Small Acts Done with Great Love

I found myself sitting in my hotel room watching Seinfeld as a distraction.  My wife was downstairs in the car.  I was angry.  She was angry.  Rarely do Paula and I get to the point where we don’t even want to be in the same room, but that is where we were.  The cause of our anger was plain and simple.

I was being a jerk.

I had been a jerk to her from the moment we had begun loading up the car to head to Tulsa to watch our oldest play basketball and all throughout the day.  We had both hoped for a nice getaway to Tulsa for just the two of us, and I had ruined any chance of such an evening.

We decided to go for a 5 mile walk and talk things out.  I didn’t want to talk at first.  Like I said, I was angry.  She was angry too.  The first mile of our walk was an awkward dance of conversation, but as the miles passed by the truth came out.

The truth was I was lonely.  The truth was, that outside of the people who had to love me (God, my wife, the boys), I felt completely alone.  Anyone who has been in ministry for any time at all can tell you that the ministry can be a lonely place.

Maybe I was tired from the constant decision making of a building program I didn’t sign up for.  For those of you who don’t know my story as of late, our church was set on fire by some young people in our community last October.  The entire building has been gutted to the studs and we are in the middle of rebuilding.  Honestly I don’t really care if the shingles on the roof are slate or charcoal, and I can’t tell the difference between “mysterious” grey and “hazy” grey.  It’s all grey to me.  Maybe the constant demands of a building project were wearing on me.

Maybe my melancholy mood was due to the fact that I had been wading through some tough issues with some people, and it seemed like I was always giving.  It seemed like people only wanted what they could get out of me- advice, encouragement, support.  It wasn’t like I had been a hermit and secluded myself.  Maybe I just wanted someone to sit with me over coffee and just let me be Nate.  Not a problem fixer or a means of support.  Maybe I just wanted someone to just let me be me for a change.

Or maybe I was missing my best friend.  Every June, I am reminded of the best friend I ever had, Simon.  From the third grade on, we were best buds.  He was the most magnetic person I have ever been around.  We were inseparable through grade school and middle school.  In high school we drifted apart a bit because of different interests.  I was in basketball and band, he was in choir, but we were those types of friends who always picked right back up where we left off.  When we were young he used to play the Disney record (I’m dating myself here) of The Fox and the Hound and make me say it with him: “And we’ll always be friends forever, won’t we?”  And I would respond, “Yeah forever.”

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In the last conversation I had with Simon, he told me that he still considered me his best friend, even though we hadn’t seen each other very often after high school.  I concurred.  Outside of my wife, he was the best friend I have ever had.  On June 6th, 1994, he disappeared while backpacking in Hawaii and has never been found to this day.  Maybe it was June again and I was missing the kind of friendship I had with Simon.

Whatever it was, I was hurting and I took it out on Paula.  I have often used the phrase “hurting people hurt people” to describe the actions of others, but this time it was me who was doing the hurting.  After walking a few more miles, I was finally able to verbalize the fact that I was taking my frustration out on my wife.  We celebrated by doing what we do best- eating Mexican food!  We settled into the patio at Los Cabos and enjoyed a live band and lots of chips and queso.  (We had earned eating that Mexican food with our 5 mile walk right?)

One week later (this past weekend) I celebrated my birthday.  Through Facebook posts, texts, and getting together with family and friends I was reminded of the wealth of relationships that God has given me.  On my saner days (the days when I am not singing songs about eating worms) I realize that I have been blessed with so many great relationships.  I have some pastor friends that I meet with on a regular basis to just “be Nate” and share life and ministry together.  I have friends who I have celebrated birthdays with like we were family for over 20 years now.  My relationship with my parents and my brother is as good as it has ever been in my lifetime.  My immediate family (Paula and the boys) are a constant source of joy.  The list could go on and on.

This weekend, I had the privilege of spending the weekend with my mom and her husband Bill.  We went to Top Golf, played cards, tried our hand at cornhole, grilled out, and just generally had a great time together.  My family surprised me with some awesome gifts including tickets to see Coldplay.  Then I opened up my Facebook to see that a couple hundred people had wished me a happy birthday.  What a testament to all the great relationships that God has blessed me with down through the years.

Then Saturday night, something caught me off guard.  I remember going to a haunted house as a kid and when we had finished walking through the haunted house, we walked out an open door into the night.  We began talking about how scary the house was as we walked back to the car.  All of a sudden, a guy jumps out from behind a tree with a chainsaw buzzing and we all shot out of there like a cannon.  It was easily the scariest part of the entire house because we had let our guard down.

That, in essence, is what happened to me on Saturday night.  My birthday was over and I was preparing to preach another Sunday.  Paula and I had gone to the church to straighten some things up for in the morning and our youngest son had asked us to bring his guitar by Cobey’s house.  You see, our youth have this habit of all getting together on Saturday night at Cobey’s and, at camp, they had talked about singing some worship songs together as part of the gathering.

So I walked up to the door with Tyler’s guitar in hand.  I made a joke to Paula about just barging in to make sure our boys were behaving themselves.  She knocked on the door anyway.  When the door opened, I was pelted with balloons, there were streamers hung up, and I was greeted with a big hearty SURPRISE!  Now I am a hard person to surprise, but I was completely blindsided like the time at that haunted house.  I was blindsided by their surprise, but more than that I was blindsided by the love that a group of teenagers had for their pastor.  They had put the whole party together by themselves.  Hot dogs, chips, drinks, balloons, streamers, the works!  It was a simple act, but a huge one to me personally.

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Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”  The youth of our church had no idea about the events of my week.  My own boys had no idea that I had treated their mom like a jerk a week earlier.  They had no idea of the loneliness I had felt.  They just did a small thing that was a huge thing to their pastor.

It served as a good reminder to me that we never know what a person is going through and what a small act of kindness might mean!

Just a thought,

n8

NYC Reflections…

I just returned home from Nazarene Youth Conference.  It was my 5th NYC to attend in a row.  Sometimes, after you have seen one, you have seen them all…  However, this was not the case at last week’s event.  God moved in powerful ways in students’ lives.  It was a privilege for me to get to be there.

But more than God working in student’s lives, God worked in my life.  Over the years, God has spoken to me through lots of “youth” gatherings.  When I am open and attentive to God’s voice, God never leaves me disappointed…

There seemed to be one main thing for me at NYC this year.  God was continually challenging me to think about what I treasure.  Obviously, as a pastor, I would say that I treasure my relationship with God above anything else, but sometimes in the drudgery of day to day life, our lifestyle can begin to speak otherwise.

Probably the one thing that will stick with me from this NYC was the final message by Eric Samuel Timm.  He had 24 boxes on the stage to represent each hour of the day.  Then he told us that we should get rid of the phrase “spending time” from our vocabulary.  We don’t spend time, we invest it.

Probably the best example of this was his illustration about guitar hero.  When I was a youth pastor, guitar hero was all the rage.  Eric talked about how investing time in guitar hero was a bit ridiculous because the return on your investment is small.  Even if you master every level on the game, you still can’t even begin to play a real guitar!  Imagine what would happen if the same sixth grader invested as much time in playing the REAL GUITAR.  Then he would have a skill that would last a lifetime.

This idea of investing time hit me over the head.  What am I investing in?  The latest Netflix binge or hours of mindlessly looking at Facebook for something interesting?  What are the returns on these investments?  Not that these things are bad in and of themselves, but what am I investing my life in?

When you are in your forties, you begin to realize how precious time is…

I want to invest it wisely…

I was privileged to get to share this NYC with my entire family.  When we returned, we sat around a table a Chili’s and talked about some new habits we hope to form as a family because of what God has done in our lives.

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I’m excited to see where the journey takes us!

Just a thought,

n8

Pura Vida- Lessons from Costa Rica

I got back from Costa Rica a week ago.  I attended a conference called Third Wave for young leaders in the church of the Nazarene from all over the globe.  (Not sure I fall in the “young leader” catagory so much anymore)  The trip was amazing…

First of all, it was in COSTA RICA!  It is one of the most beautiful places I have visited on the earth.  The land was teeming with life.  I saw more plant species than I thought possible.  We ate with monkeys at our hotel.  I got to hold a toucan and visit gorgeous waterfalls.  It was amazing.

The country of Costa Rica has a slogan- Pura Vida!  It means pure life.  People will walk up to you in a public place and greet you with “Pura Vida!”

And yet, in Costa Rica, people are looking for that “pure life” in lots of ways.  Some of them look a lot more like bondage and slavery than pure life.

One of the things that God did for me was to open my eyes to how narcissistic I have become.  And I don’t think I am alone.  We Americans are a narcissistic lot.  We walk into a foreign country expecting other people to know English, but we haven’t taken the time to brush up on their native language a bit.  We expect a certain level of comfort, or we get frustrated.  We literally seem to believe that the center of the universe is the good ole USA.

Some of my team members and I noticed that the Europeans at the conference tended to speak 2 or 3 languages. We felt lazy.  Many of the Spanish speakers spoke English as well.  I only know how to speak English and Texan…

My friend Blair was telling me that one of his professors used to have a saying for the teams he sent out to do mission work.  It was something along the lines of “You have no rights.”  We joked about that, but God began to stir my heart as I thought about that saying.

See, I’m not sure that saying should be isolated to “mission” work.  After all, aren’t we ALWAYS on mission?  Shouldn’t we always be “without rights?”

The the question began to swirl around in my head.  “Did Jesus REALLY MEAN IT when he said that the person who loses his life will find it?”

In this new year, I have been praying the prayer of Saint Francis every day at noon.  It ends like this:

“For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

Do I believe this?  Do WE believe this?  To top it off, we prayed the Wesley Covenant Prayer at the Conference.  Take a moment to read this:

I am no longer my own, but yours.Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

This whole prayer is a prayer of death.  Dying to our wishes, and surrendering to Christ’s wishes.  We live in a country where people choose their church based on their personal preference.  We live in a country where we organize our calendars around our personal agendas.  We live in a country where we spend hours seeing how many likes we had on Instagram or Facebook.  And yet, we wonder why we aren’t experiencing “pura vida.”

Maybe “pure life” comes through a “pure death”…

Maybe Jesus meant it when he said that whoever loses his life will find it…

I’m trying to live into this, and it is hard.  I’m trying to die to my opinion of how bad the ref’s call was at my son’s basketball game.  I’m trying to be thankful for my daily bread, and die to my preference of restaurant choice.  I’m trying to die to my own ambitions as a pastor, and be thankful for the people God has called me to serve.  I’m trying to learn to die, but I have to tell you that dying is hard.  There is this thing inside me that is always quick to want MY way, and MY rights, and MY timing.

But I am finding that there is something about dying that brings new life in me.  And in the place of this life that I have constructed, a new life is emerging…

And it is not just any life, it is “Pura Vida!”

Just a thought,

n8

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A Christmas Miracle

If you are a Nazarene (especially in our part of the country) you may have heard the Christmas story of the Toler Brothers.  All three of these brothers have been pastors and leaders in our denomination.  I recently found an article from NewsOK that recounts their miracle Christmas:

“Dad had been laid off from construction work, our food supply had dwindled to nothing, and we had closed off most of the house in order to cut down on our high utility bills,” Stan wrote. On Christmas Eve, they and hundreds of others waited in line for government handouts. The family shivered in the blowing snow until finally, Aaron Toler could not stand it any longer. They left without food. “We’re going home, boys. God will provide!” Stan recalls his father saying. “We cried,” Stan wrote, “but trusted Dad’s faith in God completely.” That night, the family ate popcorn and opened gifts that Mom had bought with Top Value trading stamps. On Christmas morning, as the entire family slept in the parents’ bedroom, a loud knock and a hearty “Merry Christmas!” startled them. The visitors were from the Fifth Avenue Church. “There stood Clair Parsons, Dalmus Bullock and others with gifts, clothes and a 30-day supply of food,” Stan wrote. “(Yes, dried pinto beans, cornmeal and a huge roll of bologna were included!) Since that day, I have always believed that God will provide, and that God is never late when we need a miracle.

(You can read the entire article about the Toler brothers HERE)

I pastor a Nazarene church.  Our name “Nazarene” indicates the desire of our founding mothers and fathers to be a church for ANYONE.  Even people from Nazareth!  You see, Nazarenes weren’t the up and comers in the world.  They weren’t the wealthy an influential.  In fact, when Nathaniel found out Jesus was from Nazareth, he asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

At times we have gotten away from our roots.  We have tried to be successful.  We have moved out of the cities into the suburbs.  We have built beautiful buildings and created magnificent youth centers.  We might have even snubbed our noses at the “Nazarenes” of the world, wondering if anything good could come from such places.

This week I was on the phone with a lady from an organization I work with here in town.  She was telling me about a young couple that she ran into.  She was casually asking how the couple’s Thanksgiving went.  The couple just sat there quietly, not saying much.  Another lady chimed in and asked, “Did you eat a lot of food?”  It finally came out that the couple had eaten breadsticks from little caesars that one of them had brought home from work.

It hit me hard to know that people in my town are eating breadsticks for Thanksgiving or any day for that matter.

I’ll have to admit, being a pastor has made me a bit cynical about giving at times.  We get lots of calls at the church from people just wanting us to pay their water or gas bill.  People sometimes lie to you to get what they want, and sometimes it becomes obvious they are doing so.  Jesus tends to say things like “Give to everyone who begs from you”, and then wisdom says that we only have so many resources so I need to make sure I am giving to a GENUINE need.  It’s definitely a tough balance.

But when I heard about this family in MY community that is eating breadsticks for Thanksgiving (and a lot of other days from what I can gather), It broke my heart.  So I wanted to do something about it.

So I want to challenge all my Midwest City friends (It doesn’t matter if you attend our church or not) to do me a favor.  While you are at the grocery store, stocking up for you big Christmas shindig, could you pick up some things that could be EASILY HEATED in an oven (pizza rolls, hot pockets, think the freezer aisle), Mac and Cheese and the like, or crackers, cookies, etc… We are not wanting a big turkey or lots of ingredients, because to make a full fledge Christmas meal might be overwhelming.  (Up until just recently they didn’t have pots and pans to cook with)  We are hoping the food will last them a month or so…

Items can be dropped off at Community Church of the Nazarene, 10200 SE 15th MWC, OK 73130 on SUNDAY, DECEMBER 21st from 7 AM- 12:30 PM

That Christmas for the Toler brothers changed their lives.  The church of the Nazarene is grateful to that little church that brought them food, we have been blessed with 3 great leaders.  We may not see the same results here in Midwest City, but we WILL experience Christ in the act of giving. ( “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…”)

I hope that Community Church of the Nazarene will get back to our roots of being the church for those who may be at difficult places in life.  My prayer is that this will be a springboard for us as a church that will help us to begin to provide for the TANGIBLE needs of members of our community into the new year!  (I am already hearing of more families we may be able to assist)

I hope you will join me in being part of someone else’s miracle Christmas!

Pastor Nate

There is No “I” in Pastor…

I have a problem.  It’s my ego…

I never really noticed the problem as a youth pastor.  I never considered myself to be much of a ladder climber.  I was content to be a youth pastor.  I never took attendance on Wednesday nights.  I just loved doing ministry.

Then I turned to the dark side.  That’s what we youth pastors would say to all our friends who became senior pastors.  We accused them of turning to the dark side.  I thought it was a joke, but in some ways maybe it wasn’t.

When I became a Sr. Pastor, all of a sudden I seemed to be constantly evaluated by the size of my congregation.  I had to turn in my numbers every month.  All of the sudden, I had to be concerned about the offerings.  We had to make sure the bills were paid.  Our denomination has an assembly every year where we report.  There is a book that contains the stats of all of the churches in it, including attendance and finances.  It seems like we are always being measured by a business model that measures success by numbers and revenue.  Honestly, it messed with me a little.

I began to realize that my ego was heavily tied to my ministry.  I was turning to the dark side, literally.  And I don’t think I am alone.

I’ll never forget when one of our members asked me the question, “How come God never seems to call pastors to smaller churches?”  I really didn’t have an answer for him.  It seems that many of us pastor types have bought into a business model that says we are more successful if we are pastoring a large congregation.

This week, we lost an amazing member of our church.  She battled cancer for 5 years valiantly and inspired my entire congregation along the way.  I was actually in Puerto Rico when I got the news.  We had to wait a day before we could fly home.  I didn’t want to be in Puerto Rico anymore.  I wanted to be home, mourning with the family and my church family.

I am beginning to realize that there is something special about being in ministry for the long haul.  It means something to celebrate with people when their kids graduate from high school, and to mourn with them when they lose a loved one.  There is something important about being there to marry people, dedicate their children, and bury their grandparent.  There’s something about walking the journey together, taking communion together, placing ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, baptizing them, and sending some of them out as ministers of the gospel.

The picture below is a picture of some kids from my church at Tyler’s 3rd birthday party.

IMG_0803 Next summer, most of these kids will go to NYC in Louisville with our church.  Someday, I will watch them get married, and perhaps perform some of those ceremonies.  There is something very healthy about long-term pastorates.

I’ve decided that I am sticking with these people.  The church may grow, it may not.  I will preach the Word.  I will administer the sacraments.  I will laugh with these people.  I will cry with them.  But more than anything, we will go through it together.

You see, the ministry isn’t really about me.  It is about being willing to sweat and bleed for a group of people the way Christ was willing to sweat and bleed for me.  I believe our church will grow, but I will not allow a number on a page to define me.  I will be defined by the way I care for those I have been entrusted to serve!

Anything else isn’t ministry, it’s self-serving…

Just a thought,

n8

The Cumulative Effect…

Life is short…

They grow up way too fast…

Ever hear one of these phrases?  Yeah, me too.  It was always the “older folks” who used to say them to me when I was twenty.  You know the older folks right.  Those people over 40…

It seems that now I am one of those “older folks”, and I hear myself spouting off those same cliches to people in their 20’s.  Ahh, the circle of life.

I think if there is one thing that I am striving to learn in my life, it is the cumulative effect.  Things add up.  Over the span of our lifetime, little decisions can have drastic consequences.

I woke up this year at the heaviest weight I’ve ever been.  It was crazy.    Things accumulated, right around my waistline.  It was like one day I was running the Tough Mudder and in the best shape of my life and the next day I was buying the largest size waist band I have ever worn.  The truth is, it didn’t happen overnight.  Every decision to pop open a can of coca-cola, or open a bag of peanut butter M&M’s added up.

When I think about it, I ran the Tough Mudder 2 1/2 years ago.  Thats about 900 days.  Many of the days I said no to exercise and yes to all kinds of wonderful comfort foods.  It all added up to where I found myself two weeks ago.

Or take writing for example.  I enjoy writing, and I want to become a better writer.  I hope to live a nice, long life.  What would happen if I chose to write SOMETHING every day for the rest of my life.  So many days, I choose to watch someone else’s writing through a TV show or movie instead of writing something myself.  And a lot of that writing really stinks actually…

We can apply this cumulative effect to a great number of areas of our life.  For example, our spiritual disciplines can also be chosen or neglected.  We may look up a few years down the road and wonder how our heart grew hard towards the things of God.  It probably didn’t happen overnight.  We choose DAILY if we will allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s grace.

The beautiful thing is that the cumulative effect works both ways.  Our good decisions add up too.  Almost 2 weeks ago I started eating differently and I am already seeing results.  I know that if it took years to put those pounds on, it will take a long time to take them off, but every choice to drink water instead of soda adds up.  If I want to be a better writer, I can choose to write TODAY and see how my writing develops in the next 40 years of my life.  If I want to be in tune with God’s Spirit, I can choose to seek God TODAY.

Every little bit adds up.  A little each day changes us dramatically over time.

My boys are both in high school now.  Every person I have talked to has warned me HOW FAST high school goes by for your kids.  I’m sure that is true.  I pray that I will make small decisions each day as a dad so that when this season of my life is over, I see how the little things have accumulated and I have no regrets…

Just a thought,

n8

A Pastor’s Appreciation…

We are on the heels of a month of appreciation for we pastor-types.  It always feels good to be appreciated, and I am thankful to be serving a congregation that appreciates their pastor all throughout the year.  Sometimes when I peruse the internet, it seems like we pastors are a bit of a miserable lot.  Most of the posts about pastors talk about our depression, our struggles, and our inadequacies.  I’m not saying that this pastor is exempt from any of these.  I have my share of neuroses to be sure, but this post isn’t about any of that…

There are three other people who make this journey with me.  Unlike me, they didn’t choose this life for themselves.  My wife, Paula, married a chemist.  She had no idea what she was signing up for when we married.  The title of “pastor’s wife” never crossed her mind when she said “I do.”

And then there are these two young men that live in my house.  They had no choice in the matter at all.  They were born as YPK’s. (Youth Pastor’s Kids)  There has always been somewhat of an expectation on them to be “good boys.”  Almost five years ago, they became just PK’s.  Maybe there is more expectation tied to that, I’m not sure.  Everybody expects the youth pastor to be a little crazy, so maybe YPK’s get cut a little slack.  Either way, they are PK’s which comes with a whole list of expectations.

At the end of pastor appreciation month, I’d like to thank these three.  They are the ones who pick me up on the days when I am the epitome of those pastoral blog posts.  When I am hurt, frustrated, depressed, or just plain worn out from the duties of being a pastor, it is these three that keep me steady.  It is in these three that I find constant affirmation, acceptance, and love.  Their love is the closest thing to the love of God that I have experienced on this earth.  So I would be remiss if I didn’t share my appreciation for them…

To Paula: From the moment you said those three magical words, “What’s your name?”, I knew that there was something amazing about you.  You are much more than a pretty face, although you are that for sure.  You are the one I have laughed with and cried with for   20 years now.  I love that we still date.  I enjoy going to our kids ball games, or just sitting around the house hanging out with the boys.  You are my rock.  You prop me up when I question myself.  Your faith challenges me.  You make an amazing pastor’s wife even though you didn’t sign up for it.  You are the life of the party and bring joy to the people you are with.  You dive right in and work hard at the church right beside me, even though you aren’t paid like I am.  You always have.  You allow me to completely be myself.  I love you…

To Nathan: You came into the world in a dramatic fashion.  We weren’t sure if you were going to make it or not that first night.  I am so glad you did.  You were always my mini-me.  Nate Jr. is what we called you as baby.  You always were a practical joker and a bit sarcastic like your dad.  I’ll never forget the prank you played on me in kindergarten.  You really were a mini-me.  Not so much my mini-me anymore.  Now I look up to you.  I know that there are days that people put expectations on you because of my calling, but I couldn’t be prouder of you.  You ARE a good kid, not because your dad is a pastor, but because you have chosen to follow Christ yourself.  I love that you are really enjoying high school and that you have a great group of friends to share the experience with.  I am excited to watch you play basketball this year, but am more excited about being your dad.

To Tyler:  We’ve always had a bit of a special bond because you and I understand what it is like to be the youngest of two brothers.  Since you were a toddler, you have been able to make the entire family laugh.  You are always entertaining us.  You too ARE a good kid, not because you have to be, but because you have placed your life in Christ’s hands.  I’ve watched you bring your friends to church and watched them become part of our youth ministry.  I have had the privilege of baptizing some of them.  You jumped in and started playing the drums in 5th grade, much to the surprise of everyone on the stage and in the church.  I taught you everything I know about the guitar, which took like an hour, but still…  Someday you will be teaching me how to play things on guitar.  I am looking forward to watching you play ball in the next month or so.  I love being your dad.

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This weekend, as I watched my family set up for our “Monster Mash” trunk or treat, I realized how much I appreciate these three.  There is kind of this unspoken understanding that they will be there, but I love that they genuinely want to be there.  Tyler was over at the table sawing 2×4’s and building games, which he does much better than his old man.  Nathan was carrying sheets of plywood and reaching things that no one else could.  Paula was scurrying around completing 10 tasks to every one of mine as usual.  And I thought to myself, no matter where ministry may take me, no matter the ups and downs, I will have these three people.  Definitely three people this pastor appreciates…