CBP: In the book you mention your dad had cancer; have you had any other experiences, hard roads that you’ve had to go down, that would lend themselves to this book?
MARK: The thing that really triggered this book was an experience I had several years ago, which I talk about in the Introduction. It concerned a 28-year-old woman in our church; she was a mom, a wife, she had two boys. She went into the hospital for a routine tonsillectomy. It was supposed to be a couple of snips and some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and that was the end of it. But it turned out the surgery was botched and a couple of hours after the surgery she was in her hospital room recovering, but she was running a fever. And they had told her, “Well, we’re going to keep you.” And she was lying in her hospital bed that night when an artery in her throat ruptured. And she drowned on her own blood, basically, groping for the little button to call the nurse.
Well, I was called to the hospital, and I met with her husband there, as the coroner was coming and they were taking her body away, and it was just one of those moments that you never want to face. And her husband and I walked out to the car about 1:00 in the morning, standing beside his car, the body is gone, this guy’s life has just been turned upside down, and he said to me, “How am I going to get through this?” And honestly, I had no answer. I mean, I could think of some stale clichés like, “Just trust God. Everything will be O.K.” But he had just trusted God for her surgery. I mean, we had prayed over her before she went to surgery. So, the “trusting God” line didn’t seem like a good one at that moment. Because I knew he would say, “Well, I just trusted God, and look what it got me.” So I really didn’t say anything.
And as I drove home that night I felt such an indictment on myself as a pastor. Because there was an incredible opportunity to minister to a guy in pain, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. And so that experience sent me on a spiritual journey of sorts, really in to the Word to find some answers, so that the next time I found myself in that situation I wouldn’t be speechless. And my study took me to the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, which I think is the hardest road that any group of people has ever traveled. Forty years, desolate territory, suffering and pain along the way. And it was in that story, in the study of that Old Testament story that I found ideas that I could use.
And basically, those ideas turned into thirteen survival strategies, wilderness survival strategies. And I was amazed at how they paralleled our lives today, how the things they did to survive that experience are the same things we need to do to survive our wilderness experiences. And that’s where the book came from. That’s the experience that triggered the book.
Now, my father and his many health problems, watching him and nursing him through some of that, my own experiences in ministry as the senior pastor of a church – that in itself brings conflict and trouble. Jesus said there would be wolves in the church, and I’ve tangled with a few over the years, and some of that spiritual warfare has put me on some tough roads. And so I’m just thankful that my hard roads, my wilderness journeys have never had anything to do with health problems or marital problems. For a lot of people, that’s the case. But for me, I’m thankful it hasn’t been.
My hard roads have been more spiritual warfare related, ministry related, that kind of thing. But as a pastor, I see people facing all kinds of problems from health problems to marital problems, problems with their kids, financial problems, unemployment, and all kinds of hard roads. So it has all come together in this book. As I was writing the book, the thirteen strategies, I see them in people’s lives every day. I see what happens to people who don’t live this way. I see what happens to people who do live this way.
CBP: Are you parishioners always nervous that they’re going to show up in your book?
MARK: You know, every pastor who is an author faces that dilemma, because your reservoir of experience comes from the people you know. I’ve been in the ministry for thirty-one years. The good thing is, I’ve served four churches. The one I’m in now I’ve been in for sixteen years. So they don’t know which of those ministry experiences I’m drawing from because we do change names to protect privacy. But the story in the beginning of the book, everyone who was there at the time knows exactly who I’m talking about.
CBP: Did people in the church rally around him at that time, or was he just bereft of all consolation?
MARK: People rallied around him, but as is so often the case, people don’t know what to do; they don’t know what to say. And a lot of people are afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, and so in that fear they pull back and don’t say or do enough.
CBP: Yet in the book, you give several shining example. I’m thinking of the young man in the church who went by every day after work for over a year to visit the woman with cancer. So what changed in the dynamic of the church, in how people eventually did learn to minister to people going through hard times?
MARK: Well, the situation that I mentioned in the Introduction was so extreme and so radical. It was almost one of those once-in-a-lifetime types of tragedy. How many people can you name that went into the hospital to get their tonsils out and never came home? It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime, freaky thing. And that’s what I think threw everybody off. The lady with cancer that you mentioned, she went down slowly and was diagnosed at stage when she basically felt pretty good and was out and around. And people understand cancer. Practically everyone’s had someone who’s been through that. So that was a little different situation. That particular fellow just had a huge heart. They sat down next to each other one Sunday in church, just kind of a random. . .
MARK: Yeah, Providence. And they just hit it off. You know how people go to church; they always sit in the same place. Well, those two had their favorite seat right in the same area, and they wound up sitting together practically every Sunday, and developed a relationship. And he was such a blessing to her during those years when she was going down, down, down. And in the last year of her life he was just there for her, probably more so than her own family in some ways. And I, as her pastor, didn’t visit her as much as he did because he drove by her house every day and would just pull in for 10 minutes or 20 minutes or 30 minutes. And she told me one day that she did not know how she would have made it without his daily prayer and encouragement. And he was a friend to her like no other during that time. And it made such an impression on me of how we need somebody like that when we’re on the hard roads of life.
CBP: Do you feel like pastors a doing a good job of preparing their people for the detours that come up? If they’re not, is it the fault of the pastor, is it the fault of the people that maybe they don’t make their needs known; they’re not well grounded in the Word?
MARK: I think the biggest responsibility a pastor has to his people happens on Sunday morning during that period of time when he’s preaching and teaching the Word of God. That has to be the number one priority. I wouldn’t know what kind of percentage to put on it, but I do know that there are basically two kinds of pastors: there’s the pastor who understand that that sermon is the critical thing he’s going to do all week, the communication of the Word of God to his people. And he takes it seriously, and he works at it, and he does his research and his homework, and he takes 15 or 20 hours a week to hone that sermon and make sure it communicates.
Then there’s the other type of pastor who has his favorite sermon site on the Internet and will sign on and grab something and will spend thirty minutes slapping it down on paper and trusting his gift of gab to get him through Sunday morning. Now, in my experience, I know both kinds of pastors. I could sit here and name names. And I think the guys on the right side of the ledger, the guys who do the homework and study and take their preaching seriously, if you go to their churches you’ll see the people are more grounded in the Word, more mature in the faith, more able to handle a hard-road situation because they’ve been taught the Scriptures, they’ve hidden it in their hearts. Every Sunday they get meat and they grow strong.
In the other pastor’s churches you’re going to see just the opposite. You’re going to see all kinds of immaturity; you’re going to see people floundering in situations like this. I think it’s a huge responsibility for a pastor to make sure his people know the Word of God and are grounded in the Word. And I honestly have little patience with the guys who grab the latest best-selling book and chapter three looks like it would make a good sermon and so that’s my sermon for Sunday. That, to me, is reprehensible. That’s what we pastors have to fight. Because we are busy people; there’s hospital calls, there are leadership issues, staff management, and all this stuff that you deal with; but you cannot shortchange people in the Word of God.
The Bible talks about the importance of the Word in the development of a person’s life in their relationship with God. If you don’t concentrate on that it doesn’t matter what else you do. Your people aren’t going to grow. I think that’s an important question: why are so many Christians floundering when they come to trouble. I mean, we’re talking about a lot of Christians who have been in the faith for a quarter of a century, and the first time something bad happens to them they crumble, they fall apart. Part of that is the pastor’s fault, could be the pastor’s fault. Then there’s the personal responsibility that the individual has to grow. The preaching and teaching of the Word? The Bible places a high priority on that. But the Bible also teaches personal responsibility: “Study to show yourself approved unto God.”
CBP: But if a person has never been taught that. . .
MARK: That’s true. It all works together. Then, too, another reason so many Christians struggle during hard times is because sometimes the first tendency they have when trouble comes is to drop out of church. “Going to church depresses me because I see so many happy people and I’m not happy, so I don’t want to go to church.” Or, somebody is on a hard road of relationship issues; maybe they’re having a tough time in their marriage. And now the preacher announces he’s starting a six-week series on marriage. There are all kinds of reasons you can talk yourself out of going to church. But that’s one of the things you must not do. The worship of God nourishes your soul, nourishes your relationship with God. It feeds your faith. It builds strength. In fact, that’s one of the things I talk about in the book is to worship on the way. You know, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, God instructed them to make a tabernacle, so they would have a house of worship, and to carry that thing with them wherever they went, because wherever they went He wanted them to be a worshiping people. And so when we find ourselves on wilderness roads today, we’ve got to, so to speak, carry the Tabernacle with us; we can’t leave the Tabernacle behind. We’ve got to worship as we travel. People who don’t generally don’t make it.
CBP: One of the sad things, as a result of that, is when a person doesn’t feel like going to church, no one ever checks up on them to see why they haven’t been there. Then they think that nobody cares whether they’re there or not, so why bother? It feeds on itself.
MARK: Exactly. And that’s a tough thing too because some people are offended if they miss a Sunday or two and you call them; they think you’re prying, or you’re trying to control them. But then if you wait too long to call them, then you can lose them.
CBP: On page 131 you say to look for a church to “encourage and warn you.” That takes time!
MARK: It does take time. The thing about it is, so many churches today, and this is just a little pet issue of mine, are afraid to really challenge people. We’ve bought into this seeker-sensitive mentality – we need to be seeker-sensitive – but not so seeker-sensitive that we’re afraid to speak the truth. The truth, by its very nature, hurts at times. And the truth can save people from making some terrible mistakes. The truth has to be spoken boldly. If you go back and look at the Scriptures, you’ll never find a true preacher of God, whether it’s an Old Testament prophet or a New Testament early church leader . . . I mean, the very thing they have in common is not just their devotion to the Lord but their boldness. I mean, these people went out and preached the truth and got stoned for it. And it just seems to me that, in a lot of our churches, we’ve lost some of that. If you’re going to find a church, find one that’s going to do more than just stroke you and tell you how wonderful you are. Find one that will tell you the truth. And you’re right, that does take time because churches like that don’t grow on trees. And it’s going to take more than one Sunday.
(At this point, we launched into a lengthy discussion of church discipline, one of the topics that he plans to cover in his next book. Check back with us in the next few months for a review or interview.)