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Archive for February, 2012

Last Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching at a church in California.

And I enjoyed it very much.

Last November, for the first time in nearly two years, I spoke at another church in California.  While I was grateful for the opportunity, I was so out of sync that I forgot my Bible.  (I borrowed my wife’s.)

But things went well this past Sunday – and I remembered my Bible!

I spoke on John 3:16.  While I considered Hebrews 6:4-6, I let that thought pass.

When you haven’t run for a while, it’s better to attempt a mile than a marathon.

Here’s what I miss most about preaching:

First, I miss the preparation time.  I love interpreting a passage … and doing research on it … and finding relevant applications … and synthesizing material … and the actual writing of the message itself.

I love it so much that in my last ministry, I usually studied far into the night on Thursdays and didn’t finish the message until around noon on Friday – my day off.

When you speak every week, your consciousness is heightened all week long because you’re constantly scanning your surroundings for applications and stories.

And your whole week culminates in Sunday morning.

I miss that.

Second, I miss the pre-service prayer time.  Last Sunday, the people involved in the service gathered in a side room.  We all held hands and then the pastor prayed for the service.

In the past, I always felt pulled in two directions right before the service.

On the one hand, I wanted to visit with churchgoers because I genuinely loved them.  While I couldn’t get to everybody, I wanted to reach as many people as I could … and most people showed up a few minutes before the service started.

But I also wanted to be present for the pre-service prayer – because I needed it myself.

I miss that.

Third, I miss the moment right before the message starts.  I suppose it’s a similar feeling for actors, or singers, or musicians.  You know you’re about ready to go on … and there’s no backing out now.

And you’ve been preparing diligently for that very moment.

One of my favorite preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, used to refer to “the romance of preaching.”  He told his students that you never knew what God was going to do on any particular Sunday.

Sometimes you prepare well and the message falls flat.  Other times, you’re ill-prepared and the Spirit of God just carries you along.

Ah, the romance of preaching.

I miss that.

Fourth, I miss expounding the Word of God.  I believe in the primacy of Scripture.  God’s people are to follow His Word regardless of what the state, business, education, or family say about a matter.

That’s an awesome responsibility: to challenge the culture with a book that’s twenty to forty centuries old.

When I’m preaching God’s Word, I am conscious that I am standing in a long line of preachers who believe they have a word from God for their hearers.

For example: while we all know that “God loves me,” this question crossed my mind as I was preparing for the message:

How do we know that God loves us?

There are many faiths that don’t believe that God loves people.  Why do we think He does?

First, because He tells us so in His written Word: “For God so loved the world …”

Second, because “He gave His one and only Son …”

Without God’s Word and God’s Son, we would not know that God loves us.

Sounds so simple … but it’s incredibly profound … and it’s the job of the preacher to remind us of those truths.

I miss that.

Finally, I miss liberating people with truth.  Jesus said in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

This is true liberation theology.

Charles Spurgeon used to say that a sermon should make people sad, mad, or glad.

But I always had one overarching aim when I preached: to free people with truth.

I never tried to shame people, or make them feel guilty, or condemn them for being human.

Instead, I tried to point listeners to the only One who could loose their chains: Jesus.

I miss that.

Over the past two years, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may never preach again.

Most churches in our day have just one teacher, and that’s the pastor.  If you’re not paid to preach, you ain’t preaching.

But the Lord may be opening up an opportunity for me to preach every week … and if He does, I’ll be eternally grateful.

Because as much as I act like I don’t miss it, I do.

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There’s an old adage: “Never follow someone successful.”

It was hard for Steve Young to follow Joe Montana, or for Steven Tyler to follow Simon Cowell, or for Robert California to follow Michael Scott.  (I’m still lamenting that move.)

And it’s hard for some pastors to follow a predecessor as well.

Pastors are affected by their predecessors because (a) the way the previous pastor left the church, and (b) the shape in which he left it directly impacts the current pastor’s success – at least for the first few years.

When I arrived at my first church, I was their fourth pastor in five years.  While I met the first and second pastors, I never met my immediate predecessor.  Evidently he was only at the church for a year and then was unceremonially dismissed.  (I heard it had something to do with the way he acted at a bowling alley one night.)

For the next 16 1/2 years, I didn’t have to deal with any predecessors.

But a few years later, I was called to a church and served on staff right alongside their pastor for a while … and then he retired and became my predecessor.

What was my responsibility toward him?

I believe my job was to express gratitude publicly for his ministry, defend him if anyone criticized him, and make sure we remained on good terms … although as the church turned over, fewer people knew who he was.

What was his responsibility toward me?

I believe his job was to pray for me, support my ministry publicly, and to send any critics back to me without listening to their complaints.

If a pastor’s ministry is a failure, would that make his predecessor sad?

If a pastor’s ministry is successful, would that make his predecessor joyful?

The answer to both questions is, “It all depends.”

When Saul knew that David would succeed him as Israel’s king, he became jealous and tried to assassinate David several times.

But the biblical pattern is for a predecessor to support his successor.  Think Moses and Joshua, Eli and Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, and John the Baptist and Jesus.  (In fact, John said about Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”)

Why?  Because the kingdom matters more than its personalities.  Advancing God’s kingdom is everything.

Back in the late 1970s, the king of late-night talk shows, Johnny Carson, began taking Monday nights off.  (He had done 5 90-minute Tonight shows for years and was worn out, even when the show went to its current 60-minute length.)

Johnny invited a variety of guest hosts on Monday nights – David Brenner, Joan Rivers, and John Denver among them.

If you were Johnny Carson, would you want those hosts to succeed or fail?

The audience responded favorably to the guest hosts, which might have angered some Hollywood icons … but Johnny was thrilled.  Why?

In an interview, Johnny said, “When the show does well, I do well, and it makes me look good.”

Think about that long and hard.

Now let’s come back to pastors and their predecessors.

Let’s imagine you’ve been a pastor for 25 years.  You’re worn out.  You leave your church behind and do something else.

A new pastor eventually succeeds you.  Do you want him to succeed or fail?

If he succeeds, the kingdom looks good and advances.

If he fails, the kingdom doesn’t look as good and stalls.

Which would you prefer?

Wouldn’t a godly man want his successor to succeed rather than fail?

And wouldn’t he do everything he could to insure his success?

Then why do so many pastors behave in the opposite fashion?

Not long ago, I spoke to a Christian counselor who deals with wounded pastors for a living.

He told me that too many pastors undermine their successors.

They listen to the criticisms of former parishoners, giving their complaints legitimacy.

They agree with the criticisms of staff members, emboldening them to resist their current pastor.

They criticize their successor themselves, forcing people to choose between them.

While the ex-pastor may never witness the division that his interference causes, his involvement may negate much of the good that he did at that church – but few churchgoers have the courage to say, “Knock it off and go away.”

You might be wondering, “Is this really an issue?”

Yes … and I have the scars to prove it.

What do you think about this issue?

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Imagine that you land a good job and you’re flourishing in your position.

Your supervisor tells you that you’re doing a great job.

You get along well with your co-workers.

Your clients seem pleased at how well you’re serving them.

It goes on like this for years.

And then one day, you hear a rumor that you can’t quite believe.

Your predecessor – the person who held your job before you – is telling people you know that you’re doing a terrible job.

In fact, your predecessor would like to return to your company … and replace you in the process.

This whole scheme seems far-fetched, so crazy that you refuse to believe what some people are telling you.

You choose not to dignify the rumors by even responding to them.

But one day, co-workers who had been friends for years start to turn on you.

And your supervisor turns on you.

And even some clients turn on you.

You wonder, “What is going on around here?”

And then someone who knows your predecessor tells you the truth: he/she is collaborating with people at your company to remove you so that he/she can take your place … and your clients … and your salary … and anything else he/she can grab.

Sounds crazy, right?

It IS crazy … but I know someone who had this precise scenario happen to them … in a church.

Their predecessor was the previous pastor.

Their supervisors were the church board.

Their co-workers were the church staff.

Their clients were members of the congregation.

The equation goes like this:

Predecessor + church board + a staff member + a small faction = removal of the current pastor

Ever heard of this kind of thing happening before?

I have.

I’ll tell you more about it next time.

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While putting the finishing touches on the book I’m writing, I ran across this quotation from attorney Carl Lansing in his book Legal Defense Handbook for Christians in Ministry:

“The experts also indicate that very often a straightforward, genuine ‘I’m sorry’ is the key to unlocking a bitter legal debate . . . . ‘I’m sorry’ should not be seen as an apology from God.  Rather, His servants are imperfect and, on occasion, do cause harm.”

John Denver once had a song called “I’m Sorry.”  (I didn’t like it, but it hit Number One.)

Elton John sang, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word.”

Chicago sang, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.”

And the Gin Blossoms had an album, Congratulations … I’m Sorry.  (Love their sound.)

When All in the Family was the top show in the nation in the 1970s, Archie Bunker mockingly criticized anyone who he felt was wrong, but when he was wrong, he just couldn’t say … “I’m sorry.”

Why can’t we admit we’re wrong at times?

Maybe we have a certain image of ourselves that we feel we must maintain at all times.

Maybe we’re afraid that if we confess a sin, someone important will turn their backs on us.

Maybe we don’t agree with our accusers that we did or said anything wrong.

Maybe it’s just our pride.

Or maybe it’s a combination of the above.

When I was a kid, I stole a piece of candy from Food Giant.  While I was clever enough to take it, I forgot to eat it, and my mother found it in my pants pocket.

She made me go back to the store and tell somebody, “I’m sorry.”

I felt awful.

Then she taught me 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

My part?

Confess my sins.  Agree with God that I messed up.  Tell God “I’m sorry” for breaking His law.

His part?

Forgive my sins.

Since He’s just, forgiving doesn’t violate His nature.

Since He’s faithful, He’ll forgive me every time I confess.

Yet for some reason, it’s easier to confess my sins to God than to others.

And this is especially true during a church conflict.

Christian conflict expert Speed Leas describes five levels of conflict.

If God’s people can keep a conflict at levels one or two, they can often resolve matters with a simple “I’m sorry.”

But when conflict escalates to levels four and five, Christians grant themselves blanket exonerations while demonizing their opponents.

At level four, believers wish to defeat their “enemies.”

At level five, they want to destroy them.

And when matters escalate to those levels:

*believers cannot resolve matters without outside help (a consultant, a mediator, a conflict manager)

*believers are unlikely to admit their part in the conflict for a long, long time

In other words, they’re convinced that in this situation, they’re 100% right and their opponents are 100% wrong.

Really?

Let’s be honest.  We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.  That was true at conversion, and it’s still true today.

We haven’t yet entered into a sinless state.

So that means that we mess up at times.

And when we do, we need to be honest enough to tell …

*our spouse

*our kids

*our parents

*our boss

*our co-workers

*our pastor

*our leaders

“Hey, I’m sorry.  I messed up.  Will you forgive me?”

I know people who never say those two words.  It’s hard to get close to them.  They seem inhuman.

Only one person never needed to say, “I’m sorry.”

And He’s the One who longs to hear you say it to Him so He can restore you to favor.

All together now: “I’m sorry.”

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

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Yes, I watch Downton Abbey.

And yes, I like the show.

I’m a sucker for almost anything British.  I bought a multi-region DVD player last year (they’re inexpensive) so I could order unedited shows from Amazon.co.uk (much better values) instead of buying their American counterparts.

I love Blackadder, Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders, Inspector Lewis (my favorite), Fawlty Towers, Spooks (the British version of 24), and yes, Mr. Bean.

And for me, the Sherlock Holmes shows starring Jeremy Brett are in a class by themselves.

So when I saw Season 1 of Downton Abbey for sale on Amazon several months ago – at a great price – I snatched it up.

The first season is a pre-World War 1 drama about a family that lives in a large English abbey.  The underlying plot line is that the family lacks a male heir to inherit their estate, which leads to all kinds of romantic and political intrigue.

The aristocrats and servants try and maintain their boundaries and spaces, but everyone gets involved in everyone else’s lives.

The second season occurs during the Great War.  My wife and I plan to finish watching Season 2 tonight on DVD.

The show has a soap opera quality to it at times, so I may lose my theology membership card if I go further … but let’s live dangerously.

And I’ll try not to reveal plot lines in case you haven’t yet seen the show … or are watching Season 2 now on PBS.

Let me make four comparisons between conflicts on Downton Abbey and conflicts in churches:

First, everybody is a mixed bag of good and evil.

At first, Robert and Cora – the Earl and Countess of Grantham – appear to be fair and flawless individuals.  But as the series moves along, their weaknesses become apparent.

Isobel, their distant relative, has a passion for helping people with medical problems, but as anxiety increases around the abbey, she becomes increasingly controlling.

Violet (played by Maggie Smith), Robert’s mother, believes that traditional ways are best.  I didn’t like her at first, but she has the best (and funniest) lines on the show.

In any church, you might think that the pastor and his wife are flawless, but the more you know them, the more you’ll realize they’re as human and hurting as you are.

And you’ll meet people you liked at first but don’t like later, as well as those you didn’t like at first but eventually come to respect.

Second, everybody has their own internal conflicts.

Mary has a complicated relationship with Matthew, his fiancee, and Sir Richard.  (I don’t understand how these things work, but hey, I’m a guy!)

Sybil is drawn to the socialistic chauffeur but knows that her family doesn’t approve.

Bates is torn between settling his past in London and courting Anna.

And poor Daisy feels pressured to make a huge decision against her own conscience.

So many church conflicts have their origins inside people.  Several years ago, when I contacted a consultant about a conflict I was having with certain leaders, he wanted to know what was going on in their lives before asking about the nature of the conflict.

Third, internal conflicts lead to interpersonal conflicts.

While Mary’s heart leans toward Matthew, her head leads toward Sir Richard … confusing both men.

Mrs. Hughes is torn between helping a servant and letting her rot … causing her to say one thing and do another.

Mrs. Patmore wants to feed the household as cheaply as possible, but when she turns to the black market … she has issues with kitchen personnel.

And Robert (the Earl of Grantham) finds himself drawn to someone new … resulting in confusion.

In church conflict, we notice problems between people because of criticism, harshness, scapegoating, and exaggeration.

But we never see people’s hearts, and they can be filled with jealousy, anger, revenge, and bitterness.

Finally, many characters hide their true feelings.

I like expressive people.  I don’t like to guess what’s going on inside someone’s mind.  For that reason, I admire characters like Violet, and the chauffeur, and Anna, and Sir Richard because they’re open and honest … even if they’re not always wise.

But many of the characters conceal their emotions, and with all the eavesdropping that goes on at Downton Abbey, they’re wise to keep secrets to themselves.

So Mary won’t tell Matthew how she really feels.  She hints, and postures, but withdraws when things start to become intimate.

Carson and Mrs. Hughes respect one another and confide in each other, but neither one feels free to admit how much they like each other.

Sybil conceals her feelings for the chauffeur for a long time.

And poor Edith is afraid to tell anyone how she feels.  (Remember what happened to Little Joe on Bonanza whenever he fell in love with someone?)

It’s my nature to bury people’s personal secrets when they confide in me.  I want people to feel there is at least one person they can trust.

But I don’t like institutional secrets.  When I was leading a church, I felt that people should know as much as they wanted to know about the way the place was run and managed.

But just like in the church, most characters on Downton Abbey can’t keep a secret.  Much of the time, when a character confides in someone, that person runs off and tells others.  (If two characters want to share confidences, why don’t they go for a walk?)  Sharing secrets always makes me cringe, but I guess it’s human nature.

If you’re been watching Downton Abbey, are there other lessons about conflict you’d like to share?

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When I first started going to Costco twenty years ago, it was called Price Club.  Our local Costco was about one mile down the street from our church in Silicon Valley.

Every time I entered that store, I did the same thing: grab a batch of complaint forms.

Was I unhappy about the prices?

No.

The quality of the merchandise?

No.

The attitude of the cashiers?

No.

I couldn’t stand the lines.

And more than that, I didn’t like how the lines wrapped around so that I couldn’t tell where a line started.

Call it Costco chaos.

So I’d fill out the complaint forms while I was standing in line.

I’d write: “You have lots of cash registers.

Can you open more registers?

Can you hire more cashiers?

Can you start an express line?”

I was full of suggestions.

And Costco didn’t implement a single one.

Anonymous complaints are rarely effective, either in a store or in a church.

In my second pastorate, the church had a wooden suggestion box.  People could walk by and drop an anonymous note into the box, hoping it would eventually reach me.

Sometimes those notes sat in there for weeks.

Why didn’t I eagerly pluck them out?

Because that’s now how the body of Christ operates.

All pastors receive anonymous notes.

Sometimes they’re on the back of a response card.

Sometimes they come in the form of a letter.

Sometimes they’re passed on to someone with a name: “Pastor, I know someone who is very unhappy with the music right now.  I’m not at liberty to say who they are, but they’re going to leave the church if things don’t change soon.”

Now how can I answer that complaint?

I don’t know the name of the person who made it.

I don’t know their gender, age, or spiritual maturity.

I don’t know if they’re a regular attendee or a sporadic one.

To me, the complaint is worthless.

And that’s why I instructed the staff of my churches never to read an anonymous note.

If someone sent me a note, but they didn’t sign it, I’d tell the office manager to throw it out, even if it made valid points.

I didn’t even want to hear about it.

In my last church, some people were unhappy with me.

One day, I went to get the mail at home and received a letter without a return address.

For some reason, I knew what was inside.

It was a note addressed to me and demanded that I RESIGN from my position as pastor.

You know what I did?

I laughed.

Of course, I didn’t like having anyone insist that I quit.

That hurt a little … and it was meant to hurt.

But … the person who sent the note was confessing something.

He – or she – was a coward.

And I actually felt sorry for them.

Because if they had revealed their identity, I would have known who sent the note … and their ugliness would have been exposed.

Let me share three quick ideas on how to register a complaint – even at your home church:

First, identify yourself.  Write your name.  Say who you are.  If you won’t take this step, then don’t complain.

Second, list your contact information.  List your email address.  Give your phone number.  Let the person you’re complaining to know how to reach you.

Third, respectfully state your complaint.  Make it brief.  Make it honest.

And don’t make any threats.  If someone threatened to leave the church if I didn’t do what they wanted, I’d say …

Bye!

I have enjoyed Rick Steves’ Travels in Europe TV show on PBS for nearly 17 years.

I have all of his shows on either video (the old ones) or DVD (the newer ones).

I have nearly all his non-guidebooks, along with a healthy number of guides to places like Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Paris.

But a few years ago, I became angry with a position he took on a social issue.

I fired off a quick email to him, figuring it would land on a secretary’s desk where she would tally up the “yes” and “no” votes and pass that info on to him.

But I didn’t expect to receive an email back from Rick himself within a few minutes.

And he wasn’t very happy with my complaint … or the way I voiced it.

I wrote him back and apologized for my hasty words.  I stood up for my position, though, and he wrote back to tell me he’d sought counsel from his pastor on the subject.

The lesson?

If you’re going to complain to someone about something … even the pastor of your church … then let them know:

*who you are

*how they can reach you

*what your complaint is

Because if you do that, you have the best chance to be heard.

Otherwise, why complain?

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Ever wonder what’s it like to be a pastor’s kid?

You grow up sensing that you’re very different from your peers.

You attend Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, the Sunday evening service, and midweek prayer meeting every single week for years.

You aren’t allowed to play in front of your house on Sunday afternoons (and can only play in the backyard quietly).

You’re the only kid you know who doesn’t go to the movies (except for the pastor’s kids two houses down who can’t even watch Shirley Temple movies on television).

You grow up without a color TV – and only obtain one after you get married.

And you don’t play cards, dance, or swear … and learn that smoking and drinking are the top sins that God hates.

While you love your parents and your church, you constantly feel like you don’t belong … and you don’t know anybody famous who is like you.

Until a Yankee named Bobby Richardson came along.

Bobby Richardson was the second baseman for the New York Yankees from 1955-1966.  As a kid, I learned he was also a Christian, just like me.  I first heard his name while collecting baseball cards.

When I was six years old, my parents were visiting friends in Orange, California.  Game 3 of the 1960 World Series was on TV.  I was drawn to baseball even then.

Bobby Richardson came up and hit a grand slam home run down the left field line.  While I was rooting for the Pirates (I have never rooted for the Yankees), I had to admire the little guy with the big bat.  He was named the Most Valuable Player for the Series even though the Yankees lost (thank you, Bill Mazeroski) – the only player ever named MVP for a losing team.

Richardson then played in the World Series for the next four years – winning in 1961 and 1962 – and catching the final out in the seventh game of the ’62 Series off the bat of the Giants’ Willie McCovey.

The second baseman became an All-Star and was known for his fielding prowess and his skill in not striking out.  He only struck out three times in a game once in his whole career – and Sandy Koufax accomplished that feat in the 1963 World Series.

Richardson retired at age 30, the same age as Koufax when he retired.

In 1965, my parents bought me Richardson’s book The Bobby Richardson Story at the Inspiration House at Knott’s Berry Farm.  (They had a Christian bookstore there at the time!)

Richardson infused courage into me when he said, “If you take a stand early, people respect you.”

And his Yankee teammates all did.

Several months ago, my friend Russ told me that Bobby Richardson was going to be speaking at a prayer breakfast in Prescott on January 31.  Did I want to go?  Unsure of my schedule, I finally said yes – and I’m so glad I did.

Bobby Richardson at Prayer Breakfast in Prescott, AZ

Richardson’s stories were great.

He roomed with Tony Kubek (later a famous broadcaster), once singing hymns with him into the night.

His batting average was .299 going into his last game in 1959, and he needed one hit to hit .300 (the mark of a really good hitter).  The pitcher, catcher, and third baseman all sent him word they would help him get that last hit … but he lined a single to right without their help and ended the season at .301.

He told us the inside story of Phil Linz and the famous harmonica incident on the Yankee bus in 1964.  Loved it!

But best of all, he told us about the impact that he had on Mickey Mantle’s life – especially during his last days.

A few days before Mantle’s death in 1995, Bobby Richardson and his wife visited The Mick in the hospital.  Through a series of events, Mantle received Jesus and quoted John 3:16 to Richardson as evidence of his new faith.

Mickey Mantle also asked Bobby Richardson to conduct his funeral service.

After the prayer breakfast was over, people wanted to meet the speaker and get his autograph.

Richardson After the Prayer Breakfast

Richardson wisely set up a table in the lobby.  There was no charge for his signature.  My friend Russ, who invited me, asked Richardson to sign a copy of his book …

Russ and Bobby Richardson

… along with a baseball card I brought along for the occasion.

Richardson Signing a Baseball Card

When it was my turn, I just wanted a photo with Bobby.  Afterwards, I told him how much he meant to me as a kid because he was a Christian … and very few players acknowledged their faith publicly back then.

He told me that things had changed so much that when the Yankees won the pennant in the late 1990s, 18 of the 25 players were believers.  (Makes it harder to hate the Yankees!)

When I told him that I’d seen his grand slam on TV in the 1960 Series, Richardson held out his hand and shook mine.  He told me that he was supposed to bunt in that situation.  After he hit the homer, manager Casey Stengel told him in the dugout, “Nice bunt!”

Richardson played a big role in Baseball Chapel, so I asked him about Gary Carter, the believer and Hall of Fame catcher who is battling multiple brain tumors.  (Carter played a leadership role in Baseball Chapel years ago).  Richardson said he wasn’t doing too well and needed our prayers.

I’ve met players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan.  I’ve had conversations with guys like Duke Snider, Don Sutton, and Richie Allen, and had the privilege of sitting next to Alvin Dark at a banquet years ago.

But I’ve never met a kinder ex-player than Bobby Richardson.  He was everything I hoped he’d be and more.

Thank you, Bobby, for giving this kid a Christian role model decades before Tim Tebow came along.

Bobby Richardson and a Longtime Fan

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