The Last Word Man

I first developed this piece at one of my Christian Businessmen's Retreat down near Savannah. I had the devotion early Sunday morning, then I had to run down to Savannah to preach at a Lutheran Service. I had helped the church do a visioning workshop, and they wanted me to speak to the whole church. On Saturday afternoon at the retreat, we spend 3 hours out in the woods reflecting on the weekend.God's Faint PathAs I walked around the lake, I stopped and said, "God, you said, 'Don't worry about what to say, at the right time, I will give you the words.' Now is the time, give me some words." Almost immediately I heard back, "I'll give you two words, 'Last Word.' In fact I'll give you three words, 'Last Word Man.'"I'm on a Journey

I began to reflect on the three words, finished walking back to the lodge, and sat on a swing overlooking the lake, with a journal in hand.The Lake at Mt. PleasantOver the course of the next 45 minutes, this story came to me. I only wrote down a few notes. The next morning, I gave a short version of the story to my retreat mates. Then, I went to Savannah and gave a longer version as the sermon. It was the most powerful talk I ever gave. It was probably 18 months before I wrote out the whole story. I've revised the ending to reflect what I've learned since I first told the story.

This piece was written as a story to be presented orally. I come from a family of storytellers, and my sister is a professional storyteller. I have been planning to video this and present it. But, since I never have done that, I decided to go ahead and post the story. Enjoy.

I’m on a Journey

I’ve always been an independent sort.  When I was a child, I didn’t like people bossing me around.  I was clear that my daddy was the boss.  You see, he started a business soon after I was born, after returning from the war.  He was used to being in charge.  When he thundered, everybody listened.  I grew up hearing to him talk about combat river crossings on the Burma Road, and I knew he was tough as nails.  He was the boss.  To everyone else I encountered, my response, spoken or thought, was, “You ain’t the boss of me.”

Daring to be Different

I grew up figuring I’d follow my daddy into the family business, but somewhere in those teenage years, I strayed off the path.  By the time I discovered the counter-culture of the late 60’s, my parents were far into the era of diminishing parental intelligence.

I grew my hair to my shoulders, sprouted a beard and swore I’d never go to work for my old man.  Still needing a job, I entered the workforce.  Now, I’ve had some bad bosses.  I bet every one of you has had at least one.  You know, they make stupid decisions, that everyone knows won’t work, but they won’t listen.  No matter how good an idea I had, I quickly found out I did not have the last word.  

By the time I hit my twenties, I figured out I’d just as soon not have a boss.  You see, I’m bad to talk, and not having the last word always chaffed on me.  I got married early, and quickly learned how futile it is to hope for the last word in that arena.  Having a boss at work just compounded my problem.  

When we got pregnant with our daughter, Florrie, we lived in a three-room garage apartment over near Emory.  You stepped out of the shower onto the kitchen floor.  I realized I couldn’t bring a baby into that environment.  So, I cut my hair, shaved my beard, bit my lip, and asked the old man for a job in the business.

The Last Word Man

We sold construction equipment.  I worked my way into a sales territory.  I enjoyed the job, but, quickly ran into a challenge.  You see, these old contractors out in the country weren’t used to dealing with a young whippersnapper.  When it was time to trade on a tractor, they’d say, “Son, I don’t think you’ve got the authority to do this deal.  I want to talk to the Last Word Man.”  From that time, I knew what I wanted.  I wanted to be the Last Word Man.

Well, the old man died in 1990.  At age 75, he was still coming in every day.  My brother and I were suddenly in charge after 15 years of working for him.  In the decade of the ‘90’s, we quadrupled the size of the business; up to 325 people over 11 locations.  I was the last word man.  But it wasn’t enough.

Isn’t there more than this?

All my adult life, I’ve been nagged by a sad question, “Isn’t there more to life than this?”  I didn’t grow up in the church.  My mama took me to Sunday school at the Presbyterian church some, but it didn’t stick.  I have two memories from Sunday school.  One was Ray Barker burning spiders off the wall with his lighter, and the second was sneaking out the window with Ray and walking up to the 7-11 to buy a candy bar.

My people hail from Dodge County, down around Eastman.  We’d visit cousins and they’d take us to the Baptist church.  We teenage boys would sit up back in the balcony, and the preacher would rail at us, ‘bout how we’d end up in hell if we didn’t straighten up.

All my young life, I saw folks dress up pretty and go to church on Sunday, but it did not seem to change them on Monday.  I couldn’t see Christ for the Christians.  It turned me off to the church.  There wasn’t room for me, with my long hair and weird ideas.

So, I began my spiritual journey.  I toured all the Eastern religions, was introduced into Native American customs by Carlos Castenada.  I read a third of the Koran, but got turned off about the idea of the Great Prophet leading people into battle.  I tried the Old Testament, and got bogged down a couple books in.

Touched by God in the Mountains.

We had a fire, two weeks after we got married.  Burned up all our wedding gifts.  We took it as a sign we were getting too attached, if you know what I mean.  We took the insurance money, bought camping gear and took a two-month trip out west.  God touched me in the Rocky Mountains.  He touched me through His creation.  I was in such awe, and felt so small, and I knew all this could not be random.  I knew that man was not the creator, that there was something much bigger going on.   

We started going to church after Florrie was born.  Since Genie was Lutheran, we tried a couple of Lutheran churches.  As someone steeped in the counterculture, sitting through a Lutheran service was painful.  Then, we met Vernon Luckey.  He had long hair and a beard, looked like Jesus, and was preaching while walking up and down the aisle 25 years ago.  For the first time I met someone whom I could tell really believed this stuff.  I faced a dilemma.  I couldn’t just join, because I hadn’t been baptized.  And, I wasn’t going to get baptized unless I believed.  Vernon came to visit us one evening.  In a two-hour conversation, he led me to Christ.  Soon after, he baptized me along with my young son.

God wants something, but what?

A couple years later I went to Vie de Christo.  At worship beside a lake at dawn, in the shimmering first light, the beauty of creation exploded before me.  The Holy Spirit touched me for the first time in a church setting.  I realized this was the same Spirit that touched me years before standing out on a frozen Lake Louise, looking up at the stars, with the snow covered mountains surrounding the lake.  I finally knew what they meant by the Holy Spirit.  

I could feel God tugging at my heart, but my limited prayer time and Bible study did not provide me answers.   You see, until I met Mike Foss in 2002, I had been a good Lutheran for 20 years and had never really been challenged to become a disciple.  So, I just said, “God, I’m not sure what it is you want from me, so I’ll just stay here and work in my business and my local church until I get the message.  When I figure out what you want me to do, I’ll do it.”  

My father was a difficult man.  When I went to work for him, I knew it would not be easy.  I pledged to give it five years.  At the end of 5 years, things were going pretty well.  But, because I wanted more out of life than to work myself to death in the business, Genie and I came upon our first vision.  We realized that our kids would be out of the house by the time I was 45, and we’d have half our lives ahead of us.  So, we set a vision to achieve independence by age 45 and walk away, and do whatever we wanted to for the rest of our lives.

God is my Co-pilot

So, for 20 years, I raised a family, grew a business, and served in various leadership capacities in my local church.  My life could be described by the bumper sticker, “God is my Copilot.”  Have you ever really thought about that picture?  If God is my copilot, who’s hands are still on the wheel?  I was the Last Word Man in my life (at least at work), but was becoming increasingly dissatisfied.

I have been very fortunate to have a number of tremendous mentors over my adult life.  They have walked along side me, coached me, and believed in me.  In my thirties, they challenged me to get focused on what I would do with the rest of my life.  Painfully, I became aware of shortcomings that were stumbling blocks in my life.  

In my early 40’s, Charlotte Roberts, one of my mentors, challenged me to act on this vision, and organize my life around my values.  She led our company’s strategic visioning, and told the senior staff, “You guys got to figure out how to do this without Gregg.  He’s not going to be around here.  He’s got something that wants to come out, and if he doesn’t do something about it, it’ll come popping out of his chest like that alien movie.”

So, I decided to follow my energy.  No one had ever invited me to take a Spiritual Gifts inventory.  But, I set a design principle that I would do more of what energized me and less of what drained energy away.  I spent a year with my antennae out, sensing the energy flows in my work.  I realized that the thing that energized me the most was coaching the bright young people who were populating our new business ventures.  

I decided to create a second career coaching, consulting, teaching and speaking.  Since I quit college to get married, I realized I would need a credential.  You know, when you get out of the south, and speak like me, they whack your IQ by about 20 points.  So, I conned the good people at GSU to give me a spot in their EMBA class as a non-degreed candidate.  I’m probably the only guy you know who has a Masters and no undergraduate degree.  I graduated in ’98, and we sold our business in 1999.  I was offered a partnership in a consulting firm, and a chance to teach at Georgia State.  But, my energy was not there.

Shapes in the Mist

After we sold the business, we built a cabin in the mountains above Boulder, Co.  I entered my decompression period.  I began meditating years ago after close friends encouraged the practice.  I found it a great stress reliever in my hectic years.  Now, I decompressed and began to recover from 20 years of sleep deprivation and long workweeks.  As I spent more time with God in meditation and prayer, a picture began to emerge, like shapes in the mist.

“Is this it?”  I’d ask, standing at the precipice.  “Are you sure this is where you want me to go?”  I’d stand there and hear mostly nothing.  It was only after I took a step out in faith that I heard a confirming “yes, My son.”  It’s like that Indiana Jones movie, where he’s looking for the Holy Grail.  He’s standing at the edge of the canyon, looking to the cave on the opposite wall.  To get there he has to step out into the abyss.  When he does, he finds a clear glass bridge that you couldn’t see supporting his weight.  

We began to spend more time in the cabin in the mountains.  The wilderness restores and renews me.  We hike and fish in summer, and ski out on the mountain behind the cabin with the dog in winter.  Experiencing the Creation always brings me a sense of peace.  As God showed me more of the picture, it began to come together like a puzzle.  You know, there’s a certain point where the pieces start to look like a picture.  As I committed myself to Discipleship, and moved towards the shapes in the mist, the puzzle continued to fall into place.  I realize God had me spend 25 years learning leadership and management so that I could equip leaders for His Kingdom.  Without the experience I got in my years in school and business, I would not be equipped to do what I heard Him calling me to do.  As I wandered through the spiritual desert wondering why God was so quiet, He was preparing me for a call.

Following this path resulted in the creation of the Academy for Transformational leadership in Atlanta and a virtual web community focused on transforming church. I began meeting people all over the country who came from incredibly different cultures and backgrounds, who were all feeling the call for renewal and reformation of our church.  As we converged at a place and time, we joined into collaboration and partnership in bringing renewal. This collaboration resulted in developing a three year leadership learning curriculum for pastors.

The path has also brought me through much pain, and I have learned much from the challenges I’ve faced. When we sold the business, my brother decided to keep the old equipment business our father started. It crashed and burned in three years, in the wake of 9/11. We got sued personally for the losses, and we spent three years with a multi-million dollar judgement nearly threatening bankruptcy. At the same time, my son had a snow-boarding accident and nearly lost a leg.

Even on this discipleship journey, my own needs and desires distorted the things I was hearing from God, and I persisted with my last project way too long, trying to carry something that just wouldn’t fly. I hit a wall that nearly destroyed my health.

I have always had a bit of an ego, as you probably realize.  I had to get to the point where I said, “God, I know I have big plans, but if Your plan is that I just toil here in my small church, that’s what I’ll do.”  I had to get to the point of understanding this is not about me.  Once I was satisfied to do whatever God wants of me, then He began to unfold a plan. Today, my work coaching young professionals and church planters is more satisfying than any business success.

The last twelve years have brought me indescribable joy, and the strength to persevere through things I never knew I could endure. I find life as a Christ follower to be a roller coaster. I understand know why God only lights up the next couple of steps in the path. If we could see the whole path in front of us, we would be too intimidated to take a step, because without His strength, we would never complete the journey.

I am still nothing but a sinner. I stumble and fall, and hit the wall. Yet, each day I get up and pray for God to give me the strength this day to turn from my selfish desires. And, most days, God grants me this prayer.

I’ve reached a point where I am clear that God is the Last Word Man in my life.  This journey has brought me peace and joy and satisfaction far greater than anything I have ever experienced.  Why is it we focus so much on what we might have to give up to follow Jesus.  Why don’t we help people see more clearly what we gain?  My prayer for you is that your life might be a canvas, and God the painter.  I pray God might use you to draw friends and family to Christ.  May He empower you to be a channel of grace to those you touch.  May you find your gifts and hear God’s calling.  May you grow strong in community, and listen to hear what God is calling forth there. In His strength, may you go and do those things He has planned for you. In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.

Our calling is the intersection of our deepest desires and the world's greatest need. For me, the lack of a loving father left a void that became my passion, coaching and mentoring high potential young leaders for the Kingdom.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call upon me and pray to me and I will listen to you.  When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me.”  Jeremiah 29:11