treated in a formal check-list kind of way if asked at all.

“The broad shape of things” also includes a vision about moving one’s church culture from it’s current state to one that is even more closely aligned to biblical principles.  This picture materializes in a leader’s mind when questions like the following are posed against biblical teaching about how we should live and act in community.  How should I think about others!  How should I prioritize what comes first when I am challenged to choose between two really good choices?  How should I treat people?  What are the ways I should go about getting my way?  When should I defer to others?  How should decisions be made?  When is it best to suffer losing?  How should I attempt to get people to do what I want them to do?   The list is a long one and longer than this if all such questions were included; but these kinds of questions get more to the heart of who we are than the ones we normally ask and inevitably over the long run will lead to lasting and better results.  The answers will lead us to adjust some of the ways we run the church as an organization.  We must ask the questions that are more informed by data, business models, and so on; but unless we are fine tuning the culture of our church as one that is soundly relational in ways that are based on biblical principle, we will not impact the future for Jesus as well as we could have.

1 Corinthians 14:40 (NASB95PARA): “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.”

Stephen Williams

Lay Still

I was in the third grade in school and at my grandmothers. I remember the night because we were mimicking Elvis Presley and having so much fun dancing into the night doing the twist. All of us were giggling and laughing ‘til our bellies aced with satisfying joy. But in those days, I was developing a worsening limp. I still remember how painful it was to put weight on it. After a visit to our local Doctor Stewart in Brownsville we headed for Campbell Clinic in Memphis to see a specialist. I was diagnosed with Legg-Perthes, a childhood hip disorder. After a month in Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, a month in bed at home, and several pairs of crutches over three and one-half years, it corrected itself.  I remember all those hip x-rays. “Lay still!” are the words that I heard so many times. All third grades have a common ailment sometimes called the wiggles. They cannot lay still on cold medal tables very long. I find that it is still hard to lay still sometimes.  

There is a prayer for bedtime in Psalm 4. “Meditate in your heart upon your bed and be still” (vs4 NASB). “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, For You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety” (vs8). Nighttime is one time particularly known to be difficult if you are having trouble laying still. Troubled nights during dark times stir up long turning restlessness that keep you awake, tossing and turning the tick-tocks away.  

Surrounded by the rage of shrewd enemies conspiring to demolish him, a frightened man named Asaph prays in Psalm 83, “O God, do not remain quiet; Do not be silent and, O God, do not be still.” Under stress, we allow ourselves to thrash out with aimless motion while it seems God is as still as the distant solitary spire of a mountain high and unreachable to us. This leads one to feel desperately lonely with despair. 

Another man, David, the beloved shepherd king, penned a prayer for sunrise and sunset. He wrote, “They who dwell in the ends of the earth stand in awe of Your signs; You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy” (Psalm 65:8).  I can picture David observing the sun bounce up brightly into the sky shattering the darkness into a pink hue erupting into a brilliant glow. I can also see him observing the sun ducking behind the mid-eastern mountains leaving its after glow to disperse into streaks of red lines that reached across the valleys plush with grape vine, almond, olive, and pomegranate trees.  

David knew God was not still. Knowing the answer was “Yes” he asked, “Who establishes the mountains by His strength, Being girded with might; Who stills the roaring of the seas, The roaring of their waves?”  Then he quickly adds a phrase that addresses any of our troubling nights or days, “Who stills… the tumult of the peoples.”  When your insides are in tumult, God is not still.  God is mighty (Psalm 89:8).  

“You rule the swelling of the sea; When its waves rise, You still them” (Psalm 89:9).  “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all it contains, You have founded them.  The north and the south, You have created them” (Psalm 89:11-12a).  “How blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! O Lord, they walk in the light of Your countenance.  In Your name they rejoice all the day, And by Your righteousness they are exalted” (Psalm 89:15–18).

“God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Stop a minute and read all of Psalm 46 if you want to be encouraged. It begins by taking our thoughts to a solid fort where we are shielded in refuge; then it dismisses the fear that would come over us even if the earth cracked apart and brough the seas roaring over mountains washing them away. “The Lord of armies is with us” (vs7).  At this point the fort becomes a river fed city which is the haven of God. Then the prayer ends with a sound like that of a military commander bringing his soldiers to a halt, “BE STILL! CEASE STRIVING!”  Lay still little boy lying on a metal table.  

Jesus “got up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Silence! Be still!’ The wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39 CSB).

Stephen Williams


It’s funny some of the things you remember.  I remember playing with a dime next to the bright red fire hydrant on the corner of Margin Street and Owen Avenue in Brownsville, Tennessee.  I must have been around seven or eight years old.  That was sixty years ago.  It was across the street and one house up a hill from the house where I grew up.  I dropped that dime in the grass.  The grass might have been ready for a trim but just barely — not unusually tall.  I ran my fingers through the grass, pulled some, and scratched at the dirt.  I never found that dime.  If any one reading this finds that dime, it’s mine!

As a young man I was working on running some of that flat brown television cable that predates the round black coax cable through an attic.  I had a nice petite pearl handled and silver pocket knife.  The knife was special to me because it had a slight blemish on the corner of one side and because I bargained for it after noticing that blemish and the purchase was my prize.  This was the first time I ever bargained for merchandise at a store.  I treasured that knife.  I liked to pull it out of my pocket, show it off, and tell the story about how I bargained to get it.  

When I got done running the wire, my knife was missing.  I remembered sticking it into one of the two by fours.  I ran my hands through that itchy attic insulation and to my frustration it eluded my searching fingers.  Through the years I lived in that house, every so often, if I needed something stored in the attic, I’d go over to the area where I believed I had lost the knife and look one more time.  Years later, after moving to another state, I heard that house had been put on a trailer and moved to an unknown location and I finally gave up hope of ever having that pearl handled silver knife back in my possession.  

Jesus tells a story about a woman who lived at a time when any coin was a rarity for a poor person.  Most household staples were acquired through barter.  She lived in a dirt floored house open to the chickens, sheep and goats.  She dropped a valuable coin in the dust.  It’s amazing how you can drop a tablet from  a prescription medication bottle and it will take a course that a mouse could not have calculated.  This coin must have been equipped with artificial intelligence.  For she swept the house floor as there was but one room to sweep; but she found that coin and rejoiced because what had been lost had now been found.  

Jesus said that all the angels of heaven rejoice when anyone who is lost to God is found. Then Jesus went on to tell one more story to emphasize this teaching.  There were three stories in this threefold parable.  Jesus had already told about a lost lamb.  In the third story it is a son that is lost.  The lost son is more valuable than any coin.  The lost son is more valuable than any lamb.  When a person is lost to God, more than a pearl of great price is missing.  When a human being is lost to God, what is much more precious than gold or silver is astray.  God is searching for those who are lost and when the lost are found, there is rejoicing in heaven.  

Jesus said, “I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).  

Stephen Williams



I had the notion to ride my ten-speed bike from my childhood home to my big sister’s apartment in Jackson, Tennessee — over thirty miles, and had a misfortunate accident happen along the way.  Eight miles out, I stopped at Mulligans Grocery across the highway from where my grandmother used to live.  After I consumed some orange juice and a snack, I bought a small orange juice for the remaining journey.  Next stop would be a small grocery on the far Westside of Jackson — right where the double lane was added to each direction of US70.  

Oncoming traffic forced me too close to the highway shoulder and I fell.  Not to worry, everything seemed fine until I realized the orange juice bottle in my back pocket had busted and the glass had issued some minor cuts high on my backside.  But it bled, so much so, that I had to take my teeshirt off to soak and eventually stop the blood flow.  This left me shirtless, bloody, and a little bit discouraged.  I am sure I was a sight to behold with more than fifteen miles to go.  When I entered that grocery on the outskirts of Jackson, I ducked by a Dr. Pepper beverage machine, around end displays of potato chips and up isles far to the back of the store to the restroom to evaluate just how extensive the damage was.  I consoled myself that I would indeed survive; but I needed a shirt.  So I summoned up the courage to fetch one off a rack and present myself publicly to the cashier, a shirtless and blood stained small boy with a frown on his face and then paid the price.  When I arrived, my sister treated me with dignity and after a good visit and something to eat, gently offered to give me and my bike a ride back to Brownsville.  I am sure I thought I was good for the return trip but I graciously accepted her kind offer.  When we set off on some new journey and give it our all we find that we sometimes need a chance to catch our breath and reevaluate our itinerary.  Don’t you think?  

King Saul, the first king of Israel, before he was king also found himself reevaluating his itinerary after a long journey.  He had headed out to find some lost donkeys in the vast and vacant wilderness where livestock occasionally burned off more fat than the sparse grass could replenish.  It was an amazing journey.  At the edge of discouragement he deliberated about what to do.  Discussing it with his servant he said, “Maybe we better go back home.  Pretty soon Dad will be more worried about us than the donkeys.”  But the servant had an idea of what they could do as a last resort.  His suggestion was that they might just go see a prophet who might just help them find the donkeys.  So they made the necessary arrangements and started their search for the prophet who lived in that area.  When they found the prophet they learned that the donkeys had already been found by others but something totally unexpected happened next.  Samual, the prophet, anointed Saul and made him king.  Then he offered help to find his way back home.  This return journey provides for a very interesting story for anyone who will read it (1 Samuel 9-10).  

Along the way in our search for donkeys or whatever it is we need to find — from time to time on life’s journeys we need a reprieve from the challenges we face in our search.  We need to retreat in order to have a word from God about what direction to continue on and how to find our way through the mazes we will encounter.   Quiet possibly it might just occur to us to do this long before king Saul considered it.  When we do, we will find that God treats us with dignity.  He offers his kind assistance and makes it possible for us to rest in his gracious provision.  He will not only carry us home; but he will crown us with the kingly purpose of becoming his royal ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:19-20).  

Stephen Williams 

Tiny Tidbits of Charity

Life is rich with tiny tidbits of charity.  Charity in the true sense of the word.  Not a contribution that is offered out of necessity and received in the bitterness of desperate want, but the sharing of a present beneath ribbon and bow and wrapped by caring hands in the bright colors of a yearning desire to see a friend carefully unseal the paper, open the box, and gleam with a warm stimulating happiness that lingers in the joy that resides in good company.  

I am reminded this week that kind hearted people are silently gifting small acts of grace without much notice and no publicity or acclamation and we are left feeling cared for by their handiwork.  Their efforts accumulate into the grandest of gestures often tabulated only after they are gathered to their people in paradise.  Their time was given to parceling out tiny bits of themselves for others but over a lifetime a mountain of parcels have been posted to homes all across the map.  My hope is to be remembered by a pool of caring packages containing tiny tidbits of charity. 

Colossians 3:12–17 (NASB95): So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love (charity), which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Stephen Williams

The Valley of Decision

How is a “decision” like a valley?  While decision making can overwhelm us when the consequences of the decision weigh heavily on us, this is NOT the meaning of this metaphor as it is found in the Bible.  To apply a common meaning from our time to a metaphor from Bible times in this case will mislead us as to what this means in the Bible.  Sometimes metaphors do not translate well.  Other times they do.  Let the verses before and after and the chapters around those verses be your guide.  This is one reason that understanding the context around the verse is so important for understanding our Bibles..  A good commentary is also helpful.  

Then, how is a “decision” like being in a valley?  How is one like the other?  Douglas Stuart in his commentary on Joel translates with a metaphor that helpfully captures the meaning.  He translates from the Hebrew language, “valley of the verdict” (Joel 3:14, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 31).  The kind of decision in this case is a verdict.  

How is a verdict like a valley?  For one thing, the particular valley – a real valley – is given the name “Verdict” to emphasize the kind of message from God being delivered by the prophet Joel.  Consider a courthouse scene where the guilty verdict has just been announced by the judge!  In Joel, God is the judge that has just announced the verdict on those in this valley!  

The decision has already been handed down; and God has handed it down.  It will happen on the “Day of the Lord” and that day is urgent and ultimate.  It was urgent to them because judgement soon followed in their own time.  What will happen in our future is not the first time God has judged.  He judged at times in the past; but there is coming a time of ultimate judgement in our future.  What happens then will be a verdict based on decisions already made.  Your decision to respond to the inviting Holy Spirit and turn your life over to Jesus or not will determine if the verdict God hands down on the day of judgement is clemency or condemnation.  We are guilty, but because God is loving, it does not have to be condemnation.  God sent Jesus to offer forgiveness for all our wrongs and the tendency to do wrong which is the deeper problem we have, so that freedom is available to us from God. 

The Bible says that if you declare that you have turned over running your life to Jesus and you trust that he is capable of directing the way you live as powerfully demonstrated by his having overcome death, then you will be saved from this judgement (Romans 10:9).  You are committing yourself to living like Jesus wants you to live with his help. Jesus who is the son of God, took our verdict upon himself and served our death-penalty by being hung on a lethal cross.  He then rose from the grave forging a path that we can follow by his power.  God offers you a better life now and a continuing life later that lasts forever.  

“Mobs and mobs are ready to fight in the valley where the verdict will be served on the day of judgement which looms over us” (Joel 3:14 my rendering).

Stephen Williams

Sledgehammer Mentality

I remember a cold winter for West Tennessee, so cold that the ditches that fed Sugar Creek out on the edge of the neighborhood froze several inches thick.  It was a wonder that it would freeze at all with all the suds and sewer that drained into it.  I remember one day when after discovering how hard the big ditch’s surface was that I scurried on back home and into Dad’s shed out back to collect his sledgehammer.  I returned to the woods intent on seeing how thick the ice was.  I now wonder what Mom or Dad would have thought if they had seen me lugging that sledgehammer and headed on up Owen Avenue toward Margin Street where I would take a right turn and head on down to the dead-end at the deep ditch which was my destination.  I now wonder if Dad might have rushed out the door and tried to catch me because he hated to see me drag his tools outside, much less up the street where he might never see them again.  But I expect I left unnoticed.  I commenced to spend the rest of that frigid day breaking ice and letting off steamy breaths like an oldtimey steam-driven icebreaker ship cutting through the surface toward Sugar Creek.  I had something like that going on in my imagination.  I am sure I came back home soaked with ice crusted jeans and the smell of sweat and sewer. 

Jesus told a brief parable about children playing in the streets.  As children do, their games often involve imitation.  In this case two games are alluded to in the parable: playing wedding and playing funeral (Luke 7:32).  When my grandchildren visit, they continually make up games where they imitate the workers in a variety of occupations and home life.  They act out the situations of life in a kind of rehearsal that prepares them for real life.   Practice makes perfect.

Jesus told the parable to show the obstinate orientation of many people to be unhappy with any game other than the one they want to play.  The people complained because John the Baptist refused to eat very much, and they complained because Jesus came happily eating with sinners.  Jesus saw a kind of tragic humor reflected by how unhappy children are when no one will play the game they choose to play.  This lack of cooperation only leads to a lack of occupation with any fun at all.  The refusal to play is a lonely way to go about living and the smell of selfishness is like burning sulfur or bitter sewer, it irritates the nostrils of everyone around you.   A sledgehammer mentality leads up a creek from a sewer fed ditch.

“Be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2 NASB).  

Stephen Williams

Fascinating Jesus

Jesus was the one who would focus his attention in the tensest of situations by doodling in the dirt (John 8:6-8).  He was the one who would enter into conversation with the least important person in the house and spar with her about what dogs eat (Mark 7:27-28).  He was the one who would be found alone with a woman dreadful of the company of anyone other than the men she offered her pleasures and offer her inconceivable joy from living water (John 4:4-26).  He was the one who would invite the most impulsively daring disciple to really do exactly what he himself was doing as he strolled across the waves of the lake and then let him begin to sink before saving him (Matthew 14:29-43).  He was the one who would intentionally wait until a dead friend was good and dead as a lesson in how God can fix the worst possible situation (John 11:6-15).  

Jesus was the one who would playfully heal a man halfway of blindness because sometimes when we are healed we still don’t understand what the reason was (Mark 8:16-18 and 22-25). He was the one who would do a miracle so as it could only be noticed by those who were alert with faith like when he turned water into wine and only those sober with faith knew anything about it (John 2:9-10).  He was the one who told riddles and stories to throw his listener’s attention away from what they were so set on thinking or doing so that their eyes could be opened to what they did not want to see (Matthew 13:13; Luke 8:10).  He was the one who could laugh at a foolish man totally blinded by something in his eye as big as a house but nevertheless trying desperately to alleviate the various objectionable indiscretions of more sincere sinners (Matthew 7:1-5).  

Jesus was the one who would pretend to be a stranger on a long walk into the evening and hold out long enough to be recognized by the way he handled food at the table (Luke 24:13-35).  He was the one who would sneak in an impossible image and nudge his listener into pointing out the obvious and only being aware that he had revealed something important after the words had left his mouth (John 3:3-21).  

Jesus was the one who would on the way to solving the biggest problem ever contrived by man, stop and pick up a child (Luke 9:46-48, 51).  He was the one who would wale in grief and sorrow over an enemy blind to the mystery of God’s willingness to love him (Luke 19:41; Matthew 11:18-24).  He was the one who would say just the right thing to those out to trap Him in order to turn the tables on them so they themselves fell in the trap (Luke 20:1-8).  

Over and over again Jesus easily offended the one who was dead set on being offended and offered deliverance to the one who desperately sought it (Matthew 9:10-13).  Jesus walked the dusty road with people with dirty feet; and anyone who meet him had their true dirt and glory pulled out of hiding so that they either objected loudly or surrendered unconditionally (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).  Some did both, first one and then the other (John 13:6-9).  

Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 3:17) and Savior of sinners (Luke 15:1-7).  Jesus is king of the kingdom of God and therefore master of everyone who is one of its citizens (Philippians 3:20). 

Stephen Williams


My grandmother had an outside well — no indoor water — and it was a shallow well.  My tendency was to let her fly when it came to fetching water.  I’d drop that long slender galvanized tube into the well like it came out of the bottom of a WWII boomer plane.  This would stir up the mud and change the taste of the water.  It added grit you could not get clear of and that sense you were drinking cold chocolate water with that delectable floating brown color.  

One of the best things you can do is to learn to forget.  This is hard to do for a very good reason.  Once an idea gets into your head, it is like it grows physical roots down to the nerves.  To forget can be like turning a ship.  You have to keep it moving against the force of the current.  You have to throttle it up as the waves try to push you back.  This is tricky when it comes to thoughts.  It can take a lot of practice.

The problem is that our mind becomes fixated on thinking about the very thing we are focused on forgetting.  The effort it takes not to focus requires focus.  The harder we try to ignore our effort to forget, the more we think about it thus binding it to the memory.  Something the Apostle Paul said about our inability to be perfect might be helpful to lick this problem.  

“Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore, let all of us who are mature think this way” (Philippians 3:12-15a).  

Paul ties “forgetting” to “reaching”.  He muddies up “forgetting” by adding something else.  Like taking a bitter herb and putting it into a soup.  “Forgetting” becomes something else when you add “reaching”.  It becomes “pursuing”.  “Pursuing” is the soup.  

It really comes down to answering the question, “Who am I?”  That is what Paul is asking.  He is describing his answer in these verses and their context (verses 4-21).  He has been giving testimony about who he is.  He is concerned with the question, “Who am I?” This is the secret to forgetting.  

Before the Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung from a rope by the neck on Hitler’s orders, he sat thinking as he watched the gallows through the bars of his cell window.  He asked himself this same question: “Who am I” and wrote a poem by that title (Letters from Prison).  He asked himself if he were a person of one kind or the other kind in a comparison he set up between what he could have called the Bonhoeffer he would like verses the one he did not like.  He had thoughts that ran through his mind that fit both versions of himself.  

It really comes down to the choice about deciding who I am.  When an idea you don’t like comes into your thoughts, dispute those thoughts and then switch to the question that is really the one that matters.  Remind yourself who you really are.  “That’s not me!”  I am the one who is reaching for the goal.  So no matter how slow the ship turns, it will turn.  “Pursuing” is who I am.  That is what defines me — not fleeting thoughts that do not fit me.  I am defined by where I am headed.  I am defined by what I am pursuing; and I am in possession of that promise already.  I am defined by the progress I have already made in who I am becoming.  And remember that you are not alone in this striving for the goal.  You have been taken hold of by Jesus.  

Stephen Williams

My Hickory Hill Top

I turn and glance and get a glimpse of deer grazing, fox stalking, rabbits roaming, squirrels dancing across tree limbs over tiny mice hiding in dry grass and racoons waiting for nightfall.  Birds are playing on crystal snow while long legged heron are hiding in the brush as still as bulrush sheltered from waving in the wind by pond banks casting a shadow.  The duck is riding the smell of wet cattails where frogs speak in deep tones, turtles bobble their dark black heads, and fish swish into deep dark cascades beneath the surface.  The trees domineer the distant mural of needle and branch.  The skies canvas the heavens with a happy blue.  These soft songs of praise seek the pleasure of God and every stirring sound is a charm to treasure – every glimpse is pleasant to perceive.  

At first, I enter with a disrupting presence and all fall silent or scurry away.  Drawing my thoughts away to Heaven, they leave behind a pleasant peace.  My small hill is a haven of praise.  Its solitude surrounds me with grace and tranquility erupts to compel my thanks.

Stephen Williams