Mar 6, 2012

Defending My Absence

Well, it is quite apparent that I have fallen down on my blogging responsibilities.  Over the past month, there have been numerous things that normally generated a post.  But I have failed you, o faithful half dozen readers.  I didn't post my annual bemoaning of the Oscar nominations, ceremony, and demonstration of how Oscar voters hate the American moviegoing public.  Not a peep was heard when Star Wars: Episode I - George Lucas is a Menace came out in 3D.  And I have let several Hunger Games and Avengers trailers come out without my highly insightful comments.  What is wrong with me?  Have I given up writing?  Am I living in a cave?  Have "they" finally dragged me away and placed me in my much-deserved padded room.  Nope.  I could toss up the standard excuse of "I was busy" and leave it at that.  But, instead, I am going to make my excuse into an entire post.  Doesn't that sound exciting?  I bet the tingling of anticipation is nearly too much for you to handle.

In March of 2005, I was fortunate enough to be presented the opportunity to help launch a ministry with my friend, Charles Wise, and a couple of our other friends.  That ministry became Defender Ministries.  I had little idea what exactly that would entail.  But it was exciting and I knew it was the right place for me.  Over the last seven years, we have been on what could be called a roller coaster with Defender.  There have been moments of great victory.  And there have been moments of intense pain and betrayal.  Through it all, we just keep plugging along and try to do the right thing.  There are times we have made mistakes and overstretched our abilities or calling.  But, for the most part, we have done our best to help people.  And it has been amazing to see how our little ministry has been a part in changing hundreds of lives.

Originally, our ministry was founded to address the topic of internet pornography.  But it has expanded over time.  Building awareness wasn't enough.  Parents wanted to know how to fight the encroachment of this entity on their families.  So we started teaching on technology.  And then it expanded to cover issues of media, entertainment, purity, dating, brain chemistry.  It has been very strange to see the path we've taken.  Years ago, I remember sitting with Heather in our dingy little apartment and talking with some friends of ours.  They asked what I would be doing if I could do anything in the world without worry about money.  I said that I would develop curriculum and resources for families and churches.  (That was years before Defender ever started.)  So what do I do for Defender?  Well, I develop curriculum and resources for families, churches, and schools.

Along this path, I have been able to create a full curriculum for teenagers.  I built the complete structure for a line of curriculum for elementary students on tech safety.  And I've written about two dozen booklets on different topics in our arsenal.  It is always humbling and strange to see something that you've created in the hands of other people - or to know that a church in Nebraska or Missouri is running its youth weekend using your materials.  I love what I do.  It is challenging and trying.  There are times when we haven wondered if it was time to shutter the whole thing and move on.  But we never feel free to do that.  So we keep plugging along.

In May of 2009, my family moved up to Tallahassee so Heather could attend medical school at FSU.  I became a full-time stay at home dad.  And things for Defender went into what I call "stasis mode."  We hardly did anything for those two years.  There were a couple of school experiences, a few internet orders.  But the ministry didn't advance much.  It was difficult to see that.  I could see others of our sister ministries moving forward.  At times I got jealous and other times I got angry.  And there were many times I feared everything was done - that we had run our course.  Not to minimize what a person goes through, but it felt like watching someone I love in a coma.  It was still there, but it wasn't doing anything.  And I really didn't know if it was going to come back.

There were moments of hope in those two years.  One of the tough things about running a ministry is that you are dependent on other people.  You need people to spread the word of what you are doing, you need people to help you organize things, you need people to book you, you need people to support you financially.  Over the years, we have had people promise us the moon.  They believed in what we were doing.  They got on board.  They got excited.  We got excited and started planning based on that person's promises.  And then they disappeared.  This hasn't happened once or twice.  Honestly, we are probably up near twenty times this has occurred.  Each time, it is like getting your heart broken.  And each time you have to pick up the pieces and figure out how to get back on track.  Sometimes we have incurred expenses we would never have undertaken without assurances of support.  And then we are left with the bills and no help.  You start to get a little jaded.  And it is hard to trust people.

We have had people donate money for months and then quit.  There have been board members who got us to run an event and then stood there and watched it blow up in our face.  We have had supporters who left and basically stole what we were doing to start their own efforts.  During that two year time of stasis, we had a very painful experience with a person who funded us for months and promised us the world.  And then he just left.  It damaged the ministry deeply.  With each one of those, there is a time of examination where you wonder what you did wrong or what should have been different.  This time, it could have killed the ministry.  I had just moved back to Orlando and was able to give more time to working on things.  But the ministry was very weak at the time.  It was a dangerous time and the damage done really hurt.  I almost came to a place where I was sure the ministry was over.

In the last seven years, it has been very strange watching how the ministry grew.  It made no sense.  You would think that going to conferences and having displays or placing ads would be the greatest impetus for growth.  But it hasn't been that way.  Almost every time we saw the ministry have a jolt of opportunities or a growth of vision it has been because one person opened one tiny door.  On the other side there was a huge field of blessings waiting.  Connie Ricks was one of those people.  She opened the door for us to do college events - which became the majority of our events in the early years.   Then there was Eulie Brookins, who said, "Hey, you guys should develop a youth curriculum."  I still remember sitting with Charles at the (now defunct) O'Boys BBQ in Winter Park and creating the entire structure for what would be Operation Isaiah in an hour and a half.  Terri Alderman was another person who opened the door to working with schools, specifically International Community School.  That led us to design a ton of school based materials.

All of that was said to set the stage for this past fall.  The ministry was struggling to get back on its feet.  I was working on how to get things revved up, while helping with some other aspects of our parent ministry.  I got an email from Stuart Goudy from Little Rock, Arkansas.  He was the men's minister at Geyer Springs First Baptist Church.  The senior pastor there and I had worked together in Tampa about fifteen years ago.  Stuart wanted to know if we could do a men's conference for them that dealt with some of our pet issues - pornography, technology - and other aspects of being a man.  I went to our default answer when talking to people, "Never say no."  So I told him that we could.  Little did I know what exactly was going to come from that.

Over the next six month, we created a new event - Rewriting the Man Code.  It was a men's conference that was unlike anything we had done.  We've done conference type events before, but not one like this.  We incorporated videos and humorous stories and a more structured format.  And we took some of the ancient Knight Codes and brought them into the modern vernacular.  It was a good looking event - from the development perspective.  We thought it would be good for men.  But we had never even been able to test it at all.  Normally when we have taught conferences, we took lessons we have already taught and combined them into a full event.  This was the first time we started from the ground floor and intentionally created a conference - writing the lessons as the conference was built.  Yes, it included elements from what we had taught previously.  But it was all being rebuilt.

I was terrified.  A lot of the success of the events rested on my ability to be funny on demand.  I can be funny.  But a lot of it is accidental.  I've always been nervous about choreographed humor.  It is a hard thing to pull off.  You want it to sound organic.  Humor can be too rehearsed.  I have a reputation for being a funny speaker.  Being completely honest, some of the biggest laughs were from things I never even planned to say.  They just flowed from the lesson.  So I was very nervous about the execution of the whole thing.  And just to amp the stakes up, we had other churches hear about what we were crafting.  So they went ahead and booked us.  We were scheduled to do three of these weekends in a row.  We had Arkansas booked for February 17-19.  Then one Orlando church had us come to their men's retreat February 25-26 at a local camp setting.  Lastly we had another Orlando church schedule us for March 2-3.  If we failed, it would be in triplicate.

I felt crushed by the weight of what was being expected.  A lot of it I put on myself.  We had a very positive board meeting with our new board a few weeks before the conferences.  They seemed to be ready to help in any way possible.  But some of the hope was based on the men's conference.  In my own mind, the fate of the ministry hung on this.  We didn't have any other events booked.  If this succeeded, it could open the doors to a lot of things.  If it didn't, all the momentum would be gone.  I had trouble sleeping.  I was short tempered with everyone.  And I was constantly stressed.  I had to write the booklet, design the presentation, edit videos, organize the whole shebang.  Charles and I would create the lessons together, but I was the one who had to put it together.  Things fell into place and everything looked good.  But there still was the event itself.

We got out to Arkansas and spent a whole day rehearsing the stuff.  And as we worked on everything my voice started to give out.  I hadn't taught much in the last couple years.  The change in weather, the flight, the hours of talking all wore me out.  In getting ready to speak, I tore my throat up.  When Friday rolled around, I was rasping and my throat was killing me.  I tried to keep quiet in the interim and drink tons of water.  I was scared.  When it finally came time to start things, I stepped up on stage and started.  The guys didn't respond right away.  They were a little hesitant.  Then we kicked it to the worship band and they played.  It was supposed to be a fifteen minute set and it became a 45 minute one.  It was great, but it cut into the schedule we had established - one that we already felt was very constrictive.  When I stepped back up on stage, I was a wreck.

But the guys started to defrost. The singing had helped.  And when I started in with my intro to the conference, I saw the first cracks appear.  The thawing continued until the guys were completely invested by the beginning of the second session.  The rest of the weekend was great.  My voice was horrible at best.  But everything worked out well.  The feedback was incredible.  The guys were so encouraging and we saw some great stuff happen with these men.  We got home and tried to recuperate before the next weekend.  My voice still was pretty bad rolling into the second event.  Charles lost his voice completely during that one, partly due to the fact he had been carrying some of my load when my voice was out.  The event was marred by technical issues, but it ended up just as positive as the first weekend.  Then the third weekend happened.  By then, both of our voices were back and strong.  The church was a very conservative one - different from the first two in tone and approach.  The guys there, though, were the most invested from the outset.  And it ended up being the best overall of them all.

So that is what I've been up to in the last month.  Now we are sitting here, figuring out the next steps.  We have some very high quality things to offer - things for the whole family.  The men's conference was a raging success at all three places with three different types of settings and churches.  We already have other churches wanting to book us for them.  We have also booked a youth weekend for later this Spring. The throat issues have been resolved, but they also were a reminder of the fact we need some sort of backup system of speakers.  That means training some people and expanding the ministry - which we have never done in seven years.  It is all a little hard to grasp.  A few months ago I felt things were about to shut down and now we are talking about hiring other staff.  A lot of it is due to an event that we hadn't even conceived that was brought up by a guy we had never met seven months ago.  And it doesn't stop there.  Every one of those churches wanted to know if we could come up with a follow up conference - one that was for both spouses.  They have asked if we could develop a Bible study that will follow the conference - one that would take place over the next year.  There is so much work to do.

The thing that I can't even begin to wrap my mind around is that I'm even involved in this.  I know myself.  To steal from Isaac Hunter, our pastor at Summit Church, "I know myself.  I know my mind and my heart.  I know what I'm thinking when no one can see me.  I have NO business being involved in this in any way."  I shouldn't be teaching anyone about being a dad or a husband.  If you've read this blog at all, you should be vigorously nodding your head right now.  In fact, most of the sessions in the conference begin with me telling a humorous story about how I've failed as a father and a husband.  The Apostle Paul says that we should follow his example.  I say to see what I'm doing and do the opposite.  Again stealing, this time from, my life exists to serve as a warning sign to others.  But this ministry works.  Most of my contribution is showing all the dumb stuff I do, all my failures.  Why in the world should anyone listen to that?  For some reason, God thinks I should be involved in this.  And it is just so surreal to see things happening other places because of that.  Over the last three weeks, I watched around 300 men examine how they were measuring up as dads and husbands and friends.  I saw some guys take extreme steps in repairing those relationships.  It is just so cool to see that.

So I hope to get back on track with my leisure writing.  I've missed it.  And I think it is important for me to be able to share the cool things (and the stupid things) going on.  We all need reminders from other people about important stuff.  God is still moving.  Sometimes things have to get really dark before the good stuff happens.  No matter how dimensions Episode I is released in, it is still going to stink.  God can use you, even if you are the dullest and most idiotic tool in the box.  I know I've needed those reminders and appreciate it when others share their struggles and victories.  So I hope this can be that kind of inspiration for you.  See?  I told you.  Longest. Excuse. Ever.

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