The Richest Hill On Earth

Headframe in Butte

I took this image in the early morning at what is called “the Con” on the hillside overlooking the community of Butte, Montana.

I’ve recently taken up residence and ministry on what is purported to be “The Richest Hill on Earth”.  Headframes dot the landscape of the mining city known as Butte America, named such before Montana became the 41st State in 1889.  During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Silverbow County (Butte and suburbs) boasted a population of over 100,000 people who survived on the extraction of copper and other precious minerals from the earth.  After WWI, declining copper prices and market saturation from South American countries such as Argentina drove many to seek their livelihood elsewhere.  Today, Butte has stabilized and the community of 35,000 is striving to reinvent itself in a way that matches it’s former glory.

Historically, there’s been no shortage of attempt to bring the Gospel to Butte.  Many have tried and unfortunately, many have failed.  Immediately after moving here I started meeting with many of Butte’s 49 pastors and priests; guys barely surviving in the trenches, each lacking the confidence to go on an all out attack.  Their stories have a glaring commonality:  discouragement, disillusionment and confusion about what each of them described differently but iterated the same as the “Butte Nut”.  The collection of their voices states, “I don’t know how to reach this community.”  I took note.

One thing I know:  Jesus died for Butte just as He died for Portland, Seattle and Billings.  You name the city.  Yet, each of those cities, and the city God has you laboring in, are different and present unique challenges that need to be considered for the Gospel to make sense in a localized context.  In other words, what works in Seattle might not necessarily work in Boston – a completely different culture with completely different and sometimes competing values.  It’s a huge ministry fail to bring a Seattle ministry template to another city and think it’s going to work without at least a few major tweaks.  Separated by geographic and social distinctions, people are different and ministry demands a creative strategy.

This is how I would explain the many failed attempts to bring the Gospel to Butte, Montana.  Hundreds of God fearing men and women have brought their ministry template from various other cities only to leave a couple years later scratching their head and wondering why it didn’t work.  Dreams are dashed and confidence, resolve and passion lay aside in lifeless piles.  Here’s a sad Butte fact:  On any given Sunday less than 1000 Protestants gather in worship services and less than 1500 gather for Mass.

So, I’ve had to ask myself a question.  “What will make me any different?  How will Harvest Church in Butte, Montana be any different?”  It’s a sobering question whose answer has brought me to my knees many times since moving to this community five months ago.

Go ahead and ask yourself the same questions.  When you consider your ministry in your city, go ahead and ask, “What will make me (you) any different?  How will (your church) in (your city) be any different?”  As you’re seeking answers, consider these important things:

Know Your City

Your city is unique.  It has a personality.  It has societal disappointments, victories and challenges.  The key to fruitful ministry is developing a strategy unique to the identity of your community that understands the goal is salvation and restoration.

Specifically, Butte is a literal melding pot of cultures and methodologies once opposed to each other.  During its rise, people from all over the world came to Butte America to scratch out their share of the bounty.  The history of Butte is replete with lore regarding these oppositions.  However, hardship and demise have a way of helping to erode the walls of difference and find the basic components necessary for survival.  The 2004 tsunami that struck the island nation of Indonesia is a recent example.  In the aftermath of a pounding wave the need to survive leap frogged culture, language and religious barriers as people joined together in the common goal of preservation.  After the “crash” post WWI, Butte experienced it’s own iteration of this human phenomena that resulted in a community able to recognize and celebrate it’s differences and become very relationally connected and interdependent.  In short, they recognized that in order to survive, they needed each other.

In the brief time I have lived here, I have discovered a community that values relationships, diversity and benevolence.

An example of the importance of the benevolence value can be found in the startup of a local Butte hockey team that failed because “…they never did anything for the community.”  So people never went to the games and it led to their bankruptcy after one season.

What your community values is very important.  These values must be weaved into the strategy designed to bring the Gospel to your harvest field.  But, you must know your city.

You’re God’s Representative – Be A Church That Matters

We, Harvest Church – Butte, are about to move into our own facility – a 12,000 sf Christian Science Reading room built in 1920 and was abandoned 14 years ago.  Yes, I’m fully aware that we’ve assumed a space formerly used by a cult and are believing God’s redemptive power can even sanctify brick and mortar.  We’ve been gathering at Butte High School and have been mobile.  I actually like being mobile but mobility serves up costly logistical challenges that are alleviated by a permanent facility.

A permanent facility is going to help us matter more in the community.  For one, being mobile limits our availability to address daily needs because no one knows where to find us on Monday or Tuesday or even on Saturday.  Because we’ve chosen a strategically located billboard to advertise our location and sermon series content, we are known as the “Billboard Church”.  Hey, at least people are noticing!  But, simply having a building (or even a billboard) isn’t going to be the sole component of our level of mattering.  It must be accompanied with strategic and life-giving ministry expressions.  And, it begins with me and…you.

A couple weeks before Christmas and before our new space had any electrical service, any work we did had to be done during daytime hours because without power we didn’t have lights.  We needed to move 11 sections (12 seats each) of theater style seating to make way for our increased stage size and the AVL (audio, video, and lighting) station at the rear of the sanctuary.  I approached the local rescue mission and employed five strong men, offering them $20 cash and lunch to help move the seating into a storage area in the basement of the building.

On the move day, after selecting a leader from their ranks and seeing them wrangle the first section, I took the stairs to the basement.  Their 850 foot traverse would take them outside, down the sidewalk to the front of the building, through a wide doorway and to the storage area.  I waited in the storage area for several minutes and to my surprise nobody came.  image1Seeking a reason for their latency, my exploration took me outside to find my new employees, some seated and some standing, taking a smoke break.  I chuckled and went back to the storage area and waited.  A couple more minutes produced the first section of seating and sent the brutes off for the second section.  I ascended the stairs and found them working on the second section of heavy, metal framed seating.  Out they went and down I went to the storage area.  When they didn’t arrive after a few minutes I went outside and found them taking another smoke break.  I chuckled and waited.

This same scenario actually played out for the first eight sections of chairs and what I thought would take about an hour had already been 90 minutes.  To expedite the project, I decided to lead the crew for the remaining three sections.  Those last sections were arduous.  Without sectional smoke breaks and muscles wearing thin, attitudes lowered and tempers flared.  I actually started laughing at their creative use of colorful expletives.  Finally finished and after two hours of hard labor, it was time to eat lunch.

I took the boys to a local sports bar called Metals; a restaurant fashioned from an old bank of the same name.  I drove ahead of them as they walked the six blocks to the restaurant.  As they entered I was talking to another gentleman who had asked me for $2.00.  I declined to give him cash but offered to purchase him lunch.  While my crew was finding a table I spoke to Randy about God’s love for him and my pleasure to buy him lunch.  I offered Randy a seat at our table but he declined; a decision probably aided by the stare down he received by my crew as they entered the establishment.

I joined the guys at the table and offered them anything they wanted on the menu.  I never imagined my offer would produce a couple rounds of 12oz Bud Lights, appetizers and meals all around.  I have to admit that I cringed just a bit wondering how I would explain the purchase of beer to our bookkeeper.

Conversation jumped many lines from curiosity as to why I bought Randy (a guy they all knew) lunch to one of them claiming his hatred for God and his bewilderment at working in a church for the morning.  I could tell from their antics and conversation that they had no idea that I was the pastor of the church.  It wasn’t until a lady from our church recognized me and approached our table that they figured out who I was.

“Hello, Pastor George.  Who are these guys you’re having lunch with today?”

I watched as their cheery faces fell lifeless with limp jaws.  After the congregant made her exit, John who sat at my left asked, “Are you the pastor of the church?”

I confirmed his inquiry and the table erupted.  In one wide motion, John exclaimed while waving his finger like he’d just equipped a sickle, “We should be ashamed!  We ordered beer!  You…you said you hated God!  This is the pastor of the church!”  I laughed and their shoulders sunk.  “We thought you were the contractor!”

What I said next could only come from God and His leading.  “My friends.  All I ask is that you be yourselves because I’m going to be myself.  As long as we stay true to that, we’re going to get along just fine.  I don’t want you to pretend around me.  I can take whatever you dish out.  Now, I need to pay you.”

I then passed each of them $40 cash to which one of them asked, “I thought we were just going to get $20?”  I replied, “Well, it was $20 per hour and we worked two hours.  But let me say something about that.  I want you to consider this $40 as God’s gift because you don’t deserve it.  Yes, it took us two hours to move eleven sections of chairs but you also took a smoke break for each of the first eight sections.  It takes approximately seven minutes to smoke a cigarette.  You basically spent one of the two hours smoking.  So this money is representative of God’s love and grace – which we don’t deserve.  I don’t deserve it and neither do you.  However, God extended grace to us when Jesus died on the cross.  So, accept this payment as a reminder of God’s love for you.  And, I hope that in the future you’ll remember this lunch and you’ll remember a pastor in Butte, Montana who tried to show you a picture of God’s grace.”

There was an obvious contemplative silence among them and we just sat there.  I told them about our church and invited them to attend our Christmas Eve service.  They came.  And two of them have been coming since.  In order to be a church that matters we have to be people that matter.  And, it starts with you.

God is doing something unique on the “Richest Hill on Earth”.  I suspect it might be one of the ripest fields of harvest too.

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The Distillation Of Life

There was a television broadcasting CNN in the corner.  Interestingly, none of the thirty or so people gathered in clusters across the room even noticed Anderson Cooper talking about Manti Te’o and the alleged hoax involving something about a fake girlfriend who recently died.  None of that stuff mattered.  In fact, in that room and at that moment only one thing mattered.

I learned a great life lesson while sitting in the surgical waiting room at St. Vincent Healthcare.  Socioeconomic status waited patiently in the hallway with other dividers like race, age and politics.  There was no interest in weather or Wall Street.  Clothing, cell phones and split ends were never the topic of conversation as they added a level of complexity seemingly inappropriate under the circumstances.  All of existence – all hopes and dreams were distilled to just one thing…life.  The only thing that mattered was the outcome of the surgery.  This was an amazing perspective check for me.

I had been sitting there for about ten minutes when I first noticed a lone lady who sat erect every time a new doctor would enter the room only to deflate after said doctor didn’t approach her.  After each disappointing appearance, she would go back to shuffling her feet and twiddling her thumbs as she appeared to be sitting on pins and needles.  She continued her exercise for over 90 minutes and a half dozen doctors.

“Are you ok?” I asked after our eyes met.

“No” she said while negatively shaking her head.

“Can I pray with you?”

“Yes” she said exasperatedly, confirming my hunch she was an emotional wreck.

Moments before our brief conversation, I sensed God leading me to go pray for her.  I’m glad I did.  She told me about her husband and how he’d been in surgery since 6:00 that morning.  It was now 3:30pm and I could understand her angst.  We held hands and entered God’s throne room.  Afterward, she seemed calm and relaxed.

“I feel much better.  Thank you.  Who are you?” she asked with the look of bewilderment.

Laughing, I said, “My name is George Burgin.  I’m a pastor at Harvest Church.”

“Harvest Church?  I’ve been there.  Not this past Christmas but last Christmas.  My husband and I were driving around looking at Christmas lights when we noticed a bunch of traffic headed up toward the High School.  We followed the traffic and pulled into the parking lot at Harvest Church.  We weren’t planning on attending church but we thought, ‘hey, it’s Christmas Eve.  We should go to church.’  So we did.  We went to church and I loved it.”

We talked for several more minutes about Harvest Church, her husband Joe and how they met overseas before she wanted to get some coffee.  I took that as my leave and motioned I’d be sitting right over there if she needed something.  She got up for a cup of coffee and I returned to my original position.

Early in the day I started noticing a pattern used by the doctors coming into the waiting room.  Almost as if rehearsed, each doctor would begin his report to the family with these words, “Well, the surgery went great…” and then went on to describe all aspects of the surgery and reassuring each family member of the wellbeing of their loved one.  One time a doctor approached a family and asked to talk to them in the side room.  After several minutes alone with the doctor, the family exited the room with slumped shoulders and a slow pace.  My heart sank as they gathered their belongings and left the waiting room.

It was just before 5:00pm when the doctor approached my new friend.  I’m certain she observed the previous doctors antics and entertained my same conclusions when the doctor asked to talk to her in the side room.  His request sent her eyes looking my direction.  Her angst coupled with a wide expression prompted my question.

“Do you want me to come in with you?”

“Yes…please.”

She, the doctor and I entered the room and he suspiciously closed the door.

“Do you know this man?”

It was a good question.  My proximity to her in the waiting room indicated we weren’t together.  While I was searching for some official reason for my infiltration she quipped, “Yes, he’s my pastor!”  I laughed and the doctor seemed satisfied.

The doctor described the difficult surgery, gave reasons for why the surgery took so long and indicated what the road to recovery looked like.  He finished up the conversation shaking my hand and thanking me for being there for her.  He had no idea that I’d only been Margarette’s pastor for just over two hours.

In all, I was in the surgical waiting room for seven and a half hours.  Long enough to soberly watch life get distilled to a singular purpose and long enough to watch God change someone’s life right before me.  I’ll see Joe and Margarette again soon.

Humbug: A Crisis at Christmas

“So, are you excited about Christmas?”  Suddenly I was whisked away to a dimly lit room housing a single chair, hands tied behind my back and drenched with a beaming brightness.  Locating my interrogator through the luminance, all I could make out was a festive pointy hat, sleigh earrings and a gleaming smile.

“So.  ARE YOU excited about Christmas?” only a little louder this time.

This was the question asked of me last night as I stood in the checkout at Albertsons on 27th in downtown Billings.  My inability to answer the inquest startled me.  There’s a certain body language that accompanies not being able to answer a question.  You know, pursed lips, a gentle cock of the head and elevated shoulders.  It wasn’t until I let the groan I’d been carrying squeeze through my clinched teeth that she answered her own question, “I’m taking that as a no.”  Unfortunately, that was how the conversation ended.  Me and my Bryers ice cream escorted to the exit by a bouncer named Shame.  I had failed the baby in a manger – again.

It’s a common question this time of year.  I remember the first time the condition of my heart prevented me from answering it.  The year was 1994.  I was living in north central Montana in a small city named Havre.  I was working at a church and carried the responsibilities of directing the choir.  Choirs and Christmas seem like a match made in heaven.  Cheery vibratos and sopranos bent on breaking glass come together to make something beautiful.  But, this union takes effort and time.  Someone’s got to tweak this and adjust that.  More alto. Less tenor.  Someone has to check the lyrics and prove that the announcing angel in the song The First Noel doesn’t have an “s” – so please stop making it plural.  It all takes work: time and effort.  Someone had to do it and that someone was me.

Mark Clatterbuck was a guy who ministered to the Native American population south of Havre on the Rocky Boy reservation.  Mark was just a few years younger than me and I remember him being a bright and witty fellow.  He’d come here from the east coast after connecting with some native students at an Indian Bible Camp in Hungry Horse hosted by Richard and Hope Stewart.  That summer changed Mark’s life and he wanted to spend at least another year with his new friends.  Mark and I were eating lunch one day catching up on ministry level stuff when he asked me the question.

Mark wasn’t the first person to ask me if I was excited about Christmas.  But it was the first time that question ran headlong into the scales around my heart.  In a surprising moment void of hesitation, I told Mark that I hated Christmas.  His shock was immediate.  I’ll never forget wanting to reach out and help Mark gather his jaw.  It just dangled there like a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from a rearview mirror swaying to the tune of jingle bell rock.  I’ll also never forget reading Mark’s Christmas Newsletter about his friend who hated Christmas.  Blogs are the children of newsletters.  And, Mark’s unnamed friend, the one who hated Christmas, was being tried for murdering the baby in a manger on the front page of Clatterbuck’s courtroom.

It’s not that I really hated the sacred event of Christmas, I just hated some of the things that came with it; making it all the things it was never supposed to be. While others were frolicking in july lake water, choking on boat fumes and choking down seared hotdogs, I was choosing a Christmas cantata.  By the time Mark’s question rang my eardrums, it had been six months.  Six months of Christmas and sheer saturation had skewed my perspective.

Why, eighteen years later, isn’t it any different?  Why do I feel like answering “yes” to the question would be a lie of the most grievous sort?  Why can’t I be excited for Christmas?

I’m troubled actually.  Soon my family will gather on Christmas morning, which for us will be December 28th with the late arrival of my oldest son from Phoenix, to be reminded that Christmas isn’t about pine trees, garland and twinkly lights; not about church services, parking lots or gift cards.  It’s about the greatest gift given to man through the life of a baby born to die.  I just wish I could remember all of the simple beauty in the moment of inquiry.

So, are you excited about Christmas?

I am.  I hope you are too.

The Eye Of A Needle

I turned away.  Slowly at first but quickened as the breeze blowing from behind, mixed with hair and sand, collided with my face.  Using my hands as an eye guard, I set my feet in motion allowing any ambitions I had to drain as I walked away decidedly slower than my approach.

“What did he say?” asked Dahlan, my trusted friend and bodyguard.  “We can discuss it later.  I don’t want to talk about it right now” I said while mounting my camel with a grimace showing obvious frustration.

I was sad…and mad at the same time.  Mad because I wasn’t interested in following him.  Not now – five years ago, maybe.  It’s every young boys dream to be a student of a rabbi and to be a rabbi, the nucleus of a discipleship cell.  Unfortunately, you can’t buy that with money, not here.  In this system brains are the currency and in my family we have more money than ability to memorize entire books of scripture.  “Sell all you have and follow me”?  Sorry, no longer interested.

But, what about the question I asked?  My inquest was about eternal life.  What is it about these rabbis who always answer a question with a question?  And now, I’m the one asking questions.  But to whom?  Myself?  My camel?  This is ridiculous and it makes me mad…and sad.

What possible connection is there between my wealth and eternal life?  I’ve kept the commandments.  What did he mean that there was one thing I lack?  I’ve never really lacked for anything accept the answer to my question!  “I’m rich.  I’m young.  And I’m a ruler.  And, I’m, no… We’re, out of here.”

Jesus, seeing the man turn and slowly walk away with his hands glued to his face, hoped his pace might turn into repentance.  Eternity teetered in the balance as the man answered his own question while mounting his camel.  The teacher couldn’t help but feel compassion for the young dignitary who failed to trust God more than his earthly wealth.

More Than Thankful

There’s nothing like economy class on an airplane.  Being confined to a couple of square feet on a flight to Chicago seems like a trip to the mailbox compared to the 24-hour flight Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Forced to breathe the same dry, recycled air as hundreds of other people and fed dubious in-flight meals (word to the wise:  pass on the chilled shrimp) isn’t something I want to do again next week or even next month.

I depleted my cellphone’s reserve power flying over the landmass called Greenland.  Knowing I had 16 more hours of flight time, I made the disciplined decision to keep my iPad in its case thinking I’d probably need it during the last stretch.  Maybe there’s some invisible teller parceling out nuggets of sleep on flights over 10 hours.  And maybe, there’s not enough sleep for everyone, which would explain why the only part of me to fall asleep was my right leg.  The gentlemen on either side of me must have gotten in line before I did, as both were oblivious to anything other than the dreams REM provided.

I found the AARP magazine in my seat pocket an odd addition to my flight on a German airline.  Here’s a quote from the article written by a staffer at the American College of Chest Physicians on in-flight blood clots, “Traveling in economy class does not increase your risk for developing a blood clot, even during long-distance travel (good news); however, remaining immobile for long periods of time will.  Long-distance travelers sitting in a window seat tend to have limited mobility, which increases their risk for DVT.”  DVT?  I scanned the article looking for the meaning of DVT.  Finding none, I was forced to come up with my own definition:  Dreaded Vascular Trauma?  Death Via Travel?  I found out later it means deep vein thrombosis.  Still have no idea what that means.

After two sunsets, six meals and ten declinations for a German beer, I arrived to the sights, sounds and smells of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  I was seriously unprepared for what I would witness in the coming days.

The next 24 hours left me overwhelmed with the pervasive poverty of a city which houses millions of people.  I found it difficult to look in any one direction without seeing someone deformed, debilitated or downtrodden.  People living in one-room shacks fashioned from dung, void of plumbing or electricity, left me convinced of how much I took for granted before going there.  Those early hours dislodged the thankful “clot” nestled deep in my heart.

Today is Thanksgiving; I have much to be thankful for.  I’m thankful for the people of Addis Ababa, who in abject poverty have found a way to be content, joyful and thankful.

Hard Heart: A Sorry Pair

Hard Heart.  Two words I never want to read or hear as next door neighbors in the description of my life.  It’s not that Hard or Heart are bad words, it’s just that when they sit next to each other, they’re a sorry pair.  They poke at each other, antagonize, stir-up, rile; they become something together that individually would never be.

Any wise person knows the damage those two can cause when they’re palling around.  They steal your silence, your sleep and your sanity.  And, rarely do they just affect one person; their effects show up in texts, emails, and conversations.  They’re collective influence is seen in grocery stores, malls and road ways.  They keep doctors and nurses busy all night and hospitals filled to capacity; lawyers and judges occupied.  I’m tellin’ you, they’re a sorry pair.

Hard and Heart have friends too.  They just start showing up; unannounced, camping out and leaving a mess.  They move in and take over your house.  Before you know it you’re bringing their mail in from the curb; letters, magazines and credit card applications all addressed to Blatant Disobedience, Misery, Pain, Divorce, Slammed Doors and Stench.  These are the best friends of Hard and Heart.  They’re under your roof because you can’t keep Hard and Heart separated.  In some twisted way, you like seeing them, Hard and Heart, together.

For you and me, there’s help and hope.  We have friends willing to jump in and drive a wedge between Hard and Heart.  These guys are our real friends:  Obedience, Forgiveness, Trust, Understanding, Patience, Surrender, Humility and Joy.  Any one of them can do the job.  They’re standing by and willing to help keep Hard and Heart separated.

David wrote in Psalm 51:10, “Create for me a pure heart, O God!  Renew a resolute spirit within me!”  The heart is very important to God.  It is the wellspring of life.  We must guard our hearts against hardness and always have an open and healthy response towards God.

Living On Purpose: One Day At A Time, Part Two

“Happy birthday, son”, words from a June phone conversation I had with my father for my twelfth birthday; my birthday is in April.  He never took the time to get to know me as my parents separated and divorced while I was still in diapers.  An absent father has been one of the many events that have shaped my life.

I remember standing in the hospital on March 31st, 1992 and holding a five-pound baby boy, my first child, promising to always know him.  I promised to be ever-present in his life.  I promised not to treat him as my father had treated me.  I was going to provide for him, teach him to become an honorable man and model an authentic relationship with God before him.  On February 26th, 1993, I made a similar resolve as I spoke over my second son and promised him the same proactivity as my first son.  These are promises I have kept now for nearly twenty years.

My children have grown to be fantastic young men.  I’m very proud of them and excited to see how God will use their lives in the years to come.  It hasn’t been easy but it has been rewarding.

Twenty-six years ago, parked on the shoulder of highway 167 in my Subaru Brat, in Renton, Washington I envisioned what my life would become.  Today, with very few exceptions, I’m here – I won’t stay here – mind you – I’ve got work to do and places to go.  But, my life is exactly where I purposed it to be.

Let me share with you how I got here: one day at a time.  Don’t leave – I know that’s a simple statement but one that needs a bit of explaining.  So stick with me…  Everyone in life – every day of his or her life – develops.  We develop emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically.  Unfortunately, most people develop solely reacting to situations and circumstances.  Like a pinball, they’re flung to and fro never really knowing which way is which.  They wake up, work a lot, play little, have families, experience joy, pain and disappointment.  They live life never really knowing who or what they’re becoming.  The whole of their existence has been one reaction after another.  That’s no way to live – but it’s how most people live.

Instead of living a reactive life – be proactive.  Determine who you want to be and where you want to go and get there – one day at a time.  Over the last couple of decades I’ve developed a system that I call My Personal Development.  It’s currently in the form of a Microsoft Excel file that you can download here if you’re interested.

Let me tell you how I use it:

Everyday I ask myself thirteen questions based on the virtues Benjamin Franklin asked himself.  I also evaluate the steps I take to becoming a person of influence.  I follow everything up with a quick journal entry that begins with the word, “Yesterday”.  I find it helpful to look one day over my shoulder so I can make mid-course corrections and stay proactive in my development.  In the journal portion, I write about the previous day and evaluate my contacts, conversations, regrets, and moments of celebration.  If, during the course of the journal entry, I discover something that needs corrected – I make it right as soon as possible and optimally that day.  Mornings are my most successful time to use the system.  You use it when you feel it works best in your schedule.  The important thing isn’t the time of day; the important thing is to use it everyday or most days.  Be consistent, proactive and get there one day at a time!