Thursday, June 20, 2013

Stones of Remembrance: the Mentor

A powerful Stone of Remembrance is created when somebody who truly believes in you. I was 20 years old when I first experienced this, when the manager of the grocery store where I worked recommended me to head office as management material.

It was two years later, though, when I first met the man who would qualify as a true “mentor” in my life.

George Mercado believed in me, encouraged me, trusted me, and was an incredible Godly example to me.

Six years of working with George as a volunteer were the just the beginning; he remained an influential voice in my life long afterward. Here are just a few snapshots of the memories and the mentorship:

“Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern that we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)

“Even though you have ten thousand guardians (instructors, KJV) in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:15)

George Mercado is an imposing American born in Puerto Rico but raised in New York City, who felt God calling him to lay down a senior pastorate and become a youth pastor at the age of 35. Providentially, God led him to Burlington, where George became the youth pastor at my home church while I was away at my second year of Bible college.

When I returned that summer, I offered to help out with the youth group, and George, after crushing several of my ribs with a bear hug, knighted me as a youth leader.

“I’ve been praying for workers in the harvest, and here you are!” George exclaimed with his trademark boisterous enthusiasm. “Hey, by any chance, do you play guitar?”

"Uh, yeah." I replied, attempting to take a deep breath in order to test the structural integrity of my ribcage.

“I love it! You’re the worship leader!” George has never been described as a quiet, non-demonstrative type, and when he was excited, the whole neighborhood knew.

“Uh... I don’t sing. I just play,” I said in sudden panic, as my worst fear in the world — singing in front of people — loomed menacingly in my dark imagination.

“You’re all I’ve got. No problem!” George had been drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and later into the U.S. army during Vietnam, and apparently I had just been drafted into singing publicly.

And we were off. A day or so later, we went out for burgers at (appropriately enough) “George’s Burgers”, and I watched in eager fascination as George wrote out his philosophy of ministry on a napkin, putting into words and strategy the things that had been stirring in my heart. I was hooked.

Pull back to a wide-angle shot, and you'd see George's infamous “a pile for everything, and everything in a pile” office
And so began a six year journey of youth ministry and being mentored by George. It was a journey that often resembled the way that Jesus mentored His disciples: you worked your butt off alongside George, and learned tons along the way.

And as the youth group grew from 12 to over 100 within the next three years, the team of youth leaders expanded as well.

Wherever possible, George would somehow take a potential “problem/issue”, and find a way to turn it around into an opportunity for growth, and not just the eye-for-an-eye justice that we younger leaders thought was the obvious answer. “Invitation, not confrontation” is a phrase I’ve used to describe it. Jesus called it “winning your brother” (Matthew 18:15). You can sometimes control behavior (on the surface only) through confrontation, but invitation captures you at the heart level — it’s the Spirit’s work.

Youth leaders’ meetings were always spent in the following format: half the meeting was invested in praying for each other, and the other half was for youth ministry business. As was often the case, at times the whole meeting was spent praying for each other, and the “business” didn’t get done, but the leadership team seemed more effective for it.

During a youth retreat which was blessed with rain all weekend long (can anyone say "cabin fever"?), George at one point challenged everyone to a mud fight in a nearby field.

As the “mud” fight intensified, an unmistakable odor began to manifest itself — seems that this empty field had once been a horse paddock. Yes, this was indeed the “manure tour” of youth retreats.
There are a number of future pastors, church leaders, & missionaries in this excrement-drenched photo

The realization of the mixture of mud and horse manure didn’t slow anybody down. Our cabins were made pungent in the aftermath, and I don’t recall that this particular camp ever allowed us back.

Prayer during a typical youth group meeting: George would prostrate himself on the floor. “I’m not super-spiritual,” he’d say. “I’m very proud and stiff-necked — this is necessary for me.”

A college friend from Winnipeg dropped in one time to visit the group, and heard George announce, as he lit a single candle in the middle of the room, that tonight would be a sharing time about what God was doing.

“What else will we be doing tonight?” my friend whispered as the group formed a big (70+ people) circle around the candle.

“Just watch.” I said.

Two and a half hours later, George had to end the sharing time because parents were arriving to take their teenagers home. No games, no announcements, no music, no hype. Just two and a half hours of telling our God-stories and praying for each other.

Drop in on George at the church, and many times, you’d open his office door and think he wasn’t there, until you saw his feet sticking out from under his desk. Face down in prayer, again.

“You have to face-plant even when you’re by yourself?” I asked.

“I’m still way too proud,” he’d sheepishly admit, from somewhere amid the piles of books, boxes, and stacks of paper that seemed to grow like weeds in his office.

Wendy en route to winning the “ew, gross” award for this skit

George loved it when people were honest about their own struggles and doubts with their Christianity; he encouraged and in some cases, even provoked people to get past the “Sunday School Answer Syndrome” and deal with the real questions. “Either we shake them up now, or university will do it later,” he’d say. “At least now, they have us as a support.”

George also had an amazing gift for speaking life and encouragement into peoples’ lives, helping them discover their gifts and then encouraging them to begin using them. He was also very deliberate about outreach, but not in the way most people would assume.
“We don’t hold a single outreach event until they (the youth) have the vision for it. Otherwise, it’s just us doing it for them, and they won’t develop a Great Commission mindset.”
And after building a discipleship foundation for over two years, when we finally starting doing “outreach events” once a month, George had the whole group evaluate our very first big event afterwards. We were all, youth and leaders alike, bouncing off the walls with excitement at how well the event had gone.

George: “How did the events go? The band? The message?”

Us: “Awesome! It was totally awesome! Everything went great! The whole night was a total success!”

George: “Did anyone bring one of their unbelieving friends?”

Us: “Well, um… no.”

George: “Then was it really an outreach?”
“Feed the lions” was George’s code for: Never confront someone on an empty stomach — yours or theirs.”

As we continued with our monthly outreaches — and people began bringing their friends — George developed a beautifully maddening habit of giving short messages to the gathered group, but refusing to actually share the Gospel directly. “If you want to know more about what I'm talking about, ask the person you came with.

It was brilliant; not only were we all forced to participate in the process instead of relying on “the speaker”, but the stage was set for our interaction with our friends outside of the outreaches as well. Speaking about our faith in a relaxed, ‘normal’ way became more and more natural.


My cabin group on a retreat (that's me on the right). George always put the rowdies in my cabin. I have no idea why.
Retreats were always some of the greatest memories for all of us involved in ministry with George.

We typically had a fall and a spring retreat, and the worship was always intense (no matter how primitive the equipment), and these became more “stones of remembrance” that people could point to as spiritual markers in their journey.

To this day, if you spend any time with former members of “Live Connection”, inevitably somebody finds some old retreat photos, and we laugh at how young and hopelessly 1980's we were.

More significantly, we remember the times when God moved, lives were changed, and how the impact of those wild and crazy weekends is still bearing fruit, over 30 years later.

George was the first person to pray with me over the phone. I’d called him to ask him to pray about something on my behalf, and to my surprise, he immediately started praying. I had assumed that he would hang up and then pray later (that's what I would have done, unless I forgot...).

I sat there in my parent’s kitchen, wondering what the proper prayer etiquette was when you were on the phone. Do you bow your head and close your eyes? Folding your hands was out of the question, unless dropping the phone on the floor was acceptable. If you didn’t close your eyes, where should you look? What if somebody walked through the kitchen and overheard me saying “yes, Lord” and wondered if I thought I was getting a phone call from the Almighty?

Our youth group’s vision/motto was:

“The gospel of Jesus Christ to Burlington, Hamilton, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, North America, the World…”

After six years with George, in 1990, I was the first youth leader (but not the last) to leave the group to become a full-time youth pastor. George reminded the youth group, during our tearful last meeting with them, that my first pastorate was part of the fulfillment of Live Connection’s vision.

Two years after I began pastoring on the Left West Coast, it was my privilege to invite George to fly out to Victoria and be a guest speaker on one of our youth retreats. Our youth group had heard many, many stories about George, and for them to meet him in person, and have him minister among us was a treat for everybody.

For Wendy and I, as my first pastorate was crumbling around my ears, having George visit us was doubly encouraging.

Mmmm... coffee! My favorite George-ism about evangelism: “You gotta earn the right to be heard.”

As always, George was the “safe place” where we could honestly and deeply share what we were going through, and receive support, encouragement, and fervent prayer.

George moved back to the United States in 1993, but we always kept in contact. Wendy and I have often remarked to each other that there are few sounds as life-giving and reassuring as the sound of George’s voice over the phone. In 1999, George and his wife JerriLynn began pursuing a vision of planting an alternative church community in the Cleveland area. They were one week away from launching their church plant in the fall of 2000, when George suffered a massive stroke.

In the summer of 2003, Wendy and I were able to visit George in Cleveland, seeing him for the first time in over a decade. And, more significantly, it was our first visit since his stroke.

Before this trip, we’d kept in contact via numerous phone and email conversations with his wife Jerri. When George would join in, despite the fact that all he can say is "yes" and "wow", you could hear his excitement when he heard our voices.

Even so, we were more than a little nervous about actually seeing him again in person.

Typical wild and woolly time on a retreat. Yes, the back of my pants is wet, from a prank pulled on me just before worship began.

As we pulled into their driveway, we could hear George’s booming laugh welcoming us, and the one-armed bear hug he gave me, while not quite as crushing as that day back in the summer of 1984, was still strong and heart-felt. Over the next day and a half, we even managed a beginning towards understanding the gestures and signing that George uses to communicate now.


“Fight of the Century.” The weapons: Whipped Cream in cans. On the left is Wendy, who has just received a right hook to the jaw with one of said cans.
Driving back to Canada, the thing that bothered me the most — aside from the fact that George hasn’t been healed after many, many people have prayed for him — is that he can’t speak anymore.

There was just so much wisdom and encouragement oozing out of George; to have that voice silenced is a loss to the Body of Christ.

I don’t like to toss the word “mentor” around lightly, but no other word genuinely describes the role that George Mercado has had in my life.

George, if you get a chance to read this, know that the respect, admiration, and gratitude that Wendy and I feel for you knows no bounds.

And let me say to you, as you have said to me many times (just imagine a Brooklyn accent, okay?): “Hey, I love you, man.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Stones of Remembrance: Hairpin Turn

There are times in life where you think you're heading in one direction. The right direction. You might even refer to it as "being led".

Then something unexpected happens, and suddenly you find your whole direction radically shifting.

Not unlike unexpectedly confronting the sudden appearance of a hairpin turn in the road ahead, leaving you no other option but an adrenaline-empowered course correction that would make Star Trek's Scotty pull his hair out, all the while spouting numerous colourful epithets about your questionable ancestry.

I was minding my own business, at a party held in a church basement for a large gathering of friends (about 50 or so) in Sarnia Ontario. These were an interesting collection of friends of several different faiths, non-faiths, and UFO theorists.

Yes, that Sarnia...

In fact, I had spent the better part of one night -- from roughly midnight until 7:00 AM the next morning -- having an interesting comparative discussion with my buddy Gord about whether or not Adam & Eve were planted on Planet Earth by a race of superior aliens as an experiment. Or maybe God had something to do with it.

However, as I sat in this party, listening to the lively conversations happening all over the crowded room, scanning the familiar faces and the usual energetic ambiance, I was feeling just slightly overwhelmed.


Party not exactly as shown.
These were my friends. And I was one of about three or four Christians in the group. We all hoped to have some kind of positive impact as Christians; we were committed to being respectful and non-confrontational, but we hoped that God would use us in some way to bring our friends to faith.

And I was feeling just a wee bit ill-equipped to really make a difference.

That's when it happened. The hairpin turn out of the fog...

I was enrolled at Lambton College as a Radio, Television & Journalism major. I played bass in a local band. I was just a typical 19-year-old (mostly). I loved my friends. I loved the band I was in. I loved living in Sarnia. And yet, as I sat there in that basement room, I heard God.

Not an audible voice; it's hard to describe what happened exactly. But what I knew that I knew that I knew, was that I was to quit college and go to Bible college instead.

Somehow, I figured out that this might even include -- almost stopped breathing when it hit me -- being a pastor some day.

Don't get me wrong: I liked and respected the pastor at my church.

But I didn't want to be one. (Surely you jest, Lord...)

Right out of nowhere, indeed.

And yet, just like the night when I first became a Christian, "surrender" was my only realistic option.

And another Stone of Remembrance was laid in the road of my journey.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Roof, a Community, and Learning to be Normal

Uh, oh...

When I saw this tell-tale harbinger last fall, during our whirlwind family day of repainting the siding and front doors of our house, I knew that there would be an unavoidable task awaiting me on the roof of my house this summer.

All things being equal, I'd rather be playing bass in a band. But with this kind of mental image seared into your brain, you know you can't avoid facing the task at hand.

Of course, roofing houses was a large part of what I did during our three years of living in Tijuana Mexico. The difference there, of course, is I was usually working with a team of 8-12 volunteers. This time around, it was a much larger expanse of roof, and I wasn't sure what kind of work crew I could muster.

Still, any excuse to once again brandish my favourite Stiletto hammer is fine by me.

In our twenty-eight years of marriage, Wendy and I have never lived anywhere long enough to need to do house repairs. The longest we've lived in a single house has been three years. We are simply laughably inexperienced at what it means to be "homesteaders". We've been pioneers for so long, we actually need people to teach us how to just live normally.

Including simple things like living in the same house for more than five years.

Providentially, through our involvement with a church-plant called The Well, we enjoy friendships with some wonderful Dutch people. They are friendly, skilled in areas that we are not, and generous with their time and energy to help out.

They have demonstrated incredible hospitality, friendship, servant hearts, a great house group, and -- if all goes well -- will be up there on the roof with me later this summer, with a large pile of shingles waiting for us. We are so thankful that God has placed these people in our lives at this point in our journey. We are learning a lot.